Monday, April 06, 2009

“Poverty is not the absence of material wealth alone"

According to a renowned development activist "cultural poverty means people don’t have confidence in themselves" and it is a structural issue that is at the root of many so-called 'developing nations' inability to pull themselves out of material poverty. This notion also drove Buckminster Fuller to develop his whole systems approach to problem-solving. Anyone familiar with his work knows that Bucky stressed the need to teach people how to think, not what to think. (GW)

Cultural Poverty Hinders Development

By Sifelani Tsiko
Black Star News
April 4, 2009

Wrenching poverty will continue to haunt most developing countries unless efforts are made to break the strictures of behavioural and cultural poverty that perpetuate the dependence syndrome, says Renato Salazar, a renowned plant breeder and development activist from the Philippines.

In a wide-ranging interview, Salazar, a senior fellow of the South-East Asia Regional Initiative for Community Empowerment (Searice) told The Black Star News during a visit to Zimbabwe recently that cultural poverty still remains a major handicap in efforts aimed at reducing poverty in the developing world.

“Poverty is not the absence of material wealth alone. In most instances, I think what makes poverty complete and what ensures the poor remain poor is behavioural poverty and what I would prefer to call cultural poverty,” the veteran human and community development activist says.

“Cultural poverty means people don’t have confidence in themselves. It means they continue to depend through the belief that they are weaker and inferior. When they admire those who oppress them because the oppressor is richer and more powerful than them, this misplaced admiration will eat and erode their moral values.

“When people behave like that, then cultural poverty becomes deeply ingrained to an extent that it becomes impossible to have development.”

In such circumstances, he said, when people are given money they will abuse it for short term gains.

“If you give them power they will abuse those who are weaker than themselves. By behaving this way, they will never escape the trappings of poverty. This is how the rich and powerful want them to behave like,” says Renato, who has worked as consultant for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation specialising in rebuilding agriculture in post-war situations.

He contributed immensely in the rebuilding of the agricultural sector in Sierra Leone soon after a brutal and devastating civil war from 2001-2002 and in 2006 he worked in Liberia. Renato has also conducted agricultural training and offered expert advice to Mali and Ethiopia.

Salazar was in Zimbabwe to evaluate programmes under the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation (CBDC) Africa initiative which supports smallholder farmers to conserve crop diversity and apply local knowledge systems to enhance food security, nutrition and income for farmers.

He identifies land tenure, market tenance and technological tenance as the major structures that coupled with cultural poverty has a damaging impact on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“Land tenure is one of the structures that make people poor. Land is one of the main productive assets and if land is controlled by outsiders locals tend lose their sovereignty and power to determine their destiny,” Salazar argues.

“Control of the land will always be a struggle for farmers. The fight for land is worthwhile and it helps to restore dignity and pride for the local people. Zimbabweans are not alone in this struggle, in the Philippines farmers are always fighting and pressing the government to allocate them land. Its such a critical resource that can help them fight poverty.”

Market tenance, he says, is also another major draw back in the fight to control and manage market forces to give the smallholder farmer a fair price and a fair return on his crop yields.

“This is always an important struggle. If farmers don’t fight to control and manage market forces, they will be subjected to the negative effects of the market – rip offs and exploitation of frightening proportions,” the veteran Filipino development activist says.

The struggle for who controls technology in agriculture, he says, will also decide who becomes poor or rich in this globalised economy.

“We need to train smallholder farmers to become well versed with plant breeding to enable them to produce their own seed, in soil nutrient management and plant genetic resource management to help them practice sustainable agriculture in a way that empowers them and enhances their food security,” Salazar says.

“Farmers in the global South must have skills at a specific level to fit into and work in the development of sustainable agriculture. When we work, we have to break the cultural poverty. This is the only way to fight poverty.”

One of the reasons why poverty is still affecting many people in the developing world, he says, is the inequitable distribution of wealth and social structures that have made it extremely difficult for the poor to live decent lives.

“When we do development work, it is to improve the quality of their lives, even more important to break cultural poverty so that the poor begin to be critical and analyse the structures that make them poor,” the veteran development activist says.

“The poor must play their part to lift themselves out of the trap. They have to blame themselves also by critical looking at some of their weaknesses. Development work in agriculture must address and reform the structures that make farmers poor.

“Our work should be linked to the agenda for social reform. Any work that leaves out this, is short term and in the end useless.”

Salazar also said seed aid is also another root of poverty as it at times undermines local farmer seed systems.

“Seed aid does not recognise and build on the local seed system. It weakens the local seed system, its racket and both the UN and development organisations are guilt about this,” he says. “The alternative is to rebuild the local seed system so that the local farmers produce their own seed.

“Cambodia in Asia suffered a brutal war that killed many people. There was little seed aid but it was the re-introduction of local seed through sharing among farmers that actually made the farmers to regain their position to produce seed and other food crops,” he says.

“In Africa seed aid is going for several years after the calamity. It’s beyond comprehension. It can’t be understood. The UN and other agencies are introducing seed which may be inappropriate and destroys the local seed system. The farmers will not save their own seed because they know they will get it anyway.

“This reinforces dependency which is a major characteristic of cultural poverty,” Salazar says.

Development agencies in Africa, he says, must employ empowering and learning processes so that farmers begin to become empowered, critical and analytical of the structures of poverty.

“Farmers in most part of Africa, Asia and Latin America are core-equal in terms of knowledge and skills with any farmer group in the world. The reason why they are poor is not only because of lack of knowledge, skills and industriousness but it’s because of social institutional structures that undermine their work,” he says.

“Agricultural reform programmes are always right but becomes problematic when it is implemented by corrupt people. In the Philippines we have a strong agrarian reform law but farmers can only get their land if they fight for it. They fight the government to properly implement the law.

“The ideals of land reform are always right but it is the implementation process that is always problematic. Farmers can be productive if the right policies and the structural and economic environment is right,” Salazar argues.

Salazar is a world-renowned plant breeder whose cultivation of new rice plants led to greatly increased yields of the crop in developing countries of Asia. While working for Searice in the past two decades, Salazar and smallholder farmers in Asia crossed rice plants to produce a new varieties.

The resulting plant produced more heads of rice on a shorter and stronger stalk and other qualities. He has worked with many communities in Laos, Vietnam and other Asian countries to spread the participatory plant breeding concept for rice.
Salazar has made extraordinary contributions to research in plant genetics, evolution, and breeding, especially of rice, with regard to food production and alleviation of hunger.

His remarkable achievements in rice research, developing new approaches and mobilizing new techniques to breed better rice varieties has seen him being invited to work in various regional and international bodies that strive to alleviate hunger and poverty.

Salazar was born in 1950 in the Island of Cebu in Central Philippines. He did his primary and secondary education in the southern Leyte Province. He never advanced but taught himself plant genetics, evolution and agriculture.

His vast experience in agriculture has seen him working as a consultant for the FAO, the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) now called the ETC Group in Canada, the Pesticide Action Network for Asia Pacific and the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Africa Region Network among other organizations.

“I never went further, I stopped at that level. I just became a social activist working for farmers and slam dwellers. I’ve spent most of my life organizing and mobilising farmers and slam dwellers to fight for justice and the right to a decent living,” he says.

He is married to Barbara and the couple has a son. Joachim. He lives and works in an area just outside Manila.


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