Last week’s National Food Security Policy conference organized by the National Research Institute was one of the best meetings I have attended. If my memory serves me right, it was probably the first meeting I have attended where participants filled the room and actively participated right up to the last hour of the three-day conference. It was a demonstration of how important food is to everyone, and how threatening rising food prices are, considering that everyone eats.
In my article last week, I explained why I think rising food prices is an opportunity to encourage people in rural areas, and particularly unemployed young people in urban areas, to go back to cultivating the land. If the Government can address the major impediments facing farmers in the country, such as transport infrastructure, lawlessness, the absence of an efficient marketing system, lack of credit etc, our people can rise up to the occasion and produce food so that all of us are fed and kept healthy. I asserted that politicians and policy-makers now have no choice but to be serious about addressing farmers’ problems, because they are the ones being hit by rising food prices. If we can make rural life attractive, thousands of unemployed youth will return to the villages as they realize that they can sustain their lives as well as make money producing fresh food, raising livestock, etc.
In addition to the above, I would like to raise an important issue in today’s article, and that is that much of the break down in law and order can be linked to people engaging in unlawful activities just to keep food on the table. As one of the speakers at the food conference put it, some people live to eat but many in PNG eat to live. Those who eat to live are the ones who wake up each morning not knowing where the next meal is coming from, while the ones who live to eat overdo it, become obese and unhealthy.
I once took several leaders of a reformed gang in Goroka to lunch, and spent the whole afternoon listening to their life stories. One thing they told me which I will never forget is that each morning they would get up and promise their wives and children that they would bring food home for the night. They said that once they made the promise, they had to get whatever they promised, no matter what. They related how they would carry out robberies or risk their lives in other ways just to feed their families. I was reminded of this conversation when the gentleman at the conference made reference to people who eat just to live each day.
Sir Henry Chow, owner of Paradise Foods and Chairman of the NRI Council, made this very pertinent statement: “Empires fall on empty stomachs.” What he meant was that when people are hungry, they can do anything, even to the point of revolting against rulers. Look at what has been happening in Israel lately. And consider what happened in Germany which culminated in the rise of Adolf Hitler!
Hunger is a very strong motivating force. When people are hungry, they don’t care about laws, rules and regulations. They will do everything and anything to satisfy their hunger. This is actually an age-old issue. There are many Biblical incidences too. Consider why Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, and why the people of Israel thought slavery was better than freedom. Or consider why people gave their money, their livestock, their land and even their lives to Joseph and King Pharaoh of Egypt. It was all for food!
One group of people who are fighting for survival on a daily basis in PNG is squatter settlers who live on the fringes of the urban centres. While working people have money to buy food (low income earners may not be among those who can afford it) and village people grow their own food, settlers don’t have any regular income or food gardens. It is also generally accepted that settlements are breeding grounds for people who engage in unlawful activities as a way of living. These people have been struggling to feed themselves when prices have been low. Now that prices are escalating, we can imagine these people really feeling the impact harder than workers and rural dwellers. When these people become hungry, they become very angry, and they can make life difficult for everyone else.
PNG is not like other countries where food is so short as to cause a famine. There may be small pockets of the country where the possibility for extreme hunger exists, but generally, there is a lot of food grown in the country. The problem therefore is not one of availability, but of accessibility. There may be a lot of food available in the country, but having access to it is a problem. That, I believe, is what is giving rise to escalating food prices. And that is why our leaders need to allocate resources towards fixing the country’s transport infrastructure and law and order as matters of national importance.
It is actually on indictment on our leadership over the years that in a country which the rest of the world refers to as Paradise, a large proportion of the population lives in poverty after 36 years of independence. I have heard several commentators refer to PNG as a country of paradoxes, one of which is that it is a very rich country full of many poor people. Let it not be said of PNG that it is a food-abundant country full of hungry people. Poverty is out of place in Paradise; so is hunger.
In conclusion, the increasing price of imported food provides an opportunity for our farmers to cash-in by increasing the production of locally-grown food. It is an opportunity for PNG to replace imported food with more healthy and locally-grown food. But as well as being an opportunity, it is a major problem for the increasing number of low income and settlement dwellers in the country. When these people become frustrated and angry because they cannot afford to get access to food, they can get violent.
We hope our leaders remember that hungry people are angry people. We also hope they remember that empires fall on empty stomachs.