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Africa food shortage continues

Some 14 million people in southern Africa have been affected by a severe food shortage.


"It's pretty much a result of political decisions, especially in Zimbabwe."

—Kristin Sachen

Some 14 million people in southern Africa have been affected by a severe food shortage that is threatening to worsen into famine.

Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique are gripped by the crisis brought on by irregular rainfall that has spawned droughts and floods.

Action by Churches Together (ACT), a global coalition of faith-based disaster response groups, has been working to provide food and seeds as well as HIV/AIDS awareness programs to people in these countries. ACT's work has been impeded by storms and tornadoes that struck the region in late December. The South African Council of Churches (an ACT member) used ACT's Rapid Response Fund to provide plastic sheeting, tents, blankets and food to residents.

In addition to natural disasters, the growing HIV/AIDS problem and political unrest have been major contributing factors in the current food crisis. "The famine is not an accident," said Kristin Sachen, assistant general secretary for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. "It's pretty much a result of political decisions, especially in Zimbabwe."

Zimbabwe has suffered as a result of recent seizures of farmlands by the government. Donna Derr, associate director of Church World Service (CWS) emergency response said, "It is an access issue, a political issue, a people's rights issue. Zimbabwe is a glaring example of that if some of the land that could be planted on was available for planting, the crisis would be less than it is."

"The issue of government has to be addressed, but it can't really be addressed by outsiders. The role of outsiders is really to be supportive," said Luke Asikoye, associate for international disaster response at Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA). PDA has focused its efforts on the Zomba District in Malawi, where recent floods have intensified the need for irrigation programs to prevent the drowning of crops.

"A lot of governments in Africa do not see agriculture as a priority," said Jacob Kramer, relief administrator for the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee in the U.S. and Canada.

The controversy over genetically modified (GM) food has forced the Zambian government to focus its energies on farming. Zambia's president Levy Mwanawasa expressed concern that GM seeds would mix with native seeds, causing unwanted botanical crossbreeding. Zambia will not accept any GM food. "I see it as a political gesture and as an economic gesture," said Derr, "[Though] I suspect that if you were to ask Mrs. Whoever whose children are starving, does it matter to you [whether the food is GM or not], the answer might well be no."

Many aid organizations, such as the Mennonite Central Committee, address these concerns over GM food by agreeing to mill any bioengineered corn before it reaches Africa to ensure it will not be planted.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic in the region has also exacerbated the food crisis and further accelerated the mortality rate of adults, leaving fewer people to tend what crops there are or to care for children and the elderly. Sachen said, "It's really a problem that's rooted in the AIDS epidemic."

Many relief organizations see education and other preventative measures as the primary counterforce to this crisis. In addition to raising AIDS awareness, PDA has also focused on educating the people of Malawi about hygiene and prenatal care. Asikoye reported the mortality rate has decreased since PDA's arrival in the district. The MCC is hoping to improve this year's harvest by encouraging the people of Malawi to plant beans and sweet potatoes in addition to corn.

CWS has issued an appeal for $500,000 in relief funds. Derr said, "2003 is probably at best a bridge moment band-aid stuff."

Because of the combination of natural, political and economic factors, 2002 was a difficult year in southern Africa and many do not expect a complete recovery in 2003. "I think we will be feeding them again, by September or October of this year because I don't think agriculture will restore itself in the short time of a year. Maybe if we do well, we can wait until January of 2004," said Kramer.

There is still hope for a fruitful harvest in April. "Still more needs to be done, but on the positive side, we've saved a lot of children," said Asikoye.

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