@ambassador Scott H. DeLisi
Dear Ambassador DeLisi,
You recently issued a Facebook post and granted an interview downplaying the goals and significance of the Nepali anti-Monsanto movement. Your message seems to come across in three main points: that any past, current or future hybrid seed presence in Nepal is solely the responsibility of the Nepali government; that the anti-Monsanto campaign is lead by non-farmers who do not understand the realities and the needs of Nepalis actively engaged in agriculture; and that this is a general discussion issue and Monsanto’s involvement is irrelevant.
I disagree. Here are some of your comments and points which I believe need to be looked at differently:
Firstly, you point out many Nepalis may not realise that the Government of Nepal expressed interest in the benefits of hybrid seed farming as early as 1987; that four Monsanto varieties of maize hybrids have been sold commercially in Nepal since as early as 2004; and that there is now also widespread use of government-approved hybrid varieties of other produce. I believe that the current extent of hybrid seed sales in Nepal, both from Monsanto and other agribusiness interests, is one of several reasons why many people – from both within and outside the Nepali agricultural sector – are raising their concerns. For one, this extended involvement has clearly not given us food security so far. Also, there is the fact that both 1987 and 2004 were periods in Nepali history when the circumstances for well-researched, democratic decision making were not favourable. We did not even become a constitutional monarchy until 1990; in 2004, we had an unelected government at the height of our civil war, and so naturally the Nepali government’s capacity to satisfactorily represent all Nepali citizens’ best interests was greatly affected.
As I am sure you realise, there has been immense change in Nepal over the last two decades, and perhaps more so than ever in the last five years. Our national position has changed on many fundamental issues. We are no longer a monarchy, no longer a Hindu nation, and no longer have inheritance rights that grossly favour men over women, or marriage laws that discriminate against homosexuals. We have made immense strides forward in public health, equality and literacy. We have begun, waged and ended our civil war, and those that were, until quite recently, considered rebels and enemies of the state are now a large part of our official political and military system. Changes in our local media, technology use and social structure make the nature and form of our public discussion very different too. These changes mean that the social, political, environmental and economic landscape are all different to what they were when we first began experimenting with democracy and government-driven agricultural schemes. There have also been huge shifts in the realities of (as well as our own perceptions and interactions within) the wider international community. Nepal is looking for new models and new role models. We are currently writing a new constitution and now is an ideal time for Nepalis everywhere to bring forward their concerns, views and suggestions on how our systems and policy can be improved. This includes unprecedented civil society input into both pre-existing and future national agricultural policy.
Secondly, you note that there appears to be a disconnect between farmers who either use or would like to try using hybrid seeds, and those who are protesting in Kathmandu or online. While I agree that there needs to be more direct debate between these two parts of our society, I think you need to consider why ‘online’ urban Nepalis, or those abroad such as myself, are feeling the need to make our views heard on this issue.
For one, the social distance between Nepali farmers and non-farmers may not be as wide as you think. The rise of non-agricultural occupations, an ethnically diverse middle class, capitalist ideals, consumerism and formal regulated markets have all been far more recent for us than they have been for your country. For many of us now working in non-agricultural sectors, it is not uncommon to have parents, grandparents or other relatives who are still farmers. Many Nepali farming communities took advantage of the opportunity to advance their collective power through education. Over the last three generations many farming families, including my own, effectively invested their biggest asset – their children – in formal education. They did so in the hopes that those children would grow up and return their investment both by earning and engaging with the national and global system on the community or family’s behalf. Other families sent their most able workers, usually young adults, to urban centres or abroad for the same reasons.
It is possible that in the heady rush for modernisation some urban Nepalis have lost sight of this reality and the social contract that comes with it; as the proverb goes, “Ama bau ko man chora chori mathi, chora chori ko man dhunga mathi”. However, it remains a fact that, in a country with as many challenges that need addressing as Nepal, having well-travelled and well-educated Nepali citizens who critically examine all aspects of the way our country works, and compare it to their experiences and knowledge from outside the country is very important. In the absence of regular elections over the last 20 years – and especially for those of us who live outside of Nepal – contributing to public discourse online or via the media has been one of the few proactive ways we can ensure that our interests and those of our families are not forgotten.
Furthermore, the economic interests of farming and non-farming Nepalis are not mutually exclusive. Those of us following or living through the current global economic crisis (particularly in North America and Europe) are seeing the wider impact of national policies that increase public and personal debt – including the impact on countries such as your own. With this in mind, it is especially troubling to see Monsanto’s record of locking farmers into cycles of debt that effectively hold their livelihoods as collateral. In many respects Nepal is already the poorest nation in Asia, and we cannot afford to risk committing to expenditure we can’t cover or making foolish investments with our remaining resources.
Finally, one issue your recent statements fail to fully address is environmental concern. The lack of guaranteed environmental sustainability and Monsanto’s poor track record in this respect is why many are unwilling to experiment and engage further with the multinational agribusiness model. It is becoming clear that the world is suffering under the strain of so many humans living unsustainably. Nepal is immensely vulnerable to the possibility of climate change and other environmental issues. For instance, you yourself noted that the maize crop failures of 2009, which had widespread effects, were due to “a weather-related issue (extreme cold)”. With such extreme weather patterns becoming more common, we will be in an even more precarious position than we are now. Despite some clear monetary incentives it is not in our best interests to enter into agribusiness models that often rely on practices such as large-scale and fossil-fuel-reliant transport and technology, the clearing of land for cash crop plantation, and chemical fertilizer and pesticide use.
An unharmed environment and our crop diversity are two valuable public insurance policies. Our country already has food industry-related pollution and carbon emission levels that are, out of circumstance and necessity, negligible compared to those of most developed nations. We cannot ensure the rest of the world brings their overall environmental impact levels as low as ours. But, instead of chasing easy economic advancement that adversely affects the environment, we can learn from the truism commonly attributed to your own country’s indigenous Cree people: “Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find money cannot be eaten.” While our nation’s position on the world stage gives us very little power over how trees, rivers and fish are faring elsewhere, many of us would like to ensure that, if it comes to it, the last tree standing and the last clean river are on Nepali soil.
Nepal also needs to make wise environmental investments given its geopolitical location. As you have now personally had more than one and a half years’ experience in Nepal, and the United States Government has had over 60 years of active involvement, I am sure you are aware of the saying that Nepal is like a yam between two boulders. We are in between India and China, two countries with the largest populations and fastest growing economies in the world, and both nations often come under criticism for their lack of environmental foresight in the pursuit of economic growth. If worst-case predictions (or even most moderate predictions) and analysis of the current environmental situation prove accurate, it is essential we make sure Nepal is as environmentally and socially secure as possible.
This is also because we understand that these large adjoining countries have their own considerable populations to deal with, and may not have the resources left to provide the near-30 million of us with neighbourly assistance. In your recent interview, you discuss the issue of refugee populations in the region. Both India and China’s respective records with refugee issues have generally been to Nepal’s detriment, and it is overly optimistic to hope that either nation would welcome environmental refugees from Nepal in the event of a regional environmental crisis. Similarly, in a global-level crisis situation, countries which have been so generous with foreign aid in the past – your own included – will also need to focus on the needs of their own populations rather than helping us. And as I understand it, in a worst-case scenario, multinational corporate entities like Monsanto or the Indian companies you mentioned would be under no moral or contractual obligation to help ensure our citizens’ food supply, health or safety.
While it is certainly possible that we are being overcautious about the Monsanto deal, it is with good reason. In Nepal, even the most privileged of us need to contend with the realities of the national situation. We are a tiny nation with a lot of people, and in the frequent occurrences of resource shortage – be it money, electricity, petrol, land, food, water or any combination of these – everyone is affected. Given Monsanto’s well-publicised record of doing immense damage in communities where it was initially presented as the perfect solution to agricultural issues, even Nepalis not directly involved in agriculture are understandably wary of increasing Monsanto’s stake in our food production.
Some Nepalis would rather address the very important problem of our food deficit by first trying less drastic and irreversible methods than large scale hybrid seed interventions. Personally, I would rather see funds, currently earmarked to broker and implement this deal with Monsanto, be diverted to improve infrastructure for local markets to trade existing food supplies within Nepal. If the farming communities with traditionally grown produce to spare can bring it to the national market more easily, this will reduce waste and have the added benefit of relieving some of the pressure on poor communities to send their most productive adult members away as migrant workers.
There are many alternative foci being suggested by other Nepalis, including introducing systems for the efficient collection of urban biodegradable waste for composting and re-nutrition of soil, or increasing focus and funding for non-chemical integrated pest management and planting techniques that will improve productivity without giving up even more of our heirloom seed varieties. There are also those among us who are cautious about increased hybrid maize farming simply because we have seen the effects of relying on a for-profit monoculture of hybrid corn in countries including your own. For example, although it is fiercely debated and even more fiercely litigated, there is a growing body of evidence that it is simply not in the best interests of public health to promote diets dominated by corn derivatives such as high-fructose corn syrup and corn-fed sources of animal protein.
We would, above all, like the chance and the time to properly discuss and share our concerns with our government and with Nepali farmers who are, as your statements make clear, the biggest stakeholders in these decisions. I thank you for both initiating direct and documented public debate between yourself and the citizens of Nepal via your Facebook commentary on this issue, and for taking the time to read this and all the other responses you are no doubt getting from Nepalis who have the technology and other resources to respond in kind. I am sure with this spirit of open, honest and respectful communication we can all work together to plan the best way forward for the future of Nepali agriculture and Nepali people.
(UPDATED 23/04/13 – only to add header image)