Every five seconds a child dies of hunger – that leaves Jean Ziegler no rest. He calls banks and corporations “mass murderers”. And he hopes for a revolt from below.
Mr. Ziegler, you describe death from starvation as very “painful”. Where did you see this for the first time?
In Ethiopia, in an underground hospital of the Eritrean liberation movement. In this cave bunker I saw children dying of hunger. It’s much, much worse than we can imagine. For it is not as if with the lack of food, a person’s life energy easily leaves him. No, when his reserves are used up, there are infections of the respiratory tract, then bloody diarrhea, then the immune system breaks down, then the muscles give in – it is very painful to watch.
This wasting away you’ve seen thousands of times over the years. How can you cope?
I had to fight vigorously against identifying with the victims. One immediately sees one’s own children and grandchildren. You must prevent that, otherwise you cannot do the kind of work I do. That sounds cynical, but I had to learn it. Even if it never works entirely. There is always the feeling of anger, powerlessness.
Does this pursue you even in your dreams?
Absolutely. At night I see children stretching their hands toward me, see them leaning over my bed, as I want to say something but cannot. The facts are so horrible. Every five seconds a child under ten dies from hunger, 57,000 people every day, a billion are severely malnourished, and this is happening on a planet that is overflowing with wealth and that could actually feed twelve billion people.
You like to exaggerate.
No. The UN Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, has proved this to be very plausible. Marx believed that “objective lack” would condemn mankind to continue to fight for scarce goods. That was a mistake. Productive forces have increased enormously. Today the problem is not production, but people’s access to corn, vegetables, rice … Many do not have the money.
What was the worst thing that you had to experience as a UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food?
The moments when I had betrayed the people – that really pained me.
Betrayed? You, Mr. Ziegler?
Yes, about the beginning of 2005 in Guatemala. There, 1.5 percent of the ten million people have together with groups like Del Monte Banana Multinational 65 percent of the land. Most of the original inhabitants have to earn their living from rocky corn fields on the mountain slopes. Last year 92,000 children died of hunger. And then we arrived with our whole entourage of blue-white UN vehicles, recorded the expulsion of the people, the fact that they had received no compensation, all the misery. Suddenly, I saw hope in their eyes: a white man who is listening to us and who will help us! It was horrible.
Had you then promised concrete help?
I had handed out business cards that they should show in case of arrest. What nonsense. They pressed the cards like a talisman against their chests. At the time I already knew what would happen when I brought my recommendation to the UN General Assembly, which would be land reform, the redistribution of land.
What the people have been demanding there for a hundred years.
My suggestion was of course shot down by Western governments because of their diplomats who act as agents of the agribusiness. And I already knew that in Guatemala.
“Every child who dies of hunger is murdered.” You blame yourself?
Yes, I was the one whom these peasants trusted. And I could not meet their expectations. I have achieved one thing: now at least, thanks to funds from the World Bank created with a correct mapping of Guatemala, there is the precondition for the creation of a land register. If at some point the balance of power changes, land reform will at least be feasible.
Your accusation is often quoted: “Every child who dies of hunger is murdered.” Who are the killers?
All of us, if we remain silent. In any case the perpetrators include the bandits in the banks and hedge funds who speculate on the commodity exchanges with agricultural commodities and push up prices. Therefore, 1.25 billion people in the slums, living on less than 1.50 dollars a day, can no more buy enough food. These speculators are mass murderers.
There was starving before the banks seized the commodity exchanges.
But these robber lowlifes have plunged the financial system into chaos, and the Western governments had to provide more than $ 1 trillion [to save the banking system]. At the same time, the contributions to the UN World Food Program have been lowered, a program designed to help people in acute crises. The result is that, just as in northern Kenya, every day the volunteers have to reject hundreds of families because they do not get enough money from the rich governments in the North to buy the expensive cereal. And …
Speculation is possibly one of many causes.
… in addition to this there is the madness of biofuels. Americans burn 40 percent of its annual corn harvest in car engines. And in Europe tens of million tons of grain are processed into biodiesel, bioethanol and biogas. It does nothing to protect the climate, but is instead a crime against humanity, as long as so many people are starving. Only the agricultural and energy companies make money from biofuel.
Concerning the global agricultural trading companies such as Cargill or Glencore, you even claim that their bosses decide how many must starve. You can not prove it.
I certainly can. There is food only for those who can pay for it. And these companies control 85 percent of the trade in basic foodstuffs and that way they dominate the price setting.
That would work only as a cartel.
Of course they come to an agreement [about price fixing]! In a market where so few actors trade such large quantities, there is sure to exist, in the backroom and without any conspiracy, subtle, oligopolistic arrangements.
The vast majority of the world harvest is marketed in the harvest countries themselves. So your evil corporations are not involved in it.
Indirectly they are, because they fix the world prices on which all national markets are aligned. I have myself noticed how the wheat producers in Kazakhstan or the rice traders in Nigeria base their prices entirely on it.
The former head of the food giant Nestlé, Peter Brabeck-Letmate throws against you [the accusation of] “ideologically driven polemic”. The fact is that “we have two people more to feed every second and we have 0.2 hectares less agricultural land available.” So food would always get more expensive.
Alas, Brabeck. He feels attacked and says he is the wrong enemy. He’s a smart man, but on the wrong side. Of course, the demographic pressure is undeniable. And yet there is an abundance of food. There are structures, structural violence, that deny access [to food] to the poor. And the institutions of the rich countries make it continually worse.
Again such a blanket accusation.
No, it’s always the same thing: a country is in debt, then the IMF and the World Bank come in and say, yes, you have to just enlarge the cotton fields and other export crops to earn the money for debt service. As a result, there is less millet, less tomatoes, less rice. And the “land grabbing” is especially bad, that is the sale of tens of millions of acres of farmland to foreign investors. That’s why in Africa in 2011 peasants were driven away from 41 million hectares of land. The World Bank is financing these projects with the treacherous argument that local farmers are not as productive as agricultural industries.
You write yourself that Africa’s agriculture is as productive as the European Middle Ages. 600 kilograms per hectare yield then, 10,000 kilos here and now.
37 of 54 African countries are agricultural countries. These farmers are therefore very little productive, because the states are suffering from their debts and can not invest in agriculture. Humans are not helped when the corporations in their countries produce for the world market. Instead, the states should be free of their debts in order to provide the necessary funds to small farmers for fertilizer, warehousing and transportation. The goal must be self-sufficiency in poor countries.
“A verbal slap in the face”
Are not the leaders themselves of the countries suffering from hunger the ones who have the main responsibility, since they enrich themselves and do nothing else?
That’s right. In the Congo, for example, foreign mining companies plunder the valuable deposits of coltan ore and other metals in their own enclaves and transport them with truck convoys to ports in Kenya. I’ve seen it myself. And 1800 kilometers to the west sits Joseph Kabila, the most corrupt dog there is, and for each signature he gets a fat check. Just as the dictator of Cameroon, Paul Biya, who has completely ruined this wonderful agricultural country. These kleptocrats are only in power because the international corporations can use them to their advantage. They are mere puppets.
You can hardly use the same argument with the Government of India. It’s the home to a third of all undernourished people in the world. What can the governments or corporations of the North do to keep the Indian elites from letting their people starve?
They benefit from India’s politics which promote high-tech centers and resource extraction rather than the development of the rural areas, where more than half of the population lives.
Why don’t you accuse the Indian leadership just as strongly as you do with the ones who are responsible in rich countries?
Mao said that we should beat our opponents one by one. I am a white intellectual and I have access to the knowledge and awareness of the local government. So I’m fighting here.
As a strategy against hunger you offer “concrete actions, riots, land occupations”. This has been going on for a long time every day somewhere in the world, without changing anything in the global agricultural policy.
However, there is hope. Each of these murderous mechanisms is man-made and can be broken by man. Kant wrote: “The cruelty inflicted on another, destroys humanity in me.” This awareness is what we have to awaken in the ruling countries.
Who will then manage that?
You! I. We. There is no impotence in a democracy. The constitution gives us all the weapons in our hands. Food speculation tomorrow may be stopped by law. Bioethanol can be banned tomorrow. The Federal Minister of Finance may be required to push for a different policy in the IMF.
However, you need to win over the majority.
Che Guevara said, also the strongest walls fall when they crack. Peasant movements from Bolivia to the Philippines get their land back, even if nobody here takes any notice of it. And in Europe too people are moving.
Civil society is becoming stronger. Take the Attac movement. Twelve years ago, the German branch was established to enforce the tax on financial transactions. Today, that is in the German government’s program. If that is not a crack in the wall! The French writer Georges Bernanos once said: “God has no other hands than ours.”
God? Are you religious?
I reply with a quote, because you can hide well behind others. Victor Hugo said: “I hate all churches, I love people, I believe in God.” That’s how I also see it. I can not imagine that after death there is nothing, with all the love and all the self-sacrifice that people are capable of.
You have fought as a parliamentarian against the Swiss banks, as a UN rapporteur aiding the hungry, as an author reaching millions of readers and speaking from 1,000 stages. Has all this made the world somewhat better?
We should be careful not to ask that question. I hope so, I do not know. We don’t know the fruit of the trees that we plant.
After your years as a commissioner for the right to food, have more people gone hungry than at the beginning of your term. That is a bitter balance.
When I hear this, I think my life is too short. But it does not stop me from fighting. When the U.S. ambassador at the UN Human Rights Council simply asserts that there are no social rights, no right to food, that drives me up the wall.
The Swiss like it really quiet, discreet, and Calvinist modest. They are against such a verbal slap in the face. Where does your fury come from?
I have always been in an incredibly privileged position. My father was president of the court, my mother a farmer‘s daughter, a loving family. I just suddenly saw my life as a mere repetition of what already existed, and I also saw the poverty-stricken children who had been hired to work for the rich. There was something wrong! That’s why I then left all that behind me …
…and you became a radical in Paris in the 60s along with Jean-Paul Sartre.
I argue perhaps a bit more radically, because I know the victims. The German tax evasion in Switzerland does not interest me, because no one dies from it. But at the hospital in Kinshasa, there are no antibiotics, people die when they are infected from a cut. And where is the money to change that? With the bandits in Zurich, the banks. At that time I was a professor, the most pleasant job there is, you receive your salary without achievement control, then my seat in Parliament and, of course, the UN, and they paid for my co-workers and my travels. These incredible privileges obligate me to fight.