- More than 32,000 people are at risk of starvation in Guinea-Bissau's southern rice-bowl region after crops failed for a second year running and government price-fixing decimated the cashew trade that usually supplements incomes. Salination of rice fields following flooding mainly caused the crops to fail.
Starving peasants in the Quinara and Tombali regions and the Bijagos Islands of the former Portuguese colony are chewing on unripe mangos for sustenance as food stocks and drinking water run dry, a local radio report said this week. The UN has estimated more than 32,000 people are at risk of starvation and illness.
Salination of rice-paddy irrigation channels caused by flooding from mangrove forests, lack of rain, and pests and crop diseases that have blighted around 70 percent of cultivable land in these areas is responsible for the hunger, Bissau-Guinean Agriculture Minister Sola Inquilin said in a statement earlier this week.
In average years the verdant southern region of Guinea-Bissau grows more than 70 percent of the country's 100,000-ton rice crop, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). The country is located south of the Sahel zone, thus normally being blessed with enough rains to maintain an intensive agriculture.
Minister Inquilin however said that this year, the situation for desperate southerners has been compounded by the depletion of food stocks after floods and locust invasions wiped out crops last year. The Bissau government has appealed to the international community for urgent assistance in the stricken provinces.
Alanso Fati, the Guinea-Bissau representative of the Organisation of Workers in West Africa, told the UN media 'IRIN' that the failed rice crop is not the only reason for local woes. He said the crisis has partly been caused by widespread over-dependence on selling cashew nuts.
Cashew nuts have rocketed to become one of Guinea-Bissau's biggest export products, and according to government statistics at least 90 percent of Bissau-Guineans depend on selling small quantities of the nut to traders to supplement their incomes. Cashew nuts usually count on relatively high prices on the world market and Guinea-Bissau is the world's main producer of this popular snack.
The notoriously volatile Cashew nuts industry is currently being rocked by a government-enforced price freeze, which is meant to force traders to buy nuts for more than double their usual price, but has instead sparked massive inflation.
"The peasants need to diversify their practices to include other kinds of agriculture. But the government also needs to accept the loss of some money and reduce the amount of food it is selling abroad," said Mr Fati. "It is not the traders' fault that prices are so high. It is the government that needs to adopt new measures," added Mr Fati.
Agriculture remains the most common way of life for Bissau-Guineans, who are the fifth poorest people in the world, according to the 2005 UN Human Development Index. Since the 1980s successive Bissau-Guinean governments have been gradually shifting the country away from the central planning system set up after independence from Portugal in 1974. The country also was rocked by a civil war 1998-99.
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