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'We can't name the guilty men'

Main basse sur le riz / Dirty rice

by Jean Crépu*

By Peter Hulm

The story Jean Crépu is trying to tell in Main basse sur le riz seems to be this (purged of possibly libellous portions):

Senegal's food riots in 2008 can be traced back to French colonial policy, international financial institutions, Philippines importers, Thai exporters, and secretive rice market speculators.

The immediate cause was an explosion in the cost of rice: six times its previous price in a few months, leading to demonstrations in around 40 countries.

Why was it a disaster in Senegal? France encouraged the West African state to become a rice exporter as a colonial territory. But after independence, the international financial institutions told Senegal's planners to stop growing rice and import, since national producers could not beat Asian prices. When the crisis struck, Senegal had a developed an insatiable taste for rice and no means of producing enough to feed its people.

The squeeze on the market started in the Philippines. Though theoretically self-sufficient, Manila urgently needed to import 1 million tonnes more than usual. Rice was suddenly in short supply. Official import negotiators in the Philippines found themselves able to make percentage commissions on $1200 a tonne instead of on $100.

The world's secretive rice traders (and the community includes the extremely powerful Geneva-based arm of Louis Dreyfus) could make quick millions by speculating on the demand. Vietnam, seeking to regain its position as the producer of the best rice in the world, moved into the Philippines market. Then the Thai government released rice from its buffer stocks to calm the market. The crisis was over.

Kickbacks and speculation

Many questions remained. The issues Crépu raises include: were there kickbacks in the Philippines deal? The Agriculture Minister is identified as the right hand man of the husband of President Arroyo. The Ministry insists the bidding process was perfectly transparent. "The agreement was with Vietnam because they offered good prices and the other countries were not interested," says an official. But an outside expert from the Philippines, when asked, replied: "Maybe yes, maybe no."

What was the role of the rice traders? There's no public market in the commodity. Louis Dreyfus's website doesn't even tell you how much rice business they do. Its commodities division, according to a flyer available at the bottom of the menu, says only: "Aggregate average annual gross sales in recent years have exceeded $20 billion" (p2). The representative of a rival trading company suggests many of the distributors were speculating in those furious times.

What was the role of Thailand, the world's biggest rice exporter? That was not clear. And what about Vietnam?

Talking heads

Crépu had answers to none of these questions. In fact, the film has a hard time even making the case or telling its story visually. Lots of "talking heads" and generic shots, the sort of documentary exposé that exposes nothing, though its insinuations about the food commodity business are shocking.

Is it enough for Crépu to be outraged that people in Senegal who are said to be starving while others in Geneva, Vietnam and Thailand grow rich, and officials in the Philippines blandly defend the system? No matter what the real story is, this seems to be the animating force behind his film. But maybe there is no secret scandal to denounce. Certainly none is visible onscreen. But don't blame Crépu.

Of sycophancy and silence

What the film shows is how difficult is to to make intelligible documentaries about economic topics that aren't sycophantic or promotional. The BBC's Virtual Revolution is a typical example of what I mean (and it is up for an award! I read the other day).

In the film, Crépu reports that the Louis Dreyfus firm refused to be filmed or interviewed. "Maybe yes, maybe no" turns out to be the strongest allegation anyone can make against an individual player in the drama.

Where did all the figures go?

The figures cited in Main Basse sur le riz are a mess: When did the crisis break? When did it end? What was the price beforehand? How high did it rise – to $1200 a tonne or $1100? What is the price now? How much does the Philippines import? One million tonnes or more? How much were negotiators making? How much did importers take?

It would be too much to expect him to produce figures for the rice traders But there are market statistics publicly available from Geneva, where Crépu did key parts of his filming.

UNCTAD's rice market information service, for example, records 2008 prices for Vietnamese rice of over $1100 a tonne and just under $1000 for Thai rice in July from $400 in January 2008. As of February 2010 they are now back to $400, with the low $200-300 mark recorded for 2006 and earlier.

So the six times multiplication in prices was over two years rather than a few months, and the commission was closer to 2.5 times more than in January rather than six times as much (still pretty good).

No shortage of production

The Web is notoriously a great source for false information but there's a lot of background to the Philippines story. For example, the World PROUT Assembly, reported in May 2008 there was no shortage in production.

Because the international rice trade accounts for only 6% of the total produced, any shortfalls should not affect domestic prices, observed Benjie Oliveros of Bulatlat in an article on the Website.

But the Philippines, he wrote, needed to import 2.1 million tonnes of rice in 2008, only slightly less than Indonesia.

How could ordinary Filipinos pay prices of $0.95 per kilo when 65 million were living on $2.28 a day? he asks. A good point.

Civil Society Forum

The situation sounds as dramatic as in Senegal, but it is not a former French colony, so harder to sell to French-language TV. However, the film is billed on its website as tackling the challenge of world food production by looking at the rice situation. So it could easily have confronted the dilemmas head-on by shooting interviews and statements at the Civil Society Forum preceding UNCTAD XII (the 12th regular Congress of the UN Conference on Trade and Development) in Ghana at the end of April 2008. The impact of the rice crisis was there to see in Accra's markets, as the NGOs at the Civil Society Forum pointed out.

Martin Khor, director of Third World Network Malaysia, charged that heavily subsidized European poultry and American rice are being sold in developing countries like Ghana below their cost of production. "These artificially cheap products run the more developing countries' efficient farmers out of business. Africa has moved from being a net exporter of food to a net importer because of reduced support for producers and low tariffs," said the Third World Network in its report on the Forum.

What happened to the perfect storm?

Even more prestigious figures weighed in on the crisis. In March 2008 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon wrote in the Washington Post of " a perfect storm of new challenges" (I know everything these days is a perfect storm, but the analogy fits better here than it usually does). All we need is a real series of storms to wipe out food production in key areas, as Lester Brown has been telling us for decades, then millions could be swept away by famine.

I think most journalists would judge this worth a mention, if only to sound an ominous note as you wrap up the story and prepare for the soothing commodity obsession of commercials. And while you are filming the rice story in the Philippines you might as well visit the International Rice Research Institute, home of the green revolution, which would tell you the same story of imminent and long-term global danger. "There has been a steady decline in investment in agricultural research over the last 15 years. Consequently, the pipeline that pumped out new products and technologies has been seriously depleted," writes Adam Barclay on the IRRI Website.

But for Crépu the Philippines is "an Asian country of whom no one speaks". And one Filipino's assertion that "We are now the biggest importer of rice in the world, even more than Nigeria" goes unchallenged.

Those rice riots

Journalists know the temptation. The urgent, specific, local, time-limited story always seems more appealing than the long-term, complicated, global situation feature. Name the guilty men and go home.

But what if you can't name them? And those "rice riots" were also about fuel and other food prices. They took place in Côte d'Ivoire and across North Africa as well. Furthermore, if we are to believe Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, there were neither famine nor hunger riots in Senegal. A demonstration where police cracked down heavily was in fact a rally by opposition groups (same source).

That too -- the political manoeuvring and excuse-making -- is part of the environment of Senegal. It might have been worth included.

What is to be done?

Meanwhile, a trawl of Websites will tell you that the Philippines was speaking of a "new rice crisis" in November 2009.

While you are in Geneva trying to get the rice traders to open up on camera, you might call on Jean Ziegler, the UN's Special Rapporteur on Food Security as a Human Right, who is as good a conspiracy theorist as you can find outside the Kennedy assassination buffs, and is not afraid to say where he thinks the bodies are buried.

As for keeping up with developments, the respected OneWorldNet site has a special section on the " world food crisis". There you can read that major food NGOs, including ActionAid Senegal, urged global leaders to support a world food reserve system at the Food Security Summit in Rome during November 2009.

Otherwise, I saw precious little to indicate that global action is being taken. Or perhaps the organizations are keeping it very quiet, in case some investigative journalist comes around asking questions they don't want to answer.#


PROUT=Progressive Utilization Theory, see wikipedia. The movement unites PROUT cooperatives. Its slogan: "Economy of the People, For the People and By the People!"

Jean Crépu

* I haven't been able to find out very much about Jean Crépu's documentary career but he seems to be active in numerous festivals. He is due to participate in the Salon du Livre de Paris on 26-31 March 2010.

Created on 12 March 2010.