Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Saturday, April 23, 2011

U.S. Boots on the Ground in Africa?

With all the upheavals in Libya and Syria, and polarizing budget battles here at home, it might be easy to miss a little story coming out of East Africa: the food riots that have rocked the country of Uganda.  We’ve been thinking about bigger things.

But that could be a big mistake.

Here’s what’s happening:  For two weeks now, Uganda has been rocked by rioting and protests over soaring food prices.  The government has responded with force, firing live ammunition at unarmed protesters, killing and severely beating protesters, and jailing opposition political leaders.  Amnesty International has decried “the excessive use of force,” and the government is coming under intense pressure at home and abroad.

29% spike in food costs have sparked angry protests
What’s the problem with food prices?  Well, to begin with, Uganda is a poor country, tied with Haiti near the bottom of per capita income tables.  It takes only nine days for the average American to earn a Ugandan’s annual income.  Of course, people in such poverty live from meal to meal, without the luxury of savings.

But in the last year alone, Ugandan food costs have increased by a whopping 29.1%, according to the Ugandan Bureau of Statistics.  And the reason for the run up in prices?   “A prolonged dry season in most parts of the country,” the statistics office said.

From our perspective, it’s more complex than that, involving global forces driven by ethanol subsidies in the U.S. and changing climatic conditions worldwide.  But on the ground in Uganda, they see crop failures and declining yields from local droughts.

Back here in the U.S., our politicians don’t seem to be worried.  But for years, Ugandan leaders have been telling an alarming story.  “Climate change,” warned a 2007 Ugandan government report “puts additional pressure on the world food supply system. Uganda’s agriculture is subsistent, rain-fed and, therefore, vulnerable to climate change. Erratic rain seasons have been observed in the past few years.  Prolonged droughts can have serious impacts on agricultural production.”  And among the consequences they warned of are exactly what we’re seeing in Uganda today: economic and political instability, leading to the decline of governing institutions.

But maybe we don’t care what bureaucrats from an African country have to say, right?  In that case, let’s listen to the top officers in the U.S. Armed Services.   In 2007, a blue-ribbon panel of 11 of the most senior retired U.S. admirals and generals warned of exactly the same outcome.  The study, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” explains how climate change acts as a threat multiplier in already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states — the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism.

Violent clampdown: Ugandan army used live amunition
In Africa, the report highlights how climate change can contribute to shortages of food, drinking water and farmland, adding strain in a region that is already the source of 30 percent of the world's refugees. It states: "Such changes will add significantly to existing tensions and can facilitate weakened governance, economic collapses, massive human migrations, and potential conflicts." 

And why do our military leaders care about the prospects of failed states in Africa?  Air Force General Chuck Wald put it this way: "We import more oil from Africa than the Middle East - probably a shock to a lot of people - and that share will grow... we'll be drawn into the politics of Africa, to a much greater extent.”  Anyone watching Libya today can see how prescient he was four years ago.

Sharp increase in droughts in Uganda
Back on the ground in Uganda, the country’s 33.4 million people – many of them living in extreme poverty – are struggling  with 29% food cost inflation, which translates directly into chronic hunger, malnutrition, disease, and now – political instability and violence.  They don’t know about the American generals’ predictions of increased terrorism and resource conflicts.

And, they don’t know that many politicians in the world’s largest economy are doing everything they can to prevent action to address the environmental degradation at the root of their problem.

They just know that it’s going to be much harder to feed the children tomorrow than it was last Easter.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

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