Cameroonian civil society groups are expressing concern at the effects of trade liberalisation on the Central African country's food security.
Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) between the European Union (EU) and developing nations will permit Europeans to saturate Cameroonian markets with agricultural products -- some of which are subsidised -- says Célestin Nkou Nkou, a financial expert based in the capital, Yaoundé.
Negotiations for EPAs began in countries forming part of the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa last September; they are aimed at revising the partnership between the EU and African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries that was established in the 1970s.
It is anticipated that ACP states will completely open their markets to European agricultural products under the revised agreement, said Nkou Nkou.
But, notes Joyce Mbowen of the Fako Agricultural Workers' Union, "Our food sovereignty, already put to the test by the recent imports of European 'frozen chickens'…yams, rice, sugar, flour and other foods from other countries, is imperiled by this." (The union is based in Buea, west of Yaoundé.)
"Does our country still have the right to respond with its own means to its food needs, in both quality and quantity, with its own resources?"
After a battle started in June to end imports of frozen chickens from Europe, civic groups appealed to the Cameroonian parliament to join them in supporting agricultural producers and defending the country's food sovereignty. They also launched a campaign about food sovereignty.
While legislator Josephine Elingui believes this issue to be important, she said it would not be dealt with until the March 2007 parliamentary session, as discussion last month was reserved for the budget debate.
"Nevertheless," she told IPS, "we (the legislators) have recommended to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to allocate more small loans to farmers, to relaunch national agricultural production effectively."
At present, local producers are not able to meet the needs of consumers. Paul Nyobe, vice president of the Central Farmer's Federation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) based in Yaoundé, says Cameroonian agriculture suffers from disorganisation, and a lack of public financing and technical training.
He blames this on poor management, the disengagement of the state from the agricultural sector, and the obligation to open markets as part of structural adjustment programmes that were imposed by international financial institutions at the end of the 1980s.
"The countryside in Cameroon is poor…Finding direct financing for the farmers is a priority," Njonga told IPS. "Look at the European producers. They get subsidies for production. Why can't Cameroonians, for whom agriculture is just emerging, have the same kind of system?"
According to Nkou Nkou, the combined effect of structural adjustment policies and trade liberalisation measures adopted by Cameroon will be shown to be "catastrophic for the 60 percent of Cameroonians who live off of agriculture."
To cover its food deficit this year, Cameroon imported 51,647 tons of fresh fish and 29,120 tonnes of frozen chicken from western Europe; 48,790 tons of yams from Nigeria; and beans from Senegal -- this according to the Ministry of Commerce.
Statistics published last month by the Ministry of Agriculture show the country has been importing 250,000 tonnes of rice a year from India, Pakistan and China (87 percent of national consumption) and some 190,000 tons of wheat, over the past decade. However, a large percentage of imported products and local agricultural goods are re-exported to other countries in region, say officals.
The 2007 budget for the Ministry of Agriculture, approved by the Cameroonian parliament last month, has been set at about 80 million dollars.
"Local development and financing for the rural sector, with extra support for setting up a sustainable financing mechanism for agropastoral programmes and projects, will receive resources from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's budget," said Elingui.
But civic groups have expressed concern, saying much of this budget is likely to be misappropriated.
"Out of every 100 CFA francs (about two U.S. cents) allocated to this ministry, only five CFA francs (less than a cent) will make it to the countryside, where most (agricultural) production takes place," Bernard Njonga, president of the Citizen's Association for the Defense of Collective Interests, an NGO based in Yaoundé, told IPS.
Pierre Massock, from the Ministry of Agriculture, disagrees: "To say that the budget is misappropriated or that the state does nothing to reinforce national food sovereignty, is to judge hastily the government's attempts to aid a key sector for our development."
He said that in the coming year, government wanted to enable agriculture to satisfy the needs of local consumers -- and to export more to countries in the region.
"Our development strategy for the rural sector is based on ambitious activities around the development of vegetable production, quality seed stock and promoting setting up of food stocks in the north of the country," Massock told IPS. This strategy would also help in "relaunching strong agricultural networks and promoting agricultural mechanisation."
The agricultural products concerned include, notably, millet, sorghum, peanuts and corn.
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