The Korean farmers are changing their households because their products are not competitively priced; what kind of system are the governments implementing to decrease poverty among the peasants?
Estela López TORREJÓN
08 / 2004
Ahn is a Korean man who lives in Paris. He was able to participate this forum thanks to the support by the French Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCFD), an NGO which provides financial support to organizations for economic and social development. Like all of the participants at this forum, Ahn is concerned about agrarian reform and about the measures being implemented within the current economic system that are affecting farmers who are not able to make their voices heard.
Ahn explained the general situation in his country and shared a great deal of his knowledge and ideas about the Korean countryside. The CCFD are taking action with social action group partners such as a Farmers’ Organization, the Korean Catholic Farmers’ Movement (KCFM) to combat problems facing agriculture.
In order to gain greater insight into the situation in Korea, let’s first consider some background on its agricultural sector. Since industrialisation in the 1970s, the government has abandoned the agricultural sector. Over the last 20 years, the farming population has decreased spectacularly. In the early 1980’s, approximately 10 million people were working in the agricultural sector in Korea, compared to just 3.5 million in 2003! Around 6 million of the farming population have abandoned the land and the gap between incomes in households in urban areas and rural areas has been widening. And at the same time, debt in rural households has also been increasing. Since the 1980s, South Korea has opened up its agricultural markets which has worsened their situation. This should serve as an example to other countries that are planning to open up their markets to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
The government does not have any long-term plan or policy for the future. Recently it announced a plan for the rice sector, which sets out to achieve economies of scale by helping farmers who want to run “farming companies.” As the rent of agricultural land is very high, this plan is not feasible in Korea. If they would increase the land per farmer, they would lose more! It would cost them money!
Speaking about alternatives, Ahn proposed firstly the construction of infrastructure that would guarantee family farming and foster sustainable agriculture. Secondly, he suggested that food self sufficiency rate should be guaranteed by law, as is the case in Japan. The Japanese government explicitly set their rate of self-sufficiency at 45% until 2010. Farmers in Korea are in favour of a similar system being adopted in their country. The objective of these measures is to safeguard the interests of farmers and preserve agricultural land in the interests of food sovereignty and the environment.
Currently about 75% of food is imported. But if rice is not counted, domestically produced food only accounts for 5% of food needs. And rice, the Koreans staple food, is particularly affected in that, the world rice market is highly oligarchic (there are only a few international grain producing companies and prices can be manipulated easily). Ahn explained that in order to maintain a certain level of production of rice to meet their own food needs, they need to achieve greater food sovereignty.
One of the main issues in Korea currently is the liberalisation of the rice market. 2004 was the last year scheduled at the WTO Uruguay Round that agreed on minimum market access (MMA). This measure enabled them to protect their rice market, importing only 4% of their rice needs over the last 10 years. The current government is negotiating with main rice exporting countries (e.g. US, China). The Korean rice market affects a very small percentage of US farmers however they are still pushing for this market to be opened up). There are 9 countries in total. The Korean government seems to want to finish these negotiations before the end of 2004 to avoid paying penalties to the WTO. Ahn believes that the Korean government’s priority is not to protect peasants but to avoid being penalised by the WTO.
Rice is very particular to Korean farmers. Around 75% of the total farming population grows rice and rice accounts for 53.7% of farmers’ total income. Thus, rice is absolutely fundamental. Changing this situation (i.e. opening of rice market) will seriously harm Korean farmers. They can not cope with such a drastic change. The price of rice in Korea is higher than in international markets. As Ahn has already explained, the price of land is very high which by extension increases the production costs of rice.
The demands that should be made, in the view of our Korean colleague, are to maintain the current rate of MMA (4%) which would give more time to bring about agricultural reform and to impose measures to guarantee a degree of food sovereignty (like in Japan).
It is true that for the authorities, the quantity of imported rice is one of the hot issues in the debate.