When AfrI initiated The Great Famine Project in 1988, our aim was to help to create better understanding about the causes of The Great Irish Famine in order to better understand and respond to the causes of famine and hunger in today’s world. That remains the aim of the project today.
While many, including the Irish government, are talking about “bringing down the curtain” on the Famine Commemoration, AfrI believes that we need to keep this memory alive as an impetus to continue to work in solidarity with those who suffer hunger and human rights abuses as a result of similar causes today.
Many people accept by now that the Irish Famine was not an ‘act of God' or a natural disaster but the inevitable result of a policy of invasion, colonisation, dispossession, unjust land ownership, enforced cash-cropping and a blind allegiance to the god of 'laissez faire' economics. In other words, the Great Famine in Ireland was political, not natural. The fact that food in abundance continued to be exported out of Ireland while people died in the most appalling conditions is proof of this.
For example, in a three month period up to February, 1846, “250,000 quarters of wheat and 701,000 hundred weight of barley, worth about a million pounds, had left Ireland with... 100,000 quarters of oats and oatmeal” (The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham Smith). Ship after ship laden with wheat, oats, cattle, pigs, eggs and butter sailed away from a country on its knees from starvation.
Unfortunately, little has changed in 150 years. Ireland, admittedly, has gained partial independence and has moved up the ladder of 'wealthier nations' in the world. Despite the fact that many in Ireland are still caught in the poverty trap, the 'economic indicators' put us among the top thirty richest nations in the world.
Ireland’s membership of the European Union makes us part of one of the major economic power blocks in the world. It is a part of the world in which the richest 20% of the world’s people share between them more than 80% 0f the wealth of the planet. It is a world where six transnational companies control 75% of world trade in grains and five major companies control more than 70% of the global market in consumer goods. A visit to any supermarket will clearly demonstrate the very direct link between Ireland and the 'Third World'.
Many of the goods that we consume on a daily basis are imported from countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. They come, sometimes, from countries who themselves are suffering grave food shortages or even famine. For example, livestock, bananas and fish were among the foodstuffs exported from Somalia during the famine of the early ‘90s. Like Ireland, Somalia’s history of colonialism left behind a legacy of division and underdevelopment. According to Rakiya Omaar of African Rights “.. . land was a major factor in the Somalia famine of 1991 - 2. It may even have been the single most important long-term reason for the famine” (Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal, “Land Tenure, The Creation of Famine, and Prospects for Peace in Somalia”, discussion paper n. 1, African Rights, 1993).
As regards East Timor, the role of food exports and land ownership also plays a critical role. Among the weapons used by Indonesia in its war against the people of East Timor is the weapon of “famine”. This is borne out by the fact that buffaloes and pigs are not only slaughtered but exported out of the country, thus depriving the people of essential food which has led to the death by starvation of tens of thousands of people.
In Latin America, political interference, by the United States in particular, has resulted in large-scale famine and hunger. The suffering of an estimated 50 million people as a result is often overlooked while the focus is on other kinds of human rights abuses, also caused by the propping up of dictatorships by U.S. arms and money. In recent years, market-centered economic policies have increased the gap between rich and poor and intensified the suffering of the millions who are excluded.
Famine is political. It results from political and economic decisions which are taken by governments and financial institutions in the power blocks, of one of which Ireland is an active and enthusiastic member. The fact that some of the world’s poorest countries have to pay back £3 in repayment of debt for every £1 given in aid is a further illustration of this.
This is why the 150th anniversary of the Great Famine is so important. This is why we must not listen to those who repeatedly tell us that we should forget our history, particularly the history of the Famine. While the “great powers” never tire of commemorating wars, we must remember those who, in our own history or today, fit the description of the Caribbean liberation theologian, Michel de Verteil, “the people who don’t count”.