Where Every Meal Is a Sacrifice

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania Even before he took a butcher knife to the she-goat's throat, Likbir Ould Mohamed Mahmoud knew it would only make things worse.

The goat was a living bounty in this parched city on the Sahara's edge, providing the sweet milk that filled his family's stomachs at breakfast time. But as soaring food prices worldwide have hit the poorest nations of Africa the hardest, he has been forced to join many of his neighbors in slaughtering or selling off one of their only sources of wealth -- their livestock.

By sacrificing the she-goat last month, the 39-year-old day laborer and goatherd traded the family's morning milk for dinner meat. It lasted a few days. With the family unable to afford skyrocketing prices for basic foods, he said, his two young children now cry in the morning from hunger. One recent morning, he could take it no more. He took the goat's kid -- one of the last two animals in his flock -- to the squalid livestock market here in the hopes of selling it to buy food. "Everything -- the wheat, rice, sugar and animal feeds -- is higher priced than I have ever seen them before," he said. "What will we do? Soon we will have nothing left to sell."

Like most of the world's poorest nations, Mauritania is caught in a global food trap, producing only 30 percent of what its people eat and importing most of the rest. As prices skyrocket, those who can least afford it are squeezed the most as the world confronts the worst bout of food inflation since the Soviet grain crisis of the 1970s.

Strong global demand and limited supplies are key factors driving up prices, but perhaps just as important is a massive disruption in the free flow of global trade. In recent months, food-producing countries from Argentina to Kazakhstan have begun to slam shut their doors to protect domestic access to the food they grow.

Agriculturally challenged countries are left out in the cold. Mahmoud, whose family dwells just beyond the dunes in a desert shantytown here, earns roughly $1.50 a day to support his family of four. His wages have not risen. But over the past six months, the cost of the imported wheat his wife uses to make a chewy local bread has soared 67 percent, cooking oil is up 117 percent and rice 25 percent. Though those are the staples of life here, Mauritania, with only 0.2 percent of its land arable, produces scant amounts.

That is partly because there are fewer and fewer farmers. In a nation girdled by the encroaching Sahara, the slums of Nouakchott, the capital, are swelled with former tillers of soil who abandoned hard lives growing subsistence crops amid years of drought. City life was comparatively better, but in recent months as food prices have risen, those already living on the smallest of margins have despaired.

"I don't know how I will feed my family," Mahmoud said. "We just can't afford it."

Crisis Torments Africa

The U.N. World Food Program has flagged 30 nations confronting mounting food insecurity this year as a direct result of market forces; 22 of them are in Africa. As prices climb, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Senegal and other net food importers have been racked by civil unrest. Hunger is spiking in parts of the continent in patterns similar to past bouts of drought, floods or civil strife. In Mauritania -- a nation of 3 million straddling Arab and black Africa -- the number of people not getting enough food is up this year by 30 percent in rural areas despite a relatively good annual harvest, according to the WFP. A food emergency has been declared in broad sections of the country, with the food program rushing to roll out feeding stations.

U.N. experts, World Bank officials and aid groups fear it marks the onset of the worst food crisis in the region in decades; officials are calling for $755 million in fresh emergency food assistance from rich countries. Aid groups are already falling behind in their efforts to provide food across the continent, leaving even the poorest communities increasingly dependent on the market.

"This is the new face of hunger," said Josette Sheeran, WFP executive director.

Globalization was supposed to eliminate this kind of recurring disaster. With economists radiating confidence about the new efficiencies of the global market, the need for food self-sufficiency seemed almost archaic. In that new reality, global markets would provide the long-term cornucopia that the arid earth here could not, and at reasonable prices.

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