The Oakland Institute is an “independent policy think tank, bringing fresh ideas and bold action to the most pressing social, economic, and environmental issues of our time.” Food Tank spoke with founder and executive director, Anuradha Mittal, to learn more about the institute.
Food Tank (FT): How does the Oakland Institute accomplish its mission to “increase public participation and promote fair debate on critical social, economic and environmental issues?”
Anuradha Mittal (AM): As an independent policy think tank, our work starts from getting to the truth through research, documentation, and ensuring that our findings get to the people. Once people know the truth, the power of truth changes things.
FT: A quote from the website says the Oakland Institute is “taking critical global and local issues from the ivory tower to the kitchen table.” How can the average person connect policy, especially national/international policy changes, to their everyday life? How does the Oakland Institute help show that connection?
AM: One of our main principles is making local to global connections. Oftentimes, we think certain problems don’t affect us or that an issue is too complicated to understand. At the Oakland Institute, we communicate our research in language that makes it easy for people to connect-the-dots between what is happening in others countries and what that means for them personally.
For instance, land grabs in Papua New Guinea may seem like an issue that only affects a small number of people. However, when we present the information and make the connections between land grabs that lead to massive deforestation and climate change, people begin to realize it does affect them. Or that our inaction will continue to support illegal trade in timber, devastation of precious forests, and then this wood shows up in our homes. Our work is aimed at showing the connections that make it hard to act like we are by ourselves and realize we are part of a global community.
FT: Can you describe what a land grab is?
AM: We have looked at hundreds of land deals where foreign investors, who have no connection to the community, purchase or lease vast tracts of land from elites within the country or local chiefs, who, most often, do not have rights to it. The people that live on the land are usually not aware of the deal until they are told they are being evicted. Coercion and violence can often be involved when resistance occurs. But land grabs also occur in cases when people give their consent to lease their land but are not given the true picture of the actual terms and conditions or proper information about the impact of the project. This is a frequent case where farmers are abused by promises of development that will in fact only turn them into low paid plantation workers.
FT: What are some of the most important policies surrounding food/agriculture that people should be paying attention to?
AM: We need to pay attention to the industrialized farming practices occurring all over the world which ride on the wave of messages of feeding the world. In the process, all of our traditional knowledge systems around farming and agriculture along with biodiversity, are under threat.
We are seeing an upside down agriculture model where 400 million hectares of land will change hands in the US alone over the next 20 years. This land is not going to new incoming farmers, but instead, are being sold to private companies that have no stake in the communities.
In this agriculture model, it’s not about feeding communities, it’s about making quick profits at the expense of farming communities, our environment as well as consumers who lose the diversity and the choice of food. This is a recipe for devastation of national agrarian economies in the South, and creating further poverty and food insecurity.
FT: With so many issues around the world, how does the Oakland Institute prioritize its resources and decide what to campaign for?
AM: We are committed to be in service to communities who are at the vanguard of the struggle. We get involved in issues where we know our research will contribute to an ongoing struggle and further enhance local and national capacity. We push for policies that will genuinely strengthen economies and focus on investments that are beneficial to everyone.
A clear example is the development model promoted in developing countries. It is simply not working. The Oakland Institute did country reports and looked at the assumptions that if countries give away land [turn land over to foreign investors] it will somehow lead to development. Our research shows that this is not true.What we find in all of our work is that we know how to feed the world. The problem is to figure out how to expose and challenge those from power who prevent that from happening.
FT: Can you touch on some of the recent policy achievements the Oakland Institute has campaigned for?
AM: A notable example of success is a report that was released about a land deal that was struck between an Iowa based investor and Tanzanian elites. It included 800,000 acres (320,000 hectares) of land and the removal 170,000 people from their homes in order to grow genetically modified corn for bio-fuel. The Oakland Institute report was released in conjunction with protests in both Iowa and Tanzania. The project, which was expected to break ground in 2011, has still not gone through. Meanwhile, the government has announced last year a cap of a maximum of 10,000 hectares for agricultural investments by foreign companies. Still not ideal but clearly an improvement compared to the 320,000 hectare deal that it had negotiated previously.
To see some other highlights of our work, please visit here.