At the end of April, Professor Martha Mundy, an LSE anthropologist with over 40 years’ experience in Yemeni affairs, published “The war on Yemen and its agricultural sector,” a paper on the historical development of the agricultural sector in Yemen and how it stands currently in the midst of the war. It is widely accepted that Yemen is facing the worst humanitarian and food security crisis in the world, but Mundy argues that this food security crisis “is not solely the result of the war,” but also of the crippling of the agricultural sector since 1970.
Mundy spends the bulk of the paper outlining the historical context to explain how the Yemeni agricultural sector got to its current state. Prior to 1970, Yemen was close to self-sufficiency in basic grains, which is a key component of the Yemeni diet. Despite the mountainous terrain and somewhat erratic rainfall in Yemen, farmers developed terracing and other traditional techniques to optimize the growth of these grains. Starting in 1970, though, there was an influx of both public and private investment that served to irrigate coastal lands. This new irrigated land was conducive for producing crops such as fruits and vegetables, which were later sold in large cities and exported. As a consequence of this increased emphasis on irrigated cash crops, grain production decreased by nearly 27 percent between 1970 and 1980 and has continued to decrease; Yemen now needs to import over 75 percent of grain products. In addition, farmers abandoned traditional farming techniques that were previously used to produce grain as well-drilling and diesel-powered well pumps became more widely available.
Another clear shift in agricultural production and policy occurred after the unification of Yemen in 1990. When Ali Abdullah Saleh became President of Yemen, he aligned his policies toward the expansion of Yemen’s military capabilities and left the development of the agricultural sector to be taken care of by international agencies. This created a lack of ownership by the Yemeni government over the agricultural sector in Yemen. Additionally, structural adjustment policies aimed at eliminating impoverishment contributed to increased prices for basic goods. Mundy aptly states that “the Yemeni case thus provides close to a perfect example of the effects of the international development complex on an agrarian economy that, in the northern part of the country, was close to self-sufficiency in basic grains until the 1970s.” These policies, aimed at alleviating poverty and the lack of government investment in agriculture, remained constant until the start of the war in 2015.
Before the start of the war, Mundy wrote a statement that highlighted the following key points:
What is not said in all strategies is that the very basis of food production needs rebuilding and conservation; that such rebuilding can be done by local groups with government support;
Knowledge of cultivation and water-harvesting methods, and of seed and animal types, can be strengthened through both local transmission and the introduction of scientific bio-banks;
Inequality and the concentration of wealth are not God-given derivatives of the market or property itself but the result of public policy over many years;
Government expenditure on the military and security (as with petrol subsidies) can be redirected to basic production;
Yemenis need to take back their own government to such ends.
While all of these points remain true, Mundy highlights two changes that have occurred since the start of the war that have further impacted the agricultural sector. The first is the mass departure of foreign organizations from Yemen in 2015. While some of these organizations have since returned, their sudden departure was devastating as the government still largely relied on them to bolster the agricultural sector. Also, because there have been fewer organizations on the ground, there has been less coverage of these issues in the western media. The second change Mundy highlights is the actions of the Saudi-led coalition, mainly their airstrikes targeting agricultural land. Agricultural land was targeted by coalition airstrikes 180 times between the period of March 2015 to August 2016, according to Mundy. By damaging farmlands, the coalition is attempting to cripple the Houthi economy by limiting their opportunities to produce and export goods. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia has also blockaded ports and prevented imports from getting in, further crippling the economy. In Mundy’s view, while the departure of foreign organizations and the actions of the Saudi-led coalition have damaged the agricultural sector in Yemen, the sector’s structural damage, starting in the 1970s, has played a greater role in the food security crisis.