One thing is certain when bird flu strikes in developing countries: small poultry keepers will suffer to the advantage of major producers. That is exactly what has happened in the eastern Indian state of West Bengal, where local people have had their livelihood destroyed, enabling the corporations to assume ever-increasing dominance.
A report by GRAIN, the campaign group that promotes local bio-diversity, exposes the carnage of poultry in West Bengal following the recent outbreak of avian flu and shows that since 1997, when the H5N1 strain of the disease emerged, the only “solution” remains mass culling.
Yet the real story is that the disease has become endemic precisely because of intensive rearing practices in Asia by food corporations that no one is prepared to challenge. Bird flu only shifts from an isolated incident to a major outbreak once it gets into a large farm, where it rapidly amplifies and spreads through the many channels emanating from it – the sale of eggs, chicks or spent layers, the trade in live birds, the dumping of waste, the movement of workers or even the aerial dispersal of the virus. In fact, outbreak of bird flu in West Bengal began in a big state-run hatchery.
Three weeks after bird flu was officially confirmed in West Bengal on 15 January 2008, the death toll stood at a fantastic 3.7 million birds. The central government has now issued a directive to neighbouring states to cull all poultry in a 5-km-wide belt surrounding West Bengal. There has been resistance to the cull. Some poultry owners refused to participate because of low compensation rates. In neighbouring areas, poultry farmers have taken their protests to the streets and the courts in a bid to halt the slaughter and protect their livelihoods.
GRAIN’s report insists: “The response to bird flu in West Bengal needs to be seen for what it is: a political decision to safeguard the interests of the big poultry producers at the expense of the small-scale sector. In India as a whole, thanks to heavy government support, poultry production has been growing at a rate of nearly 20% per year, with most of the growth occurring through the expansion of large-scale integrated production, largely for export and largely in the midst of areas with thriving backyard and small-scale poultry producers.
“The situation is no different in West Bengal, where a number of big integrated poultry firms have set up in recent years. The largest, Arambagh Hatcheries, part of the B.K. Roy agribusiness group, is now an important player in major export markets, such as Japan and the Middle East, and politically very well connected at home. To keep its trade lines open, a company like Arambagh cannot operate where bird flu is present – hence the drive to stamp the disease out by a mass cull.
“This is a reality of corporate poultry farming that all communities need to be aware of: if a big poultry company sets up in or near to your community, when a disease like bird flu breaks out, whether or not your birds are affected, they will be culled and your traditional poultry practices may even be outlawed. The culls in West Bengal have now been followed by a three-month ban on small-scale poultry production.”
There was an international conference on bird flu in New Delhi at the end of last year, led by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). It was a chance to sound concerned but do nothing. The FAO’s silence on the mass cull in West Bengal speaks volumes about the organisation’s subservience to corporate farming and its refusal to defend local production for local people.
AWTW communications editor