Economic Development | Speeches

Conferred Ceres Medal strengthens commitment towards eradication of hunger and poverty

On presentation of the Ceres Medal

Colombo, Sri Lanka

May 28, 2004

Dr Jacques Diouf, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation,
Your Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am greatly privileged to receive today from the Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation the “Ceres Medal” minted in my honour.

Permit me, Mr. Director General, to extend to you a very warm welcome to Sri Lanka! I wish to express to you my very special appreciation of your visit to Sri Lanka, to present the Ceres Medal to me personally. I wish to avail myself of this opportunity to congratulate you on providing to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), this great Organisation to which we all belong, outstanding leadership during your tenure of office.

The Ceres Medal is a high distinction. I have noted with due deference the list of distinguished women leaders who have been honoured before me. For me it is a humbling experience to be admitted to their company. I would like to regard this honour conferred on me, as an honour conferred on the people of Sri Lanka and on those unsung hundreds of experts and public servants whose dedicated service to the cause of agricultural development has made it possible for Sri Lanka to ward off the extreme consequences of hunger and poverty.

Mr. Director General, you have said that the “Medal represents an acknowledgement of my commitment to international partnership and food security as a means of achieving a world free of hunger and poverty”.

In those words you have most graciously described a lifetime goal that I set for myself many decades ago when I chose my first employment in the Agrarian Reforms sector. I am encouraged by your observation that my participation in the World Food Summits of 1996 and 2002, have in some small way, extended political support to the fight against hunger.

This is a battle – indeed a war – that has to be fought continuously, relentlessly and collectively by leaders, governments and peoples everywhere until the scourge of hunger is totally eliminated from the face of our planet. The prevalence of hunger anywhere continues to mock the conscience of mankind.

The FAO World Food Summits of 1996 and 2002 certainly focused international attention to the gigantic problem of food deprivation, that so cruelly afflicts hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings. I continue to consider it my duty as a leader of a developing State, to demonstrate solidarity with FAO in carrying out its challenging and most essential mission in spear-heading the international campaign for food security.

I understand that the Ceres Medal symbolizes the value of positive interaction between national efforts and international partnership in achieving food security for all. I recall that early in my public career, I was struck by the compelling need to address the constraints and stark realities facing the predominantly rural agricultural community of my country. I identified inadequate access to land and insecurity of land tenure as among the critical issues which prevented large segments of our rural population from escaping the cycle of poverty and hunger. In 1972, I had the opportunity to play a role in a most significant programme for Agrarian Reforms which revolutionized the agrarian and agricultural sectors of Sri Lanka. These efforts at the national level were recognized by FAO as complementing the broader international goals of the Organisation, and I was honoured to receive the FAO “Silver Medal” (in 1976).

At the national level, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, as well as the other constituent parties of the present government, have long recognized the necessity for creating a social, political and economic environment in which the problems of poverty alleviation and securing access to safe and nutritious food for all, could be vigorously addressed. As a result of our past endeavours in these spheres, Sri Lanka can claim to have made progress in key areas such as health, education, as well as the empowerment of women and the protection of the rights of our children. All these issues are interconnected. All of them impact on the many dimensions of food security, including poverty alleviation. My late mother, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was one who pioneered and effective vision in these important areas of our national life. She received the Ceres Medal in 1976.

Today we recognize that a great deal more remains to be done in alleviating poverty and ensuring food security for our people. An important aspect of the five fold “Vision for the Future of Sri Lanka” enunciated by my government deals with specific domestic measures that we intend to implement, to meet the needs of the rural agricultural community. These include rational land utilization, the future development of our irrigation network and improved water management, further modernizing agricultural practices, developing market access for the vast body of our small farmers, as well as the development of rural industries and other measures to raise the income levels of the rural population. We have also focused strongly on the need to pursue corrective measures, in order to mitigate the negative impact of market oriented economic policies on the incidence of poverty and malnutrition.

We are well aware in Sri Lanka that the challenge of eradicating poverty and hunger at the national level becomes more complex in situations of conflict.

The conflict in the North and East of our country has resulted in an unfortunate imbalance in the indicators of social progress, malnutrition and hunger between the conflict-affected areas and the rest of the country. My government is now in the process of setting up an institutional framework for relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation in the war-ravaged areas of our country. In this regard we will continue to seek the assistance of international agencies and donor governments.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Director General has recalled that Ceres, the ancient Roman Goddess of Agriculture not only taught mankind to reap a bountiful harvest from Mother Earth, but also protected farmers from being afflicted by hunger and disease. Perhaps in the ancient world this task was less challenging than in the globalized and interdependent modern world.

This brings me to the second dimension of the effort to achieve food security that I referred to at the outset – international partnership. Food security and international partnership need to be discussed in a mutually constructive manner between developed and developing States, as well as between developing States and international financial institutions. There are many aspects to this interaction. I am reminded of an observation I made at the 2002 World Food Summit: “while one half of the world’s population has so much food and nourishment that they end up with diseases relating to over-eating, the other half starves to the point of death or extreme undernourishment, which limits their capacity to live a full life as human beings”. Furthermore, it is now widely recognized that certain recommendations for financial reform can have a negative impact on poverty alleviation, food security and malnutrition in developing Nations.

Another dimension of international partnership in achieving food security relates to the ancient concept of “protecting the farmer from hunger”. In a large number of agriculture based developing countries, home to 70% of the world’s population, “protecting the farmer from hunger” requires not only measures at the domestic level, but also a critical awareness of the consequences and effects of policies related to global trade. The contemporary international consensus in favour of liberalized trade in agricultural produce can result in the impoverishment of large segments of rural populations in the developing world, while the farmers of the affluent world continue to be comfortably subsidized.

It is difficult to imagine that when the Roman Goddess Ceres was invoked to protect the farmer, that protection was intended solely to ensure the welfare of the subsidized farmers of affluent modern States, at the expense of the well-being of all other farmers!

I believe that a constructive international partnership to achieve food security for all, requires us to address many aspects of a complex problem such as development assistance, good environmental practices, access to high quality seeds and technology and market access for agricultural produce.

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Food and Agriculture Organisation has been an important partner in Sri Lanka’s economic and social progress. The FAO has assisted us in the sectors of environment and natural resources, agriculture and horticulture, food security, fisheries, forestry, irrigation and health. The Organization has also conducted research and training programmes in various other sectors throughout the country.

It has indeed been a singularly constructive partnership both at the domestic and international levels. The Government of Sri Lanka will continue to expand its cooperation with FAO in the implementation of its projects and programmes in Sri Lanka, consistent with the decisions and objectives of the World Food Summits as well as the UN Millennium Development Goals. We will also lend our full support to FAO’s international role as a catalyst for promoting human development. The many successful projects completed by FAO in Sri Lanka over a long period of time, bear ample testimony to the efficacy of the Organisation’s work in ameliorating the quality of life of our rural population.

In conclusion, may I be permitted the humble privilege of rededicating myself to serve in the fight against poverty, hunger, ignorance, fear and the denial of other fundamental rights of the individual and the resultant social and political violence, in order that we build a Sri Lankan nation and indeed a World, where the Greatness of Man could truly blossom, in an environment free from the collective denial of his most basic rights.