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Rene Dumont: World Citizen

When the FAO-sponsored World Food Day comes up each year on 16 October, I think of Rene Dumont and the gap that he left in the ranks of those working for agricultural development on the basis of social justice. René Dumont was an active world citizen and always stressed world citizenship in his justification for his studies of agriculture world wide. René Dumont was a fellow world citizen and co-worker in the African rural development field although he was 30 years older than I and much better known through his scientific monographs on African agriculture and then his popular books on African rural development. Yet when we met there was always a feeling of togetherness in a battle for a better life for African farmers — a battle against heavy odds.

When Dumont died in June 2001 at the age of 97, he was remembered as the father of French political ecology, but he had no direct intellectual heirs. His 1974 campaign for the French presidency was the first time Les Verts (The Greens) had entered politics at the national level. Dumont was able to federate around his personality and his reputation as an agronomist specializing in African and Asian development a wide range of people who felt that the traditional French political parties were not dealing with the crucial questions of humanity’s future. His energetic campaign and strong personality in television presentations created the groundwork on which Les Verts could build a political movement. In France, all candidates for the presidency have equal time on government-owned television and are able to produce their own spots. Dumont, with his red sweater and a glass of water to recall the dangers of water pollution, was a marked contrast with the more formal candidates. Dumont received only one percent of the popular vote, but he put Les Verts on the political map and set out the issues which would continue to be the political ecology framework

Dumont was 70 when he ran for president and after the campaign remained more a “father figure” than an organizer in the structuring of the political ecology movement, done largely by a younger generation. Dumont was not a “team player” and often expressed his views in a very direct way. He was particularly direct in his dislike of autos and the need for higher gas prices — not popular themes among the French electorate. He always stressed that the conditions in the Third World were intolerable and would lead sooner rather than later to armed revolts. In a speech to the staff of the World Bank in Washington he advised them to set up their guns on the Potomac as the poor were coming.

Dumont was known in the general public for his prophetic 1962 L’Afrique Noire est Mal Partie (False Start in Africa) often republished for a decade in up-dated editions. He denounced the short-sighted agricultural and social policies of the newly independent African states — policies which have continued and which have led to a constant decline in agricultural production. Dumont was a prolific writer helped in his later life by a series of skilled co-authors. He would alternate a book on specific agricultural questions with a more general, usually polemical book. His book titles were often a political program in themselves. The collection of his 1974 campaign speeches is entitled A vous de choisir, l’ecologie ou le mort. (The choice is yours, ecology or death). He was a dynamic speaker. In his public, political lectures, his style was cutting and his examples telling but without subtlety, but when he was speaking of agricultural development to students, his analysis was much more nuanced. Unlike some agronomists who neglect the socio-cultural context in which farming takes place, Dumont had a sociologist’s concern for the values and attitudes of rural populations.

Dumont was well aware of the world dimension of agricultural production and distribution. He called attention to the negative effects of “globalization” well before the term became popular. His analysis of the agriculture of China, Cuba, Algeria, and Poland were extremely detailed, causing the French Communists to keep up a steady barrage of attacks against Dumont and a refusal of visas to a good number of Communist countries. Dumont was preoccupied all his life with hunger and the dangers of famine in the world. He summed up his views in a 1997 monograph Famines, le retour (Famines, their return). He thus stressed the need to increase food production and was criticised by some in the ecology movement who feared that intense agricultural production was destructive of ecological balance. Nevertheless, when Dumont spoke on ecological issues, he had the expertise often lacking in other leaders of Les Verts.

The French Left once called itself “internationalist”; in practice, however, foreign policy rarely played an important role in the political programs. Dumont with his world experience and knowledge of interdependence gave to Les Verts a world agenda from the start. His was a call for world reform and for new, transformed North-South relations. Dumont had a wide influence on development thinking, stressing the need for popular participation and the possibility of taking small steps if they were in the right direction. His strong personality and convictions helped set the ecological agenda both in France and the world.

René Wadlow
14/10/2012

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