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Southeast Asia urges cooperation over rice

Southeast Asia nations meeting in Bali agreed on Saturday to cooperate over the rice market, but stopped short of concrete measures to deal with rocketing prices of the region's staple.
Image: Thai farmers harvest rice in a field in Thailand
Thai farmers harvest rice in a field in Thailand's troubled southern Narathiwat province on April 15.Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Southeast Asia nations meeting in Bali agreed on Saturday to cooperate over the rice market, but stopped short of concrete measures to deal with rocketing prices of the region's staple. 

The issue of food security has hijacked the weekend meeting of trade ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the Indonesian resort island.

"The ministers affirmed that access to adequate and reliable supply of rice and stable prices are fundamental to the region's economic and social well being," said the association's statement.

To meet these ends, it said ministers recognized the need to improve productivity through technology transfers, research and development as well as making more land available for agriculture and lifting spending — both public and private.

Indonesian Trade Minister Mari Pangestu told a news conference that while the association had stopped short of "concrete actions," the group "did agree very strongly to communicate and cooperate among ourselves."

Global food crisis
The Asian Development Bank also announced emergency funding Saturday to help poor countries struggling with soaring food prices and warned these could keep rising and stifle economic growth in the region.

"The cheap food era may be over," the bank's President Haruhiko Kuroda told a news conference in Madrid, where the band held its annual meeting.

The new aid will come in the form of soft loans for the governments of countries hardest hit by the global food crisis, such as Bangladesh.

Kuroda declined to give an overall figure for this expenditure, saying it would depend on requests governments make. He said the amount would be "sizable, but not enormous."

The African Development Bank offered $1 billion more in food aid and urged grain-exporting countries not to curb shipments.

Countries including India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Brazil have restricted food exports in a bid to secure domestic supplies and limit inflation. Guinea on Saturday announced it was setting up an emergency food stock, especially for rice.

Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan said on Friday that farmers in Africa could double food output in five to 10 years if rich countries partner them in a "Green Revolution" for a long-term solution to the continent's food crisis,

Annan, who led a meeting of agriculture experts in Salzburg, said in a teleconference call that major funding was required to offset the impact on the world's poorest continent of the sharp price hikes for essential food and fuel.

Humanitarian aid could only be the first step of a longer-term strategy which should seek "to enable African farmers to dramatically increase their output so that Africa can feed itself and not be dependent on food aid."

'Massive violation' of human rights
The World Food Program has described soaring food prices as a "silent tsunami" that threatens to plunge more than 100 million people into poverty.

The new U.N. food envoy on Friday sought a special meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council this month to address a global food crisis he said was a "massive violation" of human rights.

Olivier De Schutter said he wanted the Geneva-based Human Rights Council to hold a special session around May 22 or 23 to complement efforts by other international agencies to tackle the crisis and to establish it as a human rights issue.

"If we had 100 million persons arrested in a dictatorial regime, if we had 100 million persons beaten up by police, of course we'd be marching in the streets and we'd be convening special sessions," De Schutter said at a news conference.

Protests, strikes and riots have erupted in developing countries around the world after dramatic rises in the prices of wheat, rice, corn, oils and other essential foods that have made it difficult for the poor to make ends meet.

President Bush proposed this week $770 million in new U.S. food aid to stave off the crisis, pledging Washington would take the lead in combating global hunger.

Bush said on Friday food prices have been rising as a result of soaring energy prices but the use of corn-based ethanol is not the main driver behind rising prices at the supermarket.

Southeast Asian trade ministers repeated in their statement a commitment to conclude the long-delayed Doha round of global trade negotiations by the end of the year.

The food crisis should be a "big jolt" to concluding the global trade negotiations, said Australian Trade Minister Simon Crean, who was also attending the Bali meeting.

He said good progress had been made in the past few weeks but a possible May 19 date for a potentially key Geneva meeting of World Trade Organization ministers was looking unlikely.

"We're hopeful that a date very soon after that is."

The Doha negotiations were launched in 2001 to lower barriers to trade to give the world economy a lift and help the poorest countries to fight poverty by exporting more.

But negotiators say the talks risk more years of delay or outright collapse if there is not a breakthrough soon.