São Tomé Pulls ‘Rotten Rice’ After Protests

Protest over reports [pt] of the circulation of rice unfit for human consumption in São Tomé have led to the withdrawal of the food from the market by order of the government at the beginning of July.

The rice was part of a 900-ton order worth about two million US dollars imported from Cameroon using public money. The deal was a direct agreement [pt] between the importing company D.S. Neves Limitada, owned by deputy and Secretary General of the São Tomé Democratic Convergence Party Delfim Neves, and Santoméan Prime Minister Gabriel Costa.

Rice, which is one of the most basic and most consumed foodstuffs in São Tomé, is usually given to the country as a donation from Japan through a cooperation agreement [pt] between the two countries. Approaching an expected rice shortage [pt] until an expected 3,000-ton shipment arrived in June, it is likely the rice from Cameroon was an urgent purchase to keep the market supplied in the meantime.

But the rice displayed a visible infestation of “mould, remains of dead larva and other insects”, according to a Preliminary Report [pt] into the quality of the rice from the Centre of Agronomic and Technological Research (CIAT) on 6 June 2013. The report circulated widely on social media, reinforcing discontent among the people of São Tomé, who had already reported instances of rotten rice online since the end of May 2013.

In the face of the ensuing scandal, the government decided [pt] at a council of ministers on June 23 that the rice should be temporarily withdrawn until conclusive results of tests requested from abroad arrive in the country, as the results appearing in the government agency Centre of Agronomic and Technological Research's report were deemed to be inconclusive. But the rice continued to be sold, leading the government via the Ministry for Commerce, Industry and Tourism to order [pt] it collected from the market and banned from sale.

Sacks of rice from Cameroon. Photo by Carsten ten Brink on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sacks of rice from Cameroon. Photo by Carsten ten Brink on Flickr (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 2.0)

We don't want rotten rice

The matter has been widely discussed [pt] by the country's Internet users, especially on the group “São Tomé e Príncipe ★ Téla Non ★” [pt] on Facebook, which has the greatest audience and influence in the country. A photo of the rice shared by Arlindo Santos on the group gave rise to numerous comments, such as the following by Nayr Santos who states [pt]:

É triste mas é verdade! Hoje tive a oportunidade de deparar com esta “qualidade” de arroz que esta a venda na nossa praça. Poderia não acreditar nesta foto, mas vi, infelizmente, de perto o arroz para o “povo” consumir… Digo o “povo” pra ser de uma forma super limitada, porque os que mandam chegar esse arroz cá na ilha pra ser consumido, de CERTEZA que não fará [sic] o uso do mesmo, estes e outros todos que têm as costas largam [sic]!

It's sad but true! Today I stumbled upon this “quality” rice which is on sale in our market. You might not believe the photo, but unfortunately, I saw this rice for the “people” to consume with my own eyes… I say the “people”, because those who ordered this rice to be sent to the island for consumption, are CERTAINLY not those who will be eating it, these people and all the others who have power!

Photo by Tito Cheque Djalma on Facebook (used with permission)

Photo by Tito Cheque Djalma on Facebook (used with permission)

Lucas Lima, a lawyer from São Tomé currently living in Portugal, commented [pt] after reading the Centre of Agronomic and Technological Research's report:

Em conversa com uma Mestranda em engenharia alimentar, coloquei-lhe a seguinte questão:
Com base neste relatório, o arroz objecto da análise pode ser consumido pela população?
Ela simplesmente respondeu-me que nem para animais se deve dar um arroz com essa qualidade. E disse mais, só não houve intoxicação alimentar porque o arroz é um produto seco ou seja, tem baixa quantidade de água.

Por ultimo disse-me que este produto a nível de nutriente, já não tem, come-se para “encher a barriga” mas não alimenta.

In a conversation with a Master's student in alimentary engineering, I asked her the following question:
On the basis of this report, can the rice which has been tested be consumed by the population?
She simply replied that rice of this quality should not even be fed to animals. And she added, the only reason why nobody got food poisoning was because rice is a dry product, that is, it has a low water content.

And to finish, she told me that this product no longer contains any nutrients, it is eaten to “fill the stomach” but it doesn't provide nourishment.

The company responsible for importing the rice refuted [pt] the accusations in a press release:

Quanto a qualidade do produto ora importado, gostaríamos de salientar que para além de visibilidade ocular de qualquer produto, faz-se fé nos Certificados de Qualidade e de Fitossanitário emitidos pelas entidades credíveis e vocacionadas para o efeito a nível internacional…

As for the quality of the imported product, we would like to stress that besides the ocular visibility of any product, trust can be placed in the Quality and Phytosanitary Certificates granted by credible organisations entrusted with this task at an international level…

The act of indignation went beyond Facebook comments, with a public protest held on June 26 under the slogan “We don't want rotten rice”.

The protest was recorded by Roberto Carlos and shared on YouTube [pt]:

A letter sent from Delfim Neves to the Cameroonian authorities at the beginning of May, and revealed by protest group São Tomé e Princípe Indignados [pt] on July 1 fueled the people's opposition and subsequent protests. In the document, Neves, with the intention of obtaining a tax exemption, referred to events which do not correspond to the true situation of the country. “Starvation crisis”, “starving population”, are some of the terms used in order to obtain the tolerance of the Cameroonian authorities.

Photo of the protest "We don't want rotten rice" (26/06/2013), shared by Tito Cheque on Facebook (used with permission)

Photo of the protest “We don't want rotten rice” (26/06/2013), shared by Tito Cheque on Facebook (used with permission)

Paulo Gomes commented [pt]:

Usar mesmo que indevidamente, o nome de um país (POVO) de forma fraudulenta em beneficio próprio pondo em causa futuras ajudas que os mesmos possam vir a necessitar já é de si só um ato de falta de caráter mas que ate se entende quando a ganancia assim dita. O que não se entende é quando se brinca com a saúde publica pondo em risco uma população por imperativos econômicos… acorda povo.

To use, even ineffectually, the name of a country (PEOPLE) in a fraudulent manner for one's own profit and potentially jeopardising future assistance that the people may need is an act displaying a lack of moral character but one which could be understood in terms of greed. What is beyond comprehension is the jeopardising of public health and putting the population at risk for economic gain… Wake up, people.

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