The cereal war in Ukraine is experienced in the countryside, decided in the ports and suffered in Africa | International

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Engineer Oleksandr Mironenko stands next to one of the Mlybor barn’s conveyor belts in Chernihiv on Thursday.Luis de Vega

Until February 24, the beaches of the city of Odessa were a regular destination for international tourism and Ukrainian vacationers. Strolling through its elegant streets and ending the day watching the sun set over the Black Sea was a common pleasure when the heat arrived. However, none of that is possible today.

Access to the boardwalk is blocked by the army. Where before there were tourist attention posts, now there are trenches. The sand on the beach is strewn with explosives. The port, stopped. And the sea that can be seen ahead looks full of mines, huge iron balls floating on the surface to blow up any boat with which it hits. The vast majority of them, mainly in the arena, were installed by Ukraine in the first weeks of the war in the face of the possibility of a Russian amphibious attack to take the city. That decision has been perhaps the most serious and far-reaching planetary consequence since the invasion of Ukraine began.

The blockade of the main port of the country prevents Ukraine, seventh world exporter of wheat and corn and fourth of barley, from fulfilling its sales commitments to third world countries, leading the African continent to a food crisis that anguishes world diplomacy. To further complicate the picture, the Russian military launched a systematic campaign in May to destroy Ukraine’s agricultural production infrastructure. Silos, mills, elevators and port facilities are on the list of military targets.

Up to 47 shells hit the facilities of the Mlybor grain storage company in Chernihiv, 150 kilometers north of kyiv, in March. “And I don’t count those who fell inside without hitting the facilities,” says Serhii Yarosh, 47, director of this company that employs a hundred people. The holes are still visible today, two months after the Russian withdrawal, despite the accelerated pace of reconstruction. Among other damage, the huge mill, a building several stories high, is unusable and the checkpoint of the modern grain dryer, released in 2021 and which cost 19 million hryvnias (about 600,000 euros), was blown up.

Mlybor is a good example that the war that threatens to starve the Third World hides a more perverse strategy to suffocate Ukraine economically. This grain store can accumulate up to more than 100,000 tons and when the war came it kept 65,000 tons that are still intact because the activity is totally paralyzed. Wheat opens the campaign in July and corn closes it in December, during which time it is cleaned, dried and treated. Afterwards, Yarosh explains, it is transported by train or truck to the southern Black Sea ports, from where it is exported mainly to Africa, China and the Baltic countries. “The July harvest is a problem because with full silos it is impossible to harvest in the short term,” he explains.

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Serhii Yarosh, general director of the Mlybor barn, on Thursday in Chernihiv.
Serhii Yarosh, general director of the Mlybor barn, on Thursday in Chernihiv.Luis de Vega

These days, in this silo in the north of the country, there are more people repairing the damage to the facilities than workers concerned about the harvest. Of the 94 employees there were, 12 have not returned after the attack and three more have joined the Territorial Defense Corps that emerged to confront the enemy, details the person in charge. “As long as the plant doesn’t work again, our way of helping the country is to give the army the gasoline we had stored,” he adds, standing next to the battered machinery. “Ukrainians are not going to starve. Oil and bread are not going to be lacking”, Serhii Yarosh points out with irony in reference to the surplus of grain they have. It is the countries of destination that are going to suffer the blockade, something that the rotating president of the African Union, the Senegalese Macky Sall, tried to make the Russian Vladimir Putin see this Friday in the city of Sochi. “The problem is not ours. They are the ones who are not going to survive”, insists the director of Mlybor.

Ukraine exported 201 million tons of wheat last year, but its size in the global market is enormous. It is the seventh global producer and the sixth largest exporter worldwide of wheat, the sixth of corn and the fourth largest exporter of barley, with 24 million tons. However, its importance is paramount in the poorest countries. Tunisia buys 53% of the wheat it consumes from Ukraine; Libya, 44%; Egypt, 26%; and countries like India and Pakistan, almost 50%. To this must be added the Russian brake on its own exports of wheat, barley and edible oil due to international sanctions, which has led to the global blockade.

Bombed facilities of the Mlybor company, in Chernihiv.
Bombed facilities of the Mlybor company, in Chernihiv.Luis de Vega

The Turkish attempt to mediate in the crisis has found timid progress in creating a corridor that allows the port of Odessa to operate, but collides with mutual mistrust and a war of declarations that predict a tough negotiation. On the one hand, Putin assured on Friday that he would not attack the Black Sea ports if kyiv agrees to demining to unblock grain transport; and recommended that Ukraine use neighboring countries to get the grain out. On the other, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dmitro Kuleba, demanded guarantees to prevent a humanitarian corridor in the sea from serving to facilitate the feared Russian landing.

“Ukraine is ready to create the necessary conditions to resume exports from the port of Odessa. The question is how to ensure that Russia does not abuse the trade route to attack the city. There are no guarantees from Russia so far.” Minister Kuleba wrote on Twitter on Friday. In parallel, running trucks and trains through Poland or Romania “would not cover even 20% of what we could do through the Black Sea,” he told the Financial Times Aleksander Kubrakov, Minister of Infrastructure of Ukraine. To unblock the situation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will travel to Turkey on Wednesday after demands from African countries to find a solution to the conflict.

About 600 kilometers from the bombed-out silo in Chernihiv, a small producer collapses on a cafe table remembering her situation. Natalia Kirichenko owns 400 hectares of wheat, corn, barley and sunflowers planted very close to the Russian border, but one of her five tractors was blown up last week by a mine when one of her workers was working the land.

Natalia Kirichenko, owner of 400 hectares of wheat, corn, barley and sunflower, in Kharkov.
Natalia Kirichenko, owner of 400 hectares of wheat, corn, barley and sunflower, in Kharkov.James Garcia

“Farming has always been a good business in Ukraine, but now everything is spoiled,” Kirichenko says of the uncultivated land and bomb-destroyed facilities. “I have had to sell the stored fuel for the tractors to have some money in the face of fuel shortages,” he explains on the verge of tears in a Kharkiv cafe. “I am afraid to go to the farm because it is full of mines. Neither I nor any other producer wants to return to the field”, adds this woman on a piece of land that produced some 300 tons of sunflower oil for export and that employed five workers.

Although experts consider that the global food crisis began long before the war, with an average increase since 2020 of 60% in the price of cereals, oils or dairy products, half the planet is holding its breath in search of solutions. to a famine that threatens tens of millions of people in the Middle East and Africa.

Damage caused by the Russian army in one of the silos of the Mlybor granary, in Chernihiv.
Damage caused by the Russian army in one of the silos of the Mlybor granary, in Chernihiv.Luis de Vega

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