Profits before people: The great African liquidation sale

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Pambazuka | Issue 456 | 2009-11-05

The fervour with which foreign commercial interests are forcing their agricultural 'solutions' on the African continent represents nothing more than an established endeavour to protect profits and access to resources, writes Joan Baxter. For all that they are dressed up as 'help' and 'knowledge', these ostensible solutions are about one thing: Money. So long as powerful initiatives like the Green Revolution and agribusinesses are able to trample on the continent's sovereignty, Baxter argues, Africa's land, traditional knowledge, biodiversity, seeds and crop varieties will remain in liquidation.

by Joan Baxter

Back in the early 1990s when I was reporting from northern Ghana, an elderly woman farmer decided I would benefit from a bit of enlightenment. In a rather long lecture, she detailed for me the devastating effects that the Green Revolution – the first one that outside experts and donors launched in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s – had had on farmers’ crops, soils, trees and their lives. She said that the imported seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and tractors, the instructions to plant row after row of imported hybrid maize and cut down precious trees that protected the soils and nourished the people – even the invaluable sheanut trees – had ruined the diverse and productive farming systems that had always sustained her people. When she finished, she cocked an eye at me and asked, with a cagey grin, 'Why do you bring your mistakes here?' By 'you' she meant all the people, foreigners and Africans in their employ, who tramp all over the continent implementing their big plans to develop it. These great schemes are generally concocted even higher up the decision-making chain in distant world financial capitals, often by free-market ideologues and international bankers who wouldn’t know a sheanut from a peanut.

At the time, I had no answer to her question. But now, two decades later, I think I do. It’s taken a lot of years of schooling at the knees of African farmers and intellectuals from Zambia to The Gambia. And most recently, it was all summed up clearly for me by members of COPAGEN, a coalition of African farmer associations, scientists, civil society groups and activists who work to protect Africa’s genetic heritage, farmer rights, and their sovereignty over their land, seeds and food. All these knowledgeable people have shown me that the answer is quite straightforward: many of those imported mistakes, disguised as solutions for Africa, are very, very profitable. At least for those who design and make them.

Not, however, for the average African farming family or even the average African whose interests, we are led to believe, are being served by the big plans made by big planners for progress and development. There have been many of these master plans over the years, spearheaded by the Bretton Woods institutions and the world’s major economic powers, nearly all of them promoting the unfettered free market and re-regulated private sector; that is, regulations that curtail cowboy capitalism have to be lassoed and put down, replaced by new ones to promote and sanction the profitable stampede over the public sector.

Hence all those years of structural adjustment programmes in Africa, poverty reduction schemes, the first Green Revolution, the liberalised trade that cranked open Africa’s doors to cheap imports and subsidised foodstuffs dumped on the continent, which snuffed out African industries and undermined African farmers who, ironically, the same free-market gurus said should not be subsidised.

These monetarist schemes have helped to make Africa poorer and even more dependent on foreign donors and capital, and thus more vulnerable to still more of the big plans, so that now, even as Africans struggle to confront the perfect storm of the global food crisis, financial crisis and climate change – all of which are the offspring of the unfettered free-market financial system – the same big planners are at it again with more sweeping solutions (profitable ones) for the problems they themselves caused. The difference today is that there are many new planners and players scrambling for a bit of the action in Africa, not just Western powers and the financial institutions they largely control, as in the past, but also China and other Asian countries, as well as the Gulf states awash in cash.

Breaking over Africa is a tsunami of predatory capital, otherwise known as 'foreign direct investment' (FDI) in Africa. The spin on the FDI has it offering Africa wondrous opportunities, the only way to eradicate hunger and poverty. This is not the kind of well-targeted and well-controlled investment that could promote local resources and put them to good use through local processing and value-adding to sustainably grow African economies from the farm up. The investment is extractive and exploitive, heading right for the vulnerable heart of the continent – its farms and the families and communities that work them, who account for 70 per cent of Africa’s population. The wealth generated and food produced will mostly flow out of Africa, leaving social, political and environmental upheaval and human suffering in its wake.

And just to make sure there’s absolutely nothing impeding or taming the tidal wave of investment, the World Bank and the US are busy helping African governments 'harmonise' laws to privatise land and open the doors for the patenting of crop and tree varieties and for genetically modified (GM) organisms crops.[i]

So what do the world’s great investors have their eyes on in Africa, in addition to the usual natural resources – minerals, petroleum and timber – that they’ve always coveted? In a word, land. Lots of it. The land-grabbing 'investors' are purchasing or leasing large chunks of African land to produce food crops or agrofuels or both, or just scooping up farmland as an investment, the new favourite hedge fund. More than US$100 billion have been mobilised in the past two years for investing in land, and according to one analyst, the idea behind the new land craze is 'not to harvest food but to harvest money'.[ii]

If the storm of foreign investment and interference is left to blow itself out, one day in the not-so-distant future African farmers may awake to find themselves without land to cultivate, their communities and lives in indentured tatters, no seeds to call their own. The crop varieties their own forbearers developed will have been 'improved' and then privatised by foreigners who own exclusive rights for their use. Crucial watersheds and vast tracts of woodlands needed to combat climate change will have been converted to vast water- and fossil-fuel-guzzling industrial plantations producing food and agrofuels, run by giant agribusinesses and foreign investors, absent landlords and bosses who may never in their lives have soiled their hands in, well, real soil. Africa will become the whole world’s vassal state. Alarmist? Yes, because so are the facts.

There are estimates that in the past couple of years, 30 million hectares (that’s an area the size of Senegal and Benin together) have been grabbed in at least 28 countries in Africa.[iii] In Ethiopia alone, more than 600,000 hectares have already been acquired, with another 1.6 million literally up for grabs, at the same time as the country is asking for urgent food aid.[iv] It was just such a land investment deal between the South Korean company, Daewoo, and the former president of Madagascar, which would have accorded Daewoo 1.3 million hectares for industrial monoculture – the production of food and agrofuels for export to Korea – that contributed to the downfall of President Marc Ravalomanana.[v]

At the moment, the grabbing of Africa’s land is shrouded in secrecy and proceeding at an unprecedented rate, spurred on by the global food and financial crises. GRAIN, a non-profit organisation that supports farm families in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems, works daily to try to keep up with the deals on its farmlandgrab.org website.[vi]

GRAIN reports that some of the grabbers are countries anxious to secure their own future food supplies – China, India, Japan and other Asian countries, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, Libya and Brazil.[vii] Other land-grabbers are buying up and leasing vast tracts of land in Africa as a lucrative investment, or as one analyst describes farm land, 'an asset like gold, only better'.[viii] Among them are multinational agribusinesses, investors from the Middle East and investment houses, and pension funds. Others getting in on the new land rush are energy and mining companies, who cloak their land-grabbing in green-washing terms to cash in on public goodwill to try to tackle climate change with large-scale production of agrofuels from food crops such as palm oil, sugarcane and maize, or non-food crops such as jatropha, all of which require enormous amounts of land, water, and yes, fossil fuels that cause climate change, to produce.

Apart from the African governments and chiefs who are happily and quietly selling or leasing the land right out from under their own citizens, those who are promoting the new wave of rapacious investment include the World Bank, its International Finance Corporation (IFC), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and many other powerful nations and institutions. The US Millennium Challenge Corporation is helping to reform new land ownership laws – privatising land – in some of its member countries. The imported idea that user rights are not sufficient, that land must be privately owned, will efface traditional approaches to land use in Africa, and make the selling off of Africa even easier. GRAIN notes the complicity of African elites and says some African 'barons' are also snapping up land.

Jacques Diouf, director general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), originally called the land-grabbing a system of 'neocolonialism'.[ix] Since then, however, the FAO appears to have joined the ranks of the World Bank et al who support the land-grabbing and are working towards a 'framework' that will promote 'responsible investment in agriculture' to make it a 'win-win' situation.[x] Which means, in the English that the rest of us speak, that there will be lots of lofty promises, fancy rhetoric emanating from high-level meetings, while business continues as usual. Africa loses. Foreign investors win–win.

Foreign investors have never been, are not and never will be in the business of helping hungry Africans feed themselves and solve food insecurity on the continent, no matter what the land-grabbers would have local people believe.[xi] It’s big business, for big profit.

Ndiogou Fall, head of the Network of Peasant Organizations and Producers in West Africa (ROPPA), says that entire communities have been dispossessed of their land and that some states have undertaken massive deforestation projects to satisfy the investors. He declares the members of ROPPA totally opposed to the sale of Africa’s arable land.[xii]

And at the same time, another big plan is buffeting Africa’s farmers. It’s the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), which claims it is working in smallholder farmers’ interests by 'catalysing' a Green Revolution in Africa. Green Revolution Number Two. AGRA is being bankrolled primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with the Rockefeller Foundation that bankrolled Green Revolution Number One, and it has roped in many major development banks, UN agencies and the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) – among others – to help revolutionise African agriculture. AGRA is run by several people with close ties to the biotech monster, Monsanto, and just like Green Revolution Number One, it recommends 'modern' technological solutions such as imported fertilizers and purchased seeds. While it denies that GM crops are necessarily involved, the Gates Foundation has offered US$5.4 million to the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, an American institute funded heavily by Monsanto, to expedite the acceptance by African governments of GM crops for field testing.[xiii] One does want to ask the worshippers of modern technology and industrial agribusiness models who insist on exporting these to Africa, why, when these are supposedly so productive, they have to be so heavily subsidised in Europe and the US.

To render African agriculture commercially profitable, as AGRA aims to do, the Gates Foundation admits (not publicly, but in a leaked document) that it may eventually involve 'land mobility'. That’s doublespeak for smallholder farmers being removed from their land.[xiv]

Before it set out to re-invent the African farm, did AGRA revisit – and perhaps criticise – liberalised and imbalanced trade policies that have suppressed prices for African produce and hurt Africa’s farmers? Did it examine the economic dogma imposed on Africa that destroyed agricultural extension programmes and reduced government spending on agricultural investment, research and infrastructure? Did it do its homework and take stock of the countless studies of the countless advantages of holistic, small-scale farms that rely on the sharing of local seed varieties and traditional knowledge, of agroforestry and integrated diverse systems of trees, livestock and crops, which reduce risks and are resilient in the face of climate change? Did it examine ways to promote and improve these environmentally sustainable systems? Did it pay more than lip service to the landmark International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) study carried out by dozens of scientists over many years and initiated partly by the World Bank itself, which in April 2009 concluded that agro-ecological agriculture by smallholder farmers was the best solution of all? Did it look at giving African farmers more control over their own resources rather than putting them still more at the mercy of giant seed and agrochemical companies? The answer to all of the above: no.

And perhaps most importantly, did it even engage with Africa’s farmers when it drew up its big plans? Not according to Simon Mwamba of the Eastern and Southern Africa Small-Scale Farmers’ Forum, who had this to say about AGRA:' You come. You buy the land. You make a plan. You build a house. Now you ask me, what colour do I want to paint the kitchen? This is not participation!'[xv]

So the liquidation sale of African land, traditional knowledge, biodiversity, seeds and crop varieties – of Africa’s sovereignty – proceeds unchecked. If it continues, the losses to the continent – to its people, its resources, its environment and its future – are incalculable, just like the profits that will be accrued – elsewhere of course.

Joan Baxter is a Canadian journalist who has lived and worked in Africa for 25 years, reporting for the BBC and other international media and doing research on sustainable natural resource management, agriculture, mining and extractive industries. She is an award-winning author and her latest book, 'Dust From Our Eyes – An Unblinkered Look at Africa' was shortlisted for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

NOTES

[i] http://farmlandgrab.org/7803

[ii] http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=212

[iii] Piro, Patrick. 17 Sept 2009. La course aux terres ne faiblit pas Politis 1029

[iv] http://spore.cta.int/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&lang=en&id=932&catid=10

[v] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7952628.stm

[vi] http://www.farmlandgrab.org

[vii] http://www.grain.org/briefings/?id=212

[viii] Mayer, Chris. 4 Oct 2009. This asset is like gold, only better. DailyWealth. http://www.stockhouse.com/Columnists/2009/Oct/4/This-asset-is-like-gold,-only-better

[ix] Blas, Javier. 18 Aug 2008. Financial Times.

[x] Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 29 Sept 2009. Promoting responsible international investment in agriculture.http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/economy/fishery/agriculture/investment.html

[xi] Poindexter, Sama. Sept 2009. Awoko Newspaper.

[xii] http://www.afriquejet.com/actualites/agriculture/le-roppa-opposee-a-la-vente-massive-des-terres-agricoles-en-afrique-2009060128788.html

[xiii] Friends of the Earth (FOE) Ghana; Togo; Nigeria; Cameroon; Sierra Leone; Tunisia; Swaziland; South Africa; Mauritius. 6 April 2009. AGRA & Monsanto & Gates, Green Washing and Poor Washing. [http://crossedcrocodiles.wordpress.com/2009/04/06/agra-monsanto-gates-green-washing-poor-washing/]

[xiv] Raj Patel, Eric Holt-Gimenez & Annie Shattuck. 21 September 2009. Ending Africa's Hunger. The Nation. [xv] Ibid
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