Agribusiness in Africa: A Disaster for the Whole World

Transcribed from the 11 June 2016 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

This foundation thinks the answer to everything is technology. We understand they made their money that way. But to believe that everything in the world, especially hunger, is a technological problem is the biggest issue. We all know that hunger is a political problem.

Chuck Mertz: Four wealthy Western nations and a billionaire couple are determining the future of our burning planet’s development. That may not seem very democratic, but it does seem very scary, at least to me. Here to explain what it means for our planet when the wealthiest individuals and nations get together to determine our future: our correspondent Anuradha Mittal.

Anuradha Mittal is an executive director for the Oakland Institute, and she reports to us on all matters of development. Anuradha, it’s always great to have you on our show.

Anuradha Mittal: Always nice to be back with you.

CM: The Oakland Institute’s new report, as your group’s press release states, “exposes how a coalition of four donor countries and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is shaping a pro-business environment in the agricultural sector of developing countries, especially in Africa.”

When I hear those words, “pro-business environment,” I always think “anti-environment business.” So how bad is this solution for the environment of Africa?

AM: These agencies have forgotten that eighty percent of the food consumed in the developing world is actually grown by the eighty percent of the population which is involved in agriculture. The main source of food security for the African continent is the smallholder farmers. But the solution that they are presenting is to let business into agriculture. Behind all of that, as we expose in our report, is really an effort to promote the Western corporation. This is really about handing over Africa to the Monsantos and the Syngentas of the world.

A lot of the countries providing aid have conditionalities. For instance, Denmark is very clear that their aid is linked to promoting their own business interests. So if they’re giving aid to Africa, it is with the hopes that this will be a way for the corporations from Denmark to get into the continent.

CM: So is food security in Africa, then, being threatened by increased production and the involvement of the global market?

AM: The real problem is that farmers who have been feeding the population forever are simply not considered successful. They are considered a burden; the new definition of a successful farmer is one who is participating in the export economy. So if you’re a smallholder farmer in Africa who is working hard to feed her family and the community around her and participating in the local market, that is considered an inefficient way of doing agriculture. Never mind that people who practice smallholder agriculture are also protectors of biodiversity.

The push is to bring in large scale plantations. This is not about growing food for Africa. These are large scale plantations of palm oil—or of cotton and sugarcane, for instance in Ethiopia. These are export crops. They do not create jobs; smallholder farmers are now becoming plantation workers, in predominantly menial jobs that pay very little. It is an upside-down and backwards model for Africa.

The last thing I would say is that when we’re dealing with a climate crisis, and we know that anywhere from thirty to forty percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from industrial agriculture, to promote that model of agriculture in Africa is a disaster. Not just for Africa but for everyone around the world.

CM: Does this business-friendly agricultural policy lead to more climate change? Are the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and these four donor nations getting together and pushing an agricultural policy that will lead to more climate change?

AM: Definitely. If you’re promoting industrial agriculture all over the continent of Africa, promoting that farmers should go into debt in order to use fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers, then yes. We know that these products are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, and yet we are asking more of the population in the world to use it. We are forgetting the impact of industrial agriculture in the United States, which has led to devastating impacts on topsoil, has been bad for groundwater, and has led to greenhouse gas emissions. This is a failed model, and yet we are duplicating and promoting it, and trying to force countries to adopt it.

The other thing that our report exposes is that these agencies—these donor countries and the Gates Foundation—want countries to be ranked on what they’re like to do business with in agriculture. They’re promoting a test, wanting governments to make access to land—you know, land-grabbing—very easy. They want countries to be open, to let Monsanto come in, and if you say no, they are ranking you, which then impacts the credit access that you have.

CM: So what improvements come with a business-oriented agricultural policy in developing economies? After all, there must be some way they’re selling these policies to developing countries.

AM: The whole myth that has been promoted is that agriculture needs investment. We all know that. In fact, it was the same countries who, in the sixties and seventies, prevented countries from investing in their own agriculture through structural adjustment programs. So we’re not talking about state investment, we’re talking about the private sector’s investment in agriculture. The myth is that a sudden bumping up of investment in agriculture would lead to amazing infrastructure, the kind you see in the Midwest in the United States; it will lead to food security; it will lead to bumper crops.

We have heard it all before: How will we feed nine billion people by 2050? We need more chemical fertilizers! We need more technology! Completely refuting the role that the farmers have always played in the fields.

There is whole belief that technology is the silver bullet solution…for problems that don’t exist in Africa. They have never bothered to ask African farmers what their needs are. They would tell you, if you have your ear to the ground. To ensure food security, what we really need is support for the smallholder farmers—for instance, providing credit to them; ensuring and respecting their right to land, to seeds, and to water; ensuring floor pricing. It really takes the involvement of governments to support agriculture which is good for the economy, good for communities, and good for the climate.

CM: We always hear these great things about the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation: how much money they’ve donated to all these amazing causes, how they work to fight AIDS globally, whatever the situation is. What do you think it is about their philosophy that leads them to a market-based solution instead of the kind of solution that you were talking about?

There has been nothing but a lot of words, a lot of charity talk, but the agenda is the same: how do we colonize the continent? How do we take over its resources, its land and water?

AM: It really depends on who you talk to. In the United States, if you talk to people who are involved in public education systems, they’ll have a lot to say about Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and what they’ve really done to the public school system while claiming to be improving education in America.

When you are in Africa and you are talking to civil society organizations, when you’re talking to environmentalists, when you’re talking to farmers, they’re very clear that they do not want this kind of interference. They protest the the GM crops which the Gates Foundation has had a big hand in promoting. They would really like the foundation to hear what the needs of the farmers are before they come up with their own solutions.

This foundation thinks the answer to everything is technology. We understand they made their money that way. But to believe that everything in the world, especially hunger, is a technological problem is the biggest issue. We all know that when it comes to hunger, it’s a political problem. Otherwise we wouldn’t have hunger in the United States of America. We would not, in the counties in California which grow the most food, also have the highest rates of hunger.

Secondly, in November last year the institute released 33 cases from twenty different African countries which clearly showed that if we want to improve food security and deal with increasing deforestation and desertification, for instance in the Sahel region, we know how to do those things. These are an amazing 33 case studies from all different parts of Africa which show that when farmers and communities are in the driving seat, it changes things.

These are not some sweet, cute micro-examples. These are scalable studies which clearly show how change can happen. And this new report also shows what gets in the way of implementing these solutions. It is the power of the Gates Foundation; it is the agenda of the donor countries who still see the African continent basically as a market to conquer for their own corporations.

CM: You write, “Last month G7 leaders held a summit in Japan, but for the first time in seven years the G7 agriculture ministers met prior to the summit. When they met in 2009 at the L’Aquila summit in Italy, they agreed on a $20 billion commitment to support country-owned food security strategies. But instead, the rich nations have made an unprecedented push to favor private sector and market-driven food systems through aid programs.”

What ever happened to that $20 billion promise?

AM: That’s a really good question. That summit took place after the high food price crisis, where we saw hunger spread around the world like a wildfire. Between 2007 and 2008, the price of food increased by nearly eighty percent, and in developing countries where a majority of poor people spend a majority of their budget on food, it was going to lead to political crisis. That is the first time when the G7 countries came together and said they would put together money to support country-led strategies. But it didn’t take them very long to launch the new Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, which has really been about opening Africa to the Western corporation.

So it has been nothing but a lot of words, a lot of charity talk, but very soon the agenda was the same: how do we colonize the continent? How do we take over its resources, its land and water? We found private equity funds, hedge funds, everyone rushing into Africa to take over its resources, and at the same time, through the Enabling the Business of Agriculture Index of the World Bank (which these same countries and the Gates Foundation are supporting), they are telling African nations to open up their countries to chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

CM: If Africans in developing economies do not open their farms to big foreign agricultural corporations, what kind of aid will they be denied?

AM: We have to look at the history. When countries do not obey the dictates that come from the World Bank or rich donor countries, it is very simple: you don’t listen to us, we won’t give you aid. You’re considered a rogue nation. These nations really have their backs against the wall.

I’m not saying that they’re all just helpless. There are also local elites who are very glad to work in cahoots with these agencies; they’re very glad to do that. They are far away from their own smallholder farmers, sitting in capitals. We are seeing all over the continent that so-called elected officials know nothing about farming, they know nothing about the needs of the communities, and with the pressures coming in from the West, they sign up for this program.

There’s a lot of brainwashing in terms of what will lead your country to success, what will make it from a developing economy to an industrialized nation. You need to move on to industrial agriculture, then!

CM: You mentioned the Enabling the Business of Agriculture index. You write, “EBA’s goal is to create policies that facilitate doing business in agriculture and increase the investment attractiveness and competitiveness of countries.”

Does competition between countries within Africa part of—or does it exacerbate—the “resource curse”?

AM: Definitely. This Enabling the Business of Agriculture Index, is based on another index that the World Bank has, called the Doing Business Ranking, where countries are ranked on the basis of what they are like to do business with. For instance, if you are Bhutan, you are focused on measuring the happiness of your people; that won’t get you a good ranking. But if you’re India next door, and you say, “You know what, I’m going to get rid of my labor standards! You can fire people! Nobody will be allowed to unionize,” you get a very good ranking. And then if you’re Pakistan, you say, “I’ll do the same, but I’ll do more! I’ll get rid of my environmental standards, too!” Then you are scored first, India becomes second, and this is how it goes.

Go figure what is causing hunger. You’re displacing smallholder farmers from their land; you’re arresting them and charging them as terrorists if they protest; and then their lands are given away to foreign investors to grow what? Sugar and cotton.

What’s really happening through Enabling the Business of Agriculture Index is the same. And I should mention: internal reviews within the World Bank have shown that Doing Business rankings are really problematic, they’re very biased, and they work against the mandate of the bank, which is to end poverty—they’re creating more poverty. But despite those reviews, these four donor countries and the Gates Foundation pushed the World Bank to come up with an index on agriculture.

But the worst part of this is that it pits countries against each other. We have South Sudan competing with Ethiopia to get a better ranking, so everything which would protect people or protect communities’ rights or protect our environment is basically being let go so they can compete and show that they are better to do business with. It’s all about business. It is all about corporations rather than about communities and food security and environmental protection.

CM: But Anuradha, we see these commercials all the time on TV of kids starving in Africa, so there must be a huge food security issue in Africa. Or is it exaggerated in our cultural viewpoint because of those commercials?

AM: I’m not saying that there is no hunger in Africa. But we need to understand why there is hunger in Africa.

Let’s talk about Ethiopia for a second. In the eighties, we all remember, there was a big famine. We remember all those concerts. Today Ethiopia is facing the same crisis. Nearly ten million people are considered food insecure. Food aid plans have been moved as quickly as possible.

This same country advertises on its website, if you go to the embassy website in Washington, DC, that they have over eleven million hectares of land to give away to foreign investors. Our own research, based on field work in the country since 2008, shows that over 1.5 million people have been forcibly removed from their land, and their lands are being made available to foreign investors.

So go figure what is causing hunger. You’re displacing the pastoralists, you’re displacing the smallholder farmers from their land; you’re arresting them, you’re charging them as terrorists if they protest; and then their lands are given away to foreign investors to grow what? Sugar and cotton, for instance, in Lower Omo Valley.

So imagine trucks of food aid coming into Ethiopia while trucks full of flowers or cotton and sugarcane are leaving the country. Hunger in Africa is not caused by the fact that Africans don’t know how to grow food. Hunger in Africa is a political problem.

CM: Is this agribusiness plan in Africa facing any resistance right now?

AM: There is a very strong resistance. I was just in Uganda a few weeks ago, where close to a hundred people had come together, from all different parts of Africa, who are looking at agro-ecology. Agro-ecology is a system of agriculture which is low-input based and environmentally friendly, based on working with nature rather than against it to solve issues that confront us, from hunger, poverty, food security, generating livelihoods and employment to protecting and saving biodiversity and our environment.

There were incredible models of agricultural efforts that were shared. We got to visit some of the farms, and there is so much food production that is happening. And where these farmers have just five acres of land or two acres of land—they are in charge. They control the land, they own the land, they have access to water, they have access to biodiversity, they have old heirloom crops. It was incredible.

CM: One last question for you, Anuradha. Your report states, “The US, UK, Danish and Dutch governments are providing direct financing through business grants and other support mechanisms such as loans and insurance to agribusinesses operating in Africa.”

So are developing economies in Africa going into debt that they will owe to the nations who assisted agribusiness in damaging their land?

AM: Some of the stories are pretty shocking. Yes. For instance, I’ve seen in South Sudan an outside company coming in, taking loans, and if they go under, it is the Bank of South Sudan which would be held responsible. On the one hand, there are these so-called aid agencies, but they’re also giving loans, or they’re giving loans to their own companies that are going into African countries to start their own agricultural “assistance.” This is the facilitation that we talk about in our report where on one hand they’re giving so-called aid, but on the other, they’re also opening up the market and getting access to resources, rather than providing resources to African governments themselves. They can provide resources to their own farmers.

CM: Anuradha, it’s always a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you for being back on the show.

AM: Thank you so much.

Featured image source: Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa

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