Huge tracts of land in African countries with access to the sea and high economic growth are being targeted by corporations such as Monsanto and Unilever with help from the British and American governments –including millions of dollars that are intended for helping the poor, says a report published today by UK campaigning group World Development Movement.
The document, titled Carving up a continent: How the UK government is facilitating the corporate takeover of African food systems, explains that a G8 initiative called the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is using money intended for poverty reduction to instead ease access to key African locations for some of the world’s biggest companies, which already control much of the global food market.
Doublespeak and the new “scramble for Africa”
What’s more, the New Alliance agreements signed with ten key African countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal and Tanzania) are conditional, and many of them require the country in question to bring legislation – for example, revising seed laws to force small farmers to buy seeds and fertilisers from the corporates rather than seed sharing, which has been practised for generations and ensures biodiversity.
Under the new paradigm, multinationals gain access to fertile land and agricultural corridors on the pretext of tackling food poverty and helping Africa’s starving and needy. In reality this is doublespeak. If the New Alliance continues unchecked, it’s likely that problems are stored up for the future, as small scale and family farmers are forced off their land to make way for industrial scale crop production. WDM also identifies issues such as insecure and poorly paid jobs and a focus on producing for export markets rather than to feed local populations.
The report’s introduction, by WDM director Nick Dearden, says: “This is an old story given new impetus. More than a century ago the ‘scramble for Africa’ was instituted under the pretence of civilising the continent. Barbaric crimes were committed and the continent systematically de-developed because it profited Europe. Since that time, Africa’s problem has never been a lack of integration into the international economy – the problem is how it is integrated and in whose interests.”
This isn’t the first time the New Alliance has come under fire – the Guardian newspaper published a critical piece last year. But the general populations of the countries whose taxpayers are supporting this power grab are woefully unaware that it is even happening, and so too are the citizens in whose countries these events are unfolding. This despite the fact that a whopping £600 million of UK aid money, for example, via the Department for International Development (DFID), is being channelled into this between 2012 and 2016.
Ironically this comes at a time when alternatives to the industrialisation of agriculture are being explored worldwide, and as the realities of climate change are being better understood. Africa is a place where new models of permaculture could meet old models of sustainable farming and cooperation to leapfrog the West – finding sustainable and locally owned solutions to nutritious food production.
The wheels are already turning
But this hangs in the balance. Many New Alliance partnership countries, such as Malawi, have already instituted many of the changes demanded as part of their agreement, and it has become much easier for foreign corporations to buy great tracts of land. Ghana recently saw the Plant Breeders’ Bill being pushed through its Parliament by politicians that Food Sovereignty Ghana implied might be on the take.
The corporations involved in the New Alliance are huge – Monsanto, Unilever, Syngenta, DuPont, Cargill, Diageo, SABMiller, Coca Cola, Yara. The last company – Yara – may not be a name you recognise, but is the largest global manufacturer of fertiliser. According to the WDM report, these agrochemicals “already cause serious levels of food poisoning in sub-Saharan Africa, with the UN estimating that health problems linked to pesticides could cost the region $90 billon between 2005 and 2020. Fertilisers also damage soil, leading farmers to rely on them even more in order to maintain production, which increases their risk of getting into debt.”
“The tragic consequences of small-scale farmers’ reliance on fertilisers in India have been much reported. An estimated 250,000 farmers committed suicide between 1995 and 2010 after getting into debt through buying agrochemicals.”
Under the guise of charity
Remember that old development chestnut “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Show him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”? The New Alliance seems to be about snapping his fishing rod in half, throwing it into the sea and telling him that you now own the sea and he must buy his fish from you, at wildly fluctuating prices. And it’s under the guise of charity.
Yet look at the personnel. Unilever’s external affairs director was previously at DFID and DFID’s director of policy used to work for Unilever. Meanwhile, for all the talk of wanting to solve African hunger, the chosen countries are almost all coastal, and tend to have high economic growth. Of the countries in Africa that have the worst hunger index scores, only one – Ethiopia – is a New Alliance country.
While all the players talk about poverty reduction and food security, the reality is that the path that will have the most positive effect for African farmers and populations long term is food sovereignty. That means ownership and control of land and non-reliance on imported seeds and foods, as well as being able to adjust crops to need. It might be tempting to apply the machine logic of industrialisation to agriculture and scale it up, on the basis that more food grown equals more people fed. But in reality the problem of hunger is not one to do with volume of food produced worldwide – rather it’s to do with existing unjust systems of food production and distribution. These are the very systems that the New Alliance is desperate to bring to Africa.
Other players are the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, set up by the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Gates Foundation; the New Vision for Agriculture, launched by the World Economic Forum and led by 33 multinationals from Monsanto to Walmart; and Grow Africa, a collaboration between the World Economic Forum and the African Union.
Of course, the New Alliance does have its defenders. Namely, international pop gimp Bono’s ONE Foundation, which hit the headlines a few years ago for giving a whopping 1% of its funds to actual charity…
In its 2013 report Growing Africa: Unlocking the potential of agribusiness the World Bank said: “Africa represents the ‘last frontier’ in global food and agricultural markets.” Once Africa’s greatest commodity to line the pockets of its pillagers was its human capital. Now they’re coming for the land, and the sustenance it offers. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
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African Biodiversity Network
Eastern and Southern Africa Small Scale Farmers’ Forum
Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee
Food Sovereignty Ghana
Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania