British imperialism – investing in hunger

On 22 April 2014 the Economist Intelligence Unit issued grim news: food security has fallen in almost 70% of countries since the beginning of the year, as the global price of grains, sugar and other farm commodities rose at their fastest pace in 18 months. Food prices have doubled on average since 2000 and keep some 842.3 million people – 12% of the world’s population – in a state of perpetual undernourishment. Misery for the many is good business for the few, and the prospect of easy money is encouraging a new wave of land grabs by British companies, with the enthusiastic support of Britain’s Department for International Development (DfID).

Conquering ‘the last frontier’

Containing more than half the world’s uncultivated but agriculturally suitable land, the World Bank described Africa as ‘the last frontier in global food and agricultural markets’. It has become a target for international land grabs, with at least 56m hectares of land snapped up by foreign investors since 2001 – an area almost the size of Kenya. Britain, as the fourth largest investor in African land, is leading in the process, leasing over 1.2m hectares in 16 African countries – the result of no fewer than 47 deals between British companies and foreign states since 2000. These figures, recording only publicised deals involving units of land above 200 hectares, understate Britain’s role in a notoriously secretive business; nor do they account for British investments in deals spearheaded by non-British investors, such as the palm oil plantations in Liberia acquired by the Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby. Vast tracts of land are removed from African farmers and placed in the hands of British profiteers; in Sierra Leone, where almost one in three people is undernourished, at least 1.1m hectares of farmland have been converted into cash crop plantations controlled by foreign investors – over half of whom are British.

These investors have a firm ally in the British state, providing extensive political and financial support for agricultural projects in Africa. Between 2008 and 2011 Britain provided £7m in support for the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), an initiative established by the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates foundations, seeking to integrate African farmers into global input supply chains by encouraging the use of high-yield fertilisers, pesticides and hybrid seeds produced by multinationals like DuPont and Monsanto. These inputs, which must be purchased annually, are financed by loans whose repayment depends on regular – and unsustainable – high yields; farmers are made reliant on monopoly suppliers and trapped in debt. The implications were summarised by Zitto Kabwe, chairman of the Tanzanian Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, ‘By introducing this market, [small] farmers will have to depend on imported seeds... It will be like colonialism. Farmers will not be able to farm until they import, linking farmers to [the] vulnerability of international prices. Big companies will benefit. We should not allow that’.

Britain has provided £600m to the G8 New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a ten-year partnership uniting G8 countries, African governments, the World Bank and multinational corporations behind investments of at least $3bn in selected African countries. To receive investments African governments must reform their policies on trade, land, seed and agrochemical market regulation to serve foreign capital; Ethiopia has accordingly committed to remove regulations forcing foreign investors to acquire business licences; Tanzania pledges to remove trade rules protecting local peasant farmers. African countries are also encouraged to ring-fence land for foreign investment; Malawi has pledged some 200,000 hectares of prime land by 2015, while Ghana aims to make 10,000 hectares available.

British state and corporate collaboration is blatant. In November 2013 International Development Secretary Justine Greening visited Tanzania with representatives from British firms – including Unilever, Diageo and SAB Miller – to discuss plans to ‘accelerate’ private agricultural investments. The collusion runs far deeper, with state funds indirectly channelled into British companies via the DfID, which has supported a Kenyan tea project benefiting Lipton and a barley-substitution project in Cameroon supporting Diageo. The Department is promoting land grabs in Tanzania via a £38m grant to the Big Results Now project, offering 350,000 hectares of land for commercial sugar cane and rice production to foreign investors; in Ethiopia it has pledged £795m to the World Bank’s Protection of Basic Services programme, financing the authorities involved in violently displacing 260,000 people occupying 375,000 hectares of land earmarked for foreign agri-business plantations in the Lower Omo Valley.

Resisting the robber barons

African governments have been keen to collaborate with British land-grabbers, but thousands displaced by them have not given up without a fight. In 2012 the British company Equatorial Palm Oil (EPO) expanded its plantations onto 200,000 hectares occupied by 7,000 members of the Jogbahn clan in Liberia. The clan was not consulted nor did it consent to this; responding to their refusal to leave the land, EPO security officers and the elite Liberian Police Support Unit were drafted in to assault and arrest clan members. The resistance did not stop, forcing President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to intervene saying that EPO could not claim the land – an impressive feat in a country where more than 50% of land has been handed over to corporations. However, EPO is still preparing to clear the land.

Blaming the poor

Fuelling Britain’s rush for African land are expectations of growing profits stimulated by rising prices of agricultural outputs, principally food and biofuels – business profits will grow, driving more African farmers and peasants into poverty and hunger. Into this world of increasing hunger the British ruling class re-invokes the spectre of Parson Malthus. In July 2013 Penguin Books published 10 Billion, a doom-mongering paperback by Dr Stephen Emmott, ex-scientific adviser to the British Chancellor, predicting chaos as food supplies dwindle alongside a growing population; it became a bestseller, although rebuked by several scientists for poor research and misrepresented evidence. His words were echoed by Sir David Attenborough, who argued that the Ethiopian famine was caused by ‘too many people for a too little piece of land’. This is as ridiculous as it is racist; the world already produces enough food to feed 12 billion people – almost 1.7 times current global population. Yet, as prices soar, food remains out of the hands of the poorest: between 1991 and 2011 food production in sub-Saharan Africa grew by almost 20%, yet the number of undernourished people grew by 40%. The problem is not demographic, but economic, and demands a political solution – an end to the imperialist profiteers.

Jack Edwards

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014


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