Sunday, April 20, 2014

Evidently, Once Was Not Enough

"Land Grabbing: Journeys in the New Colonialism,” by Stefano Liberti, 2013

Stefano Liberti takes a reportorial tour around the world investigating the new status of agrarian capitalism - and its an eye-opener.  A good primer on a ‘world’ level, mostly focusing on Africa – it shows the rush to buy land and control food / bio-fuel production is the ‘new’ and most vital commodity for international capital.  Quickly rising world population figures presage a period where food and land will become more valuable, while financial instability, an increasing meat appetite, higher gasoline costs and global climate change aggravate that basic problem.  Drought and rising food prices underlie some of the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, Thailand and Brazil.  Like disaster capitalists everywhere, they anticipate billions – 25% profit a year.  The people with money are quite literally ‘buying the farm’ - but not in the way we wish. 

Liberti traveled to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Geneva, Chicago, Brazil & Tanzania to investigate this situation.  The 2007 capitalist financial crash occasioned a large increase in food prices and export controls on food commodities.  In response, nations in the oil-rich Gulf, corporations in India and South Korea, commodity speculators at Goldman Sachs and at the Chicago Board of Trade and international capitalist institutions like the World Bank and the IMF woke up and ‘smelled the coffee.’  Quite literally in the case of Ethiopia.  Dictatorships like Ethiopia, with a fake veneer of democracy lauded by the U.S., have cheaply rented ostensibly ‘empty’ land, at $1 or less a hectare per year, to Saudi corporations to grow export vegetables and wheat.  This process has turned local small farmers into farm workers, and reduced local food security, but it has bolstered the power of the ruling clique in Addis Ababa. 

Madagascar made a 99 year deal for almost half of its arable land to be rented to South Korea’s Daewoo - for free - for the production of palm oil and corn.  The government that did this was later removed by mass protests.  Mozambique is still ruled by FRELIMO, a formerly Marxist liberation movement which is now neo-liberal.  Mozambique, in spite of its fertile land, now imports food for its population.  At a sales bazaar in Saudi Arabia, the FRELIMO Minister of Agriculture offers 50 year land rentals, at a $1 a hectare and no cap on the export of food produce.  Tanzania’s government set up some toothless guidelines about ‘sustainability’ but solicits monster projects, tricking local villages into giving away their land.  In one, a Danish company bought land for almost nothing, cut down thousands of trees, sold the wood and then decamped.  They had only wanted the wood.  In another, a British agro-fuel company got a lease for 99 years on 8,000 hectares from 11 villages, planted jatropha seeds that can be ground into fuel and never compensated the villagers.  Instead they work on the plantation without toilet breaks, with no protection against pesticides.  This rich land was formerly for food.

Many of these ‘independent’ governments are not independent at all, but still under the control of big international capital.  It is a myth that the 'south' or the '3rd' world is some kind of anti-imperialist block.

Liberti points out is it a lie that the Chinese are involved in this in a big way.  The Chinese are quite sensitive to the issue of neo-colonialism.  In their normal functioning they want actual partnership agreements. According to African government officials, the entities from the “West” or “North” want to dictate the investment conditions. It is really the World Bank and its various arms – headquartered in the U.S., run by Americans and Europeans – that plans agrarian policy.  As peasant activists never tire of saying, the World Bank is only concerned with plantation monoculture run by large corporations.  This privatizes formerly public land; corporatizes former small owner or grazer land, dispossessing farmers; creates biological hazards due to monocultures; takes land out of food production into bio-fuel and is nearly always for export only, thus reducing local food.    Accompanying dams, also planned by the World Bank, divert water from the local population to the corporate plantations.  Farmers who have lost their land end up in the slums of 3rd world cities, eking out a living.  To hide this reality, the World Bank’s financial arm publishes happy ‘guidelines’ that pay lip-service to preventing all these results.  The guidelines, of course, are not mandatory.  They are the tie-dye shirt on the pig, part of a necessary deception.  Very few investment funds, nations or corporations actually abide by them.

 Liberti travels to an ‘industry’ conference in Geneva and visits Patrick Arbor, head of the Chicago Board of Trade, to get the ‘pro’ view on this process.  The CBoT is the heart of commodity speculation in the world, and Arbor, like everyone else, claims that it is only a ‘thermometer’  of events, not actually controlling them.  Even after the 2008 equities crash forced massive amounts of cash into the commodity market, he denied that had anything to do with the run up in food commodity prices.  Liberti calls on every proponent of the neo-liberal strategy in each country.  Oddly, in the empty and modern spaces of Saudi Arabia he meets a farmer who grows crops using hydroponics, which uses a 20th (yes…) of the water of an irrigated field.  The Saudi government has ignored him and he suspects it is because the big Saudi money is on making fertilizer, buying land overseas or drilling deep wells for the vast cattle operations in Saudi Arabia.  One Saudi cattle operation employs 12,000 immigrant laborers to supply Riyadh and Mecca with beef, milk and cheese. 

The most revealing is his trip to the Matto Grosso du Sol in western Brazil, where foreign corporations – Cargill, ADM, Bunge and Louis Dreyfuss, have removed the indigenous people, the Guarani Indians, and now control 11% of the land.  Cargill and ADM control 65% of the world’s cereal market.  They plant vast fields of GMO soybeans and sugar cane.  This area of Brazil has become an oligarch’s paradise, where the whites drive SUV’s while the Indians ride creaky bicycles.  Lula’s ‘progressive’ party and now government has done nothing about the landed estates, and little about deforestation – instead many trees were cut down to make way for sugarcane bio-fuel projects in the Matto Grosso. As campesino activists point out, other Brazilian prices have risen due to the land and ethanol rush.  Lula made a deal with George Bush in March 2007 to promote bio-fuels throughout the world.  At least sugarcane is a more efficient bio-fuel than corn. 

What Liberti comes up against, again and again is that he sees two sides with absolutely no common ground.  He notes that not all agricultural problems in the South are caused by this ‘new colonialism,’ as international market prices also play a role.  While he yearns for some kind of compromise, he concludes that there is none to be had.  That one side or the other – and the latter meaning the progressive and farmer organizations like those from Malaysia, India, Brazil, Congo and even Italy – will win or lose, and that there is no compromise in this struggle.  

(See prior book reviews on similar subjects – “The Race of What’s Left,” “Blue Covenant,” “Planet of Slums,” and “Foodopoly.”  Use blog search box, upper left.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
April 20, 2014  (As DH Lawrence said, “Christ Has Risen.”)

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