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Africa – Colony of the Non-Profit

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This is probably the first of many entries about Africa because I think its history has some good lessons. Listening to Africa Today, I picked up on this story:

Biofuels companies from the U.K. to Brazil and China are buying up large swaths of Africa, causing deforestation and diverting land from food to fuel production, the environmental group Friends of the Earth said.

Across the continent almost 5 million hectares of land, an area bigger than the Netherlands, have been sold to cultivate crops for biofuels since 2006, Friends of the Earth’s Brussels- based European division said today in a 36-page study.

European companies including Portugal’s Galp Energia SGPS SA, the U.K.’s D1 Oils Plc and Sun Biofuels Ltd. and Agroils Srl of Italy joined firms from Canada and Israel in buying acreage to plant jatropha to make biofuels, the study said. The 27- nation European Union has set a goal of getting 10 percent of transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020.

“The EU’s mandatory target for increasing agrofuels is a clear driver to the land grabbing in Africa,” Friends of the Earth said. “There is a risk that agrofuels, and with them, Africa’s agricultural land and natural resources, will be exported abroad with minimal benefit for local communities and national economies.”

Governments including Ethiopia, Ghana and Mali have encouraged the purchases, which in some cases are made without the consent of local communities, or an environmental impact assessment, the group said. The report lists land sold in Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

Sounds bad at first, but we should deconstruct the wording. The problem is apparently that some African governments are letting first-world-based companies buy land, which sounds too much like colonialism for FotE’s tastes. The implication is that the governments need to step in and prevent the land sales so that Africa can retain its independence.

There are major flaws with this argument:

  • If the governments own the land, then they’re the ones selling the land already, so asking them to do otherwise is pointless.
  • If the land is privately owned, the government would have to arbitrarily void a private contract. Does FotE advocate this? Not outright, but the implication is there.
  • “African independence” = “FotE helps Africa figure out its priorities”. This sounds an awful lot like a stipulation ala Washington Consensus, which is basically market liberalization + democracy. Hence why it hasn’t worked.

All this makes it sound like NGOs are more concerned with taking Africa back to good ol’ days so it looks even less colonial than it does now. Here’s a general history of Africa circa 1950-1980:

After the independence of most African countries during the 1960s, newly formed African regimes assumed they could not easily claim a great victory over the Europeans if they continued to use the same system that those oppressors had designed, namely capitalism, since all imperial regimes had been mainly capitalist, even if their adherence to free markets was not absolute. Socialism was popular among African leaders because it represented a break from the imperial ruling tradition. Socialism seemed, to many, to be all that capitalism was not.

(I’m reminded of a man who knocked on my door during election season here in Emeryville last year, asking if I’d support a measure to block a private land transfer downtown. The land in question is where they’ll double the size of the only decent shopping center in the east bay north of Milpitas. I asked him why he thought I had the power to block a private contract, and he couldn’t answer me. I think he said something about “community”. If he’s worried about community, he should ask the kids who go to Bay Street, who based on my scientific measurements are roughly 158% of the Emeryville black population. I mention this because it’s another case where a white elite class thinks it has the answers for a struggling urban population, when it’s actually just going to make things worse.)

So people are concerned about Africa and its use of land. These people are mostly NGOs that receive donations for caring about stuff like that. I’ve transcribed the Africa Today podcast myself, so it might be slightly wrong. I recommend hearing the podcast yourself, which aired August 31, 2010:

Reporter: Is there a risk that biofuel crops may squeeze food crops off African farmlands? A new report by environmental group Friends of the Earth says it’s concerned by the amount of African farmland being used to grow biofuels. Plants like sugar cane, soybeans, — which can be processed to produce ethanol, a substitute for oil. Adrian Bebe is a campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

Adrian: Well what our research shows is that a huge area of land is being taken very quickly by mainly European companies to grow crops for biofuels, which are mainly used for export to Europe, and I think we raise many questions about whether this is in the interest of African communities, if it is going to help their development, if it is going to help them become more food-secure in the future.

Fortunately there’s a man in Ghana who shares my sentiment and casts doubt on the notion that the government should step in and void a private land transfer the way FotE would like:

Reporter: Is this another land grab in Africa?

Watang: I appreciate the work done by Adrian Bebe, I think it’s a very good thing they are doing. Trying to help Africa protect its land and itself. But I don’t think that is the case in Ghana. You know, land in Ghana is not owned by the government. So maybe an occasional land owner… a chief or elder who sells some land to a foreign company; that is not under the control of the government. But basically, nobody can get a vast tract of land in Ghana to produce bio-fuels for export. I don’t think the government itself will create that, but it may happen on a very small scale, but by and large, what we are seeing in Ghana is that we need bio-fuels for ourselves, and not to power foreign machines.

Reporter: You might be able to explain to us- We do know that there are tracts of land in the northern regions of Ghana that companies have gotten to [bio-fuels] for farming. What do you know? Can you tell us how they might need to access these lands?

Watang: I’m sure they might acquire the lands from local chiefs, and local family or clan elders, by setting off from the government. I don’t think the government will support large-scale production of bio-fuels for exports, no.

I gather from what Watang says that he and other intelligent farmers aren’t concerned about what Friends of the Earth think of Ghana. Apparently they know what they’re doing. Will that stop Friends of the Earth from being concerned? Probably not.  To FotE and do-good NGOs, Ghana and other African countries are now its clients, and these NGOs end up acting surprisingly like a previous service provider in Africa, one also opposed to private contracts.

Note that the Ghanaian government seems to be figuring it out without them. Here’s another African example of actual independence that world leaders and NGOs still can’t understand.

Written by xout

September 3, 2010 at 10:57 pm