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Est. April 5, 2002
February 23, 2017 - Issue 687

Land Grabs
East Africa Continue
Hunger and Drought Persist


"The problem in the U.S., as in Kenya and
the rest of East Africa, is that the rich and
their corporations have taken over a large
proportion of the economy and the people
have little control over the main thrust of
the economy or politics.  This has been
going on over generations, but the current
situation is most serious, since, with Trump
at the helm, the billionaire class is securely
in control of the economy and the politics."

Every country in the world has its cross to bear: The U.S. has the Trump Administration and the possibility that it will bring the country to the brink of collapse, but there are many nations that are facing their own crises, such as Kenya and the rest of East Africa.

At first glance, it might seem that the two nations have separate and unconnected reasons for their very serious problems, but it’s worth another hard and long look. The Inter Press Service (IPS) reported this week that “at least one million children in Kenya are in dire need of food aid due to drought,” and that the number of people who are acutely food insecure has risen to 2.7 million, up from two million last month.

The extended drought in the region has put 11 million in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia “in urgent need of aid,” according to IPS, which went on to point out that 11,000 head of livestock of so many pastoral groups in the region are facing imminent death because of the lack of water and pasture. The Kenyan Drought Management Authority also warned that pastoral communities could lose up to 90 percent of their livestock by April.

That the situation is dire is an extreme understatement, because the effects of the disaster come down most heavily on the children. IPS reported the prevalence of “acute malnutrition” in four counties in northern Kenya. The nation’s Ministry of Health, told IPS that “at least 45 percent of deaths among children under five years of age is caused by nutrition related issues.” So goes the report by IPS of the situation: Drought, crop failure, untold percentages of families foraging for roots and other wild plants that may be toxic, to be able to fill the bellies of their children with something. Add to that the dirty water used to boil up the questionable brew that comes from rivers and streams that have dried up for lack of rain for so many years.

Although the IPS story reports on the lack of rain, loss of crops in consecutive years, failure of nations to plant the trees that would combat desertification, it does not mention the effects of land grabs of African lands by rich nations or their predatory corporations, in many cases, taking some of the most productive lands from farmers and pastoralists. It is not because they were not forewarned about the effects on the local environments of these land grabs, some of which involved 99-year leases for pennies per acre or hectare, or outright purchase of some of the best land in the countries.

In 2010, the Guardian newspaper, reported, “But Ethiopia is only one of 20 or more African countries where land is being bought or leased for intensive agriculture on an immense scale in what may be the greatest change of ownership since the colonial era. An Observer investigation estimates that up to 50m hectares (that’s more than 100 million acres) of land – an area more than double the size of the UK – has been acquired in the last few years or is in the process of being negotiated by governments and wealthy investors working with state subsidies. The data used was collected by Grain, the International Institute for Environment and Development, the International Land Coalition, ActionAid and other non-governmental groups. The land rush, which is still accelerating, has been triggered by the worldwide food shortages which followed the sharp oil price rises in 2008, growing water shortages and the European Union's insistence that 10 percent of all transport fuel must come from plant-based biofuels by 2015.”

So, because of the dwindling of water resources and productive agricultural farmland in European and Middle Eastern countries, they have turned their sights to places where there is little to no resistance to takeovers of vast amounts of land and, once again, those with the most money and power are able to work their will on indigenous, pastoral, and agricultural peoples, who may never know what was coming to them (banishment from their ancestral homelands), until they see the trucks and bulldozers and tractors and other construction equipment moving into their territories to take over and displace them. While some of them may be offered low-paying jobs producing thousands of tons of vegetables and fruit per week destined for the Middle East, Europe, or elsewhere, they lose their livelihood on the land and even their culture. The routine is that transnational corporations and governments make the deals with the heads of the weaker or poorer governments and the people are left to be surprised when they are ousted.

Just to make sure that the connection is clearly made, the US. experiences its own form of transfer of wealth, power, and resources, in the “free market” global trade. For example, China is facing a shortage of water of its own and, for now, the U.S. has a substantial supply of water (dwindling, but substantial) and, since it would be folly to try to ship water to China, the U.S. government’s “free market” policy is such that the water is sent to China or other countries by raising chickens, for example, and shipping them to China. Problem solved, but “free market” governments are simply putting off the ultimate catastrophe that running out of potable water will bring about.

The problem in the U.S., as in Kenya and the rest of East Africa, is that the rich and their corporations have taken over a large proportion of the economy and the people have little control over the main thrust of the economy or politics. This has been going on over generations, but the current situation is most serious, since, with Trump at the helm, the billionaire class is securely in control of the economy and the politics. Billionaires and the generals are running the government, and no outcome from Trump other than what is happening in Kenya and East Africa is to be expected. However, neither Trump nor any other president has had to come with a grand scheme for disposal of smallholder farms. Rather, over a long period of time, the so-called free market has worked its wonders and removed small farms from the picture, in favor of corporate farms that are factories, rather than integral parts of the communities where they exist. One only has to look at what happened to American black farmers in the 20th Century. They numbered about 920,000 at the beginning of the century and, by the 1970s were down to some 18,000 and had lost much of their land.

In 2010, Vandana Shiva, an Indian ecologist and champion of small farms and biodiversity, warned about large-scale industrial agriculture in developing countries. They require, she said, quantities of chemical pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, as well as intensive water use. The infrastructure that goes with it also sounds the death knell for indigenous communities, since there is the need for truck and rail transport, as well as storage, for the massive production. She called the foreign investors’ food production operations “mono-cultural plantations.” It has come to pass and it continues in places around the world. It happens that Africa has many nations in which the land is fertile and abundant and the leaders are open to “investment” by foreign powers, whether governmental or corporate.

The hunger and impending starvation that await the peoples of Kenya and the rest of East Africa could be mitigated, if not avoided, by infusions of assistance to the people who produce their own food on their own land, but who could use some aspects of modern technology to feed their own people and provide food exports to the nations that are buying up the land to take the food to lands far away. But the lure of cheap land and the theft of the peoples’ water is too much to resist. In many African countries, the long-term leases can be had for as little as 50 cents an acre, per year.

Overall, the problem is the burgeoning “global economy,” which can send money around the world in a heartbeat and, thus, buy individuals, community rights, cultural rights, and the right to land and water. Illegitimate it may be, but it is effective. The peoples of the affected countries have no money and no wealth to fight off the depredations of the powerful and they are left standing there, watching as greenhouses are constructed in some places that are as big as six football fields, inside of which hundreds of people will work to produce untold tons of food per day that will be sent abroad. And, the workers may not benefit at all. Many call it neo-colonialism and many say it is imperialism by any other name.

Whatever it is called, the people are suffering and on the verge of starvation and it is not just the natural disaster of drought and excessive heat caused by climate change, and it is hard to ignore the part that is played by the land grabs that are occurring with greater frequency.

Worst of all, the poorer countries can’t look to the “leader of the free world” for assistance of any kind, especially since Trump has declared that anything that he does puts “America First,” and the rest can just trail behind. The world fears that “America First” slogan of a billionaire president, who has surrounded himself with other billionaires, generals, and sycophants. The thin-skinned and racist chief executive spends his time keeping watch on the “free press” that he hates, rather than trying to solve the problems of real people in his own country, let alone help those in mortal danger in East Africa. He has surrounded himself in his administration with climate-change deniers, so it is not likely that he will acknowledge the dire threat of climate change and help his own citizens, let alone come to the assistance of Kenyans or other Africans.

If he were remotely aware of the destructive consequences of the land grabs, it’s likely that all he would say is: “Let the deal-making begin.” Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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