Saturday, November 30, 2019

Hunger and Africa

Capitalism is inflicted by interrelated crises that all appear to threaten the survival of the humanity or at least its civilisation. Solutions which would interfere with the basic economics of capitalism, however, are never considered. Decision-makers prefer to deal with these problems with ceaseless international conferences and never-ending research studies.  But for people who want a future free from exploitation and environmental destruction, a socialist understanding is vital. It is important to analyze carefully and thoroughly the working of capitalism.

 We have all seen the media images of emaciated Africans crowded together in emergency feeding camps. The sad truth is that world hunger is worsening. In some cases aid is exacerbating the situation by focusing on relief instead off meeting the underlying economic. social. and political causes head on. The cause is not over-population. It is not caused by too many people. Africa is not densely populated. Ever since the slave trade ripped millions of Africans from their home many areas have suffered from not having enough people to develop Africa's abundant natural resources. It is true that Africa's population growth rate is higher than any other continent. But having large families is a logical response to the conditions under which most Africans live. On the small family farms that produce most of Africa's food, the most important factor of production is family labour. The high birth rate is a response by parents to this need for farm labour. Even so there is great progress in falling fertility rates as women become increasingly educated and empowered. The surest way to lower birth rates is by raising living standards. The problem is not too many people, it is too much inequality.

 When European colonized Africa, they disrupted traditional farming and herding methods that for centuries local people had adapted to environmental conditions. Balanced food production systems were undermined: the best agricultural lands were seized for growing coffee, sugar cane. cocoa. and other export crops that would benefit the corporations. Private and government investment went into developing these cash crops. while food production for the poor majority was neglected. Colonial cash cropping exhausted the soil and increased desertification. Millions of acres of brush and trees were cleared, robbing the soil of organic replenishment. Export crops such as cotton. peanuts, and tobacco absorbed large amounts of nutrients from the soil. After every harvest the soil was left depleted. Seizing the best arable land impoverished the peasants, forcing many to either work on the plantations or crowd into the cities seeking employment. This gave the plantations and other commercial interests a large labour force that could be paid low wages, thus ensuring high profits.  The small farmer is victimized by private speculators. Traders buy up the food crop at harvest time when plentiful supplies push down. prices. Later in the year during what they call the "hungry" season, small farmers run out of savings and are forced to borrow at usurious interest rates from local merchants just to survive until the next harvest

 The majority of remaining arable land in the world is in SubSaharan Africa. Much of Africa's potentially arable land is not under cultivation. Studies show that even with current low levels of farm technology, Africa could support a population vastly greater than its present population. To lay all the blame on African peasants is to imply that they alone control their destinies. The forces that have institutionalized hunger in Africa are made up of the ruling African elite, the multinational corporations assisted by global banks. Together their interests are very different from those of Africa's rural majority. The peasantry are too dispersed, poor, and unorganized to wield much political clout. The fact that policy is dominated by men, while most food is produced by women, also helps explain the low priority given to indigenous farming. Only when the majority gain control of their resources will we see an end to the systematic pillaging and looting of Africa’s wealth.

Most people fail to realize that the capitalist world market is Africa's worst enemy. Most African countries are dependent on exporting minerals and agricultural products. World market prices for these raw materials are set in foreign capitals. While the prices of imports tend to climb upwards.African nations are forced to spend more than they earn so they have to fill the gap by borrowing. The indebtedness of reaches crisis proportions. The global banking and financial system is a greater cause of hunger in Africa than any drought or flood. Markets allocate food according to monetary wealth, not nutritional need. Food aid, at best, merely alleviates the symptoms of poverty, not its causes. International aid can undermine local food production by flooding local markets and depressing food prices. It can also create dependencies on foreign aid or be used by recipient governments to manipulate the poor. Most people's attention has been focused on giving food aid yet is only a short-term palliative. It does nothing to solve the underlying problem of poverty and so charities and NGOs perpetuate the inequality, presenting widespread misunderstanding rather than confront the real causes of hunger. We need to educate ourselves about the real causes of poverty.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Enset - "the tree against hunger"

Described as "a banana on steroids", enset may be the superfood you've never heard of, let alone tasted, but scientists say it could be a lifesaver for a warming world. Enset has also been dubbed "the tree against hunger". 

The plant, which grows up to 10 metres (39 feet), is a staple for 20 million people in the Ethiopian highlands who turn it into bread and porridge, construction materials, packaging, cattle feed, and medicine. Although a close relative of the banana, enset's orange fruit is full of bullet-like seeds and inedible. Instead, starchy tissue from the trunk and giant underground corm - the bulbs can weigh up to 100kg (220 pounds) - is turned into a pulp and buried in a pit to ferment before being made into a chewy flatbread called "kocho".
"People are saying this is a new wonder crop," said James Borrell, a scientist at London's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which is researching the plant's potential. "It's amazingly resilient. It's said to be very drought tolerant and we're trying to test that." 
Borrell said the plant was a "really exciting part of the mix" for food security under climate change because it grows in a huge range of conditions - "from baking to foggy and freezing cold" - and can be harvested any time. This means it could provide back-up in case of seasonal gaps in other crops, pest infestations, disease or erratic weather. "It's like an insurance policy," he said. "In a lot of the world, you can have enough food for 50 weeks of the year, but imagine you had none for two. That's still a massive problem." Planting enset as a buffer crop for lean times could reduce the potential for conflict and avoid the need for aid, he added.
Although enset grows wild from Ethiopia down to South Africa, it has only been domesticated in the Ethiopian highlands
Yeshak Fantu, who runs an Ethiopian restaurant in London, described kocho as "the fish and chips" of his home region and said enset had helped stave off hunger during drought.

DRC - once again

The DRC is not new to deadly attacks by armed groups. The country has also suffered through years of war and been ravaged by disease. The attacks in North Kivu have also forced about 25,000 refugees to flee to neighbouring Uganda from the DRC this year alone. Uganda hosts more than 345,000 Congolese refugees. An estimated 160 rebel groups with a total of more than 20,000 fighters that kill or abduct civilians are still active in North Kivu. The motives of the various armed groups are not always clear, although it is believed they are mostly over control of land or minerals such as gold and cobalt.
Angered by the failure of security forces to stop the attack that killed eight people, they quickly stormed the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC - MONUSCO - to protest their "failure to act".
The protest snowballed into a deadly confrontation, first with government forces who tried to disperse them and later with UN forces who tried to prevent irate demonstrators from breaking into the facility, which they attacked and damaged.
"The use of excessive force on protesters is an unacceptable infringement to international human rights law and standards. It is even more unacceptable coming from UN peacekeepers," said Jean-Mobert Senga, Amnesty International's DRC researcher.
"People cannot continue to die at the hands of both the rebels and the security forces supposed to protect them and maintain order in line with international human rights standards," Senga told Al Jazeera.
The protesters have continued to vent their frustrations against UN forces in Beni and elsewhere despite a curfew in North Kivu.
On Wednesday, at least 19 people were killed in another rebel attack in the region. It took place after fighters belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) went into a village near Oicha, about 30km (14 miles) from Beni. No group claimed responsibility for the latest raid on Beni but residents fear the attackers were from the ADF, a feared armed group that operates in DRC and neighbouring Uganda. Beni has repeatedly suffered ADF raids, forcing thousands to flee.
"Eastern DR Congo, particularly North Kivu, has deteriorated into the extreme-risk category of our subnational terrorism intensity index since 2018-Q1, a trend we expect to continue into 2020 - without severe intervention from a more developed security force," Elis said.
According to Advocacy group Friends of the Congo: "Both the Congolese security forces and the United Nations have harmed protesters. This provides insight into the sentiment felt by people in the region - that they are alone and that they have to be on guard against even those entities whose job it is to protect the civilian population.
With an annual budget of more than one billion dollars, MONUSCO is one of the largest peacekeeping missions in the world and has operated in DRC since 1999. The UN has deployed more than 18,000 troops, mostly in the northeastern region of the country. The "blue helmets" are comprised of more than 16,500 military personnel and observers, 1,300 police, and at least 4,000 civilians
The attacks on their facilities have forced UN peacekeepers to redeploy to other locations. The troops have struggled to maintain control of the vast mineral-rich region, having confrontations with different armed groups since they arrived two decades ago.
"Civilians in Beni are frustrated, and rightly so. MONUSCO is stretched, its funding has been successively cut at each mandate renewal, and we expect its troop contingent to drop again by at least 1,500 at next month's re-scoping of the mission," said Indigo Ellis, head of Africa Research at global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
"Successive cuts have severely curtailed MONUSCO's ability to meaningfully curb attacks in the eastern provinces. These protests will likely reignite debates about the utility of the 20-year-old UN mission, which have preoccupied the [UN] Security Council for the past couple of years," Elis told Al Jazeera.
The ADF began as an armed group opposed to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. It moved into eastern DRC in 1995 and appears to have halted attacks inside Uganda.
In the DRC, the ADF expanded by recruiting people of different nationalities. Local civil society groups have accused the ADF of carrying out attacks that claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people as well as 800 kidnappings over the past five years.
The armed group killed more than 60 people in Beni over the past 10 days, according to research group Kivu Security Tracker.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group has claimed responsibility for some of their attacks, however, ADF's relationship with ISIL remains unclear.

Zimbabwe's Pain

Zimbabwe is “on the brink of man-made starvation”, the UN has warned, with nearly millions of people facing food insecurity and nine in 10 babies and toddlers not getting enough to eat.

Infants are also suffering malnutrition because breastfeeding mothers cannot find enough food, officials said.

“School drop-outs, early marriage, domestic violence, prostitution and sexual exploitation are on the rise throughout” the country as women and even children resort to “coping mechanisms that violate their most fundamental human rights”, said Hilal Elver, a UN special rapporteur. She added: “The majority of the children I met were stunted and underweight. More than 60 per cent of the population of a country once seen as the breadbasket of Africa is now considered food-insecure, with most households unable to obtain enough food to meet basic needs due to hyperinflation.”

With inflation currently at about 490 per cent people sometimes cannot buy food even if it is available, Ms Elver found.
Hundred of thousands of people in urban areas also lack access to safe water, the investigator said
The special rapporteur also called on the international community to end economic sanctions on Zimbabwe – something president Emmerson Mnangagwa has also advocated.
“Sanctions ... have hampered every single sector of our economy,” he tweeted last month. “The claim they are targeted is simply not true when banks and entire sectors are cut off from funding. The average Zimbabwean pays the heaviest price.”

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Sudan's Militia Leader and his Gold

In a speech to cheering troops, militia chief Mohamed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo sympathised with the thousands of protesters who had poured onto the streets in December demanding food, fuel and an end to corruption. He hit out at officials “who take what isn’t theirs.”
“There are some people who are doing great harm, and they are the officials, not the poor,” he raged.
Now a Reuters investigation has found that even as Hemedti was accusing Bashir’s people of enriching themselves at the public’s expense, a company that Hemedti’s family owns was flying gold bars worth millions of dollars to Dubai.
Current and former government officials and gold industry sources said that in 2018 as Sudan’s economy was imploding, Bashir gave Hemedti free rein to sell Sudan’s most valuable natural resource through this family firm, Algunade. At times Algunade bypassed central bank controls over gold exports, at others it sold to the central bank for a preferential rate, half a dozen sources said. 
Airway bills and invoices, reviewed by Reuters, give a rare glimpse into Algunade’s dealings - a closely-guarded secret in a country where two thirds of the population live in poverty. The documents, covering a four-week period from the end of last year, show Algunade sent around $30 million of gold bars to Dubai, around a ton in weight.
In the past, Hemedti has spoken openly about owning gold interests, most recently in an interview with the BBC in August. “I’m not the first man to have gold mines. It’s true, we have gold mines, and there’s nothing preventing us from working in gold,” he said then.
But in response to Reuters’ questions for this article, Hemedti’s office denied any link between the commander and Algunade.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Financial wizards? The IMF and World Bank in Africa

In the 1990s when, under the cunning guidance of the IMF and the World Bank the Ghanaian people were literally being strangled by the Economic Recovery Programme of the Structural Adjustment Programme, the financial advisers to President Jerry Rawlings always managed to conjure figures and statistics which indicated that the economy was doing excellently well. These statistics not only earned Ghana the epithet “darling state” of the West but Rawlings himself was so glad with his economists that he bestowed upon the title of “financial wizards.” But the truth is that these accolades were for the purpose of damage control. Rawlings knew deep within his heart that his “wizards” were in reality great pretenders like himself as together they had been stashing away huge sums in foreign banks.
The history of the struggle for economic development in Africa and the forces dictating the pace thereof are not in the least different from the scenario that the West, Rawlings and the economic advisers enacted in Ghana.
Groping in the dark
Immediately African countries were pronounced independent by the colonial masters, the leaders rolled up their sleeves and set to the arduous task of nation-building. Although a few may have seemed to genuinely have the welfare of the masses at heart, many of these leaders and their ministers were deeply engaged in stomach politics. Be that as it may, these leaders, day in day out, saw the plight of the masses getting worse and worse.
A great number of African countries became independent in the sixties. This period also happened to be the peak of the so-called Cold War. The West and the East struggled to control these newly-independent nations to enhance their (West and East) own economic interests. The result was that these African countries found themselves in a kind of trial-and-error methods of trying to extricate themselves from growing poverty.
At first the state got involved in business by setting up marketing boards. These bought up cash crops from the farmers and exported them. The state thus acted as a middleman. The state also created development boards, authorities and corporations in the hope of making money to move their countries forward. In some extreme cases some governments resorted to outright nationalisation of private business. However all these efforts by no means arrested the downward trend in the living standards of the masses. They still paid dearly for imports and received peanuts for their exports.
To overcome this problem of high prices of imports, the policy of import substitution was introduced. By this, companies producing such imported commodities as milk, beverages, matches, canned foods, bottled drinks, etc were encouraged to come and establish factories and carry out production here in Africa. Many companies responded positively but the outcome of this policy was a deepening impoverishment of the masses. They served as cheap labour in these factories. In fact only a few could afford to furnish their families with the commodities they got involved in producing. African leaders were baffled as what tended to happen was that nothing happened. No wonder there were lots of attempts at and successful coups d’état during the sixties and seventies.
It was during this period of beating about the bush for economic direction that the IMF and the World Bank joined in the fray. They came along with a novel package that was going to miraculously propel African economies to the highest degree of development. This new policy was the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP). This SAP idea condemned the previous method of development as unworkable and maintained instead that making structural changes, including the expansion and re-orientation of production, was the only way forward. African nations were to put the production of “non-traditional exports” and tourism into a higher gear. 
Thus in a country like Ghana where the traditional exports were mainly cocoa, timber and gold, under the SAP crops like pepper, pineapples, yams, maize, and oranges were to be turned into cash crops and exported. SAP also stipulated that private capital was to be the “engine of growth” and that “governments have no business doing business”. It did not however take long for the people to understand that they were once again fooled by official policy. Hardship and suffering increased a thousandfold. The masses had been moved from the frying pan into the fire.
Today the SAP is still the invisible hand directing affairs at our finance ministries in the interests of the owners of the World Bank and the IMF and to the detriment of the masses of Africa. However this time around there is a formidable group of foot soldiers preparing the grounds for, facilitating implementation and soothing the pains of these anti-people policies. These are the NGOs. There are hordes of them in every African country. All the misinformation propagated in the form of catchy phrases and slogans by the IMF and WB are picked up unquestioningly by these NGOs and parroted all over the place. The NGOs assist governments in deceiving the people by embarking on projects which are either white elephants or never even take off the ground. Meanwhile the wealthy companies keep selling their obsolete equipment to Africa in the name of appropriate technology.
Socialists or capitalists?
On Thursday 23 August the BBC Focus On Africa programme broadcast the news that Jose Edouardo dos Santos of Angola had announced that he would not be standing for re-election in he next presidential elections. Interestingly the BBC referred to the man as a “former Marxist”. This reminded me of others like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and a host of them who were also said to be “Marxists” by which they meant “communists” or “socialists”. Of course the West and East tagged these people thus for obvious reasons-whereas the West saw the as “dangerous”, the East considered them “good boys”. But the truth is that none of these leaders who championed the struggle for independence actually understood the global system. At best they only had hazy and confused ideas of soviet-style “socialism” (state capitalism). And, sadly, the present crop of leaders are even more bankrupt and myopic than their predecessors. If so, who gave the precursors advice and who advises the current leaders?
On the attainment of independence many African countries still depended on the former colonial masters for advice and guidance. In fact this is true of most of the francophone nations. Others, like Gamel Nasser’s Egypt, Nkrumah’s Ghana and Sekou Toure’s Guinea were so radical (though not revolutionary) that they openly castigated the West and courted the friendship of the former USSR. But in reality they did not escape the domineering influence of the existing global economic system since the East also practised capitalism. The finance ministers and economic advisers thought there were differences between the West and East in their theories and strategies for development and that thinking was partly responsible for the trial-and-error methods of development the newly-independent countries adopted—they were just variations of the same rule of capital.
The situation is different is different today. There are thousands of “experts” working day and night in seemingly harmless institutions and commissions and advising governments on their economic policies. The IMF and WB are still the main determinants of the path African economies must chart. But in order to lend some credence to their nefarious activities, they keep creating, from behind the scenes, economic institutions which are outwardly African in nature. And even if the IMF and WB have no hands in the creation of some of such institutions, they still manage to control them by picking up some of their bills. These bodies serve as economic think-tanks and advisers to governments. Some of them even assist in soliciting loans for governments. These include: the Economic Commission for Africa; the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS); the African Development Bank (ADB); the Southern African Development Committee (SADEC); and the West African Monetary Institute. There are groups spearheaded by individuals like Adebayo Adedeji, Julius Nyerere and others. The experts in these institutions hold regular meetings not to seek genuine ways and means of salvaging the African masses but, pretenders as they are, to wine, dine and go home with per diems which are sometimes higher than the monthly salaries of employees in the high income category. They waste huge quantities of paper-producing volumes of reports which sit on shelves gathering dust. But even if these “experts” were genuinely engaged in helping, their efforts would always come to nothing.
The reason is that like their bosses in the IMF and World Bank, they are trying to reform a system which is inherently flawed. The system in operation in today’s world is profit oriented. Every idea put across and every step taken is to make profit not to satisfy human needs. Based on money, the belief is that without money nothing can work. Therefore governments are advised and sometimes coerced to take loans. The few with big money invest in our countries. Since investors are looking for profits the end result is that the human and material resources are mercilessly plundered.
But the truth is that production is carried out by people not money. Problems are solved by human beings, not money. The main problems Africans face are food, healthcare, shelter, education, clothes, and so on. These are produced by human labour acting on natural resources,. Africa has more than enough of these human and natural resources but because they system is based on money, these resources are accessible to only those who have money. These are a negligible minority who own all the means of production and distribution of wealth. But since they will use their wealth to produce only what will fetch them more money, they may produce what people do not need. For instance vast tracts of land are used to cultivate cash crops like tobacco, cashew, and cocoa for factories in the West yet what we need more here are maize, rice and other food crops. These latter are not very profitable so despite their importance, they are not produced. This is capitalism.
Any hope for Africa?
In the increasing problems facing Africans are a result of the economic arrangement in which every action is determined by money and profit, then the surest way of arresting the sorry situation is doing away with money. This is only possible on a global basis. The profit system is universal and so getting it off our backs requires the concerted efforts of the global working class not just in Africa, Asia or Europe. When the means of production and distribution of wealth pass from private ownership to collective ownership then the products will also be collectively shared. People will, in this higher and humane system of ownership, willingly contribute whatever efforts they are capable of providing since they know they can freely take from the produce how much they need. In this new social organisation money will have no place and all institutions and people related to money like markets, banks, credit cards, cheques, tickets, bills, accountants, cashiers, sales-girls, etc, etc will vanish. The people engaged here will be available to get involved in the real work of producing clothes, food, medicines, education, etc. This is socialism.
However, this civilised system of production relations can only materialise when the majority get to understand it and want it implemented. It is only then that Africa and the whole world will rid itself of pretenders posing as financial wizards.
Originally published 2015

Congo -- the mobile phone war

Although the peace accord of 2003 ended five years of war in other parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fighting has continued intermittently in the eastern Kivu region. The latest bout began on October 25, when the rebel forces of Laurent Nkunda resumed their offensive, accompanied by the usual atrocities against civilians, burning villages, and floods of starving refugees.
What is this war about?
Spillover from Rwanda?
At first sight, it looks like spillover from the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Rwanda. General Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and Christian fundamentalist, says he is protecting his people from the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that perpetrated the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and later fled over the border. He is backed by troops of the current Tutsi government of Rwanda, which the Interahamwe seeks to overthrow.
This version is a smokescreen. Nkunda has shown much less interest in pursuing the Interahamwe than in seizing control of Kivu’s rich mineral resources – partly on behalf of Rwandan business interests, partly perhaps for his own enrichment. He exploits the memory of genocide to mobilize the Tutsis in his support and win foreign sympathy, much as Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust for its purposes. Control over resources is also the main concern of the Congo government in Kinshasa and its armed forces.
The most valuable minerals in the Kivu region are two metallic ores called cassiterite and coltan. These contain substances whose special properties are ideally suited to various high-tech applications. Niobium alloys are used in jet and rocket engines because they remain stable at very high temperatures, while tantalum and tin oxide are used in making electronic circuitry for devices ranging from computers to DVD players and MRI scanners. In particular, the rapidly rising demand for mobile phones has pushed up the price of coltan, fuelling the fight to control and mine its deposits. So we could call the war in eastern Congo “the mobile phone war.”
On both sides, part of the proceeds from selling resources (through chains of middlemen) on the world market goes to finance military operations, which in turn secure access to the resources. This is an example of the war as business model, which arises in this case from the weakness of state institutions in Central Africa.    
A helpless giant
In the Congo it is especially difficult for the government to exercise sovereignty over “its” territory, which is roughly the area of Western Europe (2.34 million square km). The transportation and communications infrastructure is extremely underdeveloped; no road or rail link traverses the whole country from east to west. Under these conditions, it is quite impossible to defend borders with nine neighbours that stretch over 10,744 km.
Neighbouring states can therefore invade Congo territory whenever they like. No fewer than seven foreign armies fought in the “civil” war that began in 1998. In the background, the old colonial powers –  France, Belgium and Britain –  and two players newer to the region, the United States and China, jockey for position, assiduously promoting the interests of their corporations while carefully concealing how these corporations hire private armies and fuel the conflict. All these governments, armies and corporations are after the same things, the vast resources that lie on  –  and especially under  –  Congolese soil: various metals, diamonds, uranium, potash, timber, wildlife, oil and gas, etc. 
Then there are the “peacekeeping” forces of the United Nations, even though there is no peace to keep. The real reason for their deployment is, in fact, to protect the interests of French and other foreign capital. It is this that explains the apparently odd fact that most of the “peacekeepers” are kept well away from the areas affected by the current fighting. Those who do enter the combat zone make no effort to assist relief work or protect civilians, who vent their anger by yelling and throwing stones at the UN vehicles.    
Torn apart by rival predators, there is a striking parallel between today’s Congo and another “helpless giant” – China in the second half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. 
A curse not a blessing
In a different system of society, many resources in central Africa could be utilized for the purpose of ecologically sustainable development for the benefit of local communities. The natural products of the rainforest could be preserved and harvested for dietary and medicinal use. There is a vast potential for hydroelectricity and, of course, solar power.
But in a capitalist world Congo’s resources have been a curse not a blessing for the overwhelming majority of its people, bringing them invasion, enslavement, starvation, war and upheaval. European capital first descended on the country in 1885 in the horrific form of the Congo Free State, a corporate state controlled personally by King Leopold II of Belgium, who made money from it by exporting rubber collected under compulsion by the indigenous people. Those who failed to meet their quotas were mutilated; those who refused to work for the conquerors were killed.
This reign of terror, which would have done the Nazis proud, led to a population loss of some ten million (see Adam Hochschild’s book King Leopold’s Ghost). How many people must have wished that their country had no rubber!
In 1908 the Congo Free State gave way to the Belgian Congo, which gained formal independence in 1960. Mobutu’s kleptocracy followed in 1971 and lasted until 1997, when the recent period of upheaval began. Regimes come and go, but the ravenous extraction of resources by foreign corporations never stops.  
Originally published January 2009

Malawi: children of the tobacco fields

We all know that tobacco harms those who smoke it. Few are aware of the damage it does to those who pick and process it.
The “children’s organisation” Plan International recently issued a report about children in Malawi, some as young as five, who toil up to twelve hours in the tobacco fields for an average daily wage of 11p. (Hard Work, long hours and little pay).
The finding that has attracted most attention is that these children are being poisoned by the nicotine “juice” they absorb through the skin – and also ingest, as they have no chance to wash hands before eating. Many of the ailments that plague them, such as headaches, abdominal and chest pain, nausea, breathlessness, and dizziness, are symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness.
But much of their suffering has nothing to do with nicotine. All have blisters on their hands. All have pains – in the shoulders, neck, back, knees – caused by overexertion of their immature muscles. About a third of the children are coughing blood, which suggests TB.
Many of the children examined had been beaten, kicked or otherwise physically abused by estate owners or supervisors. Many of the girls had been raped by them. One boy had deep knee wounds as a result of being made to walk across a stony field on his knees as punishment for “laziness.”    
Who owns the estates?
Who are these estate owners?
Commercial tobacco farming in Malawi began late in the 19th century, when it was the British colony of Nyasaland. White settlers seized much of the best arable land for plantations of tea, coffee, tung trees (for their oil, used as a wood finisher) and (mostly) tobacco. Even today the majority of owners of large estates are descendants of the colonial settlers, although now there are also black owners.
In 1948 some tung and tobacco plantations (estates) were taken over by the Colonial Development Corporation, funded mainly by the British Treasury. After Malawi gained formal independence in 1964, these came under state ownership. Later they were reprivatised. Another recent change is the direct acquisition of some estates by international tobacco companies.
The estates were established on land stolen from traditional peasant communities. The process began in colonial times but continued even after independence, under the Banda regime. Land theft impoverishes local communities and compels those worst affected to offer themselves – or their children! – to the estate owners as wage slaves. Tobacco is also grown on many small family farms. Here too, children work and suck in nicotine juice, alongside their parents.
The tobacco cartel
Malawi’s tobacco market is dominated – through subsidiaries — by two international corporations, Universal Corporation and Alliance One International. These corporations operate a cartel, refusing to compete and colluding to keep tobacco purchase prices low. This in turn intensifies the pressure on farm owners to minimise costs by exploiting cheap or free child labour – a practice that the corporations hypocritically claim to oppose.
Representatives of the corporations sit on several committees that advise the government of Malawi on economic policy. By this means they ensure that their interests are served and block any initiatives to diversify the economy and reduce the country’s dependence on tobacco.
The main reason why child labour is so prevalent in Malawian agriculture is the poverty, and in particular the land hunger, of most of the rural population. This reflects not any absolute shortage of land but rather the highly skewed pattern of land ownership. Large tracts of land lie fallow on the big estates.
A pathetic contrast
How does Plan International propose to help the children on the tobacco farms?
Well, it will “educate farm owners and supervisors” and persuade them to provide the children with protective clothing. Taking the tobacco companies’ PR at face value, it will urge them to “scrutinise their suppliers more closely”. It will not, however, support a ban on children picking tobacco because that is “unrealistic” – as indeed it is if you refuse to challenge underlying social conditions.
But what a pathetic contrast such “realism” makes with Plan International’s “vision” of “a world in which all children realise their full potential in societies that respect people’s rights and dignity”!
Environmental degradation 
Besides ruining people’s health, tobacco degrades the environment. The tobacco monoculture that dominates much of Malawi depletes the soil of nutrients. It also causes extensive deforestation, as trees are felled to provide firewood for curing the tobacco leaves, and this in turn further erodes the soil. Water sources are contaminated. After over a century of tobacco cultivation, all these processes are already far advanced. (For fuller analysis, see the chapter by Geist, Otanez and Kapito in Andrew Millington and Wendy Jepson, eds. Land Change Science in the Tropics: Changing Agricultural Landscapes, Springer 2008.)
Tobacco in socialist society?
Will tobacco be grown in socialist society? On a small scale, possibly, by addicts for their own use. But it’s hard to imagine socialist society making planned provision, within the framework of democratic decision-making, for tobacco production. People aware of all the harm caused by tobacco will surely prefer to halt cultivation of this noxious weed. They will seek to restore soil fertility, reverse deforestation and enhance local food supply.
Even if, for the sake of argument, we suppose that the decision is made to continue producing tobacco, will it be implemented? Will the free people of socialist society, no longer spurred on by economic necessity, voluntarily poison themselves just to feed others’ addictions?
Originally published November 2009