By Linda Apollo
If the designs of global big money are not stopped in their tracks, Africa is threatened with environmental degradation and nutritional poverty. If we as Africans do not begin to think very deeply about what this is going to mean for what is left of us in terms of our livelihoods and ways of living, then the recent past will seem like a small piece of paradise.
Unlike our ancestors, who are often blamed opportunistically for the original conquest of Africa and the trade in enslaved Africans that came before it, this time around, there will be no excuses or debate. Africa now knows what colonial conquest is and what it does, in a way that our unfortunate ancestors could not.
The first factor is that capitalism is fast running out of things to destroy in order to make profits. The climate crisis is the best evidence of this. This has been a long-term trend, certainly since the 1960s.
Of the grand things and sectors left for capitalism to ravage, there is the production of food for the masses of people crowded into the towns and cities of the West, with no space, time or fundamental skills to produce it for themselves from scratch.
The global corporate food industry is based on one key assumption, that the human race, as it continues to grow in number, will become less and less able to independently produce food for itself. This is because of embedded assumptions about the inevitability of intensive urbanization, as well as time and lifestyle choices, themselves often culturally encouraged, if not imposed, by the same industry.
A lot of corporate interest and money has migrated into the corporate agriculture sector, globally. Global big money is now trying to colonize food production itself, in order to find new ways of keeping its money value. During the first three months of 2008, the year the global economic crisis intensified, international nominal prices of all major food commodities reached their highest levels for fifty years.
The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization- FAO reported that food price indices had risen, on average, by 8% in 2006 compared with the previous year. In 2007, the food index rose by 24% compared with 2006 and in the first three months of 2008, it rose by 53% compared with 2007.
As Africans, we need to be aware of, and arising from the first, is that African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination. Most of the world’s arable land is now found somewhere in Africa.
It is unclear if this is, it means arable land under usage, or also land that can be put to agricultural use (but might be located under a forest, or something, at present). Throughout the world, it is estimated that 445 million hectares of land are uncultivated and available for farming, compared with about 1.5 billion hectares already under cultivation. About 201 million hectares are in sub-Saharan Africa, 123 million in Latin America, and 52 million in eastern Europe.
Thirdly, arable land is only arable if it has fresh water near it. And it is only viable for corporate exploitation if it also has no people on it. Africa is therefore the prime target, with plenty of freshwaters, and very few real land rights.
The area of Africa between the Western and Eastern Rift Valleys running along the length of the Nile valley below the Sahel has been identified as the last open, near-virgin territories, ripe for intensive mechanized agricultural exploitation. That area’s human settlements have historically originated around the pattern of freshwater bodies.
Most of the present-day Uganda was once a wetland. As a result, the country will find itself located at the very epicentre of any such enterprises. Over the next three decades, the UN forecasts the global population to increase to about 10 billion.
How do you imagine farmland investments will benefit from an over 30% increase in mouths to feed? Good luck feeding two billion people with Bitcoin or gold nuggets. In this sense, colonialism was just the attempted start, with the former white settler farm economies of Kenya and southern Africa as the increasingly decrepit leftovers. The goal now is African land in general, wherever land can be turned over to large-scale and therefore mechanized, “sciencetized” and corporatized production of the commodities needed to make factory food.
All this speaks directly to the immediate future of the African people. Put bluntly, in order to put industrial agriculture in place here, there will have to be genocide, massive environmental damage, widespread human displacement, and therefore repression and conflict as the tools of implementation.
African land is going to be in demand in a way not seen even at the height of the period of European colonial domination. The Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) calls the bringing of the US agribusiness model to Africa “a grave mistake”. They describe the model as “the single largest cause of biodiversity loss worldwide,” that “also fails to solve hunger, negatively impacts small-scale farmers, and causes environmental harm.”
It is in this context that the debates in Uganda and Kenya, for example, about land use and policy, can then be appreciated. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has launched a political offensive against the Kingdom of Buganda, describing its neo-traditional land tenure system as “evil” and in desperate need of reform.
This should not come as a surprise to anyone. First of all, Mr. Museveni has firmly established himself as the pre-eminent fixer for imperialist ambitions in the Great Lakes Region. Whatever the owners of Western capital want here is what he will always try to deliver, no matter the collateral damage.
Secondly, whenever the Ugandan president hatches a plan targeting the wealth and resources of native Ugandans, he begins with an attack on Buganda. Not because there is anything more valuable there, but because it enables the ideological seduction of a useful section of Ugandan political society, Ugandan “patriotism” was built on the notion that native identities are a bad thing, and that the Buganda identity is the worst of all.
It worked in the process of marginalizing native voices in the independence movement and replacing them with smooth-talking “pan-Africanists”. It then worked again with the creation of the culture of dictatorship between 1966 and 1979.
Voices raised in opposition were easily dismissed as “divisive”, or retrograde. The mission now, was to build the new non-ethnic nation. More recently, it has been deployed again to justify global neo-liberal designs on African land, through dismissing native resistance to it as “backward” and “parochial”.
Once it has been politically established that the overriding of native objections to anything is an essential and desirable part of development, then the “principle” can be applied in practice, to all other parts of the country. Through its loyal and devoted client, the National Resistance Movement regime, Western capitalism is targeting all Ugandan land, regardless of which natives own it and under what system.
The same principle works differently in Kenya, but towards the same end. Initial white settler-based agriculture was never successful. Part of the story of Kenyan independence is the story of the Empire at headquarters becoming increasingly unwilling to deploy the economic, political and military resources needed to maintain a colony largely for the benefit of a small group of unproductive, self-regarding “middle-class sluts”, as one of the British commanding officers is alleged to have described the settlers.
What may be coming will be much grander in scale, out of both Western necessity and greed. Of the top ten foods listed as traded the most within global trade by the Just-Food Magazine website in 2014, (fish, soybean, wheat, palm oil, beef, soybean meal, corn, chicken meat, rice and coffee) there are five key items that drive the processed food industry: palm oil, wheat, soybean and corn.
It seems sugar cannot be accurately measured because it features in just about anything processed. In addition, meat production (chicken, beef and pork) is dependent on the others on the list. Cattle are fed on corn, and soybean (and the soybean meal) comprises part of what is fed to chicken. The scale of the operations means that huge sums of money are invested.
In today’s world, this means money from banks and institutional investors (hedge funds, etc.) as shareholders in agribusiness corporations. Poultry factories can contain up to forty thousand chickens permanently locked in cages for laying, or just warehouses of several thousand square feet.
In early 2020, some 20 million chickens were being slaughtered each week in the United Kingdom. Corn and other grain are usually planted on lots measuring thousands of hectares apiece. When investing on this scale, certain guarantees must be put in place.
These are not matters that are left to chance or fortune. And the primary purpose of all capitalists’ economic activity, especially in the West, is to obtain the biggest private return possible on any investment. And, usually in the shortest possible turnaround time. Therefore “insurance” measures are locked in from the start.
Chemical-based fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides and also increasingly, the use of genetically modified seeds and livestock, as well as steroids and antibiotics to promote rapid growth and prevent sicknesses.
In fact, through corruption, key individuals in a number of those regimes actively took advantage of the situation and joined the white families in becoming big landholders themselves.
The goal is huge, regular volumes of uniform products to be processed and marketed to huge, urbanized populations. The whole commercialization process begins in the West, where this industry is the most developed.
The European conquest of the continents of North and South America, also mark the period when food production migrated from being a community-based activity to an industry. This led to the clearance of human settlement from large areas of land, as well as the destruction of forests and wetlands, all to make way for the animal ranches and very big plantations.
This way of life is now being increasingly imposed on all societies, as the normal. The recent riots in the Republic of South Africa last year, for example, are an illustration of the dangers of becoming prisoners of a privately owned, mechanized food supply system, and also an attempted repudiation of it.
The rest of Africa is quickly “catching up” to this advanced backwardness, with the increasing rate of unplanned migration to urban centres due to the loss of opportunities in community-based agriculture.
Africans sought to ensure that they continue to produce their indigenous food crops to retain food sovereignty, while at the same time engaging in the new cash crop economy that was encroaching on their land and labour-power.
“Africa must start by treating agriculture as a business,” the president of African Development Bank, Dr. Akinwumi Adesina once said. “It must learn fast from experiences elsewhere, for example in southeast Asia, where agriculture has been the foundation for fast-paced economic growth, built on a strong food processing and agro-industrial manufacturing base.”
Our official planners suffer from a tragic tendency of conflating any activity involving money and machines, with “development”. The intention is to duplicate life as it is almost universally led in Western-style countries.
They think it will bring “industrialization”, and through that, jobs. There are four significant conflicts or budding conflicts on the continent right now, in which arable land for mechanization will increasingly become a factor.
These are in southern Ethiopia, Congo and the whole Sahel zone, anchored in Nigeria (and Sudan), and Kenya. If these developments are not challenged and stopped, Africa can look forward to environmental degradation and nutritional poverty. We will all become Africans in South Africa, and poor people in the West. Assuming the Western industrial system lasts much longer. And that the planet also does.