The Corporation

You need to read this book. This was the work on corporate power that was waiting to be written

Bakan has produced a crystal clear, systemic analysis of the corporation, illuminated by examples, from a 1930s big business coup plot against Roosevelt, to the contemporary morality tale of how the Body Shop lost its soul after it was floated on the stock market.

Brilliantly, Bakan avoids the mainstream media's mistake of concentrating on employees' personal morality, limited notions of consumer power, or on the view of Enron et al as 'bad apples' rather than part of a deeply destructive underlying system. Instead he goes right to the heart of the problem: the structure of the corporate charter means the company is legally obliged to maximize shareholder profits above all other considerations. Taking into account worker rights, the environment or the public good to the detriment of those profits is actually illegal. Bakan points out that in an individual, this behaviour would be psychopathic.

The Corporation argues that therefore corporate social responsibility can only ever be a limited solution; and concludes that it is better to re-regulate corporations, change their fundamental legal charters, and gain democratic control over them, than to petition them for a more benevolent tyranny. Joel Bakan's writing has not just humanity and keen intelligence, but the full weight of the legal profession behind it. The case for the prosecution has been made.

Katharine Ainger

FROM THIS MONTH'S EDITOR

‘PERHAPS you will be surprised to hear from me. But be assured that my intentions are most noble and honest and what I am offering you is a reputable business transaction.

‘I am the long lost daughter of General Sani Abacha of Nigeria / the exiled niece of President Mobutu of Zaire / the prodigal second cousin of Charles Taylor of Liberia / [insert other relative of a deposed African dictator here]. Before my father / uncle / second cousin / [insert putative relationship here] was toppled from office under tragic circumstances, he had concealed $31 million / $ 57 million / $100 million / [insert startlingly high figure here] in off-shore bank accounts.

‘I and my family are now in exile and we cannot access this money. We are prepared to offer half of this money to you, our reliable business partner. You must first provide us with your bank account details...’

If you have an email account, you’ve had one of these fraudulent messages purporting to be from a wealthy African family-member attempting to swindle you out of your ready money by appealing to your lower nature.

While I’ve been doing this magazine, I’ve received messages from the Kabilas, the Abachas, the Taylors and the Mobutus. The emails amuse me in their imaginative narrative range – and the delete button is always near.

It’s no coincidence, though, that the fantastically wealthy African family names the fraudsters use are those of dictators and warlords grown fat from the profits of oil, diamonds or timber exploitation at the expense of their impoverished populations. Most of these resources ended up as Western consumer goods.

Perhaps it is only justice that now African email fraudsters are attempting to rob us a little in return.

Katharine Ainger for the New Internationalist Co-operative [[email protected]](mailto:[email protected]?Subject=NI%20367%20magazine)

Experiments in democracy

‘ We dance and sing because we are joyful, this shows the whole community that we have peace in the Reflect circle... there has been division and conflict that spread among us like a sickness. We can’t go back to the way things were before. Our dances are a kind of preventative measure.’ *Marthe Bihari, a widow with eight children.*

Creating peaceful realities

Since 1997 ActionAid-Burundi has used a participatory adult-education approach called Reflect in the province of Ruyigi as a way of building trust between 3,000 Hutus and Tutsis (see photo, above). Reflect techniques, now used in 65 countries, start from the principle that literacy techniques alone don’t empower people. A parallel process, based on people-centred grassroots development, is as important as learning numbers and words. Based on the work of Paulo Freire (see article), Reflect sees ‘conscientization’ – in which learners build their own picture of the world – as key. The learners need to gain distance from their everyday lives so that they can see their situation in a new way, identify underlying causes of oppression and conflict in their environments; and, with a new self-constructed view of their reality, take action to change it. This is what has been happening in Ruyigi, where communities have become linked in solidarity as ‘poor people’ opposed to the political instability in the region, rather than divided as Hutu or Tutsi.

Reflect encourages participants to produce their own materials. In Ruyigi they use discussion and graphics to identify obstacles to peace, including petty conflict and mistrust, and they openly discuss the 1994 massacres in Rwanda. Through participatory methods that ensure people get their voices heard, these communities have begun to share and understand experiences from both a Hutu and a Tutsi perspective. ‘It is important that we have learned to read and write,’ says Juvenal Ndikumagerge, a member of one of the 84 Reflect groups in a province still marked by ‘rumours’ against different ethnic communities which helped spread the violence in the past. ‘We have written letters to some of our community who are still in Tanzania encouraging them to come back home.’

Ejo, a community peace-building newsletter, emerged from the Reflect circles in Burundi. Participants write articles for the paper – read by 40,000 people – giving personal accounts of their efforts to rebuild life after conflict and the challenges they are now facing. Education, as seen by Reflect, involves a number of dialectical processes. Action is followed by reflection and the latter by a new action; previous knowledge is woven into new communication practices; past experiences are not diminished but give form to new ways of understanding the world. Ejo in the Kirundi language means both ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’.

The International Reflect Circle (CIRAC) that this project is a part of is the recipient of the UNESCO International Literacy Prize 2003.

www.reflect-action.org/

Choices, choices

In the mid-1990s people from Bristol in England carried out a three-year participatory democratic project called ‘Choices for Bristol’. The Choices method is a way of releasing the combined knowledge and initiative of the community to describe and collectively implement an improved future.

‘A discussion guide to provoke ideas was published in the local evening paper,’ says Candida Weston, a project initiator. ‘Citizens took this guide and talked with their families and neighbours about how we could make the city better.’ Each of those ideas was presented to vision workshops led by facilitators and consolidated into goals by interested groups. The goals were clustered under six vision statements and action groups formed to realize them.

‘Choices for Bristol’ was inspired by the city of Chattanooga, Tennessee, where 37 of the 40 goals set during the original exercise had been achieved or seen substantial progress 10 years on. The Russian cities of Gatchina and Luga near St Petersburg have also successfully used the method. In Bristol, some local councillors looked at the newly participatory activity as a threat. Weston explains: ‘We became a thorn in the side because we were asking questions in a way that had never been asked.’ Finally the authorities addressed the demand for more accountability by launching Bristol’s first ‘Democracy Plan’. This was largely a cosmetic answer to the questions flourishing in the neighbourhoods – and some Choices organizers were told they would never get jobs in the council should they apply!

But, despite these problems, there is now more participation in the city. Bristolians have had the chance to vote on citywide education in the first local referendum held in Britain – while the Citizens’ Panel, a network of 2,000 residents, gathers every three months and answers a long questionnaire about current issues. ‘This is not participation but consultation,’ warns Weston. ‘Nevertheless, it is the local authority asking for feedback, which is a great step forward.’

www.neweconomics.org/gen/participation_top.aspx

The co-op that became a giant

‘Those who choose to make history and change the course of events themselves have an advantage over those who decide to wait passively for change.’ These are the words of priest José María Arizmendiarrieta, founder of what is today the Mondragón Corporación Cooperativa (MCC), a large network of co-ops which was born in the rubble of post-Civil War Spain.

In the 1940s and 1950s a co-op culture flourished in the Basque Country. The new Working People’s Bank financed these grassroots entrepreneurs whose aim was to encourage solidarity and equality rather than to maximize profits. The growing community of co-ops – named Mondragón in the 1980s – provide services to one another. Members can train in a Mondragón college where skills of consensus and co-operation are taught and all workers learn management skills. Business plans for new co-ops are still funded by the ‘People’s Bank’: not only must they be economically viable but they must also pass an environmental-impact assessment and prove their co-op credentials.

Globalization has hit Mondragón, which struggles to preserve its original character and has made a series of compromises with the marketplace: the one-to-three pay-differential between workers and managers has been ‘updated’ to reach ‘realistic market levels’. But its accomplishments cannot be disregarded: in a region hit by high unemployment (25 per cent in 1994), Mondragón has succeeded in hiring more employees every year without setting the co-op principles aside: it has a considerably smaller gap between the wages of its managers and its workers than almost any other non-co-op corporation; 10 per cent of profits must be donated to social causes. Today, Mondragón, the co-operative of co-operatives, employs over 60,000 workers (half of them are members) and is the seventh-biggest company in Spain. With profits of roughly $425 million, it produces everything from car parts to fridges. And, in theory at least, democratic power remains in its General Assembly, where every member has one vote.

www.mondragon.mcc.es/

Contagious ‘consultas’

It started with the Zapatistas. In 1995 they carried out a popular referendum – or consulta – to begin a dialogue between indigenous Zapatista rebels and civil society. The seed was sown – and it spread. Many other consultas populares sprang up in almost every country in Latin America. In Brazil in 2002 more than 10 million voted across the country to oppose the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA); with a continent-wide consulta on the treaty now under way. Self-organized and decidedly nongovernmental, these consultas populares invite people to give their opinion on a particular issue. Volunteers travel round the country conducting popular awareness-raising sessions. Just as in state-run elections, people vote via ballot boxes in public places, but are asked core, not superficial questions. These referenda may not lead to new laws but they raise consciousness about problems that are normally only dealt with by a bunch of officials in closed meetings. The effects of this kind of wider participation can be profound. In mid-December 2001, more than two-and-a-half million Argentineans voted on every street corner to push a bill for unemployment benefits to alleviate poverty. More people voted in this ballot than voted for the Peronista party that had won parliamentary elections two months earlier. Three days after the referendum, empowered Argentineans spontaneously took to the streets banging pots and pans, filled the main square of Buenos Aires and overthrew the Government.

The referenda are not without their limitations. But one thing is certain: social consultas are reinventing the worn-out routine of voting, giving it new meaning by mere virtue of the fact that they don’t present false dilemmas such as: ‘Bush or Gore?’, ‘Menem or De la Rúa?’ or ‘Do you want this or that unknown MP?’. Instead they ask questions about global issues and subjects that affect everyday life.

movimientos.org
www.noalca.org
www.jubileubrasil.org.br/

Citizen juries

Difficult policy decisions are usually left up to politicians and experts. But there is no reason why members of the public, given a variety of balanced briefings on complex information and time to deliberate, shouldn’t perform just as well or better – and with far more legitimacy.

For example, genetic engineering seems the ultimate realm where non-specialists, whatever their opinion, must defer to white-coated experts. This makes the verdicts now being reached in citizen juries on GM crops all the more remarkable. During the last two years there have been citizen juries held in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, two of India’s largest states, two in the states of Ceara and Pará, Brazil, and one in Zimbabwe. Although the juries were often charged with looking at wider agricultural development issues than just GM, a sophisticated critique of biotechnology emerged out of each of them.

No other institution of government rivals the jury in placing power so directly in the hands of citizens, or wagers more on the truth of democracy’s core claim that the people make their own best governors.

In citizen juries a panel made up of non-specialists meets for a total of 30 to 50 hours to examine carefully an issue of public significance – from health policy to GM foods. The jury, made up of between 12 and 20 people, serves as a microcosm of the public. Jurors hear from a variety of specialist witnesses and are usually able to discuss as broad or narrow a range of issues as they see fit. They are given time to reflect, the opportunity to interrogate expert witnesses, and are expected to develop a set of conclusions or ‘visions’ for the future – which need not be unanimous.

Because their decisions are informed and reached after extensive deliberation, their conclusions are arguably of greater validity than polls or focus groups. The whole process is overseen by an advisory group of relevant stakeholders on all sides of the debate who play a crucial role in ensuring the trial is fair. This helps to avoid the process being used as a ‘show trial’ that allows those in power to avoid truly being held accountable.

They are not a stand-alone solution but a contribution to a wider process of community self-analysis and democratic renewal.

Tom Wakeford To learn how to run your own citizens jury, contact the Do-It-Yourself Jury Project at www.citizensjury.org

Worth reading

On systems theory, networks and democracy:

General on power:

On participation:

Against the misery of power, the politics of happiness

There was no-one in charge.

It was totally spontaneous, utterly unexpected.

Small fingers flew unerringly over the buttons of mobile phones; emails and instant messages pinged their arrival on to thousands of computer screens; overheated photocopying machines spat out hundreds of hand-drawn posters; playgrounds buzzed with speculation, anger, gossip, fear, plans.

And when Tony Blair finally took Britain to war against Iraq, over 10,000 schoolkids walked out of their classrooms and on to the streets in protest. They climbed the railings in Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s official residence. They stopped a train in Cumbria. They barricaded army recruitment stalls. The girls tied up their school blouses in non-regulation knots and wrote ‘No War!’ on each others’ tummies. What had been characterized as the most apathetic, apolitical generation yet were responsible for the biggest children’s protest in British history.

And that was only counting those who made it beyond the school gates, as Aisling, 13 explained: ‘Our teachers threatened to suspend or expel us if we protested, and they locked us inside the school gates, so we nearly started a riot outside the headmistress’s office! We were shouting things like “Who let the bombs out? Bush, Bush and Blair!” Aren’t we entitled to express our opinions as well as adults?’

Teenagers’ internet chat rooms buzzed with online commentary. Thirteen-year-old Laura from Southampton received a succinct lesson in the workings of democracy: ‘I asked my head [if we could protest], but she supports war (grrrrr!), so I said: “Is it only your opinion that counts?” and she said, “Yes”!’

Many of the organizers, like 15-year-old Elena, were suspended from school. When she went to the High Court to demand the right to sit her exams the judge found in her favour, but not before informing her that she was ‘a very silly little girl’.

Silly children

It was not just those most disenfranchised members of our society, the children, who were patronized, humoured and ignored. Theirs is merely a magnification of our own powerlessness. All of us who object to the powerful are reduced to silly little girls and boys, told to go home and not interfere with things we don’t understand.

For we live in an era in which the prevailing political ideology of the powerful is a predictable mixture of economic and military domination over the rest of us.

Political decision-making is reduced to a series of technocratic management problems, unrelated to our everyday experiences and problems. As a result we retreat into our private realms. Our political constituency stops at our doorstep.

Significantly, the global gathering of business and political élites at the 2003 World Economic Forum chose the theme ‘Rebuilding Trust’, for which they had conducted a vast global survey with results statistically representing 1.4 billion people. Around the world, two-thirds of those surveyed disagreed that their country is ‘governed by the will of the people’, while corporations ranked next to national legislative bodies right at the bottom of the trust ratings.

But when politicians and pundits lament that the public has no interest in politics, they are wrong. What they are really lamenting is that the public has no interest in them – not in their parties, their pontificating, or their powermongering. For whichever way we vote, it seems like they always end up winning.

The death of politics

From which direction, then, can a true opposition emerge? For an opposing ideology around which resistance can mobilize seems today to be non-existent. Gone are the grand narratives that fuelled the revolutions of the past – the Enlightenment values of equality, liberty and the ‘rights of man’ of the French and American revolutions; the Marxism of the Russian Revolution; the Maoism of the Chinese Revolution; the Third Worldism and nationalism that fuelled the independence movements of former colonies. Where their legacy remains, as in China, it seems only to reinforce the redundancy and moral bankruptcy of alternatives to capitalism.

Worse, the vacuum left by the death of an alternative ideology is being filled by religious fundamentalism and racism. This is happening across the world, from India to Iran, Palestine to Sudan, Europe to Australia. In a recent survey of university students in India, Hitler was rated the third greatest leader in history, after Gandhi and their current Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Vajpayee. Many in the Middle East, Africa and Asia are turning to authoritarian Islamism as the only hope for a true opposition. Populists and opportunists in Europe and Australia have gained political power by fanning the flames of racist anti-immigrant feeling.

We are in desperate need of a new politics

The irony for nationalists is that the nation-state is less able to deliver than ever. Where radical governments espousing the cause of social and environmental justice have been voted in at the national level, globalization has severely limited their ability to change anything. One-time currency speculator George Soros explained the role of the financial markets in preventing the implementation of left-wing policies to outraged Brazilians: ‘In the Roman Empire, only the Romans voted. In modern global capitalism, only the Americans vote. Not the Brazilians.’ They went ahead and voted in the left-wing President Lula anyway. But if they weren’t listening to Soros, Lula certainly was. So far his policies have differed little from his right-wing predecessor, because Brazil, racked by an acute financial crisis, is tied by its $260-billion foreign debt. Lula’s pledge to repay in full this vast sum and his acceptance of an unprecedented $30-billion IMF bailout loan package, including all its conditions, means that whoever is in charge, international finance dictates the Brazilian Government’s policy.

In this context, the old Left strategy of building a party and winning political victory at the national level in order to usher in a top-down reordering of the state seems less feasible than ever.

We are in desperate need of a new politics.

Authority or power

The will to power... far from being a characteristic of the strong, is, like envy and greed, among the vices of the weak. – *Hannah Arendt*

The word ‘power’ has one of the longest definitions in the English dictionary.

It is derived from the old French root poeir – the modern version of which, pouvoir, means to be able. Power is always in relationship to something or someone else. The dictionary definition concentrates almost entirely on authority and its various permutations, whether vested in the state, religion or other ruling figure.

But there is another kind of power which the dictionary almost entirely neglects, for it is largely invisible, unremarked, unnoticed – yet it is everywhere. If the power to dominate is the ability to exercise ‘power over’, then what we are interested in might be categorized as ‘power to’. In development circles this has been better known as ‘empowerment’, yet empowerment suggests that someone – usually the development agency – is giving power to the oppressed or powerless. But power cannot be given – it can only be taken. ‘Power to’ is the ability to act for oneself, the ability to create rather than to coerce. It is social power, experienced in relationship with others.

The great lie in our society is that ‘power over’ is the route to fulfilment. Airports are stacked with books such as The 48 Laws of Power, which with amoral cunning teaches businesspeople how to lie, manipulate, flatter and backstab their way to the top. There is only one real route out of powerlessness, we are told, and that is to beat the others and do all we can to join the powerful élite. For many with the least power in the poorest neighbourhoods, the fastest route to power involves gun ownership and crime. But it also applies to those saving up to send their children to top, fee-paying schools. Since very few of us can actually join that power élite, many lives are blighted with the stress of competing and an abiding sense of failure. Yet by and large that élite is filled not with the brightest and best, but with the least scrupulous and the most privileged.

By contrast, ‘power to’ offers an attractive, abiding route out of powerlessness that everybody can use. Native American poet and activist John Trudell explains it like this: ‘Authority is not power. Authority is authority. All authority is usually based upon aggression or implied aggression or active aggression. Authority is authority. Power is something else. Power is what we come from. It is a part of the natural order of the universe – power…’

The intelligent mob

Most Western political philosophers have a fear of so-called ‘mob rule’. This is true for the thinkers of liberal democracies and communist regimes alike. Both share some basic assumptions: that the ‘masses’ are best ruled by superior knowledge and a band of centralized, enlightened professionals.

Joseph Schumpeter summed up the assumptions of liberal democracy when he wrote in his 1943 book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy: ‘[the voters] must understand that once they have elected an individual, political action is his business, not theirs.’

Lenin was fixated on the centralized hierarchy as the means for revolution. He wrote about the difficulty intellectual revolutionary vanguards faced in raising the consciousness of the masses without being ‘degraded’ to their level, as he put it.

Neither approach show any faith in the value and intelligence of ordinary people.

This is the crucial failure of the Left in the last century, yet it still has its adherents today. Political parties, whether Left or Right, see the homogeneous ‘mass’ as raw material to legitimize their own power. Radical social change must, once and for all, commit itself to abandon authoritarian leadership – even if those leaders, like Castro, have done much for the poor against the destructive forces of global capitalism.

State communism and the market fundamentalism of today’s globalization era share a belief that a single system, universally applied, can deliver all that is required. Seen in this light, industrial monocropping, genetic engineering and contract farming seem to have much in common with the 20th- century state socialist disasters of enforced collectivization. Both are top-down solutions that ignore diversity, on-the-ground needs, knowledge and reality, and a democratic requirement that those who are most affected should have a say in implementation.

Most Western political philosophers have a fear of so-called 'mob rule'.

Top-down planning requires reductionism. It has to turn real people and real places into symbols, ciphers and categories, or ignores them altogether. It is incapable of understanding, let alone describing and cataloguing, the myriad, complex features of a real, functioning social order. The world largely runs on its course not because everybody follows the rules but because most people improvise, create, cut corners as they go along. The proof of this can be seen in a ‘work-to-rule’ strike.

This is an action taken by workers in lieu of a riskier, all-out strike. It involves each worker doing only what is required of them on the job, to the letter and nothing more. Most jobs, to be productive, require one to fill in the gaps, use common sense and rely on a dozen informal acts. So a work-to-rule strike can virtually halt production.

It’s all around you This work-to-rule example reveals the true extent to which top-down planning and leadership rely upon the initiative, intelligence, creativity, consent and ability of ‘those from below’, those who follow rather than command.

While those commands are documented and discussed – think of media debate about government law, or management memos passed around the office – the power that makes most things function, the ‘power to’ remains invisible. Yet it is all around you – society wouldn’t work if it weren’t for this informal web of relationships, shared actions and understandings.

In the everyday scheme of things this ‘people power’ goes unnoticed. It is only when it gets expressed in social rebellion that it is seen to enter the realm of the political, where it is usually met with repression or silence. This has the effect of fooling us into believing that this power is ineffectual. Often, we never realize how powerful we really are.

Despite their failure to prevent war against Iraq, the sheer numbers of those in aggressor nations visibly opposed to invasion saved Iraqi lives by making it clear that large civilian casualties would not be politically acceptable.

Before the invasion began, the Pentagon’s announcement that it would hit Iraq with 3,000 bombs and missiles in the first 48 hours using ‘shock and awe’ tactics drew almost universal condemnation for confusing military and civilian targets.

But when it came to the actual invasion, it used a fraction of that firepower. In the aftermath of the enormous global anti-war protests of 15 February the United States hired huge teams of lawyers to examine each target of war. Their job was to advise the army commanders on whether it was ‘in proportion’ to civilian losses. As USA Today reported: ‘Lawyers from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines will be working around-the-clock to be on hand when targets appear and fast decisions are needed. With so much of the world sceptical of US intentions, pressure will be high.’

Of course, no government wants to undermine its own authority and appearance of impregnability by admitting that public objection to policy plays any part in its actions. The result is that people conclude they are powerless, and their actions have had no impact whatsoever.

But as Nicholas Hildyard, of the radical research institute The Cornerhouse, reminds us: ‘Many seats of power have always been pretty powerless over many areas of our lives. If you read the literature of companies that we all ascribe great power to, their main preoccupation is how to overcome resistance from the likes of us and other movements.’ Howard Zinn, the radical US historian, puts it even more optimistically: ‘Don’t let “those who have power” intimidate you. No matter how much power they have, they cannot prevent you from living your life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships with people as you like.’

It seems clear that the powerful spend much of their time and resources attempting to sabotage and undermine recognition of our own power. For we are rich in human ingenuity, in collective resources, in imagination and above all in sheer numbers.

Mutual aid

So when we are looking for an alternative politics, perhaps we need not look very far.

What we need is not a new political theory, but to widen the very notion of what politics is, to access the sources of our own power, regrounded in the reality of our everyday lives and practices.

Many of our common social interactions, our expressions of mutual support, care and co-operation, remain outside the realm of authority and the market and are a kind of power. It is this ‘power to’ that is the creative force of a politics that doesn’t look like politics.

The idea of ‘mutual aid’ is a potent source for the political renewal of the Left, leading us beyond the old dichotomy that social welfare is best provided from above either by the State or the market. Ideas of mutuality and ‘co-production’ put people back at the heart of local services; and these ideas are catching on. Examples range from the much-vaunted participatory budget of the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, to the neighbourhood assemblies and occupied factories of Argentina, all the way to the rundown English social-housing estates of Luton, Manchester and Newcastle where, as Hilary Wainwright shows in her book Reclaim the State, people are initiating popular participation in public services. As both users and workers, they show how genuine – not token – local control and participation is an alternative to privatization.

As African revolutionary Thomas Sankara once said: ‘Autonomy is the right to invent one’s own future.’

That means taking control of our own lives; devising systems through which communities can organize themselves. These involve direct democracy, decentralization and radical participation. And there will not be a single ideological model to form a party around and compete in a national election. That’s because what’s needed is a democratic renewal of the system itself, to be implemented here, now, by all of us – one that reaches from the local to the global. No new ideology but a new methodology – one that we build from the ground up.

Power from below is reinventing politics. This time, it’ll be on our own terms.

Katharine Ainger

Junk Sale

Illustration: Jai At Uhc Collective

The new peasants’ revolt

Way of the farmer: Via Campesina flag unites peasant farmers from around the world at the World Social Forum 2002.

Katharine Ainger

Everything in a supermarket has a story to tell, if only we could find it out. The produce defies seasons, geography, wars, distance, nature. It is winter outside, but inside the supermarket golden-shell pineapples from Côte d’Ivoire, still small and green, bathe in humming halogen light. There is civil unrest in the Côte d’Ivoire, but it does not seem to have disrupted the flow of tropical fruit to the cold North. Next to them are strange, knobbly bits of ginger dug from Chinese soil. Gala apples from France, bagged up and reduced to half price. Avocados from Israel and Chile. Pale tomatoes from the Canary Islands, where it is always warm, but the fruit must be picked green. ‘Ready-to-go’ meals fill the chiller cabinets. Here, wrapped in plastic, are small clusters of perfect baby corn and mange tout from plantations in Kenya. Here is cod, pulled up by trawler from the over-fished, churning cold sea of the northeast Atlantic.

Though we can’t hear their stories, what we choose to put in our supermarket baskets writes its own language upon our bodies and our moods, our families, our economies, our landscapes. It can mean life or death in some distant country whose name we can only vaguely discern printed on the packaging. We are, all of us, affected by trends in the global economy, in the most intimate and fundamental way possible – through our food.

Only rarely do these connections become visible, when the people who produce the food remind us of them. Those who work the countryside are a potent source of cultural identity, whether it’s the campesinos of Mexico, the gauchos of Argentina, the paysannes of France, Australian conkies, or the flat-capped Yorkshire farmer. Their images are used to market food to us, because we associate them with rural life, nature and rude good health. But the real people who produce our food are losing their livelihoods and leaving the land.

Over the past two years British dairy farmers, in their grief and anger over plummeting prices, have blockaded supermarkets up and down the country, spilled their milk, boycotted suppliers.

Why blockade the supermarkets? The average price British farmers receive for their milk is the lowest for 30 years. The bargaining power of the supermarkets is so great that prices for farmers are going ever downwards. In 2000, supermarket giant Tesco introduced international ‘reverse’ auctions for its suppliers all over the world. They were asked to bid against each other until Tesco got the lowest price.

Supermarkets blame the consumer for wanting ‘cheap food’ – yet 50 years ago farmers in Europe and North America received between 45 and 60 per cent of the money that consumers spent on food. Today that proportion has dropped to just 7 per cent in Britain and 3.5 per cent in the US.^1^

Even that ultimate symbol of rugged individualism, the cowboy, is an endangered species. Most of the ranchers of the Great Plains of Nebraska are permanently broke, mortgaging or selling off their land and cattle to survive. The cowboy is riding into the final sunset as the Great Plains become steadily depopulated.

The details are specific to each country but the broad trends are international: the crisis in farming is global.

The six founding countries of Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy had 22 million farmers in 1957; today that number has fallen to 7 million. Just 20 per cent of the European Union’s wealthiest and largest farmers get 80 per cent of EU subsidies. Canada lost three-quarters of its farmers between 1941 and 1996 and the decline continues. In 1935 there were 6.8 million working farmers in the US; today the number is under 1.9 million – less than the total US prison population.

Suicide is now the leading cause of death among US farmers, occurring at a rate three times higher than in the general population. In Britain farmers are taking their own lives at a rate of one a week.^2^

In poorer countries the situation is even worse. Half of the world’s people still make their living from the land – and it is they who feed the majority of the world’s poorest people. In South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa more than 70 per cent of the population makes a living from the land. Agriculture counts, on average, for half of total economic activity.

In the Philippines the number of farm households in the corn-producing region of Mindanao is set to fall by half. Between 1985 and 1995 the number of people employed in agriculture in Brazil fell from 23 million to 18 million. In China an estimated 400 million farmers are in danger of losing their livelihoods entirely. Everywhere small-scale farmers are being ‘disappeared’.

All eaten up

Why is this happening? Somebody, somewhere, must be benefiting. The answer is not hard to discover. It lies not in the soil, but inside the corporations which have become known collectively as ‘agribusiness’. They traverse the planet buying at the lowest possible price, putting every farmer in direct competition with every other farmer. While the price of crops has been pushed down – often even below the cost of production – the prices of inputs such as seed, fertilizers and pesticides have gone up.

Control of the ‘food-chain’ is being concentrated in ever-fewer hands. According to Bill Hefferman, rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, in some cases there is ‘seamless and fully integrated control of the food system from gene to supermarket shelf’.^3^ When the two giant corporations Monsanto and Cargill went into partnership they controlled seed, fertilizer, pesticides, farm finance, grain collection, grain processing, livestock-feed processing, livestock production and slaughtering, as well as several processed-food brands. This system, developed in the US, is being exported to other countries in the name of globalization.

This level of control is one of the reasons why genetically modified (GM) seeds are of such concern. They give agribusiness yet more weapons with which to enforce total dependency on their patented seeds. Some of them require own-brand herbicides and even own-brand ‘trigger’ chemicals (known as ‘traitor’ technology) that the farmer has to apply for before the seed will germinate.

This is the secret of the disappearance of the family farmer in the North – and the peasantry in the South. To disappear them, aside from killing them, you must turn them into vulnerable workers on an assembly line, without control over their own operations, and obliged to corporations.

Agribusiness writes the rules of international trade. Cargill was largely responsible for the Agreement on Agriculture at the World Trade Organization (WTO), which liberalizes the global market in agricultural goods. Farmers, particularly in poor countries, find it impossible to compete with cheap imports. One James Enyart of Monsanto said of the WTO’s ‘intellectual property’ agreement (known as ‘TRIPs’) which makes its ownership of seeds and genetic material possible worldwide: ‘Industry has identified a major problem in international trade. It crafted a solution, reduced it to a concrete proposal and sold it to our own and other governments.’

‘We want to produce our own food’: Via Campesina members Rosalva Gutierrez of Belize (top), and Kanya Pankiti of Thailand (bottom).

Katharine Ainger

Why does it matter that small, ‘inefficient’ producers are being eradicated by globalized, corporate agriculture? Free-trade theory is based on the idea that countries should specialize, produce the things that they make best and buy in everything else. But, as Kevan Bundell from Christian Aid says: ‘It makes little sense for poor countries or poor farmers to put themselves at more risk if they have to rely on the efficient functioning of markets which all too often fail or don’t exist.’^4^

How ‘efficient’ is a system of agriculture that ignores (‘externalizes’) the huge costs of removing chemical contamination from water or losing genetic diversity? How ‘wholesome’ is it to create new diseases in animals and antibiotic resistance in people? How ‘cheap’ is the expense of public subsidies to private agribusiness, of global transport or social breakdown in rural areas?

Prevailing free-market thinking asks why we should provide support just to keep people in a state of ‘backwardness’ and rural poverty. But experience shows us that when these people lose their rural livelihoods, only a few will find better jobs in the city. Many will end up in enormous and growing urban slums.

‘The future for peasant incomes and employment is grim,’ says Chen Xiwen, deputy director of the Chinese State Council’s research centre. According to Chen, in 2001 over 88 million workers migrated from rural to urban areas in China, most of them employed in ‘dirty, hard, dangerous and unsafe conditions’.^5^

The question is not whether we have any right to condemn people to the difficult life of a poor farmer – an accusation often thrown at those who oppose the global-trade regime and the food cartel that runs it. The real question is whether vulnerable farmers themselves have meaningful choices. They need an international voice for their own priorities.

Let them eat trade

Nettie Webb, a Canadian farmer explains: ‘The difficulty for us, as farming people, is that we are rooted in the places where we live and grow our food. The other side, the corporate world, is globally mobile.’

To put it another way, global- trade rules might be fundamentally transforming agriculture, but as one sceptic asked: ‘can one envision a coalition of Belgian, Dutch, French, Italian, Uruguayan, Brazilian and New Zealand farmers marching on a GATT (WTO) meeting in Punta del Este? And what could they demand to benefit them all, since they are all in competition with one another?’^6^

In fact Via Campesina has been marching on every WTO meeting from 1994 onwards. ‘We will not be intimidated. We will not be “disappeared”,’ they have declared. This global alliance of small and family farmers, peasants, landless and indigenous people, women and rural labourers, has a membership of millions – the vast majority from poor countries – and they’re putting an alternative agricultural paradigm on the map.

It’s based on the idea of ‘food sovereignty’. It is, they say, ‘the RIGHT of peoples, communities and countries to define their own agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances.’

They believe food is a human right, not a commodity, and that their job – the production of food – is fundamental to all human existence. This attitude is summed up by a food co-op member’s retort to Brazilian President Cardoso when he said that agriculture had to submit to the law of the market: ‘Very well, Mr President. When Brazil no longer needs food, then you can let agriculture go bankrupt.’^7^

The farmers of Via Campesina argue that nothing as important as food should be ruled by the WTO. They’ve been leading the campaign to take agriculture out of its remit entirely. This does not mean that they are ‘anti-trade’. They believe in trading goods which a country cannot produce itself. Once a country has supported its own food needs and production it should be free to trade the surplus.

I spent time with Via Campesina at the 2002 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where they explained their vision in more depth. I’m in the courtyard of the Convent del Capuchino. There are mango and papaya trees hung with unripe green fruit. Via Campesina delegates – people of few words – sit on benches, sip sweet coffee and contemplate.

José Bocquisso Jr explains the views of the National Peasants’ Union in Mozambique. ‘Mozambique was one of the largest cashew-nut processors in the world,’ he says. ‘But because of the IMF the industry was privatized and the processing plants were closed... People should concentrate on producing food for themselves, not products for export... If we produce a lot of cotton the price ends up being below the cost of production, and people are stranded with piles of cotton, but with no food and no money. In our organization we concentrate on producing food, we encourage our members first to provide for their daily needs. Then it doesn’t matter so much if they don’t have money, because they are secure in food and have guaranteed the ability to feed their families.’ His group is part of the expanding African contingent in Via Campesina. ‘It is very strengthening to feel part of a global movement. World powers have to be fought globally.’

Via Campesina is not anti-technology. Its vision is, however, based on a model of agriculture built from the ground up, in which farmers’ knowledge has a significant place. Indeed, all Via Campesina’s arguments about food and farming – whether GMOs, access to land or markets – come down to one central issue: control.

Indra Lubis, part of a coalition of 13 Indonesian peasant unions with 900,000 members, explains that rejection of genetically modified seed and pesticides is about self-determination: ‘With Monsanto, who have planted GM cotton in south Sulawesi, we’ll have to depend on them for seed. They want to control cotton and food production. As peasants, we’ll be made dependent on multinational corporations. But we are independent when we develop our own agriculture. We use our own productive system, with no chemical fertilizer or herbicides. We use local seeds and local fertilizer. In Indonesia we have so many varieties of seed. It is a deep part of our culture.’

Seventy per cent of the world’s farmers are women – most of the people in this courtyard are men. Rosalva Gutierrez, from the Belize Association of Producer Organizations, tells me: ‘It is always the women who take the hardest part as farmers, mothers, wives. We have many strong women but they have been abused for so many years, women’s self-esteem is very low. So we give workshops and training... I’m co-ordinator of the women’s project and on the international co-ordination of Via Campesina – I try to ensure that what Via Campesina says on paper about gender equality becomes reality!’

And she tells me: ‘We don’t see farmers as being from different countries. Farmers everywhere understand the same point.’

Via Campesina argues that food production has a unique role to play in rural livelihoods, health, ecology and culture.

Kanya Pankiti, a peasant from the south of Thailand – on her first trip out of the country – says the way her people grow food preserves the forest, the watershed and the soil. She thinks the Brazilians aren’t growing enough trees. ‘The way Brazilians do agriculture now will cause soil erosion,’ she worries, picking and nibbling leaves she recognizes from home – it has never occurred to Brazilians to cook with them.

Kanya knows a lot about trees. She says: ‘The Thai forest department doesn’t believe that people can live in the forest and preserve it. The reality is, we have lived in the forest for a hundred years. It is not the villagers who are destroying the forest, but the loggers clear-cutting. When the forest is clear-cut the land becomes less fertile.’ Her house is outside a new National Park zone, her land inside it, and they want to clear her out. ‘When they declare a National Park,’ she says, ‘they sit in an air-conditioned office and look at a map.’

What does she think of the World Social Forum? She’s going back to tell her village ‘that they are not alone in the world, struggling for land, and we can link up with those in other countries’.

For anyone who eats, the question of who controls the food chain – farmers, or an ever-more powerful cartel of food corporations – is no less pertinent than it is for Indra, Kanya or José. At the very same time as consumers in the rich world are objecting more than ever to factory farming, to the use of antibiotics in livestock, to pesticide residues in food, to the loss of biodiversity and to food scares such as BSE, this very same model is being set up for replication around the world, often disguised as ‘development’.

Mario Pizano, a member of the Confederación Campesino del Suerto in Chile, joins the conversation. ‘The big companies are buying up all the land,’ he complains. ‘With contract farming, they tell us: “We’ll buy your food only if you buy the chemicals you need from us.” They give us chemicals that are forbidden in the US. Then we have to give them a section of our crop. If we can’t, then they take our land.’

But he, and millions like him, refuse to become serfs on their own land. As we part, he takes off his green cap, emblazoned with the name of his organization, and gives it to me. ‘This organization is part of me,’ he says.

  1. ‘What’s Wrong with Supermarkets’, Corporate Watch, 2002.
  2. _Bringing the Food Economy Home_, Norberg-Hodge, Merrifield, Gorelick, Zed Books 2002.
  3. ‘Where have all the farmers gone?’, Brian Halweil, WorldWatch 2000.
  4. ‘Forgotten Farmers: Small farmers, trade, and sustainable agriculture’, Kevan Bundell, Christian Aid 2002.
  5. ‘The Forgotten 800 Million: How Rural Life is Dying in the New China’, Guardian Newspapers, 18/10/2002.
  6. ‘The Via Campesina: Consolidating an International Peasant and Farm Movement’, Annette Aurelie Desmarais, _Journal of Peasant Studies_, January 2002.
  7. _Cutting the Wire_, Branford, Rocha, Latin America Bureau 2002.

The market and the monsoon

PART 1: Of drought and debt

The small farmers of the Warangal district of northern Andhra Pradesh are vulnerable not just to drought and deluge, as they have always been – but, now, to the vagaries of commercial markets as well.

After two months of searing drought - the worst in 50 years - late rains deluge southern India in mid-October 2002. The hard earth, sealing in months of heat, releases it all at once as a fierce, humid fist. Water pours off surfaces and rudely breaks through the channels dug to contain it. Steam mingles with smoke and rises from the straw roofs of mud houses in the villages.

The rains come too late to save the harvests of millions of Indian farmers, watching the skies anxiously, waiting for the monsoon. Many of the crops they have managed to grow are destroyed in the downpour. Early cotton bolls are matted, soggy and unsellable. Paddy has already failed to germinate and is being fed to scrawny cattle - those that haven't already been sold to feed hungry families.

Photo: Katharine Ainger

Since late summer hundreds of thousands of farmers have been pouring into the towns and cities, hungry and desperate. They can be seen in every major Indian city, squatting on the pavements, waiting for daily labouring work at wages that, as the deluge of desperate human beings continues, drop slowly at first and then faster, until they reach a sixth of the minimum wage of $2 per day.

On my way into Chinta Nekonda village, in the Warangal district of northern Andhra Pradesh (AP), I pass paddy fields that are cracked and bare. Thin buffalo are ripping up what remains of the rice crop.

As is customary when a stranger comes, a crowd gathers in the village, with its dusty streets, tiny mud houses, walls plastered with adverts for pesticides and fertilizers. Half the houses here are locked: two-thirds of the villagers have left for the city to look for work.

A farmers' conference rapidly assembles on the porch of the village sarpanch (leader) - who is a woman. Positive-discrimination policies have had some effect - but she is making the tea whilst her husband assumes her powers and directs proceedings. The electricity is off, the crickets chirrup in the night. The only light flickers from a television set run on a generator.

'We don't have any subsistence living. There is full drought,' says one farmer.

'We don't have any wells and tanks, and all of the bore wells have dried up,' adds another.

The farmers aren't above exaggeration - this, after all, is the tradition when officials come from the city. But nothing has quite prepared me for the palpable sense of desperation.

Photo: Katharine Ainger

A woman seated behind the sarpanch speaks up: 'How should we live? Tell us!'

It's not just this year, though, or this drought, that is creating enormous pressure on the farming community. Small farmers are increasingly vulnerable to the vagaries not just of the weather - but of commercial markets as well.

This district, Warangal, made the news in 1998 as the centre of a spate of farmer suicides. It has one of the highest levels of pesticide consumption in India. Murali, author of a report on the farmer suicides, Debt and Deep Well, explains to me how a corporate push created a sudden upsurge in commercial, pesticide-intensive cotton grown by small and marginal farmers.

As they got deeper into debt to pay for the seed and pesticides, the cotton harvest failed. Across the state, thousands committed suicide because they could not pay back the moneylenders.

Government subsidies for agriculture have been slashed, pushing up costs even as market rates for crops have been going down. While larger farmers are better able to cope with commercial agriculture, for the 77 per cent of landholders in Andhra Pradesh who are small farmers the cycle of debt and dependency, and the building blocks of a gathering agrarian crisis, seem only to deepen. There's no safety net from drought, nor debt.

Now Murali is worried by the most recent development - genetically modified Bt cotton. He's concerned that it will exacerbate existing trends: 'When farmers are in a desperate situation, it is easy for the market to exploit them.'

Katharine Ainger

The Green Revolution

In the 1960s and 1970s a wave of high-yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides transformed Indian agriculture. This was the Green Revolution - but some say it is turning yellow. Initially, it boosted yields but it has brought problems in its wake. It has degraded soil leading to falling yields and a loss of local crops. Once the farmers in Warangal might have grown more drought-resistant varieties of millet and sorghum. Now even the marginal farmers are growing monocultures of commercial crops like cotton, chilli, rice and groundnut, in the hope of potential profit. Dependent on expensive inputs, the costs of farming have risen dramatically and left many poor farmers in debt.

Water-harvesting skills, so crucial to surviving the drought seasons, were lost as intensive, irrigated agriculture came in. Farmers borrowed thousands of rupees to sink bore wells for irrigation. As a result, the groundwater level is dropping dramatically.

The state is withdrawing agricultural support, creating huge pressure on farmers and forcing them to borrow at crippling interest rates from ruthless moneylenders. Many of these are agents of seed and pesticide corporations, lending farmers inputs on credit at inflated cost. Some moneylenders take part of the farmers' harvest as payment, and wield huge power over their lives. A farmer who doesn't repay can earn a bad credit rating for the whole village. Many of those who have committed suicide rather than face shame and destitution are from the lowest castes.

As a purely technological solution, the Green Revolution has not only failed to tackle issues of poverty, caste and access to land, it may have exacerbated them.

The cotton engineers

This year Pallepati Prabhakara Rao from Chintha Nekonda village in Warangal planted Monsanto/Mayhco's genetically engineered Bt cotton for the first time.

In May 2002 the Government of India approved Bt cotton for commercial growing. A case at the Supreme Court challenging 1998 field trials is still ongoing after the company was found to have misled farmers into growing Bt cotton seed without approval or information.

Mayhco staff visited Warangal in July to promote the new seeds, identifying 30 dealers in cotton districts across Andhra Pradesh to sell them. 'The seed is very expensive, 1,600 rupees ($33),' says Rao. Non-Bt cotton costs 400 rupees (around $8). Relatively well-off, with 10 acres of land, he read about Bt cotton in a newspaper and went along to a company meeting to find out more. 'They told us about the plant, that it contains a poison to kill off American boll-worm. But they did not tell us that this poison only lasts 90 days. We all thought it would last throughout the crop.'

Bt cotton is engineered with a bacterium poisonous to boll-worm - but it and other pests attacked Mr Rao's crop. Like many other farmers, Mr Rao had to spray it with pesticide three times in the first 90 days. His harvest won't cover the costs of his pesticide and seed.

Monsanto/Mahyco claimed that Bt cotton would yield 15 quintiles per acre. As it turned out, no plant yielded more than 4 quintiles per acre.

The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology reports that Bt cotton has been devastated by pest attacks in Andhra Pradesh, Gujurat, Maharastra and Madhya Pradesh and that furious farmers are demanding compensation from Monsanto/Mayhco. The company attributes the failures to root rot due to unseasonal rain. But Mr Rao of Warangal says: 'Maybe some of the failure is due to lack of rain, but you can see that my other varieties of cotton are doing better than the Bt crop.'

As the Green Revolution showed, technology alone will not solve the problems of small farmers - and the 'gene revolution' may only exacerbate them.

Mr Rao says: 'I won't plant Bt cotton again.'

Tricks of the Trade

The global trade system, dominated by rich-world corporations, keeps poor countries poor. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is the international body that makes the rules. These rules require poor countries to cut support to farmers and open their agricultural markets to rich countries – which are powerful enough to protect their own markets. In the words of the US campaigner Ralph Nader: ‘The world doesn’t have free trade, it has corporate-managed trade.’ WTO rules also favour food and agricultural corporations over consumer and environmental concerns. Here are some examples of injustices in the system, explained using some common food items.

PATENTS: Who does the food belong to?

RICE

WTO rules allow corporations to patent or own agricultural plant varieties and genetic sequences of animals - thereby permitting huge companies to gain control over poor countries' crops.

In India basmati-rice exports were valued at $425 million in 1998-99. But in September 1997 RiceTec Inc, a Texas-based corporation, won a US patent on basmati rice. Such examples endanger the livelihoods of farmers in India.

UNNECESSARY TRADE: The great food swap

MEAT

In 1998 Britain imported 61,000 tonnes of poultry meat from the Netherlands. It also exported 33,100 tonnes of poultry meat to the Netherlands.

Global corporations searching for the lowest commodity prices fuel this kind of unnecessary trading. Local producers are often undercut by cheap meat flooding into the country.

This also has consequences for animal welfare, encouraging intensively reared livestock and the export of live animals under cruel conditions. Under WTO rules a country cannot refuse to export a product - a ban on live exports could contravene such rules.

Aviation fuel is not taxed. This is a hidden subsidy to the global food trade. While much food goes by sea, air-freighted food - such as chickens from Brazil and Thailand, mainly for use in processed foods - makes a major contribution to global warming.

LIBERALIZATION: Poor countries open their markets

DAIRY

Before 1992 Jamaican dairy farmers produced over 25 per cent of the milk consumed in the country. But in 1992 World Bank liberalization policies required Jamaican tariffs (import taxes) on dairy imports and subsidies to local dairy farmers to be eliminated.

Subsidized powdered milk from the European Union (EU) poured in. In 1993, one year after liberalization, millions of dollars worth of local milk had to be dumped, hundreds of cows were slaughtered prematurely and many dairy farms closed down. Nestlé, the major buyer of Jamaican milk, now buys a third less than three years ago.

While Southern governments have to open their markets to the North in line with World Bank loan 'conditionalities' and WTO rules, rich countries continue to subsidize their own agriculture. EU milk subsidies do not help farmers anywhere in the world - the benefits go to processors and exporters.

SUBSIDIES: Protection for the rich

SUGAR

Subsidized food from rich countries undercuts domestic markets in poor countries and pushes down world commodity prices.

Under WTO rules developed countries are supposed to reduce export subsidies by 36 per cent. But the US, the EU and Japan have continued to subsidize their corporations and large traders.

EU sugar processors receive a guaranteed price three times that on the world market. The EU is the world's largest exporter of white sugar - export prices are only a quarter of production costs. A World Bank study estimated that world prices fell by 17 per cent as a result of the EU sugar regime. In 2001 Europe exported 770,000 tonnes of white sugar to Algeria and 150,000 tonnes to Nigeria - both natural export markets for African producers like Mozambique. But sugar farmers in Mozambique - one of the poorest countries in the world - can't compete with subsidized EU sugar. Meanwhile, small farmers in Europe don't benefit either - large processors, traders and retailers are the main beneficiaries of subsidies.

DUMPING: Getting rid of surplus food

WHEAT

Dumping (exporting at a price below the cost of production) by rich countries creates unfair competition for local producers. Giving food away as food aid is one way of dumping.

World Food Programme figures show that food aid peaks in years when world cereal prices are low and stocks are high. Ironically this means that food aid is most readily available in overproduction years - when it is least needed. Between 1996 and 2000 the price of wheat dropped while food-aid shipments increased by more than 50 per cent. The US and the EU account for half of all wheat exports, with prices respectively 46 per cent and 34 per cent below the cost of production. WTO rules which outlaw dumping make exceptions for aid. The US is unique in giving its aid in kind rather than cash, helping to undercut local economies.

The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that in 2000 US food aid - coupled with imports from the EU and Turkey - depressed local wheat prices in Bangladesh by 20 per cent; an additional 100,000 tonnes of food aid reduced local wheat production by as much as 91,000 tonnes.

USAID's own website reads: 'The principal beneficiary of America's foreign-assistance programs has always been the US. Close to 80 per cent of the USAID contracts and grants go directly to American firms. Foreign-assistance programs have helped create major markets for agricultural goods.'

COMMODITY PRICES: Over-production pushes down prices

COFFEE

Countries that have developed their capacity to produce and export cash crops are confronted with falling prices due to chronic world overproduction.

Overproduction has caused the price of coffee to crash by almost 50 per cent in the past three years to a 30-year low. Twenty-five million coffee farmers face ruin. Families are unable to buy medicines, enough food, or to send their children to school. The four big coffee corporations (Nestlé, Sara Lee, Kraft, Procter and Gamble) make the profits, while farmers receive a smaller and smaller share of the market value. Ugandan farmers get 2.5 per cent of the retail price of coffee. Cheaper prices are not being passed on to consumers.

Prices were previously controlled by the International Coffee Agreement. But the coffee market has been transformed from a managed market, in which governments played an active role both nationally and internationally, to a free-market system. Recently this has brought very cheap raw-material prices for the giant coffee companies.

There has been a massive increase in coffee production in Vietnam and in Brazil, where mechanization has increased yields. Together with the slowing of coffee consumption in the North, this has pushed down farm-gate prices. Coffee farmers, mostly poor smallholders, now sell their coffee beans for much less than they cost to produce - only 60 per cent of production costs in Vietnam's Dak Lak Province.

LABELLING: Informing consumers about their food

GM SOYA & MAIZE

In the US, manufacturers of genetically modified (GM) foods are not required to label their products. Almost all food produced there contains some GM soya or maize. But European consumers have consistently shown that they want their food labelled GM or non-GM. So the European Commission has introduced a limited labelling scheme covering GM soya and maize. However, soya and maize derivatives - which are used in most processed food in Europe - including soya oil, lecithin and corn (maize) syrup, were excluded from the labelling scheme, to the dismay of pressure groups.

In any case, such labelling could be challenged by the US under WTO rules, arguing that GM foods are equivalent to conventional foods and so to label them as different is to discriminate against US producers.

While the US hasn't yet taken Europe into an all-out trade war over GM crops, worried that this might derail the free-trade train, the threat remains potent. When Sri Lanka tried to ban GM crops outright in 2001, the US didn't hesitate to exert pressure via the WTO rules to get the ban overturned.

Julian Edwards, Director General of Consumers International, representing 235 consumer organizations in 109 countries, stated: 'One of the ironies of this issue is the contrast between the enthusiasm of food producers to claim that their biologically engineered products are different and unique when they seek to patent them - and their similar enthusiasm for claiming that they are just the same as other foods when asked to label them.'

Sources: Action Aid; Corporate Watch; Oxfam; CAFOD; Compassion in World Farming; Caroline Lucas MEP.

Interview with Raúl Gatica

‘Pessimism,’ says Raúl Gatica, ‘is something I buried along with my umbilical cord.’

Raúl’s small, stocky frame contains a humourful and expansive optimist. As an indigenous Mexican activist from the southern state of Oaxaca, his optimism is a form of defiance. A third of the state’s population is indigenous, many of them malnourished and living on less than a dollar a day. Oaxaca has the highest infant-mortality rate in the country.

But it also has many people like Raúl. The Indigenous Peoples’ Council of Oaxaca ‘Ricardo Flores Magón’ (CIPO-RFM) has 2,000 indigenous activists. ‘Although the majority of us do not know how to read or write,’ they declare, ‘we have two hands and a heart with which to fight.’

‘They just steal and steal’: dressed as Mary and Joseph, CIPO-RFM members taunt the state government with a modified carol. Raúl chuckles: ‘The Governor was very annoyed because everywhere he goes now, people sing this song at him.’

CIPO-RFM

Raúl explains how it began back in 1997: ‘Our demands to the authorities for roads, education, health, weren’t being met. And a lot of people around the communities were being punished by the police and the army for resisting. That’s when we started getting together.’

Since then they’ve evolved some unique variations on the standard tactics of demonstrating and occupying public buildings. When many of their members were imprisoned in May 1998 no-one in power would speak to the indigenous organization. Raúl reports what happened when they demanded a meeting with the Governor of Oaxaca:

‘Our delegation arrived but the gates were shut in our faces. So we opened the bags we had brought with us from the countryside in which we had big countryside rats and frog-eating snakes. We let them loose through the railings and into the offices. Suddenly all the doors were flung open and everyone rushed out. The big fat Secretary of Political Development fainted. Then we said: “Are you letting us in to talk or shall we release more?”

‘“Yes! Yes! We’ll let you in!” they said, “but please come and get your animals!”

‘That’s how we started the process of dialogue to ask for the release of 106 who’d been imprisoned. We were asking for a commission to look into it because there wasn’t a case against the prisoners.’

But the CIPO-RFM is also about creating alternatives. They broke a local cartel’s monopoly on transport by running their own buses and taxis (‘though no airline yet,’ jokes Raúl), have set up co-operatives and are growing better food to fight malnutrition.

Such activities have won Raúl death threats and imprison-ment. ‘We do all this without permission and so we set a bad example,’ he explains. ‘We’ve been living autonomy, but we’ve only just discovered there’s a word for it.’

The Day of the Dead is transformed into a festival of resistance as activists, believing their dead are with them on this day, denounce the police and paramilitary who killed members of the community.

CIPO-RFM

They take inspiration from the Zapatistas, and call them-selves ‘Magonistas’ after Ricardo Flores Magón, an indigenous Oaxacan and a key figure of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. Magonistas, says Raúl, are ‘about autonomy and self-organization. Indigenous culture is non-hierarchical – very much so. Magón just wrote down the things that already existed in indigenous culture.’

‘We are non-violent, and we don’t believe in individual direct action but in community action.’ Decisions are taken through assemblies and they work towards consensus. ‘Quite often, consensus is a form of resistance,’ says Raúl. It means that neither companies nor political parties can divide and rule the community.

Theirs is a heady mix of direct action and cultural tradition, with music, festivals, the women bearing flowers to defuse police violence. Their piñatas (papier-mâché dolls that are ritually smashed according to Mexican custom) are in the shape of President Vicente Fox with a US flag – when children hit them they burst open to scatter messages of peace.

Using folk traditions as a form of resistance is a powerful tactic, as indigenous culture is under attack from so many sides. The most recent such assault may be the most serious, not just for indigenous people but for the world.

Indigenous Mexicans believe that God created humanity from an ear of corn and call themselves ‘people of maize’. Now, Raúl tells me, ‘our ancient varieties are being destroyed by GM corn coming in from the US, cheaper than we can produce. But it doesn’t taste as nice. They’re creating dependency on foods we don’t grow. That endangers our own farming.’

Recently university researchers discovered an explosive fact: between 20 and 60 per cent of traditional maize varieties of CIPO-RFM’s community crops are now contaminated with modified genes from imported US corn. It’s not clear yet how the indigenous plan to respond – Raúl will only say that for now they are ‘keeping their plans in their knickers’.*

For Raúl, armed only with his optimism, is one of those who refuses to lie down. ‘You know, our culture and our forms of organizing have survived a number of empires. I’m sure we’ll survive this one.’

Thanks to Marcela López Levy and the Latin America Bureau *Read more about the GM corn-contamination story in the Jan/Feb 2003 issue of the NI on Food and Farming.

Raúl Gatica talked with Katharine Ainger

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