issue 172 - June 1987
Plantations - where the tea, coffee and vegetable oils we
consume are grown - are central to Unilever's international food
business. Barbara Dinham looks at the plantations which the
company now controls in the Third World and argues that
they do not serve the real needs of poor countries.
Work on an oil-palm plantation is back-breaking and dangerous. Palm-oil fruits (used in making margarine and cooking oil) grow alongside thorny fronds, 12 to 15 feet above the ground. They are cut down with a long and heavy pole and the skin, head and eyes of the harvester are likely to be cut by the falling fronds. In Malaysian plantations, fruit is cut down mainly by men, while women collect and load the 40-kilogram fruit branches, and thorns can become permanently lodged in the hands, causing constant irritation and infection.
Only rarely is protective clothing issued to the women who spray a mixture of lethal paraquat on the ground to kill weeds. The clothes are too warm for the climate and they don't even afford much protection: as the sprayers aim for weeds the fine mist drifts and slips inside the clothing. Some people believe the chemicals cause the material to disintegrate.
Wages on plantations are low. Oil-palm plantation workers in Malaysia earn just under the industrial wage - if they are lucky.
Earning the full weekly wage usually involves long hours in the baking sun, struggling to fulfill the company's quota of palm-oil nuts. The whole family - mothers, grandparents, fathers and children usually work together. Their wages are also dependent on the world market price for palm-oil, and so fluctuate with that price.
The oil-palm harvesters work a six-day week. There is an official entitlement to 16 days annual leave plus ten days public holidays.
Unilever's plantations span the world's tropical belt, where the company cultivates about 92,000 hectares of oil-palm, rubber coconut, cocoa and tea. The company operates in many countries including Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Zaire, Colombia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Solomon Islands.
The history of plantation development was associated with some of the worst colonial practices. Land was annexed and the local farmers prevented by British and other colonial powers from growing food for themselves. The colonialists expanded cash crops, encouraged white settlers and mass produced foods consumed in the West.
Lever Brothers' first plantations were coconut groves in the Solomon Islands. In 1929 plantations were added in Nigeria and Cameroon. Africa became and then remained the centre of the company's plantations until 1947, when oil-palm estates were established in Malaysia.
During the period following independence of many Third World countries, foreign ownership of land became increasingly unacceptable. Africa is a continent of farmers, so it seemed logical to many statesmen and women that the foreign plantations should be taken back into local hands. Unilever responded to demands for local ownership of land, as well as to the political and economic insecurity caused by fears of its nationalization, by withdrawing from and running down its plantations.
Zaire is a classic example of the damage caused by Unilever's behaviour towards its plantations. Unilever ran down its 'risky' estates - those which it felt might be nationalized - and switched its oil-palm investments to safer regions. The consequences were devastating: the World Bank reported in 1978 that Zaire - once a massive exporter of palm-oil - would be importing it within 12 years.
But now Unilever has changed direction and is expanding its agribusiness and plantation interests again. Since taking over Brooke Bond in 1984 Unilever has acquired vast tea plantations in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa (about 16,000 hectares in all) and India. This makes Unilever the world's largest tea producer. In 1981 it took control, with a partner company, of an oil-palm plantation at Llanos in Colombia. In 1983 it bought a 51 per cent interest in a palm plantation business in Southern Thailand. Unilever also has interests in cattle ranching and growing carnations.
Profits from plantations amounted to $251 million in 1985, 16.5 per cent of the company's total profits of $1,518 million. About 34,000 people work on Unilever plantations, excluding the tea estates.
Unilever asserts that it is committed to improving productivity of the land as well as increasing the efficiency of crop processing. It claims to be able, using its international organisation, to transfer its experience around the world. This is done, says Unilever, by 'concentrating on a lead country to develop the best practices in these areas, and then transferring it to others, and by creating productivity groups in each country whose task will be to seek continuing improvements.'
The results are not equally good for everybody. For example the introduction of 'block picking' on tea estates could be called a transfer of so-called 'best practices'. Block picking involves making workers responsible for one patch, thereby isolating them and increasing their workload. The technique is intended to control quality and increase productivity: it is the equivalent of 'quality control circles' developed in factories. In plantations where payment is often linked to the amount picked, this policy makes working conditions worse.
Unilever also sponsors large-scale research in order to work out how many of its raw materials can be used, or grown, interchangeably. Once Unilever has acquired this knowledge, then it ceases to be dependent on any one set of growers or suppliers. It can move between the producers according to its own interests. Central to the research programme are cloning and biotechnology experiments to improve plantation yields.
These agribusiness developments mean that the company can play one country off against another. The technology for producing margarines and other oil-based products is now such that any oil can be substituted for any other. Producers of one crop who become awkward from Unilever's point of view are likely to find that the company no longer wants their crops. It also becomes impossible for independent farmers to afford the new seeds and plantation methods of agriculture, so preventing them from being able to survive in markets dominated by Unilever.
Unilever's plantations also take the attenton of Third World governments away from the needs of small farmers. Not only do plantations take the best land, they also attract investment away from food crops which are grown for local consumption. Agribusiness consultants advise governments on investments in, and development of, export crops and estate, or plantation, agriculture. Unilever's experts' advice is based on a Western model of large-scale, capital-intensive agriculture, with heavy investment in seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and hormones to force growth, plus, increasingly, cloning and biotechnology techniques. Massive sums are poured into the research and development for plantation crops, using these techniques.
Aid funds are readily available for such large-scale agricultural projects. Development funds are invariably channelled towards export crops at the expense of local food production. Methods of farming too expensive for peasant farmers are researched and the improvement of rain-fed agriculture, for example, which would improve food yields, has been neglected.
Transnationals like Unilever argue that in a world of food shortages, large-scale agricultural developments are the only solution to meeting food needs. Yet plantations add to landlessness and poverty. They divert agricultural production from meeting local needs to meeting those of consumers in rich countries and in the cities. Unilever falls into the old trap of assuming that increased production is an end in itself. Yields could improve ten-fold but without increasing the means of distribution, growing the right crops and transferring wealth to the rural and urban poor, there will be no better access to food for poor people.
To increase food supplies, poor countries must increase their ability to exploit their own agricultural resources. This means controlling the research and deciding what crops to grow. While it is essential to increase production of locally consumed food crops, it is also necessary to build knowledge of the world market for cash crops in order to take informed decisions. Priority in the area of cash crops should be given to small, independent farmers. To do this, countries must increase the power of peasant farmers, to give them a stronger say and to build on their knowledge and experience. Plantation and agribusiness interests are opposed to small farmer's needs.
Barbara Dinham works at the Trananationals Information Centre London and is the co-author of Agribusiness in Africa.
Cocoa futures, trustees, bond marktes, exchange rates, booming stock market, trading sheets, export credits, international debt cartel, interest payments, floating rate loan. doesn't the language of multinationals make you sick?
Here's the alternative: a sane, succinct analysis of what Unilever is up to. The Unilever Monitor is published by the Transnationals Information Centre London (9, Poland Street, London, UK). It costs £10 ($16) for a subscription and tells you why Unilever is the sort of company that we write about. (Also published by the same organization - Unilever: Introduction to the food giant's operations (1985) 20p (30c).)
Agribusiness in Africa by Barbara Dinham and Colin Hines (Earth Resources Research 1983) is an admirably thorough look at Africa's recent history. It explains why Africa has moved from being able to produce food surpluses across the continent to being faced with recurrent shortages and famines today. Includes a portrait of Unilever.
Another invaluable source of information about multinationals and labour movement activities is Labor Notes. This magazine also provides up-to-date grassroots contacts. Available from PO Box 20001, Detroit, Michigan 48220, US. Subscription price: $10 individuals, $20 institutions - plus postage.
Unilever is the world's biggest tea trader. Whose Paradise? Is a useful book that discusses the realities of Tamil tea-pickers' lives in Sri Lanka. The book contains details about the beginnings of the Lipton tea empire - now Unilever-owned. It is designed for teachers to use with children aged 13 and younger. Available from Minority Rights Group, 29 Craven Street, London, UK for £5.95 ($10).
Transnational Corporate Research Project, University of Sydney, Sydney 20006, Australia
Latin America Working Group, Box 2207, Station P, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Taskforce on Corporate Responsibility, 129 St. Clair Ave. West, Toronto, Ontario M5R 2S2, Canada.
Transnationals Information Exchange, Paulus Potterstraat 20, 1071 DA Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Transnationals Information Centre London, 9 Poland Street, London, UK.
Data Center, 464 19th Street, Oakland, California, CA 94612, US.