December 11, 2017

Loss of land and food to plantations

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Published as Chapter 13 of The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams: Volume 1. Overview. Wadebridge Ecological Centre, Worthyvale Manor Camelford, Cornwall PL32 9TT, UK, 1984. By Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard.

The cash crop economy

As we have seen, the main justification for building large-scale irrigation projects is to increase food supplies and thus relieve the world’s appalling burden of famine and malnutrition. It may come as something of a surprise, therefore, to learn that the majority of irrigation projects are not used to grow food for local consumption; on the contrary, they are cultivated with cash crops for export.

One reason, undoubtedly, lies in the vast expense of irrigating land. Large scale irrigation schemes require hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of millions of dollars to set up. Although the initial investment may be borrowed at advantageous rates from the various development banks, it has still been borrowed and must therefore – in theory at least – be paid back.

With the average cost of irrigating one hectare of land in 1980 running at between $1,900 and $3,100 (and schemes such as Syria’s Balik Basin project facing a bill of $11,000 for each hectare irrigated) governments and development agencies alike claim that cash crops offer the only means of enabling large-scale irrigation schemes to achieve a satisfactory rate of return on investment.

More important still, the bulk of Third World countries are locked into an economic system which dictates that development can only be achieved through industrialisation. To industrialise, however, Third World countries must earn foreign exchange in order to import the technology which (in theory at least) will enable them to achieve what W. W. Rostow calls “economic lift-off”. For those countries which do not possess either mineral or oil wealth, that foreign exchange can only be earned by exporting the produce of their land. Hence the need to cultivate cash crops.

Vast areas of the Third World have thus been turned over to the production of crops for export. In the Philippines, for instance, over 50 percent of the country’s prime agricultural land is now used to grow such ‘cash crops’ [1] So, too, almost half of all the farmland in Central America and the Caribbean is used to raise cattle or crops for export.

In 1977, 66 percent of Guadalupe’s arable land was cultivated with export crops; in Martinique, the figure was 70 percent; whilst 75 percent of the arable land in Barbados was used solely to grow sugar cane. [2]

Since the end of the Second World War, the expansion of cash crops for export has been phenomenal. In just 10 years – between 1955 and 1965 – the production of export crops worldwide grew two times faster than the total agricultural growth rate in the Third World. In the last twenty years, for instance, the production of coffee in Africa has quadrupled; the output of tea has increased 6-fold; that of sugar, 3-fold; cotton and cocoa production has doubled; and the output of tobacco has risen by 60 percent. Barbara Dinham and Colin Hines write in their book Agribusiness in Africa,

“With some exceptions those increases came from an expansion in the area under cash crops rather than from higher yields. Some new land came into production and some land previously used to grow food was turned over to cash crops.” [3]

Today, some 12 African countries “are dependent on just one main crop for over 70 percent of their income,” whilst “a further eleven countries depend on only two crops for well over half their income.” Over 70 percent of Gambia’s arable land and 55 percent of Senegal’s is used to grow groundnuts: in Mauritius, meanwhile, a staggering 90 percent of the country’s arable land is under sugar cane. [4]

Initially introduced to the Third World by the colonial powers, that pattern of cash-crop agriculture has been actively encouraged since independence by the major development agencies. Consider, for example, the distribution of loans to Tanzania during the last two decades. Thus, in the 1960s, the World Bank agreed to back a governmerit programme to intensify land-use. By the end of 1975, the Bank had invested 2,015-16 million Tanzanian shillings in the project, of which 40 percent was for agricultural purposes. Not a single project, however, was designed to produce basic foodstuffs for local consumption. Loans from other agencies were also mainly for cash crops. In 1978-79, for example, 61 percent of loans went towards increasing tobacco production. Somewhat depressingly, Dinham and Hines comment:

“The bias in investment toward export crops did little to increase food production and, indeed, tended to push food crops into the more arid parts of the country while good land was turned over to export crops.” [5]

For the most part, the cash crops grown in the Third World are exported to the West. Even the poorest nations of the world are involved in that export trade: indeed, a 1973 report from the US Department of Agriculture revealed that 36 of those nations classified as ‘Most Seriously Affected’ by hunger and malnutrition were nonetheless exporting food to the United States. Moreover, that pattern of diverting food to the already well-fed nations has persisted even during periods of local famine.

Indeed, as Lappe and Collins report, “agricultural exports from the Sahelian countries to Europe actually increased during the late sixties and early seventies, in the face of worsening drought and widespread hunger.” In fact, “during the drought in Mali, the area planted with the two most important export crops, peanuts and cotton, was expanded by almost 50 percent and over 100 percent respectively between 1965 and 1972.” [6]


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Cash crops and irrigation projects

Below we consider some examples of the use to which irrigated land is being put in a cross-section of Third World countries. Between them, they make it quite clear that the rural poor have been (and will continue to be) the last people to benefit from large-scale irrigation schemes:

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Dez Dam, Iran

As originally conceived, Iran’s Dez Dam was intended to provide over 200,000 acres of irrigated land to small farmers in Khuzestan. In the event, however, the irrigated land went almost exclusively to foreign-run, intensive plantations producing crops for export. [7] Until the overthrow of the Shah, those agri-business firms which managed the ‘farms’ in the area included such household names as: Shell, John Deere, Mitchell Cotts, Dow Chemicals, Chase Manhattan, the Bank of America, Transworld Agricultural Development Corporation, Diamond A. Cattle, and Hawaian Agronomics.

17,000 peasants were uprooted from their land to make way for the scheme: many are still landless and jobless. Not that the plight of the local peasants appear to have pricked the corporate conscience of the firms who moved into the region. For them, the Shah had made an offer which no sane businessman could refuse. As one executive put it: “They develop the water first and we come and farm it.” [8]

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Pan African Vegetable Products, Kenya

In Kenya, Pan African Vegetable Products – a company set up by Brueker Werker of West Germany and financed by, among others, Barclays Overseas Development – grows some 18,000 tons of vegetables a year on 800 acres of irrigated land. 5,000 outgrowers supply the company with another 18,000 tons a year. 90 percent of all those vegetables are dehydrated and exported to West Germany and other European countries. [9]

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The Sulmac Company, Kenya

Elsewhere in Kenya, the Sulmac Company (in which Brooke Bond Liebig Kenya has a 75 percent interest) is growing carnations, ferns, chrysanthemum cuttings, sisal and vegetables on its estates. “The flowers and vegetables are for export to Europe, expressed by airfreight, to meet the demand for off-season and exotic vegetables and winter flowers,” report Dinham and Hines. They go on to comment:

“Brooke Bond is here contributing to an established trend among agribusiness investors of using scarce land in African countries to grow food to supply a luxury market overseas. The frivolous nature of such market ‘needs’ is illustrated by Sulmac’s estate at Masongaleni, which has ‘the world’s biggest production area of asparagus plumosus, a fluffy foliage which is very popular as green support for bouquets.’ Not only is Kenya encouraged to ‘develop’ its resources to meet the industrialised world’s demand for tea and coffee, it is now encouraged to ‘develop’ to meet the demand for fluffy foliage for bouquets.” [10]

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Diama Dam and Manautali Dam, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania

Over 375,000 hectares are to be irrigated in the Senegal River Valley as a result of an 80-year plan – to be undertaken by the governments of Senegal, Mali and Mauritania – to develop the entire river basin. [For a detailed account of this scheme, see F. Mounier in Volume 2: Case Studies] Between 75,000 and 98,000 hectares will be irrigated by the Diama Dam near the coast, and a further 255,000 hectares by the Manautali Dam 1,000 km upstream.

Officially, the scheme is intended to promoted ‘communal rural development': small-scale village farms are to be set up; the peasant farmers will be allowed to grow traditional crops using traditional methods of farming; and (again ‘officially’) the food needs of the local people are to be met before crops are grown specifically for export. The reality of the scheme, however, is very different. For all the talk of ‘rural development’, it is now apparent that the local peasants will have little part to play in the project. Discussing the future of the Manautali scheme, the influential French-language magazine Maules Tropicana et Mediterranean, for instance, had this to say:

“The future does not seem to rest on the extended development of village units. For the moment, such villages provide an excellent means of settling those people living on the river banks, but they do not fit into the development scheme as conceived and planned by the three participating states. Therefore, these village units should not take up more than 20,000 to 25,000 hectares of the land in the scheme.” [11]

The governments of the three riparian states are apparently of a like mind. Indeed, one need look no further than the official schedule for irrigating the Manautali scheme to see what sort of development the authorities intend to introduce. By 1987, for instance, the setting up of small farms will have ceased; after that date, all resources are to be devoted to expanding the area under large farms. Frederick Mounier of the aid organisation Freres des Hommes, Terres des Hommes, comments,

“In effect the decision has been made to favour large-scale mechanised agriculture – with its imports of fertilisers and pesticides in order to produce crops for export – at the expense of the individual small holder.” [12]

Already plans are afoot to turn 30,000 hectares in the Caramance region of Senegal over to a highly mechanised rice plantation. The aim of the project (which will cost $60 million) is to double rice yields in the area and thus reduce the need to import rice. Local farmers will have little say in the running of the plantation. Indeed, as Richard Franke and Barbara Chasin of Montclair College, New York, point out:

“The Caramance rice scheme is to be a profit-making venture in which the Senegalese farmers will be decertified from the land under Senegal’s ‘socialist’ land reform act of 1964. The land will then be rented or otherwise made available to SODAGRI (the government’s agricultural development corporation) which, in turn, will hire the farmer-smallholders or village communal farmers as wage labourers for its operations.” [13]

Vast areas now under millet will be flooded as a result of the scheme and local vegetable gardens will disappear beneath the waters of the paddy fields. Moreover, the rice grown on the plantations will not be available for local consumption: instead it will supply Senegal’s urban population – or rather, those who can afford to buy it.

In so far as the rice grown at Caramance will (in theory) be consumed within Senegal, the project could be said to be of value to the Senegalese. The same cannot be said, however, of many of the other plantations being planned for the area, few of which will even grow food for local consumption. Already, the Sahel region in general (and Mali, Mauritania and Senegal in particular) has been earmarked by development ‘experts’ as a future ‘greenhouse’ for Europe. As far back as the early 1970s, a confidential World Bank report noted:

“Senegal is the closest country to the European market where vegetables can be cultivated in the open without glass or plastic protection during the Winter.” [14]

Since then, the Bank has been even more specific in its recommendations for developing the area. Thus, according to Francis Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins of the San Francisco-based Institute for Food and Development Policy, “recent World Bank reports on Senegal and Mauritania see the region’s future in mango, aubergine and avocado exports.” [15]

Others, too, have latched on to the Sahel’s agricultural potential – and, particularly, its potential as Europe’s backyard vegetable garden. In some cases, the idea has been embraced with an enthusiasm that borders on the euphoric. Take, for instance, an article (entitled ‘The Sahel: Today’ s Disaster Area . . . Tomorrow’s Glorious Garden?’) which appeared in the October 1974 edition of To the Point International and which is quoted by Lappe and Collins in their book Food First: The Myth of Scarcity .

“Space-age farms, modern cattle ranches and lush market gardens in the middle of the Sahara . . . This is no mirage. It is what experts from six of the world’s most backward nations have conjured up for the future. Their idea is to roll back the desert and turn their drought-ravaged countries into a fertile green belt of productive crop land and pasture . . . It could eventually turn the rural subsistence economies of the West African nations of Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Upper Volta into a vegetable garden for Europe and a vast beef belt ” [16]

In fact, the article in To the Point was outdated even before it was written. Thus, at the height of the appalling 1970-1974 drought which ravaged the Sahel, the Sahelian countries were exporting 60 percent of their agricultural produce to Europe, North America and the urban élites of other African countries.

One of those companies involved in the production of such cash crops was Bud Senegal, an affiliate of the House of Bud in Brussels. The company (which was nationalised in 1977 amid accusations of financial malpractice) used a highly sophisticated drip-irrigation system to grow vegetables for export on a 450 hectare plantation. “Three times a week, from early December until May, a DC-10 cargo jet would take off from Senegal loaded with green beans, melons, tomatoes, aubergines, strawberries and paprika,” report Dinham and Hines. “The destinations were Amsterdam, Paris and Stockholm.”

Even during the months when vegetables were not being grown, the plantation was not allowed to lie fallow. Production still continued but the land was not used to grow crops for local consumption: instead, the company grew feed for livestock. Still more indicative of the company’s attitude to the running of the plantation was its response to the dramatic fall in the price of green beans in Europe. That fall meant that it was no longer economic for the company to harvest and export the beans it was growing in Senegal. Rather than market the produce locally, however, the company chose to destroy its entire crop. “Since the Senegalese are not familiar with green beans and do not eat them, we had to destroy them,” explained Paul Van Pelt, director of Bud Holland. [18]

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Pushing peasants onto marginal lands

We have seen above how much prime agricultural land has been taken over for the production of cash-crops in the Third World. That pattern of land-use has tended to push peasants onto land which – more often than not – is totally unsuitable for farming. The results have frequently been disastrous.

By way of example, Lappe and Collins, cite the experience of San Salvador, where plantations now take up half of the total farming area of the country – including all the prime land.

“The land left over, mainly barren hills, is all that some 350,000 campesinos have on which to scratch out a subsistence living for their families. Much of the land they are forced to cultivate is so steep it has to be planted with a stick. The erosion can be so devastating – one study concluded that 77 percent of the nation’s land is suffering from accelerated erosion – that the campesinos must abandon a slope after a single year’s meagre yield.” [19]

Elsewhere the story is the same. Indeed, many now ascribe the disastrous famines which have ravaged the Sahel since the late 1960s to the expansion of cash crops and the consequent pressure on local pastoralists to graze the arid and inhospitable margins of the Sahara desert. Thus, between 1954 and 1957, Niger – one of the worst affected countries – saw a rapid expansion in the amount of land under peanuts; from 142,000 hectares in 1954 to 304,000 in 1957.

Despite warnings that peanut production was proving detrimental to the cultivation of subsistence crops, the high profits to be made encouraged many peasant farmers to take up growing peanuts. Indeed, a survey in the late 1950s, found that half of the farmers in the Maradi District alone were dependent on peanuts for 50 to 80 percent of their incomes; another quarter depended on peanuts for 35 percent of their incomes; and the rest for 25 percent of their incomes. [20]

That dependency, as Richard Franke and Barbara Chasin point out, locked the local peasants onto a treadmill with which we will become increasingly familiar. Thus, declining terms of trade meant that the peasants had to grow more and more peanuts to generate the same amount of income; the advent of new varieties of ‘high-yielding’ peanut plants put many farmers into debt since they were unable to afford the necessary fertilisers and other inputs to grow the new seeds; and that indebtedness forced the peasants to push for higher and higher levels of production.

The results were perhaps predictable. By the mid-sixties, two disastrous trends were already well-established; firstly, the peasants had begun to grow peanuts on village lands which had previously been allowed to lie fallow as an insurance against periods of crop failure; and, secondly, they had begun to move northwards in search of new lands on which to cultivate peanuts.

That northward ‘march’ of the peanut brought its peasant cultivators into direct conflict with the nomads of Northern Niger, pushing the nomads further and further into the desert. To make matters worse, the expansion of peanut production came at precisely the same time as the nomads themselves were being encouraged to expand the size of their herds in order to cash in on the export market for meat in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and other West African countries where livestock cannot be raised because of the presence of tetse fly. In effect, “more production was thus occurring on less and less of an available resource base.” [21]

Moreover, many of the development programmes introduced to help the nomads increase their herds were already placing an undue strain on the fragile environment of Northern Niger. Modern veterinary programmes, for instance, have permitted the build-up of herds to a size which was way above the carrying capacity of even the existing grazing lands; so, too, the digging of thousands of wells throughout the Sahel to supply water (but not more pasture) for the cattle had led to severe over-grazing around well sites.*

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Over-grazing around well sites

Commenting on that over-grazing around the well sites (left), Lappe and Collins note:

“When the rains began to fail, the nomads started to move their cattle en masse to the wells. A well, however, acts as false signal in the traditional culture’s communication system. A well appears to be a good substitute for rain. Unlike rain, however, it does not make pasture grow. A seemingly continuous supply of water, usually the most fickle and limiting factor in their economy, convinced the nomads to keep on increasing the size of their herds . . . Before long, on average, in the Sahel 6,000 head of cattle were milling about wells surrounded by grazing lands that at best could feed 600. After the cattle ate out the areas around the wells and trampled down the soils, the caked earth could no longer even absorb the scarce rains. One eye witness reported that each well ‘quickly became the centre of its own little desert forty or fifty miles square’.” [C. F. Moore Lappe and J. Collins, Food First: The Myth of Scarcity, Souvenir Press, London 1980, p.44]

For the authorities, that over-grazing is now seen as the root cause of the subsequent famines which decimated the nomads’ herds and led to the starvation of at least 100,000 people throughout the Sahel in the early 1970s. Moreover – apparently blind to the adverse impact of their own development plans on the area – the authorities insist that the blame for such over-grazing lies fairly and squarely at the feet of the nomads themselves – or, to use the phrase of the International Monetary Fund, in their “improper use of pasture”. [22]

It is a charge which Franke and Chasin are quick to refute. “it would be more accurate,” they write, “to say that the peanut and the profit system which was pushing it north were the real ‘over-grazers’, not the nomads.” [23] Indeed, in a trenchant attack on the glib explanation of the IMF, they go on to comment:

“That ‘improper use of pasture’ might be related to an over-supply of watering points and an overly-expanding livestock and peanut production system does not enter into the IMF’s thinking. But this seems to be just the point. The wells, the veterinary services, the slaughter houses, the increased herd sizes are all related to the beginnings of a development plan for commercialised livestock production in the Sahel. At the same time, however, the pastoral regions were being subjected to rapid encroachments by herdspeople who were being pushed by the peanut culture into ever more marginal regions. These processes were working together to bring about what might be called the maximisation of ecological damage, all for the sake of profits to the colonial economy, international businesses and the commercial African elites. The ‘overgrazing’ of the nomads, such a common phrase in reports on the Sahel famine, can be seen from the example of Niger, to be part of a national and international production system which gave them no other alternatives, and then provided them with the necessary technology for environmental destruction.” [24]

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