Cash-crop colonialism and the attack on African agriculture
2011-11-16, Issue <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/558
Evaggelos Vallianatos shows how cash-crop colonialism has undermined African
agriculture. Now is the time for a return to indigenous food plants.
In 1769, J. H. Bernardin de Saint Pierre, a French royal officer, said he
was not so sure that coffee and sugar were 'really essential to the comfort
of Europe'. But he was certain that these two crops 'have brought
wretchedness and misery upon America and Africa. The former is depopulated,
that Europeans may have a land to plant them in and the latter is stripped
of its inhabitants, for hands to cultivate them.'
About two and a half centuries later, in 2011, Africans are producing, more
or less, the cash crops they were forced to cultivate during the time of
Bernardin de Saint Pierre: cocoa, coffee, sugar, peanuts, cotton, rubber,
tea, palm oil, timber and tobacco.
The violence of the old colonial system keeps resurfacing in the bleak faces
of malnutrition and hunger.
For example, millions of Africans are desperately malnourished and hungry in
the horn of Africa. In August 2011, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of
the United Nations reported that 12 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia,
Kenya, Somalia and Uganda required 'emergency assistance'. The UN News
Service repeatedly emphasizes the 'acute malnutrition' and 'dire' famine
conditions in Somalia.
Somalia is not merely starving but, since the early 1990s, is without a
government. Warlords have divided the country into satrapies, some fighting
a jihad against Christians and Americans in particular; others armed by
America track down and kill those supporting the Islamists fighting the
United States. The CIA is using Somalia to wage a proxy war against
Despite these cycles of hunger and violence, business as usual and warfare
dominate Africa. Without Russia funding wars against capitalist America in
Africa, most African states have turned to the exploitation of their natural
resources with borrowed money and ideas from the West. And since they have
very little to export save their rare minerals or petroleum, Africans
continue the colonial tradition of cash cropping. However, cash crops for
export take more and more of the best land from local food production,
forcing peasants to bring additional marginal land under cultivation. In
addition, Western experts and their governments are convincing Africans to
industrialise their agriculture.
In fact, just like the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1940s and after
spearheaded the making of Mexican farmers in the model of Iowa farmers, now
the Gates Foundation is in charge of an even more destructive practice for
Africa: embarking on the road to genetic engineering whereby African or
imported crop seeds will have their natures scrambled before they reach the
soil, becoming products of Monsanto. Mike Ludwig of Truthout has documented
 how Monsanto and Gates Foundation 'push GE crops on Africa'.
Africans eat mostly imported wheat, corn and rice, though rice in West
Africa is at the heart of peasant farming. About half of the African people
eat roots, tubers and plantains.
The Europeans heaped scorn on the fantastic variety of Africa's indigenous
cereals. They classified the African grains as cattle feed. That is why -
and not so much because of urbanisation, perishability of food or labour
requirements - many of the 2,000 varieties of indigenous grains, roots,
fruits, and other food plants have been 'lost', at least from the daily diet
of most Africans.
But these foods still exist in Africa and they are the answer to the
tremendous food insecurity of so many millions of human beings in both
Africa and elsewhere in the world.
In a 1996 study, 'Lost Crops of Africa', the US National Academy of Sciences
says that Africa's native cereals like rice, finger millet, fonio, pearl
millet, sorghum, tef, guinea millet and dozens of wild cereals, present a
'local legacy of genetic wealth upon which a sound food future might be
Africa's cereals are also tolerant of heat, cold, drought, water logging and
infertile land. They are also nutritious and tasty. Thus, these African
native cereals do what genetic engineers dream of doing to wheat, rice and
The Academy of Sciences study says that Africa's 'lost' plants may benefit
more than Africa because 'they represent an exceptional cluster of cereal
biodiversity with particular promise for solving some of the food production
problems that will arise in the twenty-first century.'
The worst of those 'problems' is the narrow base of biological diversity
afflicting American crops. In their relentless search for crops to fit giant
machines, huge farms and profit, American scientists and agribusiness men
rely on a handful of crops for most of the country's food. The Academy had
this tragic reality in mind in praising the 'lost' cereals of Africa.
These crops of Africa present Africa and the rest of the world with a great
opportunity to join the African peasants, who still use many of these
indigenous food plants, in building Africa's food security around Africa's
own food, people and culture.
Convinced of the science and justice for food security for Africa, I tried
to do something about it. This was 1996 when the Academy study came out. I
was then working for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It
happened that, in 1995-1996, EPA seconded me to the UN Development Programme
(UNDP) in New York. UNDP is the UN agency for uplifting poor people out of
poverty, or so I thought.
I focused on the Academy report. In a memorandum of 16 April 1996, ('Food
Security for Sub-Sahara Africa'), I urged the UNDP to adopt the findings of
the Academy study, translating them into policy. This meant the UNDP siding
with the peasants and traditional, not industrialised, agriculture. But the
UNDP is not in the business of revolution, so it ignored my recommendations.
When I returned to the EPA, I made another effort to convince policy makers
in Washington, DC, of the wisdom of the Academy report on Africa. In 1998, I
met the director of global programs of the US Agency for International
Development (USAID), an organisation of the State Department. The senior
official of USAID was a Harvard professor of anthropology. When I explained
that the Academy report had an answer for helping Africa out of famine and
hunger, he said to me I was dreaming. 'Don't you watch TV,' he asked me.
'Don't you know that all that president Bill Clinton cares about is Monica
I told the professor that the sexual interest of Clinton was none of my
business. I said Clinton might be convinced of doing something of great
importance for Africa - and America. But the professor would have none of
Despite this disappointment, I talked to two officials at the White House
Office of Science and Technology Policy about helping Africa fight hunger. I
volunteered to prepare a briefing for President Bill Clinton. I proposed a
small project costing a few million dollars. This would involve duplicating
seeds and distributing those seeds for growing food. I was certain such a
gesture might be just what we needed to set the course for a different
strategy for development in Africa.
I never heard from those officials.
Probably the UNDP, USAID and White House bureaucrats figured out my innocent
project had deeper implications: the dismantling of the colonial cash
cropping culture - and the distribution of that cash crop land to the
Clearly, coffee and sugar made Africa very unhappy. The French observer of
the mature, but beastly, colonial system, Bernardin de Saint Pierre, was
right: Europe and the Europeans in America, tore Africa to pieces for their
pleasure. In the Congo, for instance, Belgian and French soldiers and agents
of cash cropping companies carried 'fire and sword from one end of the
country to the other' in order to force the Africans to work rubber.
An African writer and observer of the evolving colonial system, Chinua
Achebe, captured in 1959 the anguish of Africa when he said, 'all our gods
are weeping'. Foreigners disrupted the peasants' sacred farming with cash
cropping and forced them to abandon their ancestral gods.
It would not be easy for Africa to return to her pre-colonial culture. The
entire international system would oppose that kind of metamorphosis. Even
scrapping sub-Saharan Africa's plantation agriculture alone would cause
alarm (and even violence) in Europe, North America and Africa (and probably
panic in the international system's powerful agencies like the World Bank,
UNDP, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Trade
Yet, cash cropping for the benefit of a few Africans and foreigners ought to
find no more room in Africa. Only then, the gods of Africa would cease
weeping - and the lengthy process of reconstruction might have a chance to
heal the enormous wounds of foreign domination and ruthless colonialism.
Besides, self-sufficiency in all matters of importance and food
self-sufficiency in particular, is of crucial importance. Aristotle called
that autarkeia, autarchy, self-sufficiency and thought it was both an end
and the best of state policies.
In Africa, agriculture will nurture freedom and democracy when all land from
the cash crop plantations passes on to the peasants. In addition, giving
land to the African peasants is certain to inspire their distant relatives
in the United States, the threatened black family farmers, to keep fighting
for their land and freedom.
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Received on Wed Nov 23 2011 - 19:23:52 EST