Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Land Grab in Africa...Princess Grab in America

There really is no obvious connection between the two elements in my title, but both are on my mind so we’ll see if they come together.
            Africa first. The continent whence we all came (and not that long ago; most archeologists now think it was a mere 50,000 years), Mommy Africa, has been the object of colonial exploitation for centuries, so you’d think that in this “post-colonial era” our continent of origin might be given a break. Not a chance. Now that the slave catchers and British plantation owners and apartheiders have been given the boot, the exploiters simply line up for the next, slightly more subtle phase: getting title to the farmland. The facilitators are the post-colonial governments, all desperately in need of cash and development. The victims are, as usual, the poor farmers trying to eke out a living on small plots they’ve always depended on for subsistence. The villains are big multinational corporations seeking to cash in on what they see as the next big profit-generator: food in a world moving towards mass starvation.  So the smart money is going towards the buying up or long-term leasing of farmland in areas already half starving themselves—sub-Saharan Africa, in countries like Sierra Leone and Ethiopia. That it will put small farmers and their families out of business, push millions more of these victims into large cities or refugee camps where they will be unable to work or feed themselves and provide the next images of babies with swollen stomachs and flies feeding on their eyes—this doesn’t seem to bother or deter these captains of finance. Their only goal is to find the next big cash cow, and food-growing is apparently where they think it’s at.
            The Oakland Institute (www.oaklandinstitute.org) is at the forefront of trying to draw attention to the developing bonanza (or catastrophe, depending on which view you take). Its website features several articles drawing attention to what it calls the “growing global concern about the race for prime farmland in the world’s poorest countries.” The article “Sierra Leone: Local Resistance Grows as Investors Snap up Land,” Guardian, April 11, 2012, for example, points out that between 2000 and 2010, the rush for land had claimed upwards of 200 million hectares of land, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, including 17% of Sierra Leone’s arable land. Another article reporting on a conference sponsored by the Oakland Institute itself, filled in what kinds of commodities the new industrial plantations grow for export: sugarcane for ethanol, crude oil palm, rubber, and large-scale rice production. Speakers at the conference decried these developments, pointing out that just as small farm holdings (they employ about 3.5 million people—roughly 2/3 of the population) were beginning to come back after Sierra Leone’s long civil war, their recovery is being threatened by the land grab. As one farmer, who has lost her cropland to the Swiss investor, Addax Bioenergy, lamented:
 “How are we going to get food security if you give all the upland land to the investors? We beg you to listen to us….We are suffering because we have nowhere to go. You come out from war, build a house and now when you speak out, they lock you up.”
A landowner and member of parliament, Sheka Musa Sam, referred to the recent lease of 6,500 hectares of land in his district by Socfin Agricultural Company:
“There is no way we can just sit down for 50 years without getting a living. We need to come together and form a united front. We can’t let them make us slaves on our own land. This evil thing will make the poor people even poorer.”
What Musa Sam and others referred to were the endless problems caused by the land deals:
            the overwhelming negative impacts on women who lose their livelihoods and food production; the effect on children’s education who have to drop out of school because their mothers can no longer pay their school fees; increased hunger, rising food prices and despoiled water supplies; the devastating environmental effects of the investors’ operations; and also concerns about the way the industrial plantations shred the social fabric of rural communities, causing marriage breakdowns, unwanted teenage pregnancies, increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, and even the loss of self-esteem when one loses one’s self-employment.
In short, what is being reproduced in Africa are all the ills of industrial farming and industrial development we have seen globally.
            The Oakland Institute recently wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to discuss the issues of the land-grab in a May 19 meeting he had with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Whether the letter did any good is anyone’s guess, but we can imagine that concern for African farmers was not nearly as high on the U.S. priority list as keeping Ethiopia from becoming a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists. What was probably also high on that list was making Africa equally ‘safe’ for genetically-engineered seed from the likes of Monsanto. For although this President has direct roots in Africa, he can never forget what another president (the great Calvin Coolidge) once memorably said:
             ..the chief business of the American people is business.
            Which forms a nice segue into the second topic at hand: the business of Princess making. This is the preoccupation of Berkeley writer Peggy Orenstein—who calls it the Princess Industrial Complex. Her recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, suggests the idea. What Orenstein, herself the mother of a young girl, has found over several years is that American girls are everywhere bombarded with a self-image that seems cute and harmless on the surface, but in reality masks its own kind of grab: a grab for the minds of children and the dollars of parents so eager to indulge their daughters in the fantasy that they are innocent royals, as to be blind to the gross commercialism in which they are partaking and to the underlying dynamics of this fantasy. In a recent article on the subject, “Dodging Disney in the Delivery Room,” (NPR, Feb. 9, 2011) Orenstein quotes from a NY Times report that
            “Disney has begun sending sales reps into 580 hospitals nationwide. The reps are offering new moms, within hours of giving birth, a free Disney Cuddly Bodysuit for their babies if they sign up for e-mail alerts from DisneyBaby.com. The idea is to encourage mothers to infuse their infants with brand loyalty as if it is mother's milk.”
Yes. You read that right: now, not even the delivery room is safe from the predatory sales pitches of corporate America. This sales “push” is meant to do two things: first, to duplicate the success among preschool girls of the Disney Princess line, hyped up in 2000 to earn a staggering $4 billion annually from a product line numbering no less than 26,000 items! And second, to rectify what Disney execs noticed as a gap in their sales: little girls were not becoming consumers until preschool, “resulting in a good three years of potential revenue loss.” If Disney could get expectant mothers thinking about Disney outfits in the delivery room or earlier, it would be, according to one Disney exec, a “home run.” No wonder. The Advertising Educational Foundation sees 1-year-old infants as an “informed, influential and compelling audience,” able at 12 months to recognize brands and be “strongly influenced” by advertising! Orenstein rightly counters this, pointing out that “studies show that children under 8 years old can’t distinguish between ads and entertainment. Until then, they don’t fully comprehend that advertising is trying to sell them something…” But tell that to the predatory bastards in the executive suites and the ad agencies.
            Orenstein has a lot more to say about the perils of the Princess Industrial Complex, specifically that beneath the cute pink that is pushed upon girls everywhere, even in supermarkets, there is a cultural demand: you are what you look like, what people who look at you think of you. Therefore, what you look like as a girl, as a princess in cute pink dresses, and later as a teen and woman obsessed with appearance, should be your constant, your sole preoccupation in life. Nevermind your ability to run and jump, nevermind your ability to read or calculate or think, nevermind your ability to carve out your own, decent path in life. You are, you better be, a clean, pretty and pink object, period. Orenstein also points out what is less obvious: that beneath this preoccupation with pink innocence lies a parental fear of their daughters growing up, of adulthood, of adult sexuality. It’s of course a mixed message because on the one hand, girls are being schooled to think of themselves as pretty and desirable, but on the other are being schooled in maintaining an impossible innocence. The same dual appeal, of course, lies at the heart of the Disney world in general: a mania to represent historical eras, but stripped of all threat and dirt and reality, rendered innocent and clean as they may exist in fantasy, but never in reality. And the rubes just love it.  
            What can never be forgotten, though, is the main objective here: making money off innocence or the promise of innocence, making a profit from the impulse to escape reality and dwell in the land of Cinderella (her wicked stepmother and sisters cleansed of the reality of the original fairy tale) and the handsome prince who will come to rescue her.            
            Think about it next time you are tempted to buy a princess-themed present for the delightful little girl in your life. And about how perhaps, just perhaps, the African land grab and the American princess grab are cut from the same cloth after all.  
Lawrence DiStasi

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