Corporate Power

Cover photo by Dr. Gerry Farrell

This book explores the power that a single industry can wield over an entire province, namely Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. It is a story that has been waiting to be told. With a powerful foreword by Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s Green Party and Member of Parliament for Saanich-Gulf Islands, British Columbia, it has local, national and even global relevance.

November 2017

Fifty years ago this month a long list of dignitaries and politicians gathered at Abercrombie Point in Pictou County, northern Nova Scotia, for the official luncheon and opening of the brand new pulp mill owned by Scott Paper of Philadelphia.

Since it went into operation in 1967, the mill has provided valuable jobs and found support from governments of all levels and all stripes. But it has also fomented protest and created deep divisions and tensions in northern Nova Scotia.

Twelve premiers and five foreign corporate owners later, the mill remains a smelly fixture across the harbour from the picturesque waterfront of Pictou, the birthplace of New Scotland.

Its fascinating story is one that has been waiting to be pieced together and told. And that is what Nova Scotian journalist and award-winning author Joan Baxter does in the new book The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest.

Picturesque Pictou waterfront across from the pulp mill. Photo by Joan Baxter

It meticulously and dispassionately documents the history of the Pictou County mill using archival material, government records, consultant and media reports, and poignant interviews with people whose lives have touched by the mill and the pulp industry. By weaving these personal stories into the historical narrative, the book brings to life five decades of controversy and citizen-led campaigns to have the mill clean up its act, and to have government protect the people and environment rather than lavishing hundreds of millions of dollars of financing and other concessions on a mill owned by large corporations.

Boat Harbour in June 2016. Photo by Joan Baxter

This book takes readers to Pictou Landing to hear from members of the First Nation there, and learn about their betrayal by both provincial and federal governments, which turned Boat Harbour – so precious to them that they called it “the other room” (A’se’K in the Mi’kmaq language) – into a stinking, toxic wasteland. It gives voice to people whose well-being, health, homes, water, air, businesses have been affected by the mill’s effluent and emissions, and to people whose livelihoods have depended on the pulp mill.

This compelling book is a rich tapestry of story-telling, of great interest to everyone who is concerned about how we can start to renegotiate the relationship between the economy, jobs, and profits on one hand, and human well-being, health, and a healthy environment on the other.

The Mill tells a local story with global relevance and appeal. It is a story of corporate capture of governments and regulatory agencies that citizens have been protesting and struggling to reverse for the last half century … and even longer.

About the author: Joan Baxter is a journalist, science writer, anthropologist and an award-winning author. She has written seven books, authored many media and research reports on international development and foreign investment, and reported for the BBC World Service and contributed to many other media, including the CBC, Le Monde Diplomatique, Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Chronicle Herald, The Coast.

The Mill is available in selected bookstores, and also online at:

Chapters Indigo

Nimbus Publishing

Amazon

 For more information / media inquiries:

Joan Baxter: Themillthebook@gmail.com, joanbaxter.ca

Lesley Choyce, Pottersfield Press: lchoyce@ns.sympatico

Upcoming events:

Launch and book reading “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest”, Thursday, November 16, 2017: 6:30 – 9 PM, The Wooden Monkey, 305 – 40 Alderney Drive, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Launch and book reading “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest”, Tuesday, November 21, 2017: 7 – 9 PM, Museum of Industry, Stellarton, Nova Scotia

Author book signing “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest”, Saturday, November 25, 2017: 12 noon – 1:30 PM, Indigo Chapters bookstore, 41 Mic Mac Boulevard, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Author book signing “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest”, Saturday, December 2, 2017: 12 noon – 1:30 PM, Coles Bookstore, Truro Mall, 245 Robie St, Truro, Nova Scotia

Author book signing “The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest”, Saturday, December 2, 2017: 3 – 4:30 PM, Coles Bookstore, Highland Square Mall, 689 Westville Rd, New Glasgow, Nova Scotia

 

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Book review by: Joan Baxter

Carey Gillam’s book, “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science” (Island Press, 2017) is a must-read.

A few weeks ago I found myself sitting beside a retired chemical engineer at a reunion of my husband’s age-mates in Germany. I’m not sure what made the engineer decide to unleash decades worth of remorse about what his profession had done in the 1960s and 1970s, but that’s what he did.

He said that he, his company and colleagues around the world had knowingly produced many, many toxic chemicals that wound up in our homes, our foods, our bodies, and made us sick. Others they produced were so poisonous they would kill instantly, and were almost impossible to dispose of safely. Many are still in storage today.

I listened, amazed at his candour and aghast at what he was saying. I had just written a book about a fifty-year-old pulp mill in my home province of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada, and about successive waves of public protest over the dangerous chemicals it used and emitted, polluting air, water, and politics. The book also shows how the powerful pulp industry has shaped forest policies and practises in much of Canada, with its regime of clearcutting, planting of conifer monocultures, and then spraying these plantations with herbicides to kill off hardwoods that would compete with them.

The active ingredient in those herbicides is glyphosate. This is the weed-killer that the giant agrochemical and biotech company Monsanto put on the market in 1974 with the name “Roundup,” and complemented 20 years later with its genetically modified (GM) “Roundup Ready” crops that could be sprayed with the herbicide because they had been engineered to withstand it. Governments seemed convinced the weed-killer was safe; they had permitted its use around the world on fields of crops that we eat every day, and anywhere else that human beings want to wipe out plants that dare to put down roots where they are not wanted — on lawns, golf courses, gardens, parks, and playgrounds.

But glyphosate had long been controversial and I was curious as to what the chemist thought of it.

So I interrupted his Mea culpa about his own chemical sins and asked, “What about glyphosate? Is it safe?”

“It should be banned,” he said, without hesitating. “It’s poison.”

I wanted to ask him many more questions. Why, for example, did he (and many others) think glyphosate was dangerous, when the agro-chemical industry (and many others) argue that it is safe enough to drink and harmless to the environment? And why, if it really was harmful, did government agencies around the world approve it so that it has become the most widely used agro-chemical in human history?

Unfortunately, time ran out and I didn’t get to pose these questions.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when a couple of weeks later I learned there was a new book about glyphosate that might answer my questions. Entitled “Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science,” it was written by a veteran journalist and researcher, Carey Gillam.

The book does not disappoint. Not only does it answer my initial questions, but it also raises and answers many more, and it does so dispassionately and meticulously. She draws on years of research and investigation, countless scientific studies, court documents, interviews with scientists, farmers and regulators, and her previous experience as a senior reporter with Reuters.

When she first started reporting on agriculture, Gillam — like most citizens in democracies — had a lot of faith in the government agencies whose job it is to protect consumers and ensure the safety of farm products and foods, assuming that they wouldn’t approve herbicides such as Roundup and the GM Roundup Ready seeds that Monsanto produced if they posed any risks. She even became a “fan” of Monsanto’s chief technology officer, and said she enjoyed her chats with “the affable Brett Begemann” who had risen through the ranks to become Monsanto’s president.

But, as time passed, and her research and reports began to expose doubts about GM crops and glyphosate-based herbicides, she discovered that Monsanto could also be far from affable. The company tried to have her editors take her off the beat and their surrogates engaged in smear campaigns.

Eventually, Gillam left Reuters and joined the non-profit, US Right to Know, with its stated goal of “pursuing truth and transparency in America’s food system.” Her book offers readers 251 pages of compelling evidence that there is an urgent need for just such truth and transparency, that glyphosate poses many risks for human health, farms, crops, soils and the environment, and that Monsanto and the agro-chemical industry have gone to extraordinary lengths and expense to hide these from regulators and the public.

We learn that in the mid-1980s, a decade after Monsanto began promoting glyphosate as the safest herbicide ever, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States classified the chemical as a “possible human carcinogen.” Then, in 1991, after “extensive input” from Monsanto, the EPA did an about-face, deciding there was “evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans.”

Over the years, study after independent study found that glyphosate was linked with health problems, with cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, chromosomal damage in blood cells, endocrine disruption, kidney or liver disease, and hormonal changes, among others. The combination of other ingredients with glyphosate in herbicide formulas made it even more dangerous.

“When you spray glyphosate on a plant it’s like giving it AIDS.”

Then there were the giant superweeds that were springing up in fields of Roundup Ready crops, which were resistant to glyphosate. To try to get rid of them, farmers were being forced to go back to deep tilling and every greater use of herbicides, both of which were things Monsanto promised its GM seeds and herbicides would reduce.

Researchers also found that the use of glyphosate around conventional and GM crops weakened their root systems, making them more vulnerable to disease and crop failures, such as that which has devastated Florida’s citrus crops. One independent scientist who determined that glyphosate destroys soil health tells Gillam, “When you spray glyphosate on a plant it’s like giving it AIDS.”

Monsanto and the agro-chemical industry pushed back at every step, publicizing its own studies that did not have to go through a peer review, hiring ghost-writers and providing them with messages, engaging industry-friendly scientists to write industry-friendly papers, and attacking genuinely independent scientists who contradicted them, trying to discredit them. As Gillam documents so diligently, this pattern repeated itself over and over and over again, and continues today.

“So where, one might ask, are the regulators?” asks Gillam at one point. A good question that she answers with ,a litany of rock-solid examples of how regulators have failed the public when it comes to glyphosate-based herbicides, be it the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. Or the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and Ministry of Food and Agriculture in Germany. And although she doesn’t focus on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), she does note that it did not require annual testing for glyphosate residues until 2017, after the research branch of the World Health Organization categorized glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

Gillam admits that the story of glyphosate, the sacrificing of public safety for corporate profits for agro-chemical giants and the corporate capture of regulatory agencies, is not a “feel-good story.” This is certainly true. Page after page detailing the perfidy of compliant politicians and scientists, and the silencing of honest researchers within regulatory agencies, can be hard on the soul. It challenges head-on the myths that Monsanto (which the German giant Bayer is trying to take over) and others in the business of profiting from pesticides and GM crops have spread so effectively that their mission is to feed the world, something one senior scientist tells Gillam is “a bunch of garbage.”

“…when powerful corporations control the narrative, the truth often gets lost, and it’s up to journalists to find it and bring it home.”

At the same time, this book is hard to put down, as fast-paced and full of intrigue as any thriller, and it does offer glimmers of hope. After the World Health Organization labelled glyphosate a probable carcinogen, and despite the backlash from industry, lapdogs in regulatory agencies and even some media, many people believing their cancer came from exposure to glyphosate decided to take Monsanto to court. This brought to light damming documents that reveal still more of the subterfuge that surrounds glyphosate.

One professor emeritus of plant pathology tells her, “Future historians may well look back on our time and write about us … how willing we were to sacrifice our children and jeopardize future generations based on false promises and flawed science just to benefit the bottom line of a commercial enterprise.”

As Gillam notes, some believe that the chemical may turn out to have been worse than its poisonous predecessors — DDT and Agent Orange.

Her work on glyphosate leads her to conclude that “…when powerful corporations control the narrative, the truth often gets lost, and it’s up to journalists to find it and bring it home.”

This is exactly what Carey Gillam has done masterfully in this must-read book.

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Press Release: May 19, 2017

In her new book, “Seven Grains of Paradise,” Joan Baxter challenges many myths and explores the wealth of African food cultures and knowledge, foods and crops, and farming know-how.

It flies in the face of many media headlines, but the reality is that Africa has much to teach the world about healthy eating. Of the ten countries with the healthiest diets on earth, nine are African, some of them among the monetarily poorest nations on earth.

In her latest book, Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa, Joan Baxter highlights the wisdom and knowledge of cooks, farmers and friends who act as guides to some of the marvellous, diverse foods and food cultures in several African counties. She explores the riddle of a continent that is known more for hunger than for its rich and diverse foods and cuisines, and for having discovered and bred many of the staple foods and drinks consumed daily around the world – coffee, “cola” extracts, watermelon, palm oil, black-eyed peas, gumbo, sesame, pearl and finger millets.

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Alligator peppers containing the tasty little “grains of paradise” have important spiritual and medicinal uses in Sierra Leone. They are also a popular delicacy in many West African dishes and cuisines. Photo credit: Saskia Marijnissen

Seven Grains of Paradise draws on stories collected over the more than three decades that Baxter worked, lived and learned in Africa. From the fabled city of Timbuktu on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, to the diamond fields of Sierra Leone, from the savannah of northern Ghana to the rainforests of Central Africa, readers are invited on a delectable journey of learning and eating – and some drinking too.

Baxter doesn’t shy away from the very real problems of food insecurity, hunger or malnutrition brought on by conflict, poverty, unfair trade and climate change, which today plague not just Africa but many other parts of the world. While the book focuses on the immense potential of family farming and locally produced food in Africa, it also documents the growing risks they face. And it asks whether there is a need for a rethink about how “development” affects diets – especially within development agencies, international institutions and donors in the (sometimes lucrative and self-serving) business of food aid or improving food security and nutrition in Africa.

About the author: Joan Baxter is a journalist, science writer, anthropologist and an award-winning author who has published five books, several research reports about international development in West Africa, countless media articles and documentaries for a host of media organizations, including the BBC World Service, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), Le Monde Diplomatique, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Chronicle Herald. She has worked as a science writer and communications specialist for the World Agroforestry Centre and the International Center for Forestry Research, based in Kenya, served on the Board of USC Canada, and as the Executive Director of the Nova Scotia – Gambia Association. She is a Senior Research Fellow with the Oakland Institute.

Seven Grains of Paradise: A Culinary Journey in Africa is available at bookstores in Canada or online:

https://www.nimbus.ca/store/seven-grains-of-paradise.html?___SID=U

https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-CA/home/search/?keywords=Seven%20Grains%20of%20Paradise

https://www.amazon.ca/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=Seven+Grains+of+Paradise&rh=n%3A916520%2Ck%3ASeven+Grains+of+Paradise

An e-pub version of the book will be available soon.

Praise for “Seven Grains of Paradise”

“Joan Baxter has given us a shimmering crystal prism blending Africa’s culinary splendour, practical agronomy, and dirty politics, with laser-like precision. Roaming around Western Africa for several decades, her anecdotes are as scathingly unforgiving of Western bias, corporate greed and agricultural industrialization, as they are of African culpability. The delicious recipes woven seamlessly into her experience of African foods had me frantically scouring the city for ingredients, but alas, she is correct, it is very difficult to find Africa’s ingredients on African shelves. I have long searched for such a book, and am hardly able to put it down.” Ake Mamo, aspiring farmer, educator and devotee of indigenous foods and fruits

“Joan Baxter has written a lyrical yet punchy and political book about food in Africa that will turn your preconceptions on their head and make your mouth water. Probably Canada’s foremost expert on West African cuisine and a hardy journalist to boot, she explores the indigenous crops that make the region’s diet the healthiest in the world. Surprised? Read this book and get woken about the market places, forests, fields and kitchens of Africa.” Cathy WatsonAshoka fellow, correspondent for the BBC and The Guardian, and agroforester

“In Seven Grains of Paradise, Joan Baxter invites us into her life and time in Africa to meet the people, communities, and families in the most down-to-earth and real way. Through the stories she shares, I found the spirit of Africa. I could smell the food in the cooking pots; I could hear the sound of the markets and feel the sun warm my skin. I could just listen to the conversations and transplant myself to the moment, to the kitchen, to the streets described. Seven Grains of Paradise is a book I will keep with me for years to come; and read over and over again.” Dr. Yene Assegid, Author and Leadership Coach/Trainer

“In an unconventional and appealing view of Africa, Joan Baxter describes her gastronomic experiences in Africa in an intriguing mix of social anthropology, ethno-botany, and eating out. The end result is a traveller’s ‘Good Food Guide’ to the restaurants and markets of Africa in the company of local cooks and chefs, providing a Master Class in African cuisine. This book also points to missed opportunities for creating a better life for Africans by promoting their own diverse array of exciting food species to replace the monotonous diet of maize and cassava imposed on many by international agricultural ‘experts’. Joan Baxter goes on to explain how local foods are being promoted by a more appropriate and emerging approach to tropical agriculture – called ‘agroforestry’ aimed at resolving the problems of hunger, malnutrition, poverty, environmental degradation (including the loss of biodiversity and climate change) that have a stranglehold on Africa. The wealth of information about traditional foods in this book thus provides motivation for a paradigm shift to improve the lives of Africans; not to mention the health of our planet. A must-read for ‘foodies,’ Africa-lovers and development workers.” Professor Roger R.B. Leakey (DSc, PhD, BSc, FRGS), International Tree Foundation and author of Living with the Trees of Life – Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture and Multifunctional Agriculture: Achieving Sustainable Development in Africa

“There are so many ways to use this book. It’s great to read in case you’re thinking of travelling to Africa…great to teach people who know nothing about Africa except that it has traumatic bouts with famine and hunger. It’s great preparation for people going to an African restaurant in their own city, be it in North America or Europe…great for being able to understand better and welcome properly newcomers to your country who’ve come from Africa. It’s great to read a writer who combines angst and self-deprecating humor and who has a real way with zany words. It’s great to have another angle on the enormous power of food to bring out what’s good and inspiring in people, and to come away from a book that deals with weighty matters in a weighty way that still leaves room for hope.” Wayne Roberts, author of The No Nonsense Guide to World Food and Food for City Building, former manager of the Toronto Food Policy Council; speaker and consultant on food and cities

 

 

 

 

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BY Joan Baxter

Bill Gates hobnobs with elected leaders at COP21 in Paris. Copyright DW/ N. Pontes

Bill Gates hobnobs with elected leaders at COP21 in Paris. Copyright DW/ N. Pontes

In many places and among many people, he’s revered, a man whose charitable giving accords him selfless, almost saint-like status. But it’s not as if Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, is actually shedding any of his vast wealth, no matter how much noise is made about his generosity.

This year, for the sixteeth time in just 21 years, Bill Gates tops the Forbes list of the richest people in the world. With 1,826 billionaires on that list in 2015, worth a total of US$ 7.05 trillion, it’s no small feat to be Number One.

Gates (unlike genuine saints) is very good at making money from money; according to Forbes in the past six years he has almost doubled his fortune and is now worth nearly $80 billion. That’s a good deal more than the Gross Domestic Product of 46 of the 49 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

This despite his reputation as the world’s number one giver-of-money and “philanthropist”, determined to “help thousands and millions” out of poverty. Continue reading Philanthrocapitalism – all the power that billions can buy

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The beautiful worn stones of a Nova Scotia beach, this one in Guysborough County

BY: Joan Baxter

P8194822-300x225On a balmy, overcast August day, I stood at Port Joli Head in the Kejimkujik Seaside park on Canada’s Atlantic coast, nibbling on delectable little beach peas, staring out over the windswept beaches of white sand and rounded weathered grey stones, and at blue waves exploding white against magnificent rocks of granite as the ocean waters nudged relentlessly at the southern shore of Nova Scotia.

Just offshore, fat seals lounged on rocky islands, ensconced there like complacent and over-indulged Roman emperors. I envied them their thick layers of blubber that allowed them to slip happily in and out of the frigid crystalline waters, for their ability to live without a single thing but their own thick coats and their seal brains. And being in the national park, they didn’t need to worry about human predators as they lazed about on the rocks. They completely – almost insolently – ignored the human beings gaping at them through binoculars.

The park’s interpretive signs informed hikers that 18,000 years ago this area was covered by a sheet of ice three kilometres thick, and the land mass we now call Nova Scotia extended fifty kilometres out to sea. As the ice slowly retreated about 13,000 years ago, the sea level rose and the waters crept ashore, swallowing up land, even as the land itself was rising, heaving a sigh of relief as the weight of the ice diminished. That was naturally-induced climate change, caused by minute alterations in the earth’s tilt in its orbit that have brought about cycles of ice ages and periods of warming. Such change is gradual, happening over thousands of years. Life forms can adapt to the changes by evolving or finding new niches in which to live.

But that has not always been the case in our planet’s history. Between about 440 and 65 million years ago, there were five Great Extinctions, each of which wiped out the majority of the species on earth at the time. Scientists believe these were triggered by cataclysmic events — giant asteroid impacts and the eruption of flood basalts when molten rock bursts through the earth’s surface — that involved the release of enormous amounts of dust and sulphur dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere. But it was the dramatic climate change the cataclysms invoked that caused the great extinctions.

Today, we’re in the middle of what is called the Sixth Great Extinction. The cataclysmic event causing it? We, the people. Human beings. Homo sapiens sapiens, literally “wise or knowing humans”. Continue reading Climate change and “wise” human beings — will our species rise to the challenge?

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Page Brigette DePape stands in the middle of the floor of the Senate as Governor General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday June 3, 2011. Moore has posted a giant photo on his website of 21-year-old Brigette DePape holding up a “Stop Harper” sign in the Senate chamber during Friday's throne speech. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

BY: Joan Baxter

Dear Mr. Harper,

I am worried about you, I mean truly, deeply worried about you. It’s not that you haven’t worried me before. You and your political agenda cooked up to serve the wealthy made me leery long before you slipped, serpent-like, right through the schools of squabbling Liberals and NDP in 2006 to form a minority Conservative government.

But since you got your majority – even if only with a minority of the popular vote – it looks as if the power is doing very dangerous things to your head, as absolute power does. And like many of my fellow Canadians, I am sick with worry about what that means for the country.

Many democracies around the world limit the number of terms or length of time that elected leaders can stay in power. The idea is that no one person should taste power for too long; it is too addictive and it clouds judgement, brings on delusions of infallibility. Alas, Canada doesn’t have such a limit. And it doesn’t seem as if you have any in-built mechanism to tell you that enough is not just enough, it’s too much, that it’s time for you to quit. Retire gracefully. Watch lots of hockey and write another book about it, bang about on the piano, hang about at Tim Hortons, take up Tiddlywinks, whatever it is that turns you on – besides humiliating and destroying everyone that doesn’t agree with you, that is.

But it seems you’ve imbibed too much of the elixir of power and want to stick around, seek another mandate. At least that’s what you said in your recent interview with Peter Mansbridge on CBC, the public broadcaster that I fear will no longer be recognizable if you stay on as Prime Minister, just like Canada itself. Continue reading Dear Stephen Harper – please accept this invitation to resign (and repent)

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The magnificent ocean vista on Nova Scotia's Eastern Shore

BY: Joan Baxter

My dearly beloved, but bruised and much-abused Canada,

09.02.2005-parliament-from-gatineau-300x225I wish I were writing to you under better circumstances, and not when you are at such a low point in your history, so badly abused by the Harper Government. I can’t even say by the “Government of Canada”; that name has been stolen from you, replaced with that of the man who has taken you hostage.

Some would argue that because he was elected as prime minister, Stephen Harper can do what he wants with you. And if his regime wants to rewrite history, suppress science, reject reason, present lies as truth and war as peace, drag you back into the Dark Ages – to change you so much and in so many ways that you are no longer recognizable (as he threatened to do back in 2006) – that reflects the will of the Canadian people that elected the Conservatives.

But, I would argue, dear Canada, that this isn’t so. Continue reading Oh, woe, Canada – a tough-love letter to my country

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BY: Joan Baxter

About 10 million people — opg-34-king-leopold-_403867s-267x300r more — perished in Belgian King Leopold’s Congo during the late 1800s and early 1900s.[i] In addition to the horrific human toll, another shocking thing about Leopold’s plundering of his huge African colony is that he managed to convince so many in Europe and the United States that his apparatus of exploitation and wealth collection was humanitarian and philanthropic, that his intention was to benefit the “natives”, help end the slave trade and bring “civilization”, and to further scientific endeavour.

Back then, there weren’t legions of communications and public relations specialists for hire to transform bad into good, to spin sin into virtue, and tailors who convinced naked emperors they were clad in robes of gold existed only in fairy tales. So the campaign of deception about Leopold’s actual intent in Africa probably started with the good king himself. He may genuinely have believed himself a noble fellow, and his right to conquer and pillage a chunk of Africa about 77 times the size of his own nation something that God granted his royal self.

Thankfully, times have changed.

Or have they? Continue reading King Leopold’s Ghost and the 21st century scramble for Africa’s farms and foods

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Mali

By: Joan Baxter

Despite all the problems there are with Band Aid 30’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas, few would take issue with the noble sentiment of the stirring chorus line near the end of the song that exhorts us to “feed the world”.

Just as I’m left wondering where, exactly, the funds raised by Bob Geldof’s charitable efforts will go “to fight the Ebola crisis” in West Africa, I am also curious about what, exactly, they are thinking the world should be fed with.

I’m not just being ornery; this is an important question.

We live on a planet that is plagued by hunger and periodic famine, caused increasingly by climate change, conflict, politics, perverse policies and poverty. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), close to a tenth of the world’s population does not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.

At the same time, there is also a good deal of excessive consumption of calories that has led to another kind of global health crisis. Continue reading Yes, let’s feed the world – but with healthy food from healthy farms

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2009-11-09-ROAD-to-KONO-Addax-village-001-300x225We were meeting under a thatch roof at the makeshift headquarters of Addax Bioenergy in northern Sierra Leone. Aminata Koroma, Social Liaison Officer for the company, was extolling for me the virtues of the project that was transforming great swaths of farmland, grassland and woodland around us into massive sugarcane plantations. Addax Bioenergy, part of the Addax & Oryx Group headed by Swiss billionaire Jean-Claude Gandur, had recently leased more than 50,000 hectares in the area, with the intention of processing the sugarcane to produce ethanol for export to Europe, where it would be used to fuel vehicles. Koroma was more than enthusiastic about the project, despite a good deal of local opposition among farming communities.

I was challenging her about the wisdom of transforming the diverse countryside, much of it used for farming, into monocultural plantations of sugarcane. She responded that there would be “environmental corridors”, and that they were going to have a “tree-planting day”.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

To make way for its sugarcane plantations in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy had to fell many trees, including ones that produce valuable food such as kenda.

I countered that I had seen the bulldozers taking down valuable indigenous leguminous trees that did not lend themselves well to planting, such as the locust bean tree, or Parkia biglobosa. This tree is cherished through West and Central Africa because of its many medicinal properties, the sweet edible yellow powder that is harvested from its pods, and its seeds that are fermented and prepared to produce an extremely nutritious and tasty condiment that has long been a mainstay in local cuisines. In Sierra Leone it’s known as kenda.

“Nobody’s planting those trees, the ones that produce kenda,” I said to Koroma. “They grow naturally, they’re not cultivated.”

“Why are you thinking about producing kenda?” she retorted. “ I mean, we call it the poorest man’s food. There is even a song that says, ‘kenda and dry rice, na poor man’s choice’.” She said that the only people in Sierra Leone who ate kenda were people who could not afford the modern alternative, the chemical-ridden Maggi cubes from Nestlé. For her, traditional foods such as kenda had no place in a modern diet. She seemed to think my defence of the condiment and the diverse local farms that produced traditional crops meant I was backward. Against progress and development. Continue reading Poor man’s food? Saving Africa’s foods, ferments and farms from the “saviours”

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