Environment

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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Displaying the bounty of family farms in Bongor, Sierra Leone. Photo: J. Baxter

By Joan Baxter

It’s a very humid and hot Saturday morning when we set out from Kenema, heading south to a village called Bongor in southeast Sierra Leone.

This is prime cocoa- and coffee-growing land. Just about every family in every village can lay claim (in an informal way, because there is no such thing as formal land title here) to a small “tree-crop” plantation, or agroforest.

These agroforests are generally a few acres that farmers plant and manage. They are full of economically important trees that add a lot of value to the farms and complement income from cocoa and coffee.

A local agricultural extension officer and I are hoping to meet up with some members of a women’s farming group and learn what crops they grow and how well they’re doing from them. A man from a local group called the “Agroforestry Farmers Association” has informed the community we are coming, as is custom when strangers are planning a visit to any village. Our visit is supposed to be innocuous and low-key.

When the vehicle pulls into Bongor, it looks as if there is a giant party going on. It turns out it’s to welcome us.

The “Court Barray” — the village meetinghouse with a tin roof and spacious open-air interior — is jammed with women and children. They rush out to greet us, dancing and singing and corralling us into the Court Barray.

So much for innocuous and low-key. Continue reading Musing on the bounty in rural Sierra Leone

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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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BY Joan Baxter

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” This hard truth comes from a 183-page document that makes a plea for our species to come to our senses and hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”.

It’s a powerful cri de coeur for humankind to stop the plunder of the planet, confront climate change and end unfettered capitalism that is driving the destruction and disparity between rich and poor. It continues: “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change.”

Strong words, revolutionary even. The kind of language one might expect from the environmental or social justice groups often labelled “radical” or “extremist” by the powerful elites these statements condemn.

But they’re not. They come from the Encyclical written by Pope Francis, arguably the single most influential man on the planet as spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world. Continue reading It’s way more than the economy: climate change, unfettered capitalism and Canada’s election

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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 5) Chinnakannan Sivasankaran

There is a great deal of buzz about Africa’s economic awakening, with some countries experiencing substantial growth in gross domestic product that is being driven by waves of foreign capital, as investors from Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East and also Latin America descend on the continent. Many of the investors are after natural resources, mineral and oil riches and also farmland. This raises the question: is the foreign investment benefitting the continent or is it just another scramble for Africa, the last stage of colonialism? In this, the last of six articles on the issue, Joan Baxter profiles another of five billionaire investors in Sierra Leone, French national Vincent Bolloré and his complex investment portfolio in Africa. The article concludes the series by looking at how even if the wave of foreign investment in Sierra Leone benefits the country.

 Billionaire investors and prosperity for whom?

P1011484-300x225Not even 50 kilometres from the disputed land lease taken out by the Siva Group  in Kpaka Chiefdom in Sierra Leone’s Pujehun District, where angry youth leaders and local chiefs are denouncing their Paramount Chief for signing away their precious farmland, there is similar discontent and dis-accord over a land deal in the Malen Chiefdom. There, Socfin Agricultural Company (SL) Ltd, or SAC, has leased 6,575 hectares and converted more than half of that into monoculture oil palm plantation. It is now seeking to lease and plant an additional 5,500 hectares, for a total of 12,000.[i]

SAC is 85 percent owned by Socfinaf,[ii] part of the extremely complex Socfin [Société Financière des Caoutchoucs] Group, with its contact address[iii] in Luxembourg, a ”major” secrecy jurisdiction at the ”dirty” end of the spectrum. [iv] Thirty-nine percent of the shares of Socfin are held by the Bolloré Group,[v] of which the prominent French billionaire Vincent Bolloré is Chair and Chief Executive Officer. Although the Group is listed on the Paris stock exchange, the Bolloré family holds ”majority control of the company through a complex and indirect holding structure”.[vi] The major shareholders of SOCFIN SA are all very much associated with the Bolloré Group, as they are controlled by the Fabri or de Ribes families, who are intertwined in the various interconnected companies.

Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 6): prosperity for whom?

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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 4): Jean Claude Gandur

In this, the fifth in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone’s natural resources and farmland, Joan Baxter profiles another of five billionaire investors in the country, Indian national Chinnakannan Sivasankaran and his quest to make his Siva Group into the largest player in the production of  palm oil by leasing land and establishing oil palm plantations from Papua New Guinea to Sierra Leone to South America.

 King of Oil Palm

The magnitude of the ambitions of other investors working to get their hands on Sierra Leonean real estate in the form of farmland pales next to those of the Siva Group. Siva is an Indian conglomerate with offices in Singapore, ”a big, dirty Asian tax haven”. [i] The Siva Group is working to become ”the largest global player in the production of sustainable palm oil”. [ii] According to its country representative in Sierra Leone, it is acquiring more than 200,000 hectares of arable land for oil palm plantations in the country,[iii] with agreements that will give Siva control of the land for 50 years with possible extensions up to 99. This is part of the Group’s quest to plant one million hectares of oil palm in Africa and Asia.[iv]

P1012091-300x225Atop the Siva Group is another reputed billionaire, the enigmatic Indian entrepreneur Chinnakannan Sivasankaran. [v] A former employee of the Group says that Sivasankaran does all he can to avoid appearing on the Forbes List. [vi] He is one of the largest landowners in The Seychelles,[vii] and the owner of three private jets. He was the first to join Dragon Blaze, an exclusive ultra-luxurious lifestyle company based in Malaysia, which gives its members, limited to a maximum of 50, the right to use their fleet of private jets and yachts.[viii] Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 5): Chinnakannan Sivasankaran

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Previously Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 3) Frank Timis

In this, the fourth in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone, Joan Baxter profiles another of five billionaire investors, Swiss national Jean Claude Gandur and his investment in Sierra Leonean farmland to produce ethanol for export to Europe.

King of Sugar and Bioenergy

While some foreign investors focus on underground riches in Sierra Leone, other moneyed foreign investors are seeking to further their fortunes by acquiring large tracts of arable and well-watered land for industrial agriculture in the country. They’re part of what has been called a global land grab that began after the combined financial and food crises of 2007 and 2008, when investors sought safe and profitable places to park their wealth. The land rush is also being driven by and capitalizes on the increased production of agrofuels or biofuels, as well as fears of future food and water shortages caused by climate change, environmental degradation and population growth.

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 Land- and water-hungry investors have found welcoming arms with the Government of Sierra Leone [pdf], which has resulted in a spate of large land deals in the country. Despite a great lack of transparency in many of the deals, it can be estimated using actual leases and investor fliers that in the past few years, foreign investors — primarily from Europe, the UK, China, India — have taken out leases of 50 years, some with possible extensions up to 99, on more than 1.2 million hectares of land, nearly a quarter of all the arable land in Sierra Leone. [i] Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 4): Jean Claude Gandur

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Previously: Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 1): Sierra Leone on a silver platter?

This, the second  in a series of six articles on foreign investment in Sierra Leone profiles Beny Steinmetz, one of five billionaire investors in the country and his investment portfolio in Africa.

Part 2. King of Diamonds in Sierra Leone

It’s December 2012 and workers at the Octéa diamond mine in the town of Koidu in Sierra Leone are on strike, complaining of poor wages, “appalling” working conditions and ”racism”. [i]  When the Minister of Mines and Mineral Resources travels to Koidu to deal with the crisis, protestors allegedly throw stones. Armed Sierra Leone police claim to be overwhelmed and open fire. Two people are killed, one a passing motorcycle taxi or “okada” driver. The population is furious and riots erupt. The military are called in.

When the Sierra Leonean Vice President visits the district, ostensibly to mediate, he meets with aggrieved workers and community members.[ii] Instead of listening to their complaints, he adds insult to their injuries, telling them to sit on the ground in front of him as punishment for disrupting the operations of the company. He threatens to ”smash” anyone who fails to heed his word.[iii]

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This is not the first time that police protecting the Koidu diamond mine have shot and killed unarmed civilians. Five years earlier, two Koidu youths were gunned down during a protest against the delay in relocating people whose homes lay within range of fallout from the explosions to unearth the diamond-bearing kimberlite. After those deaths, the government of Sierra Leone, under newly elected President Ernest Bai Koroma, suspended the operations of the mine and launched an official inquiry into the event. A few months later the man behind the Koidu mine, Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz, jetted in to the capital Freetown and met with President Koroma.[iv] Without further ado, or action on the recommendations of the inquiry and the Government’s own White Paper that had been drawn up to implement them, the mine was suddenly re-opened without any explanation. Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 2): Beny Steinmetz

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There is a great deal of buzz about Africa’s economic awakening, with some countries experiencing double-digit growth in gross domestic product that is being driven by waves of foreign capital, as investors from Asia, Europe, North America, the Middle East and also Latin America descend on the continent. Many of the investors are after natural resources, mineral and oil riches and also farmland. This raises the question: is the foreign investment benefitting the continent or is it just another scramble for Africa, the last stage of colonialism? This, the first in series of six articles, Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor, investigates how foreign investment is playing out in one small African country. It looks at five billionaire investors, their big investments and at what’s in it all for Sierra Leone.

Part 1. Sierra Leone on a silver platter?

Africans and their leaders have every reason to be fed up with the negative way their continent has been portrayed and viewed by the outside world. It is definitely time that they tried to undo the damage by painting pictures that highlight the continent’s many strengths and riches.

PVB-GN_06-002-300x225So it was that in late 2009, Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma took the podium at the Sierra Leone Trade and Investment Forum at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in London, England. The country was still better known internationally for “blood diamonds” and a brutal civil war they fuelled, than for its impressive peace-building efforts in the ten years since the war ended. President Koroma wanted to change that.

“Our soils are fertile and our land under-cultivated, offering ideal investments in rice, oil palm, cocoa, coffee and sugar,” he declared.  “Our ground is rich in minerals: iron ore – the third largest deposit in the world; bauxite, rutile, gold and yes, diamonds. Our shores boast 400 kilometres of white sandy beaches, just waiting to be developed for tourism . . . Our seas are some of the most well-stocked and under-fished in the world”. Continue reading Billionaires at play in the fields of the poor (part 1): Sierra Leone on a silver platter?

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This post was first published on Thursday, 23 May 2013 09:57 by Truthout

For their secret meeting, they’ve chosen a very small village surrounded by forest in Kpaka Chiefdom in southern Sierra Leone. About one hundred men – chiefs, elders and youth leaders from all over the chiefdom – have gathered in the shade of a very large tree. Conspicuously absent is their Paramount Chief, the supreme traditional authority in the chiefdom, without whose approval they should not even be here. But this is no ordinary meeting; its purpose is to contest the Paramount Chief’s authority to sign away their land. Also absent are women, but in neighbouring villages they express support for the men meeting here and for their cause.

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One after another, the men stand up to complain. They say the Paramount Chief leased their land to a foreign company without consulting them, without the consent of the family heads who are the customary landowners. They have never even laid eyes on the lease agreement, which was signed in January 2011 by the Paramount Chief. It gives an Indian company, Biopalm Energy, control of nearly 20,000 hectares (close to 50,000 acres) of land in Kpaka Chiefdom for 50 years, with a possible extension of 21 years.

Tempers flare in the afternoon heat. Some at the meeting want to write a letter of protest right now to the government authorities in Pujehun, the headquarters town of Pujehun District, which includes Kpaka Chiefdom. Others say that they want the company representatives to come and negotiate directly with them. Meanwhile, they say if anyone enters their “bush” – their land – without their permission, there will be big, big problems. The threats of violence do not bode well for peace in the chiefdom. Continue reading Farmland – the new “Blood Diamonds” in Sierra Leone?

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