Neoliberalism

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

Read more

Africa-healthy-diets-Baxter-3-1024x768

BY Joan Baxter

It certainly flies in the face of an awful lot of stereotypes and headlines about hunger and malnutrition, but it turns out that Africa has much to teach the world about healthy eating.

A 2015 study published by The Lancet Global Health journal looked at the consumption of food (both healthy and unhealthy items) and nutrients in 187 countries in 1990 and then again in 2010. The aim was to determine which countries had the world’s healthiest diets.

It found that none of the healthiest ten diets is in a wealthy Western nation, nor are any in Asia. Most were found in Africa, which is so often portrayed as a continent of constant famine in need of foreign know-how and advice on how to eat and to grow food.

And yet, of the ten countries with the healthiest diets on earth, nine of them are African.

What’s more, the three countries with the very best diets are some the world’s poorest. Chad, ranked as having “very low human development”, 185th of 188 nations on the United Nations 2015 Human Development Index, has the world’s healthiest diet. After that come Sierra Leone and Mali, 181st and 179th on the same Index. Continue reading Looking for healthy eating? Go to Africa!

Read more

bill

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

Read more

canada-protest

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

Read more

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?

Read more

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)

Read more

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

Read more

133-3339_IMG-1024x768

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

Read more

P1011640-1024x768 (1)

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?

Read more

P1012156-768x1024

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

Read more