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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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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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By:  Joan Baxter

 

resize-300x225Bob Geldof and Band Aid have done it again. They’ve re-recorded the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas”, first performed by UK and Irish musicians 30 years ago to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia. The Band Aid 30 version has been tweaked to raise funds to fight Ebola.

Thankfully, the tweaking has excised the awful line that Bono sang back in 1984, “Well tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”. Also gone is the ludicrous one bemoaning the lack of snow in Africa, which Sir Bob (he received a knighthood for his charitable work) and his co-writer Midge Ure curiously decided was a continent where “no rain nor rivers flow” and “nothing ever grows”. The inane question “Do they know it’s Christmas?” – asked about a continent full of very devout Christians who most certainly do, and many Muslims and non-Christians who may not care so much if it is, but also celebrate the holiday – has also been removed from the chorus.

But no matter how much tweaking they’ve done, there’s still an awful lot wrong with the Band Aid 30 song (just as there was with its previous versions). The new lyrics lump together hundreds of millions of people in more than a dozen West African countries into one basket of “doom” and “death” and “fear”, informing everyone in the region that they will have “no peace or joy this year”. Has no one told Geldof that Nigeria effectively controlled and eradicated Ebola? And that Ghana, like most countries in West Africa, has had no documented cases? Continue reading Bob Geldof, Band Aid and Do They Know Their Song May Be Harmful?

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  By: Joan Baxter

(adapted from Chapter 5: Dust from our eyes: an unblinkered look at Africa, Wolsak & Wynn 2010, Fahamu Books 2011)

Author’s note: Thomas Sankara was one of those rare individuals who come along every few decades or so, who seemed to have the energy, ingenuity and creativity to turn a small country — or maybe the universe — on its head. For four years he ruled Burkina Faso, one of the world’s poorest and least-known countries. Its capital, Ouagadougou, is fodder in the West for quizzes and other trivial pursuits. Even when it makes headlines in global media, as it did in the dying days of October 2014 when the people of Burkina Faso brought down a president, many news readers cannot get their tongues around the unfamiliar name. To add some context for the recent events in Burkina Faso, I’ve decided to post this extract from a chapter of my book, Dust from our eyes – an unblinkered look at Africa, which provides some detail (collected when I was reporting from Burkina Faso for the BBC from 1986 until 1988) about the late and great Thomas Sankara, about the country he loved and died for and about the ousted president, Blaise Compaoré, the man that stole it all.

 

The land of upright men and women is born

"There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas."

“There was something new under the African sun — Thomas Sankara, a guitar-playing, humorous, passionate, athletic, articulate, driven and honest young president with a puritanical bent and a seemingly endless supply of novel and innovative ideas.”

From the start, Thomas Sankara made it clear that he was not going to be another corrupt, luxury-loving African president dancing to the tune of foreign masters. On the anniversary of his first year in power, on 4 August 1984, Sankara changed the name of his country from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso. This combined two indigenous languages to describe his small, landlocked country as the “land of upright men” or “land of people with integrity.” Continue reading Burying Africa’s hopes: remembering Thomas Sankara, the revolution and how Blaise Compaoré stole it all

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By: Joan Baxter

11 October 2014. Nairobi, Kenya. As the fatality statistics pile up and the gruesome awfulness of the Ebola catastrophe in West Africa unfolds, I’ve been seeking escape and solace from the grim present by spending time in the past, in the company of thousands and thousands of photos collected in the past eight years in Sierra Leone. They’re a tangible part of the immense wealth of the bank of memories that the people of “Swit Salone” – as it’s known affectionately in the country’s lingua franca, Krio – bequeathed me.

Many of thP1019115-300x225e memories that the photographs evoke involve Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues sharing their food, fun and laughter with me, the stranger in their land. The more I read about the ravages of Ebola in Sierra Leone, the more those wonderful memories come back to me, riding violent waves of nostalgia so powerful and deep that it aches like a migraine of the heart.

What is striking in the photos is the preponderance of high wattage smiles on peoples’ faces. People sharing, playing, working, partying and living – together. Loneliness is not a social ill people endemic to this part of the world. The shots capture village chiefs in consultations with their elders, groups of young men at work in their oil palm stands, family members ecstatically greeting each other – falling into each others’ arms – after long absences, groups of women weeding rice fields or parboiling rice or chopping green leaves for the wonderful sauces known as plassas, entire communities processing rich, red palm oil, groups of teenage girls selling hot peppers or peanuts, lean and exuberant footballers chasing after balls in the waves breaking on Freetown’s magnificent Lumley Beach. Continue reading Ebola: How an awful disease is shredding the social fabric in West Africa

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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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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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