Africa's 'Green Revolution' on Shaky Ground

A new African aid project may be in danger of becoming yet another boon for Big Agra

| June 28, 2007

Aiding unfamiliar communities in foreign countries is a thorny business. Even for foundations with virtually unlimited resources, such as those of Microsoft multibillionaire Bill Gates and the famously loaded Rockefellers. Last fall these two titans of philanthropy joined in undertaking a $150 million sub-Saharan Africa project called Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). According to AGRA's website, the new 'Green Revolution' aims to assuage poverty and hunger through agricultural development focusing on small-scale farmers.

Though the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has received wide acclaim for its aid efforts, Becky Brun of Sustainable Industries (subscription only) reports that its new African venture has critics raising pitchforks in alarm. Consider, critics say, that the original, Rockefeller-sponsored Green Revolution project in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s introduced Latin America, Southeast Asia, and India to industrial agricultural practices that are heavily reliant on fertilizers, genetically modified seeds, and monocultures of a handful of globally marketable crops, such as rice, corn, and wheat. Rural farmers were unable to weather the high costs of this technological farming and forced to give up their farms and relocate to join the urban workforce. Though AGRA's representatives claim the 'New Green Revolution' will be nothing like the Rockefellers' original one, critics are concerned that the same mistakes may be repeated, in a place where they can least afford them: sub-Saharan Africa. The area is, as Brun notes, 'the only region in the world where per-capita food production worsens every year.'

Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report is highly skeptical of the motives of these large philanthropic organizations and considers the media support for the AGRA project an example of 'poor-washing' -- a 'public relations tactic of concealing bitterly unfair and predatory trade policies... with clouds of hypocritical noise about feeding the hungry and alleviating poverty.' Until AGRA's 'shiny PR campaign' came along, writes Dixon, Africa was able to fend off Western efforts to cash in on the continent's agriculture industry. The new campaign has made inroads with the friendly faces of Bill Gates and Kofi Annan, yet some organizations like the ETC Group (the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration) consider it a risk that could repeat the errors of the 20th century. In a press release, ETC says the project, which it terms 'Green Revolution 2.0,' will still be centered on 'high-tech seeds' and will seek 'continental changes in market structure, intellectual property laws, and seed regulation so that agribusiness suppliers can profitably sell seeds, chemicals, and other inputs to farmers.' 

For their part, the foundations' representatives, including Dr. Rajiv Shah, director of agricultural development for the Gates Foundation, proclaim their commitment to small farmers and stress that 'AGRA is led by Africans,' writes Brun. Many remain wary, however, especially in light of AGRA's fall hiring of former Monsanto executive Rob Horsch, followed by the recruitment of Lawrence Kent, a director of international programs at the Monsanto-funded Danforth Center, as noted by the Organic Consumers Association. And if the seventh annual World Social Forum gathering in Nairobi, Kenya, was any indication, the 'New Green Revolution' will face African opposition as well. As Brun reports, 70 organizations from 12 African countries attending the January event formally criticized the aid initiatives of Gates and others, claiming they will 'destroy the basis of biodiversity... at a time when it is needed most.'



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