Throughout its history, Ethiopia has experienced famine — according to one historian, at least one every decade on average between the 15th and 19th centuries. The Great Ethiopian Famine alone, which spanned from 1888 to 1892, is estimated to have killed up to one-third of the population and is commonly referred to as kifu qan or “evil days.”
Drought and pestilence are well-known contributors to food shortages in the country. But experts say these environmental factors aren’t the root cause of Ethiopia’s unforgettable famines.
Photo credit: Getty Images
Famine: A tool of war
According to a report prepared by Africa Watch (now a part of Humans Rights Watch), many historic famines were the result of the way civil wars were waged. Sometimes, food stores were seized to feed huge armies of tens of thousands of soldiers. In other cases, cattle and crops were confiscated as a military strategy. These measures degraded communities, making them vulnerable when drought struck.
As social and political tensions were building up in Ethiopia in the early 70s, anti-imperialist propaganda, like this postcard, started circulating in the country.
As social and political tensions were building up in Ethiopia in the early 70s, anti-imperialist propaganda, like this postcard, started circulating in the country.
In the 20th century, famine took place in areas where populations openly resisted the regime of the country’s last emperor, Haile Selassie. Uprisings in the northeastern region of Wollo were suppressed by looting, confiscating cattle and stopping the salt trade. In another northern region, Tigray, revolts against the emperor were met with bombs dropped from British aircraft, and many people saw their land taken away.
Both areas were affected by the famine that took place in the early 1970s, which, according to Africa Watch’s report, caused between 40,000 and 80,000 deaths. The cattle, goats, and camels that sustained the lives of nomadic groups in the region also perished from lack of food.
Kibre Dawit, featured in the documentary Finding Sally, remembers how shocking it was to see “skeletons of animals all over the place” in regions that were usually green and fertile, such as Haramaya and Harar east of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
But the capital city was a world unto itself, she adds, and people living there didn’t know much about the famine: “You would hardly notice it. It wasn’t talked about or announced on the radio. Maybe the most [you’d notice] is that the price of the grain would go up.”
The Emperor Selassie first tried to hide the famine, and then, the report notes, accused the peasants and nomadic people of Wollo of harming his reputation by starving. As a result, famine relief was slow to come, but when Ethiopians in the capital discovered the scale of the problem, “it made a lot of people very angry,” says Dawit.
Kibre today—still from the documentary, Finding Sally
“[The famine] is also what caused the revolution. It was like a ticket for people to revolt. It was an opportunity for the students, the military and people like [my sister] Sally who are already very revolutionary and who wanted change. It gave them the opportunity to speak out and say that this cannot continue.”
The famine eventually contributed to the emperor’s downfall. It became a focal point for the students and middle-class residents of Addis Ababa, who took to the streets in protest against his government.
Military strategy disguised as humanitarian relief
A decade later, images of emaciated people, shivering from cold and hunger, were broadcast on TV screens across the world. Famine had once again taken hold in Ethiopia, this time in the midst of the rule of Mengistu Haile Mariam.
Mengistu was the ruthless leader of the Derg, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia for over a decade in the 1970s and 1980s. So serious were the impacts of the famine that this time that a minimum of 400,000 are estimated to have died, according to Africa Watch’s research (though the United Nations’ estimate is one million, the report contests this figure).
The famine was famously described by a BBC journalist as “biblical,” affecting up to one-third of the country. And among the worst impacted regions were Tigray and Wollo.
Although the media attributed the famine to droughts that had happened in the preceding years, the real cause of the famine, the report argues, had to do with military strategy. In Tigray, Derg soldiers had waged war against rebels, bombarding schools, markets and villages, destroying grain stores, burning crops and displacing farmers. The Derg’s counter-insurgency strategy was also applied in Wollo.
But the suffering of rural Ethiopians didn’t stop there. After the world came to know of the famine, the Mengistu government began what they called a “voluntary resettlement program,” which it claimed was an effort to help residents leave famine-stricken areas, and was supported by funding from humanitarian agencies and celebrities.
Under this controversial program, hundreds of thousands of people from Tigray and Wollo were moved to unsettled areas in the south of the country. The Guardian described it as a military campaign “masquerading as a humanitarian effort” that was carried out under brutal conditions, with tens of thousands of people dying along the way.
According to Africa Watch’s report, the resettlement program killed people at an even faster rate than the famine.
New threats: Climate change and development
Although a famine on the same scale as that of the 1980s hasn’t occurred since, droughts have taken place many times over the years.
In July 2019, Oxfam reported that more than 15 million people were in need of food aid in Ethiopia and across the Horn of Africa, following poor rainfall due to a worsening climate crisis. Ethiopia is especially vulnerable to climate change; it’s one of the world’s most drought-prone countries with unpredictable rains. In some years, seasonal rains fail completely.
Yet even when drought is absent, food security remains a problem. The Guardian reports that since the mid-2000s, the government has transferred millions of hectares of fertile farmland in regions such as Gambela and the Omo Valley to foreign investors, and has undertaken massive infrastructure projects.
These developments, in combination with a fragile political climate under the new government of Abiy Ahmed, may not bode well for the future of rural Ethiopians.
“Ethiopia is a huge country and it can feed Ethiopians beautifully,” says Dawit. “But the environment has changed; global warming is affecting all of Africa. We are the smallest contributor to global warming, but we pay the biggest price.”
“If the past has nothing to say to the present, history may go on sleeping undisturbed in the closet where the system keeps its old disguises.”— Eduardo Galeano, Uruguayan journalist and writer.
In 2010, the Ethiopian government opened the “Red Terror” Martyrs’ Memorial Museum in Meskel Square of the country’s capital city, Addis Ababa — the same place where, just over 30 years earlier, the brutal military leader Mengistu Haile Mariam dramatically inaugurated his rule.
Known as the “Butcher of Addis,” Mengistu was the leader of the Derg, a military junta that ruled Ethiopia from 1974 to 1991 and carried out a brutal campaign of repression called the “Red Terror.”
The museum in Addis is a tribute to the thousands of Ethiopians killed and tortured under the Derg. In it are carefully housed photographs, personal belongings, skulls, other bones and coffins. These intimate pieces of the victims’ past serve as a reminder of this devastating period of Ethiopia’s history.
Sally Dawit, a young Ethiopian woman who became a rebel fighting against the Derg government, is the subject of the documentary Finding Sally. After she went underground, her family never saw her again.
Many Ethiopians lost friends and family members during the Derg regime. Sally’s mother-in-law, Abrehet Asefa, was a single mother living in a poor neighbourhood of Addis Ababa at the time and ultimately lost all her children; two were executed, while her remaining son, Tselote Hizkias — Sally’s husband — died in mysterious circumstances. For Asefa, there remains a desire to lay the past to rest and seek justice for years of pain, loss and terror.
“They were killed cruelly and that makes it more sad. A person is supposed to be investigated in the face of the law,” she says.
Abrehet, from the documentary, Finding Sally.
Justice in Ethiopia moves slowly
Following the downfall of the Derg in 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front seized power and began an ambitious project to bring members of the Mengistu regime to justice. They established a Special Prosecutor’s Office, supported by Western countries, to investigate and prosecute former Derg officials.
Within Africa, it was the first large-scale human rights trial, with some observers in the human rights community likening it to an “African Nuremberg.” The amount of evidence of the Derg’s crimes was immense, since the group had kept extensive records of their activities.
The trials dragged on for years. Critics have said the process was used simply to “curry favour” with Western governments and that it did not investigate wrongdoings by individuals connected to the current government.
In 1997, more than 5,000 individuals implicated in Ethiopia’s Red Terror were charged with criminal offences. Of those individuals, more than 2,000 were already detained, while almost 3,000 were charged in absentia. The majority of the defendants were charged with genocide and war crimes.
The Derg in exile
Derg officials who fled into exile managed to evade justice for a number of years. Some were subjected to criminal proceedings and extraditions in various parts of the world.
Kelbessa Negewo is a former official who allegedly oversaw massacres and the torture of the regime’s political opponents. He is also believed to have helped recruit special units of people that carried out executions and torture on civilians, most of whom were students.
In 1987, Negewo fled to the United States, where he was eventually granted asylum (on false pretenses) and citizenship. He may have continued his life undisturbed were it not for a chance encounter in 1990 with a woman that he had once tortured. U.S. authorities revoked his papers and accused him of lying to gain entry to the country.
In Ethiopia, Negewo was tried in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2006, 16 years later, he was finally extradited from the U.S. to Ethiopia to serve his sentence.
A recent case has raised new hope for victims of the Derg. In 2017, Eshetu Alemu, a Derg senior representative and a former aide to Mengistu, was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Netherlands for war crimes. For Girmachew Alemu Aneme, a law professor in Addis Ababa, this case was very important for past and current Ethiopian politicians “to understand that they cannot commit crimes and run away and hide in Europe and the United States to escape justice.”
Within Ethiopia, perhaps the most outlandish story of Derg officials avoiding justice is that of four men who sought refuge in Addis Ababa’s Italian embassy. Two of them are, incredibly, still living there under the protection of the Italian government — 28 years later.
The ‘Butcher of Addis’ evades justice
The most important figure in this long tragedy is the mastermind himself: Mengistu. Although he was found guilty of genocide in absentia and sentenced to life imprisonment, he continues to live a comfortable life in Zimbabwe. After the downfall of his regime, Mengistu was taken in by former president of Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe on “humanitarian grounds” and housed in an affluent residential neighbourhood, guarded by high security.
In 2017, after a historic change in government in Zimbabwe, Ethiopians called for Mengistu’s extradition so that he could finally face justice in his own country. But these calls went unheeded.
A year later, Mengistu appeared looking cheerful and healthy in a photograph taken alongside Ethiopia’s former prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The photograph, posted by Desalegn on social media, sparked outrage, with one commenter saying the photo was “repugnant” and “callous,” and another calling it “an insult to millions of Ethiopians.”
In 2018, Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, invited exiled politicians, journalists and human rights activists to return home to Ethiopia as part of a series of reforms and efforts geared toward reconciliation in the country. Among those who returned was Kassa Kebede, formerly a top official in the Derg.
With these new developments and Mengistu himself having evaded justice for so long, survivors of the Red Terror, like Sally’s mother-in-law, may continue to struggle to heal the deep wounds of the past.
Consent, awareness and risk assessment in Target Malaria’s gene drive project
The 14th Conference of the Parties (COP 14) to the Convention on Biological Diversity is taking place in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, from the 17th to the 29th of November, 2018. Amongst other things, delegates are discussing a moratorium on the release of gene drives, a powerful genetic extinction technology.
Target Malaria, a $100 million project from Imperial College in London, UK, is the poster child of the gene drives proponents. The Target Malaria team intends to first release GMO mosquitos and then high risk Exterminator drive mosquitos in West African villages, with the unproven promise that the technology will soon eliminate malaria. Civil society from Africa and around the world is at COP 14 to demand that governments prevent the release of gene drives and that Africans should not be guinea pigs for unproven and risky technofixes.
In August 2018, Burkina Faso’s National Agency on Biosecurity (ANB) gave its official authorization for Target Malaria, a research consortium funded by the Gates Foundation and the Open Philanthropy project, to release 10 000 genetically modified “sterile male” mosquitoes in two villages: Bana and Sourkoudingan. Target Malaria’s project aims to use CRISPR-Cas9 technology to create a gene drive in malaria-carrying mosquitoes, a technology that spreads through the population, eventually rendering the species extinct. The release of the 10 000 “male sterile mosquitoes,” which are not yet gene drive mosquitoes, is the first stage in this experiment toward releasing the gene drives in the wild. The project is highly controversial. In the months prior to the announcement, civil society groups and activists in Ouagadougou organized a demonstration bringing together farmers and groups from Senegal, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire and Benin to protest Target Malaria’s gene drive experiments and other forms of genetic modification in a country that has already been the subject of failed experiments with genetically modified BT cotton. These groups also objected to being used as “guinea pigs” for western experimentation.
Most journalists that have written or published reports about the gene drive mosquitoes visited the villages targeted for the release accompanied by Target Malaria rather than independently. In early October, Ali Tapsoba from the organization Terre à Vie, Issouf Sanou from the peasant group FENOP (Federation Nationale des Organisations Paysannes), a cameraperson, and I travelled from Ouagadougou to Bobo-Dioulasso. We wanted to do an independent investigation and to gather different perspectives from villagers about what they understand of the project and what their concerns are. Our findings indicate that many people in Bobo-Dioulasso, Bana and the neighbouring village of Nasso, are concerned about the potential impacts of Target Malaria’s project and about the absence of risk assessment, and are unaware of many of the details of the project, including where the funding for the project comes from.
The city of Bobo-Dioulasso in southwest Burkina Faso is the capital of the Hauts-Bassins region and the second largest city in the country, a six-hour drive away from Ouagadougou. We met with some of the regional authorities in Bobo to hear what they thought of Target Malaria’s project. The governor, Antoine Aliou, spoke with us briefly. He was not comfortable speaking on record and said merely that malaria is a serious problem in the region and that the government is open to finding solutions to fight it.
Christophe Sanou is the Mayor of Arrondissement 5, which includes Pala, a village that was initially marked for the mosquito release. He said that Target Malaria had gone to Pala without first coming to his office to inform him of their project and to tell him their plans to visit the village. He wanted to know what would happen once the sterile male mosquitoes were released into the wild and added that his concerns were shared by all the counsellors of the district.
Activists and civil society groups based in Bobo also seemed to be in the dark about the project. One group, the Coordinating Body of the Women of the Hauts-Bassins region, represents several thousand women in the region. They said that they learned about Target Malaria’s project through a workshop organized by the group Collecif Citoyen pour Agroéocologie (CCAE) in July 2018. They had numerous concerns about the project, not least of which was the lack of awareness and consultation. They believe that raising awareness and engaging with the population is the minimum that Target Malaria should do. Like the mayor of Pala, they wanted to know what risks existed and what would happen once the mosquitoes are released into the world.
“That day (of the workshop), people unanimously rejected the arrival of these male mosquitoes. We do not know what is going to happen to them after the experiment…I would say leave us with our female anopheles mosquitoes, we will be able to handle them ourselves.” –Member of the Organizing Committee/Coordinating Body of Women from the Hauts-Bassins region
Douda Kambe Ouattara is the president of Y’en A Marre based in Bobo, a group that was created when the country’s previous government was overthrown in 2014. Y’en A Marre first began as a movement of rappers and journalists in Senegal. Like others we spoke to in Bobo, Ouattara knew little about Target Malaria’s project. He said he heard about it through word of mouth on the street until he too attended the workshop organized by the CCAE. According to him, Target Malaria has only spoken to the habitants of the villages targeted for release and not to the population of Bobo-Dioulasso. This remains a serious source of concern to him: that the project has already significantly advanced, yet the details remain unknown to the majority of the population indicates to him that “something is being hidden.”
It’s not just the targeted village which is important, it’s the whole region, even the whole country. When people from Bana say that what’s happening in their village does not concern others, it’s not true. They cannot confine the mosquitoes to remain in the village. When people come to test them out such projects, generally there’s a lot of funding involved. We would like more information about the project…as it’s the first experiment of its kind and it’s starting here with us, it’s worrying. To be the guinea pigs of this kind of experiment is worrying – Douda Kambe Ouattara, Y’en A Marre
Ouattara added that it had been difficult for them to reach people in the communities. Indeed, our own inquiries found that journalists who had attempted to reach the village of Bana and Sourkoudingan independently of Target Malaria were unsuccessful.
Bana, Sourkoudinguan and Nasso Villages
The day before we set off to visit Bana village, Ali Tapsoba called the village chief to inform him of our visit. A few months ago, Tapsoba and some of his colleagues from the Coalition pour la Protection du Patrimoine Génétique Africain (COPAGEN) met with the village authorities in Bana. At first, the chief agreed to meet us, but the morning of our visit, he told us not to come as there were cultural celebrations taking place in the village. Tapsoba mentioned that as we had come from Ouagadougou, we would pass by briefly. The mayor of the seventh district, which includes Bana village, advised us to visit the village accompanied by his chauffeur.
Bana lies 18 kilometres away from Bobo. Upon reaching the village, the CVD (the head of the village committee for development) and a young man whom Tapsoba had met earlier in the year and who had been recruited by Target Malaria to catch mosquitoes, came to tell us that we should leave. The chauffeur explained that we want to meet the chief and speak to him, but they refused. We were told to leave the village. Both Tapsoba and Issouf found this type of hostile reception to be strange and extremely rare in Burkina Faso.
Having been refused entry to the village of Bana, we made our way to Sourkoudingan, the neighbouring village marked for the mosquito release, a few kilometres away. We were warmly greeted at the entrance to Sourkoudingan, and made our way to the chief’s house to meet him and obtain permission to speak to the village inhabitants. Outside his house, a Target Malaria poster was affixed to a tree. As we approached, a group of young men appeared and threatened to burn down the car. They were categorical that we should leave and that we could not meet the chief or speak to anyone. We made our way back to the entrance of the village where a tense exchange erupted between these men and the people who had welcomed us before. Later, we heard unverifiable rumours that the villagers had received a phone call from Ouagadougou telling them not to speak to us or allow us to come into the village.
Some days later, the mayor of Bana intervened again in order for us to be able to enter the village. I went back, accompanied by the mayor’s counsellor, Gigue Abdullahi Sekou, and a member of the citizens’ movement, Balai Citoyen. We met with the CVD, the young mosquito capturer, the village chief and the customary chief. During a filmed interview with the customary chief, he asked whether we had gone through Target Malaria before coming to the village. About half way through our interview, we were told that the interview was over and he had nothing more to say. Although Target Malaria’s own risk assessment states that the “first generation” sterile male technology… is unlikely to be used for malaria control in Africa,” both the chief and customary chief of the village believed that the release of 10 000 genetically modified “sterile male” mosquitoes would lead to a reduction in malaria.
After our exchange with the village chief, we were still not permitted to speak to other people in the village. We drove a distance away and visited the house of the mayor’s counsellor. Here we managed to speak with some inhabitants of Bana that live away from the village centre.
The farmers that we spoke to in Bana did not know much about the project and some expressed concerns about it. One said he learned about the project through the television and on the radio; he was not present at the village gathering earlier in the year when he said the project was discussed. His understanding of how the technology and the project worked was limited:
“They said they would capture the mosquitoes, make them sterile in Europe and when they are brought back, when the sterile male mosquitoes bite other mosquitoes that have not been modified, they will also become sterile. So even if they bite you, you don’t get malaria.” – Farmer from Bana Village
Another farmer and resident of Bana, said that no one from the project had come to explain to her how the project works. All she knew was that mosquitoes were being captured in order to reduce malaria. She explained that most of the project’s activities took place at the centre of the village, and as she lived further away, she was not involved. The mayor’s counsellor, Gigue Abdullahi Sekou explained that the village authorities signed off on the project on behalf of the rest of the village, after a public assembly was held. A poultry farmer was asked if the village chief had signed off on the project with his consent. He said as he was far from the centre of the village, he was not aware of it.
I did bring this problem up with Target Malaria. I told them to take measures so that the entire village is involved. For instance, regarding the young people who capture the mosquitoes, they should also recruit young people from other areas of the village so that the information gets around. If you see that people are resistant to doing interviews, it could be because they are afraid to lose the little benefit they get from the project. Target works with the village leaders and they relay the information to the rest of the village. I tried to tell Target to have teams to go around in small groups and talk to people and they said they would start doing that. It seems it wasn’t done, and I don’t really know where things are at now. – Gigue Abdullahi Sekou
None of the people we spoke to had seen or signed any consent forms, or were aware that the project’s final objective was to render the malaria-carrying mosquitoes extinct. They were also unaware of potential risks and they believed that the 10 000 male sterile mosquitoes that were being released in the first phase would have the effect of reducing malaria in the village.
Another farmer said that those who were working as mosquito capturers with Target Malaria, which he estimated to be between 10 and 20 people, were given medical treatment if they ever caught malaria, but those who did not work with the project did not receive treatment. The benefit of those working as mosquito capturers, he said, was that they could earn a small amount of money.
If I am not able to understand, I cannot give my consent, because I do not know what damage will be caused by these mosquitoes. In any case, it makes me afraid because I don’t know what is going to happen. They have gone to make sterile mosquitoes, but what will result from that? I really don’t understand. – Farmer, Bana Village
One issue that raises serious ethical concerns is the way in which mosquitoes are captured by the Target Malaria team for experimentation. A counsellor from the village neighbouring Bana, Nasso, said that his cousin who lives in Bana village was used as a “guinea pig” to catch mosquitoes – in other words, he would have to sit in a chair and catch the mosquitoes as they landed on his skin. He subsequently caught malaria. Although the counsellor said he did not know if the malaria was contracted from the experiment, his cousin was nonetheless advised by his relatives to stop participating in the experiment. He asked Target Malaria inquired whether using people as ‘guinea pigs’ as they did with his cousin could cause problems, and they were told that no problems would be caused, and that the experiments was required for research into funding solutions for malaria eradication. Like all the others we spoke to, the counsellor expressed concern about “secondary effects” from the mosquito modification.
A resident of Bana village who met with us in Bobo was very much in favour of the project. He said he was not aware of any risks in the process. He described the mosquito catching process:
“After having captured the mosquitoes with cloth,they brought small tubes and gave them to people for capturing at 8, 9, 10 and 11 pm starting from 8 o clock pm. You sit in a chair and stay there in one place. When a mosquito comes and sits on you, you don’t kill it, you do all that you can to catch it in the tube, then you put it aside. From 8 to 9 pm, the mosquitoes that you capture in the tubes, you don’t mix them. The 9 o’clock tubes are put aside, the 10 o’clock tubes are also put aside. There is one hour between each capture and then the tubes are separated. I personally would never accept to sit and capture mosquitoes. But I know that those who do it are paid, because at the end of each month, they receive money. Concerning the funding [for the Target Malaria project], we are not able to say where it comes from and to be used, we don’t know anything about that. – Resident of Bana village
Nasso, the neighbouring Bana, lies about 5 kilometres away from Bana and has a population of an estimated 3365 people. Sanou Simplice, the president of Nasso village said that people from Target Malaria came to Nasso to talk about their work in June 2017. The seven people who were present during the exchange asked Target Malaria what consequences would result from the experiments and the project officials explained that as it was an experiment, the results would reveal more information.
“We saw what happened with Monsanto – modified organisms always leave traces…since they are doing research, we will see what happens with the next steps.” – Sanou Simplice, Nasso
Simplice also asked Target Malaria if the technology had been tested before, and they responded that the reason why it was being tried in Burkina Faso was because it has been tried out elsewhere and gave convincing results. A primary school teacher that we spoke to in Bobo suggested that the reason why risk assessments have not been spoken about by Target Malaria is because the technology is said to have been “well mastered.” This seems to contradict what many people we spoke to were not aware of, that a gene drive has never been released into the wild before; how it will fare in nature outside the laboratory is yet unknown.
Simplice from Nasso village also said that they were told that the release of mosquitoes in Bana would not affect the village of Nasso. This, too, is a questionable claim since there is significant movement between the two villages as they are located very close together.
In their promotional material, Target Malaria claims that they approach the project in a way that ensures that “human well-being and environmental considerations are fundamental.” They say that they work with local communities and take their concerns into account: “No part of the project goes ahead without this consent.” As our investigations have revealed, the project has only taken into consideration the consent of a small group of leaders in the central area of the targeted community of Bana, and the process through which their consent was obtained is still unknown. Our investigations into the way in which mosquitoes have been captured, asking villagers to use their own bodies to catch malaria-carrying mosquitoes and exposing themselves to malaria, reveal that contrary to the project’s claims, “human well-being” is not being taken into account. Target Malaria claims that their stakeholders “have a right to understand what we do and to decide whether to support us,” yet people we spoke to in Bobo-Dioulasso, Bana and Nasso, either did not understand the project well or at all, and had a number of concerns which have not been addressed. Instead, Target Malaria’s project has generated a great deal of controversy and as we found during our trip, is shrouded in secrecy.
 As the project is controversial and people are reluctant to speak on the topic, the names of the farmers interviewed in Bana have been withheld.
Pictures in this article by Olympia de Maismont, Boubacar Balde and Zahra Moloo.
Radha D’Souza is an organizer, academic and writer. After practicing law in India, she taught in New Zealand and currently teaches public law at the University of Westminster in the United Kingdom. She also worked as an activist lawyer for the labour and social justice movements in the Asia-Pacific region. In March, D’Souza was in Montreal as a Visiting Scholar at McGill University where she gave numerous talks about her recently published book, What’s Wrong With Rights: Social Movements, Law and Liberal Imaginations.
Grounded in historical context, her book explores how “rights” emerged alongside the development of capitalism, and what “rights” actually do in the world. It interogates, among other themes, the connections between property rights, human rights, and liberalism; the ways in which the “right to free and fair elections” serves as a means to reorganize politics in the Third World; the differences between today’s democratic movements and older anti-colonial movements; and whether social movements’ engagement with the rights discourse truly enables them to fight for freedom and emancipation. Given how embedded and ubiquitous the rights discourse has become in the mainstream NGO landscape, as well among activists and indigenous people, this book is a much needed critique of the narratives we often take for granted, and of liberalism itself. I sat down with D’Souza in June at the end of her stay in Montreal to talk about these themes in her book.
ZM: Your book What’s Wrong with Rights presents a critique of rights and human rights. How did you begin this journey of looking at rights from a critical perspective?
RD: I have been a social justice campaigner for most of my life. I interact with social movements, critical scholars and activist lawyers. One of the issues that kept coming back is about how to articulate our claims. Invariably, social movements articulated their claims in their language of rights, and it got to a point where they were not able to imagine any other way of articulating their claims. Also, I have also practiced as a constitutional lawyer in India where I took up cases for social movements, NGOs, and social justice causes including human rights. I then came to academia and I realized that there was a disjuncture in the way lawyers, social justice movements and academics understand rights. They made very different kinds of assumptions that were confusing the whole discourse about social justice. I felt it necessary to unpack those assumptions. My book addresses all those people struggling for social change. I want to understand how they imagine rights, how they understand them and what they expect from the concept.
ZM: Where do we begin when we trace the history of rights? You talk in your book about how rights developed alongside capitalism and you trace the different phases of capitalism – mercantile capitalism, industrial capitalism and today’s transnational finance capitalism. Can you explain where in history rights emerged as a concept and how it became so widespread?
RD: The word “right” does not exist in many indigenous languages or in many African or Asian cultures; it is something quintessentially European. You can trace rights back to Greek or Roman times and in that tradition. However, there is a rupture in the concept of rights. In Ancient Europe, “right” was used as an ethical concept in philosophy and ethics – about the right way to be as opposed to the wrong way of being in the world. With the rise of capitalism and modernity, rights became a conceptual tool for re-organizing society from a feudal order and creating a new social order based on commodity production. Feudal societies were land based, with an entire social order centred around land and land relations, whereas in a commodity producing society, you have a world that is structured around commodity production, capital investment returns and circulation of commodities. For them to circulate, they can’t be fixed to anything. Land is a fixed thing, you can’t move it around. In feudal societies, land was not a commodity, it was not a saleable item, and nor was labour. So one of the first changes we find coming is when labour and land become separate.
With commodity production, you have land becoming a commodity so land becomes a saleable item and labour becomes another commodity and you have labour markets. People then have to be evicted from land – that’s how you can buy and sell land without any hindrance. How do we do this, how do you claim this plot of land as mine? That is where we find rights emerging as a concept, where every person becomes individually entitled to this or that thing. That is the transformative moment. The point of this history is that rights are absolutely intrinsic to capitalist production because rights create two parties: one which has something to give, to sell, and another which needs that item. The contract between the buyer and the seller is the foundation of commodity transactions. And that commodity transaction is the foundation of capitalist society. So if you want to summarize the whole system in a nutshell: for capitalism to be capitalism, there must be commodity production. For commodities to be produced there must be a buyer and a seller, and for a buyer and a seller, you must have two parties, one with the right to sell something and the other with the right to buy something.
ZM: And I guess that’s what you mean by property rights and human rights as being two sides of the same coin – as you say in your book, they constitute a “comprehensive regime of rights.”
RD: Yes, and they are two sides of the same coin because when early enlightenment European thinkers developed their theoretical justification for rights, it was prompted by the need to justify private property and alienable property. John Locke for example asks, “How can we say this land is mine? If you have put your labour into it, you have added value to it, therefore it becomes your land.” Conversely, what about those who are landless or those who are evicted from land? Well his answer would be that they were not good enough. They did not manage to keep their land and to labour on it sufficiently to be able to claim it as a right, or they could buy it back if they are clever enough to earn enough money and purchase it. The nexus between property rights and labour was always there in classical thinking on rights. It’s only since the end of World War II that the relation between property rights and labour rights is broken. What I argue is that we need to bring that back and make that connection between what is called human rights and property rights.
ZM: You talk about the difference between material rights like the right to land, water and so on, and intangible rights like the right to happiness, the right to security, the right to freedom of thought. You make the argument that rights are complicit in constructing market relationships for both tangible and intangible things. What kind of market relationships exist for intangible things?
RD: I think there are two parts to this question: one is that the nature of property itself has changed. Earlier when we talked about property, we meant tangible property – it was land, goods, tables, chairs, whatever. That is what people understood by commodities. Now you have a whole raft of new properties which are intangible, for example derivatives. There is no such thing as derivatives, it is a completely legal fiction. Or hedge funds. Or insurance which is property and it’s very much part of property rights. Or trade in debt. Property itself has become intangible – that’s one part of it.
The other part is commodification. Commodification processes make more and more social relations become things. For example, women give birth to children because they are biologically capable of giving birth. Now you have science that says you can actually, to put it crudely, rent your womb to someone who wants a child and it’s commodity production. Something as intimate and personal as your womb can become a subject of contract. Now you have law firms that specialize in surrogacy, model contracts on surrogacy, litigation. Teacher-student relationships were considered a very privileged, responsible, socially important relationship. Now universities regularly say that students are our consumers, they have a right to education, and we are service providers. There is an education market and a whole legal framework around education. So right to education includes the providers and the consumers. It becomes the education market where knowledge becomes property. As every aspect of life becomes commodified, you have rights coming in because without rights, there can’t be commodification.
ZM: Where did human rights come into this relationship and into the rights discourse?
RD: Many people do not realize that the prefix “human” to rights is a relatively new thing. Before World War I, when people in the 18 and 19th centuries talked about rights, they just talked about rights as including property rights and human rights or the social side of rights. But after World War II, with the UN charter we find two big changes. One is that rights become internationalized – previously, it was the nation state that was responsible for rights. Then we have the prefix “human” becoming attached to the word right. This was not there before and it’s important to remember that. By the time we come to 1945, the concept of private property, commodified relations, commodity production, industrialism, is very firmly established. It becomes given, something natural, so much so that we can’t imagine a world without private property. Because they are natural and given, somehow all we need to do is focus on human rights, as if human rights have nothing to do with economic rights. I think that is one of the main problems because social, cultural and other rights don’t exist in a vacuum. To have a culture, you need to have to have some economic basis for it. People need to put food on their table, send their children to school, and without that economic basis, there is no culture, no individual human rights. It is one of the paradoxes of our times. When the UN was established, there were some thirty odd rights, twenty-eight I think. Now there are about 300 rights. Do people have more rights than in 1945? I mean, it’s open to question. For example, a subsistence farmer may not be rich, but could do something to feed his family. Now you have a system where all that land is taken away, farmers are not allowed to build their huts anymore because there are municipal laws and are all kinds of property regimes and they have to buy food, and there is more starvation because what they could do with their own labour they are no longer able to do. So what is the solution? We say right to food. But right to food does not take away the need to find the money to buy food. In India some years ago, we had this extraordinary situation where there were warehouses where wheat were rotting and people were dying of starvation. It’s not because there is no wheat, it’s because there was no money and the right to food does not address that question.
ZM: Wouldn’t you say however, that the right to food, or to water, or to good housing does give a certain leverage to social movements. For example, the farmer could say, I don’t have food, but I have the right to food, therefore I should have it. It becomes a strategic tool to leverage as social movements very often do.
RD: Don’t forget that the farmer is not the only person claiming rights. The farmer is saying I have right to water, to food but so is Monsanto. It’s a fundamental feature of our legal and social system that a corporation is a person like a natural person. In law, both of them are entitled to human rights. Now, how much water does a farmer consume and how much does he claim? He only claims water for his family or for his farm. But Monsanto’s farm is in comparison to the farmer’s is enormous. When they buy land, they buy the water, the forests, everything. I think it’s this inability to see how corporate persons and natural persons work that gets us into all this kind of tangle. I think it’s an extraordinary move to make property owners collectively equal to a natural person. Now you can say in theory all subsistence farmers can come together and form a corporation. Like with indigenous people, an idea that is often sold to them is to come together and form a trust and do business. But when they start doing that, they become like any other corporation because they have to get into market and commodities and corporations and there is nothing indigenous about an indigenous company other than the faces of people that run it.
ZM: You are very critical of liberalism and in the book you look at the relation between human rights and liberalism. You argue that liberalism is first and foremost an ideology of capitalism and you mention the “extraordinary power of promise that ideological liberalism has over our imagination” within this regime of transnational monopoly finance capital that “promises everything to everyone.” Can you explain how you define liberalism in the book and what you mean by this idea of its power of promise?
RD: Liberalism is a way of seeing and being in the world which comes with a certain philosophical understanding of who we are as human beings. Liberalism is the ideology of capitalism. What is that ideology? To understand that, we must ask who are the people who wanted this system of commodity production and whose world view is represented in the European enlightenment. The merchants were the driving force. They wanted to get rid of the old feudal order and establish a commodity producing order. In a merchants world, everything is about buying and selling, because that’s what they do. What liberalism does is project a merchant’s world view and understanding of the world as the human world view, and as something that is universal to all humanity. Anything that has a transactional or exchange value becomes something with value. When we start extending that to everything – to land, to forest, to all sorts of things in life, then it becomes problematic. One of the feminist critiques for example was about house work and house labour. In the capitalist world view, a woman’s housework, raising children, cooking, cleaning, had no value because it was not being sold in the market and she was not bringing a wage for that. But that same work of childcare, when it done by a child care provider, it has value because we are paying for it and someone is buying it. So you can see that in every aspect of life, this merchant’s world view becomes the way of being in the world. And there is the conception that every human being is motivated by self interest. Why do I go to work? Because I want to earn money. Everything we do, the explanation for it is we get something in return for it. A world where we do things without return is unthinkable in a merchant’s world view and that is the core of liberalism.
ZM: So when you talk about liberalism’s power of promise, what do you mean?
RD: If you look at the legal structure of contracts, it doesn’t have any substance to it. It doesn’t say you have to buy or sell this product. There is a structure to it, and that structure is a buyer and a seller has something. What that thing is doesn’t matter. Similarly, if you see that rights is the conceptual tool on which contracts are based, rights themselves don’t have substance. Rights can be to anything. So it’s like an empty shell: you can put anything in the shell and take out anything. Rights always hold the promise of the possibility of something.
ZM: Can you give an example?
RD: Let’s take right to work. What does that mean? I don’t have a job. All it means is if I can apply for a job and I am qualified for the position, I should be considered for the job. It’s nothing more than that, but as long as there is this right to employment, right to work, I will continue to live in the faith and the hope that I will get a job by applying. There are many unemployed people who keep on applying hundreds of times and don’t go anywhere with it, but still have the hope that the next application will be successful. Or the right to shelter. It’s a very legally accepted kind of right, but right to shelter does not mean that if I don’t have a home and I am on the streets sleeping rough, someone is going to come and give me a flat. All it means is that if I have the means then I can have a house or a flat. However, when we say right to house it holds out the promise of a possibility and because a possibility is something that we want to keep because it’s a kind of hope or whatever, many people support rights.
But I think there is another side to this possibility and that is that because there are two sides to rights, the property owners and the social rights, different claimants ask people to give up their existing rights to something with the promise of something better tomorrow. So Monsanto will go to a subsistence farmer and say “give up your land and if you do that with that money you can invest and do something and become a rich man.” And it gets people into thing, “If I give up what I have today, I will be better tomorrow.” And if you bear in mind that there are different people claiming the same rights – the subsistence farmer alongside Monsanto to land – you can see who comes out winners in this and who doesn’t.
ZM: In that case, isn’t the problem that rights establish equality between all those who claim them, rather than having a hierarchy where a farmer’s rights come before the rights of a corporation. Is the problem that there is not a hierarchy of rights?
RD: No, I don’t think it’s a hierarchy issue at all. Rights establish equality, remember, that’s the core of rights. That would be a very anti-capitalist, feudal system where there were hierarchies and obligations, and status based relationships. Rights promise equality, so as a subsistence farmer, I am equal to Monsanto. I can potentially become another Monsanto and in theory there is nothing stopping me becoming one. It’s the promise that every homeless person can become a land tycoon – there is nothing to stop them. And that is why the most interesting thing about rights and the way the ideology of rights is reinforced is the rags to riches story that reinforces this idea that we are all equal. For every rags for riches story, you have ninety-nine who have gone worse or who have definitely not become wealthy or famous or rich.
ZM: Let’s go to the theme of the right to free and fair elections which is the focus of one of the chapters of your book. You argue that international election monitoring has become very commonplace and accepted in much of the global South where elections are monitored primarily by outside observers. In your view, the right to free and fair elections is a “vehicle for reorganizing politics in the third world.” You look at how this began in 1986 in the Philippines, and then in Nicaragua in the 1990s. Can you talk about how the right to free and fair elections came about historically, how it become institutionalized, and why should we be critical of this ‘right’ and of international election monitoring.
RD: Let’s go back in time a little. We talked about the rise of commodity production and capitalist societies, and how rights came out of the European Enlightenment which was basically anti-feudal and anti-theology. If you look at pre-capitalist societies, the source of law was God and the church was the mediator, so it came from a transcendental source. With God gone and states becoming secular, kings are no longer divinely appointed. There is need for a different kind of theory to justify the social order. Enlightenment thinkers came up with democracy as one of those orders. The idea of democracy is based on a social contract, so it’s the same contract imaginary or analogy that defines the entire social order; contract is no longer between merchants doing trade between themselves, but social contact organizes all of society. The structure of contract is a reciprocal relationship. People should give up their rights to self-defence, to self-organize, to self regulate, to the state and in return, the state will provide them with protection. So there has to be authorization by people for the state to have the authority to govern. How do you give authorization? Through Democracy. Periodically, you have elections and in theory, people authorize the state to rule and govern them.
Now you have international election monitoring which comes after the anti-colonial movements and independence of the colonies. There was a loss of a control over the colonies. International organizations, the G7 states, and organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) made a concerted push for election monitoring in the name of democracy promotion. So democracy promotion becomes US foreign policy in the late 1970s and 80s. What does democracy promotion mean? It means that there are certain international, so-called mature democracies, which are invariably, the G7 countries, the former colonizing countries who supervise elections, who fund elections, who tell them how to write the electrical rules and who then certify the elections that are right, democratic, and so on. Now my question is, where is the social contract here? Where is the democratic theory, if we accept the theory as it is in its most ideal form, there is not even a notional sense of citizens of third world states authorizing their states to govern, because on top of that citizen-state relationship, you have an international election monitoring law and systems, and now we even have an election monitoring industry which provides various kinds of “electoral services” to states. And by the way, this is a slight digression, Cambridge Analytica emerged as one of those companies that provided election services to third world states. Much before they got involved in Trump election, they were involved in elections in Kenya and in India.
So I question this entire idea of election monitoring and the right to free and fair elections. What is it? It didn’t exist before. It’s a new right that has come in the 80s. In the classical period of liberalism, elections and democracy were a political thing: citizens organized politically to give their authority. Now it’s no longer a political issue, it’s a legal issue, established by international legal regimes that say to have free and fair elections, you should have x y z, and you should have all those tick boxes. So where is my right as a citizen in all this?
ZM: When I think of the Kenyan election last year, I am sceptical of the idea of a contract between a states and its citizens, or authorization by citizens to decide who is going to govern them. That relationship is quite damaged if not absent in a large part of the global South. In Kenya, with or without election monitors, one might argue that citizens often do not have the political power to choose their own governments. Citizens sometimes want election monitors because they do not trust that their own political processes will lead to changes within the government. What is your response to that?
RD: The question of what people should be doing presupposes they understand the nature of the world they live in. For most people, because of proximity to their own government, they are able to see the problems and the flaws. What they don’t see is the international linkages and the context within which their own governments operate. This is the big difference between anti-colonial movements and the so-called democratic movements today. In the anti-colonial movements, it was very clear who they are fighting against. And that’s why so many people and so many countries rallied across races, tribes, religions in the anti-colonial movements. It was a great moment because it unified a wide range of people and identified the real source of exploitation. One of the problems we have now is this whole idea of self-contained territorial units we call nation states. Isolating the problems within the nation state without understanding the international context for that nation state is a very big problem and that’s one of the issues I raise in my book – we need to locate the nation state within the larger context of imperialism, of transnational monopoly finance capitalism and understand how each one of our countries sits in that. This exactly what the G7 says: “you’ve got your independence, now it’s all your problem.” But they want their investments there, they want to acquire land there, they want to dictate how the states are run. And then they want to find people who are allies or who will listen to what is said. My argument is if we realize this connection then we can begin to re-think politics in a way where we really understand the wider forces. If these powers were not there, I think people will manage their governments rather well. Take Saddam Hussein for example. Do you think the Iraqi people did not know that he was a tyrant and an oppressor? Everybody knew that. But why couldn’t they get rid of him? Because he was backed to the hilt by western powers to fight Iran. And when that job was done and the Cold War was done and there was no more use for him, and of course he tried to be smart and he thought he was going to do all his oil trading in Euros and that’s when they knocked him out.
ZM: Can you talk about the role of big international NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International and how these organizations fit into the rights regime that you critique – do they do any good in terms of monitoring human rights violations in the global South?
RD: I think that is an important question because people have a lot of faith in these institutions. One of the things we don’t often talk about is the connection these organizations have to their own states, for example, HRW joining the Democratic Party. It starts to make sense if we go back to what I said earlier about how democracy promotion becomes an important cornerstone of American foreign policy and later G7 foreign policy. After the Watergate scandal, there was the idea that we can’t leave everything to the state to do because Western governments became very discredited by what Watergate brought out. And so there was an effort to distance democracy promotion from direct state involvement. We see the establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) which is supposed to be an NGO, but is not because it is funded by the US Congress and the main participants or components of NED are the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, the Chambers of Industries and Commerce and the Trade Union Federation. So it’s not an independent or autonomous body. This funding then is distributed through a wide range of NGOs and people who then begin to follow this whole democracy promotion policy and act as a tool of foreign policy for these governments. There is another side to it also. When it comes to breach of human rights by the G7 states, Guantanamo is a very good example, Abu Ghraib is another, or renditions: what is Amnesty doing? They are not mobilizing mass public opinion against that. You find them becoming subservient to the state. And who is funding them? They get money from all kinds of private sources. And where is the autonomy if there is a revolving door between the state and these kinds of institutions? So there are a lot of credibility issues around that. And there are inconsistencies in the way they have taken up issues. In the Balkan situation they went out of their way to raise questions about the war, but on the Tamil question when there was effectively a genocide, human rights organizations pulled out and vacated the space for the army to move in. Even the founding of some of these organizations: Amnesty was founded by two people who were intelligence officers in the Vietnam war and they came home and decided that they were gong to promote democracy around the world. I think we need to look more carefully at what they do and who is behind them.
ZM: At the end of your book, you look at what rights mean for social movements and you are quite critical of how social movements have engaged with rights. You write that social movements believe that by “re-prioritizing rights they can reconcile imperialism and social justice.” Is the problem of social movements engaging with the rights discourse a conceptual problem or is it a problem of vocabulary? Do social movements need to change the way they talk about social justice, and right to water, land and so on or is a way of thinking that needs to change?
RD: I think it’s a whole way of thinking because it’s partly conceptual, it’s partly vocabulary, it is partly not knowing how property right and social rights are related, it’s partly not knowing about how rights establish institutions and it’s partly about not knowing what we want and how to get it really. If people don’t have food and we want food, how do we get food and is this the vehicle? We are in the situation we are in because we have forgotten some of the histories of our struggles. That’s an important reason why we are not able to imagine a way of articulating our demands, a way of reconceptualising struggles and strategies. We have really forgotten that history and we are left with this idea that the only thing left is rights. For example. Let’s take the example of debt. States like Russia have gone into debt before. Western countries wanted Russia to pay back debts. What did the Russian Revolution do? It repudiated debts. And they invented the term ‘odious debts” i.e debts incurred for reasons that do not benefit people. The tzar was not borrowing it for the people. Same thing with the Chinese Revolution, they repudiated their debts, so did Costa Rica, so did Jamaica. This is a very rich history but it never comes up during the debt crisis because all we are left thinking about is, ‘we have to ask for rights to re-schedule it’ and when you talk about repudiation, people say “you can’t do that.” But countries have done it and fared well – Russia came bouncing back, China was destitute, it came bouncing back. All countries that have repudiated debt have done rather well. Why have we lost the courage? I think we are kind of trapped in this whole discourse of rights as the only way to imagine freedom, so much so that we are not able to imagine what real freedom will look like. And that’s the big difference between anti-colonial movements and our times now. We don’t see the colonizers of our times, although we can see that the US wages war, there are rendition flights, we are not able to put those things together and see imperialism or colonialism as the main problem. Instead there is this idea that we can change something with our leaders or within our nation states and that becomes freedom. Rights become a substitution for freedom, and I imagine most of the time when people say they want the right to this or that, what they are asking for is freedom or emancipation. So why don’t we just say we need freedom. One of the reasons we are not able to re-imagine this is because we have forgotten our histories.
Zahra Moloo is a Kenyan journalist, researcher, and documentary filmmaker. Her work focuses on the extractive industries, biodiversity, land rights, and the links between economic and environmental issues. She has published in Al Jazeera, BBC Focus on Africa magazine, IPS News, CBC, Jacobin and Africa is a Country. She is currently working on a feature documentary about conservation in East and Central Africa. Learn more about her work at www.zahra-moloo.com.
As Almaden Minerals moves forward with an open-pit mine, residents say their water and way of life are at risk.
On a cold December day, a delegation from the Ixtacamaxtitlán region of the Sierra Norte del Puebla in Mexico met with officials in Ottawa about a Canadian mining company that planned to extract silver and gold near their homes.
“My house is 300 metres from where the mine crater will be. If they build the mine, it will have a catastrophic impact,” said Francisca Zamora, a farmer and community leader from the village of Santa Mariá Zotoltepec who made the journey to speak with representatives of Global Affairs Canada.
“We want to stop the project from going to the exploitation phase,” she said, adding that her brother already lost the aquifer providing water to his home due to exploratory work done by Vancouver-headquartered Almaden Minerals.
Another farmer, Ignacio Carmona Cruz, from the village of Loma Larga, lives close to where the mine’s tailings dam will be built. He said that Almaden workers entered his land without his consent, damaging his crops and seedlings.
Francisca Zamora, a farmer and community leader from Santa Mariá Zotoltepec in Mexico, outside the offices of Global Affairs Canada.
He put up signs saying “private property,” but they were ignored.
“When they saw me, they would threaten me with aggressive words, saying that if I didn’t allow them onto the land, (they) would use other methods to force me to do so,” he said.
The two farmers’ grievances are among a host of concerns about the project that civil society organizations have been documenting for the past four years.
A community-led Human Rights Impact Assessment published in February 2017 by four such organizations found that Almaden’s Ixtaca mining project “would pose grave risks to the health, water and the environment, from pollution, land destruction and degradation of vital resources such as soil and water.”
Ignacio Carmona Cruz, from the village of Loma Larga, lives close to where the mine’s tailings dam will be built.
This includes the creation of 35 million tons of slurry from the mine’s tailings dam which it says will be built on land used for farming by Indigenous communities.
The report also found that Almaden failed to disclose important information to its investors, including that it violated Mexican regulations by drilling 236 more test holes than were allowed, perforating the local aquifer.
Also not disclosed to investors, said the report, was that more than 20,000 people live around the mining site and that legal processes are underway against the company in Mexico, including a nullity trial seeking to cancel the exploration permit and a popular complaint filed by communities of Ixtacamaxtitlán with the Mexican environmental regulator.
Mining in the Sierra Norte del Puebla
Canadian government figures show that Mexico accounted for 12 per cent of all Canadian mining assets abroad in 2013. The Sierra Norte del Puebla, where Almaden’s project is located, is a mountainous and biodiverse region of the country with a sizeable Indigenous population. An estimated 13 per cent of the region’s population speaks an Indigenous language.
The area’s remote location and the scarcity of telecommunications networks, railways and highways have kept it historically separated from the rest of the country. But in the last few years, that has been changing.
“Much of the rest of Mexico is already extracted so it’s the next frontier for capitalist interests, both foreign and Mexican”
According to Ben Cokelet, the founder and executive director of PODER, one of the organizations that compiled the report and accompanied the Mexican delegation to Canada, the Sierra Norte del Puebla is the “most concessioned, but least extracted” part of the country. Almaden’s Ixtaca mine, part of a 7,200 hectare concession acquired by the company in 2001, would be the first open-pit mine in the region.
“Much of the rest of Mexico is already extracted so it’s the next frontier for capitalist interests, both foreign and Mexican,” he said. “If we are able to prevent this open-pit mine from going forward, it will send a message to other mining investors that this is not territory that is welcome for mining investment.”
Douglas McDonald, Almaden Minerals’ vice-president of corporate development, did not grant an interview for this article, but said in an email exchange that the Ixtaca project had brought “positive impacts to the socio-economy of the region,” which would continue if it were to develop into a mine.
He said that the delegation that came to Canada and the groups that wrote the report do not represent the views of the local stakeholders and people actually living in the area.
“We have always enjoyed a good relationship with the communities nearby our projects because we work to ensure that they concur with our activities and enjoy as much benefit as possible from our presence,” he said. “Almaden has interacted with over 20,000 people from over 53 communities.”
The BC Securities Commission “does not take human right concerns seriously.”
This, he added, included organizing community meetings, employing up to 70 local people, and initiating a scholarship program for local students. He said that the company’s exploration work complied with government regulations.
“It is not unusual in Mexico that the environmental enforcement division will audit, and if necessary reprimand companies’ performance. Contrary to the allegations in the report, Almaden has been audited but has never been reprimanded by these authorities,” he said.
Cokelet said it was impossible for the company to have reached 20,000 people.
“It took us a whole year to reach out to 300 people systematically,” he said. “I have spent the last four years going there every weekend. I have never met anyone who wants the mine, other than the company’s own employees and their families.”
PODER’s impact assessment also accused Mexican authorities for failing to take action against Almaden. It condemned authorities “at all three levels of government” for not protecting human rights or consulting the “opinion of the people living within their jurisdictions,” the Ministry of Economy for granting mining concessions without verifying whether the land was inhabited or not, and other government agencies for not monitoring mining activity “as mandated under Mexican law.”
Cokelet hopes that the report’s findings will pressure investors to withdraw their support from the project.
Disclosure requirements in Canada
Under Canadian securities regulations, companies are required to “immediately disclose a ‘material change’ in their business.” These changes include the “business, operations, or capital of an issuer that would reasonably be expected to have a significant impact on the market price of the issuers’ securities,” such as “external political, economic and social developments.”
Shin Imai, a lawyer and the director of the Corporate Accountability Project at Osgoode Law School in Toronto, said that the lawsuits filed in Mexico by community members from Ixtaca and the level of community opposition to Almaden’s project should be disclosed to investors.
“If I was going to buy the stock, those are the things I’d want to know,” he said.
“There have been some spectacular situations where community or Indigenous opposition has brought a mine to a halt and investors have lost money and sued companies because they did not disclose information.”
In a case involving a mine in Guatemala operated by Tahoe Minerals, a company incorporated in British Columbia, Imai and the Justice and Accountability Project submitted a report to the British Columbia Securities Commission requesting them to investigate the company for misstating or omitting material facts that would enable Canadian investors to accurately understand the risks of investing in Tahoe.
According to Imai, the BC Securities Commission “does not take human right concerns seriously” and did not follow up. In July 2017, the company’s mining permit for its Escobal Mine in Guatemala was suspended, following an order from the country’s Supreme Court, after a civil society organization argued that the Xinca Indigenous people were not consulted before the license was awarded.
In response to a request for an interview, the BC Securities Commission said it was not able to comment on specific issuers.
Erich Meier, CEO and fund manager of Swiss company Konwave Investment, an equity investor that has 2.8 per cent of the share capital in Almaden, said that the allegations in the report, including that investors have been misled by Almaden, are not true.
“I am very surprised that they actually attack Almaden because Almaden from our point of view has one of the strongest CSR (corporate social responsibility) engagements among small cap mining companies,” he said.
Meier said that his team went to the mining site three years ago and saw “big support for the project” in the “communities adjacent to the mines.” He said they spoke to “many local people,” though he was unable to name the locations they had visited or the people they had spoken to.
Meier also said that Konwave not been directly in touch with Mexican regulators.
“If you have a village of let’s say 10,000 people, an NGO will always find a few people who would prefer that there would be no mine,” he said when asked about the delegation of Mexicans who had traveled to Canada.
“Often these people aren’t really aware of the positive impacts of a modern mine or are ideologically driven,” he said. “The question is really, do you trust an NGO where you know they need to do a story, or do you trust the management team you have known since 30 years?”
Other major investors, including Adrian Day Asset Management, Tocqueville Asset Management and Sprott, did not agree to be interviewed for this article.
Addressing the Accountability Gap
In January 2018, following years of controversies over the activities of Canadian mining companies abroad, the Canadian government announced the creation of an independent office, the Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise, to investigate “allegations of human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporate activity abroad.”
Prior to the creation of the office, there existed only two non-judicial mechanisms focused on the activities of Canadian corporations abroad. According to Emily Dwyer, the coordinator of the Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability, both these mechanisms centered around the “possibility of fostering dialogue between impacted people and companies.”
She said this “sounds nice in theory but in reality meant that communities affected by human rights abuses had the opportunity to sit at a table with the company whom they alleged was causing harm.” She said not only was that inappropriate, but these offices have historically “not led to an improvement in the situation for communities.”
“We value green gold, not yellow gold.”
The Office of the Ombudsperson, by contrast, will be able to independently investigate allegations of abuse, report them, recommend policy remedies and monitor their implementation. Dwyer is optimistic that the office will be robust.
While not a “complete answer to the complex and broad accountability gap that exists in the world,” she said, “it does fill a really important gap in access to remedy for the communities.”
In response to queries about whether the Ombudsperson will be able to investigate imminent risks of harm rather than only harms that have already occurred, Jesse Wilson, a communications advisor for Global Affairs Canada, said that the priority of the Ombudsperson, when in place, “will be on addressing allegations of human rights abuses that are current or where the past abuses and harms caused as a result, are continuing.”
The details of how the office will investigate risks of imminent harm, such as in the case of Almaden Mineral’s Ixtaca Mine, is still unclear.
In the meantime, the inhabitants of Puebla say they will continue mobilizing.
“We live from the land and we have a healthy life. We will defend our land so that things stay the way they are,” said Zamora.
“We value green gold, not yellow gold. We don’t want mining here.”
Tell me about yourself and the farming methods you practice.
I was born on a farm. In our family, we have a long history of farming. I practice mixed farming of crops and livestock. We have some varieties of banana that are almost a hundred years old, and maize, beans and other crops that my mother kept that are more than 50 years old. We keep not only domesticated seeds, but also wild seeds because they form a very important part of the ecosystem and biodiversity.
What is the Kenya Small-Scale Farmers’ Forum?
Kenya Small Scale Farmers’ Forum is a grassroots village based network of small-scale farmers of Kenya. It is a part of a similar larger regional network for countries of East, Central and Southern Africa. We bring together small-scale farmers to articulate issues affecting us, including domestic and global policies and market access. Most of the policies are designed to safeguard large scale producers and market access for small-scale farmers is very limited.
Can you talk about the impact of privatization on agriculture and specifically about the ‘Green Revolution’?
Privatization was driven by the industrial conglomerates of Europe, US, Canada, and Australia that all wanted to capture the world market. One market is Africa. The “Green Revolution” was promoted by a few companies that want to capture the agricultural sector. This was being framed as if Africa missed the earlier Green Revolution, which is not true. Africa missed nothing and we know some big companies that are behind this, companies like Monsanto, Aventis. Their main interest is capture and dominance of the seed market because what they are introducing is Genetic Modified Organisms. It is not about a green revolution or about aiding Africa at all. It’s about bringing in their own seeds so that they can knock out the traditional seeds existing in Africa and small-scale farmers will remain dependent on them for seeds.
How exactly would small-scale farmers become dependent on them for seeds?
The genetically modified seeds are patented, and they are more colonizing and domineering than the traditional or indigenous seeds. Once they come, the indigenous seeds will be changed by the modified seeds. That means a loss of the biodiversity that we have. And once that is lost, we have to go for the seeds that are produced by biotechnology companies. Genetic engineering is very expensive, they usually charge heavy royalties. It has been revealed that to be able to control human beings, you can do very few things. One among them is to control food. And where does food come from? From seeds. Seeds remains one of the biggest businesses in the world.
Those who are promoting the Green Revolution say the use of inputs will improve farmers livelihoods. Is there any truth to that?
The inputs we are talking about are fertilizers and chemicals. We are worried about fertilizers because in areas where we have used them intensively, they have made our soils saline. This use of fertilizers is short lived because the repair of those soils is very expensive and takes time. So African small-scale farmers are advocating for organic farming. Inorganic is responsible for a lot of diseases. we are proposing and campaigning for agro-ecology, which is agriculture that is friendly to the ecological systems.
What challenges have you experienced in promoting this kind of agriculture?
The challenge that we have first is dissemination of information and lack of financial support. Our information does not find any space in the media. Then there is the challenge of competition with hybrid producers because they are backed with big money. You find they are the ones in media, on radios, on TV, in newspapers. These guys are opposing [us] in a very big way. Publicly they won’t say that, but the actions that they are performing clearly portray their opposition.
Are there small-scale farmers that embrace hybrid seeds and the ‘Green Revolution,’ or is there substantial resistance to them?
A lot of people are aware and today, agriculture is being portrayed as for profit. When people are told that by embracing this sort of farming style, they are going to make money, they are bound to give it a try. And thereafter they find it is not working. I will give you an example in India where farmers were introduced to BT cotton. It failed – farmers found themselves in trouble and a large number of farmers committed suicide. There were a lot of tricks used and collaboration between big corporates in India and the media. Farmers were told that they would make money that has never been seen in this world only for them to end up ending their lives.
The chemicals used with commercial seeds have also led to the elimination of pollinators – bees, butterflies, for example, and the situation is so intense that in places like Gujarat in India, you find people pollinating crops manually by hand. It is crazy. God has never created such systems. During the time when Kenya had a coffee boom, there was the herbicide used called Roundup which as declared by the WHO as carcinogenic. I know women in the 60s and 70s who are today grandmothers and some of them have numerous cancers.
How does seed certification work?
Government institutions certify them. And those laws that have been introduced about 10 years ago say that farmers should grow certified seeds, like hybrids, because they will give more yield. This has no practical truth. It’s actually a marketing gimmick because farmers have been growing crops for years. For the old people, they have had seeds throughout the years and nobody certified them. And actually what they are certifying most is food crops. Why don’t they go and certify all the seeds in the forest, why are they focusing on food crops? Because they want to control the crops and increase their profits.
Let’s talk about trade policies. In what way does the World Trade Organization (WTO) impact small-scale farmers?
In the WTO, you’ll find that the products from small-scale farmers in the market compete equally with products from developed countries, especially the European Union. Farm produce from the EU receives a lot of subsidy, and this subsidy makes the produce of European countries more competitive; quality becomes higher, production costs are lower and they even receive marketing subsidies, so when they enter the market to compete with the products of Sub-Saharan African small-scale farmers, the products of small-scale farmers are uncompetitive because they do not have any subsidies or support.
What about Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs). What is their impact on small-scale farmers?
Under EPAs, which are being negotiated between the EU and Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Countries (the ACP), small-scale farmers are disadvantaged if we try to market our produce in Europe and even we are worried that since some countries have signed EPA, when those cheap products of Europe start flowing into the African market, the African produce will be knocked out.
Can you give an example of how this occurs?
I will give the case of meat from EU, and milk. Let’s say the milk and meat from Denmark. When it comes to Africa, and specifically let me now talk about Nairobi supermarkets. You go to the supermarkets to buy it, you find that it is packed tinned, in a nice tin, and it is well labelled. It has been cooked. It has struggled all the way from Europe into Africa. And when you compare the price of beef coming from Europe to Nairobi with ours, ours you buy from a butchery, it has not been value added like the one you are getting from Europe. You have to take it home raw, wash it, cook it. So finally ours becomes uncompetitive in our own domestic market. The production costs of beef from the cow in Europe to the butchery and to the packaging etc, all that process is subsidized by European Union. Ours has no support at all. Farmers have got to pay from their own pockets.
Kenya produces milk. Is this an issue with milk as well?
The milk that comes from Denmark, once it starts flowing into Africa and into Kenya, considering that Kenya in the region is the biggest producer of dairy products, that will mean that our small-scale farmers who are dependent on daily farming will lose their market. It will mean unemployment, families that are dependent on dairy losing on their livelihood, and loss of government revenue of our countries.
Why are these agreements being negotiated in a way that is not beneficial to African farmers. Is there a historical context to this problem?
These negotiations are a matter of who is stronger. Unfortunately, our negotiators in the ACP countries are not as strong as their counterparts in the EU. The negotiating sessions in Brussels can go on for days; there are so many sessions and every session needs several people to negotiate. A country in Africa has only two or three negotiators and there are about twenty sessions running. Once those sessions have started, they don’t stop. Our African lead negotiators sign agreements in which they have not participated in the negotiations. Then there are a lot of tricks that are used. Like recently, Kenya was arm twisted into signing the EPA which is crazy because the Europeans have not been able to get certain preferences in WTO, so what they failed to get in WTO, they are now working to get under EPA.
Like what for example?
Like this issue of negotiating for subsidies in the WTO. The WTO is global and there are many countries like India and China that have been pushing for the withdrawal of farm subsidies. The Europeans found it easier to bring this issue to EPA negotiations because there the majority of the countries are from developing countries and very few are developed. The LDCs can easily be twisted so they are able to get what they failed to get from WTO.
Why did Kenya sign the EPA and yet Tanzania and Nigeria have avoided signing it?
EPA negotiations are done in blocks. Kenya comes under the East African Community (EAC) block. In EAC, Kenya is supposed to be a developed or developing country. The other four, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda Burundi, are Least Developed. In the EPA negotiations, there is a clause known as EBA which stands for ‘Everything But Arms.’ In this clause, the LDCs are allowed to export everything but arms. Kenya, being a more developed country than the others (and this is a measure given by World Bank), was restricted.
The other twist that was used; Kenya exports a lot of flowers and horticultural products to Europe. The negotiations had been going on for a long time and were getting nowhere. Our negotiators were standing strong but then the EU gave Kenya a deadline to sign the EPA, otherwise the Kenyan horticultural produce to Europe would face tariffs. Among those products going to Europe are Kenyan flowers. The Kenya Flower Council which is responsible for the export of flowers to Europe put a lot of pressure on the government because the majority of the flower farmers are Europeans. Their interest would be serving their countries rather than Kenya. So Kenya has to go and sign the EPA, despite the fact that in the EPA, the negotiations being done in a block; one country can’t sign alone. EPA is supposed to assist in development and in integration, but they have divided the East African countries. One clause in EPA states “No party should be left worse than they were.” So these are contradictions and the EU is very good at creating these contradictions. They are leaving Kenya and the EAC worse than they were.
Understanding the Economic Partnership Agreement
Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) allows duty free access of goods from the East Africa Community to the European market.
While Kenya has been ready to sign EPA with the European Union, Tanzania and Uganda have been hesitant.
Tanzania has been hesitant to sign the deal claiming it would kill local industries.
However, both Uganda and Tanzania are listed as Least Developed Countries, exempting them from paying duty to access European markets.
Kenya is not classified as a least developed country, hence its only chance of accessing EU markets duty free is through a collective EPA signed by the region.
Journalist Anjan Sundaram’s book on Rwanda, ‘Bad News, Last journalists in a dictatorship,’ exposes a terrifying dictatorship at the heart of Africa that few people get to hear about. Paul Kagame has tremendously succeeded – with the eager help of his western backers – to feed the world a carefully choreographed false narrative. His chilling tyranny is so pervasive and entrenched that Rwandans police themselves unbidden.
Zahra Moloo: What took you to Rwanda and what inspired you to write this book?
Anjan Sundaram: I went to Rwanda in 2009 to write my first book about Congo and really I was looking for a quiet place. I thought the country was peaceful, even a little boring, a great place to write a book. I began to teach local journalists as a way to make some money and also engage with local society, but very quickly, I learnt that the local journalists I was working with were living and working in a climate of great repression. One of them had been beaten into a coma, after bringing up the harassment of the press in front of President Kagame of Rwanda. Another young woman had been in prison for many years and physically and psychologically abused, she was sick with HIV. These stories alerted me to the climate of repression that largely goes untold about Rwanda.
Kalongo, Democratic Republic of Congo – Androzo Bekere clearly remembers the attack on his village in Kalongo.
Standing beside a graveyard where wooden crosses bear the names of those killed, he gestures towards a cluster of houses, abandoned by their inhabitants.
“It was about four in the afternoon when we were told that armed men had captured a girl from here, in the field where she was farming,” he said. “We called the army. They came with us to the field and we thought the rebels had escaped, but later that evening, they encircled the village and started attacking people with machetes.”
BENI, 5 January 2016 (IRIN) – Amuri Masandi, a major in the Congolese army, was in the forest during an operation against an armed group when he started suffering from insomnia and nightmares, and exhibiting a troubled demeanour. Suspecting he had malaria, his colonel sent him to Goma to be treated at the hospital there. When that didn’t work, his wife took him to the Centre for the Protection of the Destitute and Mentally Ill, known by its French acronym CEPIMA, the only mental health clinic in Beni Territory, in North Kivu province. There, Masandi was treated for depression and psychosis with a heavy dose of psychotropic medication and regular counselling sessions, as well as multivitamins for his general well-being.
In this interview, Devlin Kuyek, Senior Researcher at GRAIN, talks about a report that reveals how a Canadian agribusiness company, Feronia, financed by American and European development institutions, is involved in land grabbing, corrupt practices and human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
ZAHRA MOLOO: Your recent report looks at what you call ‘agro-colonialism’ in the DRC, and in particular at a Canadian company that’s investing in palm oil plantations in the Congo. Perhaps we can start with some historical context. We think of agribusiness and land grabs more in a contemporary sense on the continent, but in the DRC there’s a whole history to palm oil. Can you go back a bit and give some historical context to palm oil plantations in the DRC?