Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya

The Oakland Institute, November 16, 2021

Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya — reveals the devastating impact of privatized and neo-colonial wildlife conservation and safari tourism on Indigenous pastoralist communities. Although terms like “participatory,” “community driven,” and “local empowerment” are extensively used, the report exposes how the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS), have allegedly dispossessed pastoralist communities of their ancestral lands, through corruption, cooptation, and sometimes through intimidation and violence, to create wildlife conservancies for conservation dollars.

Since its founding in 2004, NRT has set up 39 conservancies on over 42,000 square kilometers of land in Northern and Coastal Kenya — nearly eight percent of the country’s total land area. While NRT claims that its goal is to “transform people’s lives, secure peace and conserve natural resources,” the Oakland Institute’s report elevates voices of communities — predominantly pastoralists — who allege NRT dispossesses them of their land and deploys armed security units involved in serious human rights abuses. NRT is also involved in security, management of pasture land, and livestock marketing, which according to the impacted communities, gives it a level of control that surpasses even that of the Kenyan government.

Based on extensive field research, Stealth Game: “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land & Lives in Northern Kenya, is the first independent report to provide a comprehensive review of the evolution of Kenya’s land and wildlife conservation laws; the history, structure, and functioning of “community” conservancy model of NRT; as well as land and human rights issues surrounding the privatized model of conservation in Kenya.

Created by Ian Craig, whose family was part of an elite white minority during British colonialism, NRT’s origins date back to the 1980s when Craig’s family-owned, 62,000-acre cattle ranch was transformed into its first conservancy. Today, NRT receives millions in funding from donors such as USAID, the European Union, Danish and French development agencies and large environmental NGOs, including The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Space for Giants.

In recent years, impacted communities have held protests, signed petitions, and initiated legal action against the presence of NRT on their lands. Community members have repeatedly asked for justice after years of being ignored by the Kenyan government and by the police when reporting killings of family members and other human rights abuses. The findings of Stealth Game call for an urgent independent investigation into land and human rights related grievances around NRT’s community conservancies — including allegations of involvement of NRT’s rapid response units in inter-ethnic conflict, and of abuses and extrajudicial killings.

The report’s release comes as the international community is considering adopting the “30×30 initiative” under the UN’s Convention on Biological Diversity, which calls for 30 percent of the planet to be placed in protected areas or other effective area-based conservation measures by 2030. Stealth Game makes it clear that fortress conservation must be replaced by truly Indigenous-led conservation efforts to preserve the remaining biodiversity of the planet while respecting interests, rights, and dignity of the local communities.

To read the report, click here.

Driven to Exterminate: How Bill Gates Brought Gene Drive Extinction Technology into the World

Navdanya International, October 2020.

By Zahra Moloo and Jim Thomas, ETC Group.

Image: Stig, for ETC Group

In 2016, at the Forbes 400 Summit on Philanthropy in New York, Bill Gates was asked to give his opinion on gene drives, a risky and controversial new technology that could—by design—lead to the complete extermination of the malaria-carrying mosquito species, Anopheles gambiae. If it were his decision to wipe out this mosquito once and for all, given the risks and benefits being considered, would he be ready to do it? “I would deploy it two years from now,” he replied confidently. However, he added, “How we get approval is pretty open ended.”

Gates’s ‘let’s deploy it’ response may not seem out of character, but it was an unusually gung ho response given how risky the technology is widely acknowledged to be. Gene drives have been dubbed an “extinction technology” and with good reason: gene drive organisms are created by genetically engineering a living organism with a particular trait, and then modifying the organism’s reproductive system in order to always force the modified gene onto future generations, spreading the trait throughout the entire population.

In the case of the Anopheles gambiae project (that Gates bankrolls), a gene drive is designed to interfere with the fertility of the mosquito: essential genes for fertility would be removed, preventing the mosquitoes from having female offspring or from having offspring altogether. These modified mosquitoes would then pass on their genes to a high percentage of their offspring, spreading auto-extinction genes throughout the population. In time, the entire species would in effect be completely eliminated.

Although still new and unproven, gene drives have provoked significant alarm among ecologists, biosafety experts and civil society, many of whom have backed a call for a complete moratorium on the technology. By deliberately harnessing the spread of engineered genes to alter entire populations, gene drives turn on its head the usual imperative to try to contain and prevent engineered genes from contaminating and disrupting ecosystems. The underlying genetic engineering technology is unpredictable and may provoke spread of intended traits. The notion that a species can be removed from an ecosystem without provoking a set of negative impacts on food webs and ecosystem functions is wishful thinking and even taking out a carrier of an unpleasant parasite does not mean the parasite won’t just jump to a different host. Moreover, the implicit power in being able to re-model or delete entire species and ecosystems from the genetic level up is attracting the interest of  militarities and agribusiness alike and runs counter to the idea of working with nature to manage conservation and agriculture. 

That Gates is so enthusiastic about releasing this powerful genetic technology is not so surprising when one scratches the surface of the myriad institutions that have been researching and promoting gene drives for years. To date, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is either the first or second largest funder of gene drive research (alongside the shadowy U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) whose exact level of investment is disputed). Gates is not just another tech optimist standing on a business stage calling for gene drive release to be allowed—his foundation has poured millions of dollars into gene drive research for over a decade. Yet direct research funding is not the only way in which the BMGF has accelerated the development of this technology. They have also funded and influenced lobbyists, regulators, and public narratives around gene drives, in an attempt to push this dangerous sci-fi sounding technology into real world use, shifting research priorities on industrial agriculture, conservation and health strategies along the way.

Funding the Research

While the controversy around gene drives is recent, promoters like to emphasize that research towards creating gene drive technology has been in the works for many years. From its inception, much of this research has received direct funding from the BMGF, funneled through different academic institutions. The beginning of current research into genetically modified extinction technology can be traced back to 2003 when Austin Burt, a professor of Evolutionary Genetics at Imperial College in London, was working with yeast enzymes, noting how ‘selfish genes’ were able to reproduce with a greater probability than the usual 50-50 ratio that occurs in normal sexual reproduction. In a paper, he explained how these genes could be adapted for other uses, such as in mosquitoes, where the destruction of the insects could be embedded directly into their genes. Burt, along with Andrea Chrisanti, another biologist at Imperial College, applied for a US$8.5 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (which they received in 2005) to take forward their theories and apply them in a lab, eventually creating an international project called ‘Target Malaria’. In an interview with Wired magazine, Chrisanti explained how this funding and the relationship with the BMGF was instrumental in the further development of gene drives technology. “If you need a resource, you get it, if you need a technology, you get it, if you need equipment, you get it. We were left with the notion that success is only up to us,” he said.

At the same time, in 2005, the BMGF was also channeling money into the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH), as part of a larger US$436 million grant for a project called the Grand Challenges in Global Health Initiative. Through the FNIH, a biologist at UC Irvine, Anthony James, was injecting DNA into mosquito embryos to create transgenic mosquitoes resistant to dengue fever. These mosquitoes were able to reproduce which meant that normal mosquito populations could possibly be replaced by GM mosquitoes if only a way could be found to drive the engineered genes into populations. In 2011, James’ lab genetically engineered the mosquito species Anopheles stephensi with genes that made it resistant to malaria.

All these developments were significant, but they had not yet led to the creation of gene drives. That moment came in 2015, when two scientists at UC San Diego, California, Ethan Bier and Valentino Gantz, created a gene-construct that could spread a trait through fruit flies, turning the entire population yellow. The technology they had developed used a new genetic engineering tool called CRISPR-Cas9 which could cut DNA and enable genes to be inserted, replaced or deleted from DNA sequences. In effect Gantz and bier built the genetic engineering tool directly into the flies genome so each generation genetically engineered its offspring. CRISPR-Cas9 technology was instrumental in the creation of the gene drive and in late 2015, functional gene drive modified mosquitoes were created. This is what the Gates Foundation was waiting for. In 2016, an official with the Gates Foundation said in an interview that malaria could not be wiped out without a gene drive; all of a sudden this ‘extinction technology’ was considered not just desirable, but “necessary” in the fight to end malaria.

Since then, the push for further research and deployment of gene drives has gained considerable momentum—mostly propelled by Gates dollars. The BMGF has funneled even more funding into taking gene drive research forward. In 2017, UC Irvine received another US$2 million directly from the BMGF for Anthony James to genetically engineer the malaria-carrying mosquito species Anopheles gambiae, with a view to eventually releasing them in a trial. Meanwhile, Target Malaria, the flagship research consortium that came from Burt and Chrisanti’s work, has received US$75 million from the foundation. This has been used to create labs in Burkina Faso, Mali and Uganda in order to begin experimenting with gene drives in Africa, and in 2019 Target Malaria released 4,000 genetically modified (not gene drive) mosquitoes in Burkina Faso as a first step in their experiment. Their goal is to release the gene drive mosquitoes in Burkina Faso in 2024. BMGF has also bankrolled further gene drive research in Siena Italy, Jerusalem, Israel and Boston, USA.

Synthetic Biology and Agricultural Interests

Although mainstream media coverage of gene drive developments emphasizes Gates’s grandiose philanthropic intentions in eliminating malaria and saving lives in Africa, there is more than meets the eye when it comes to Gates’s direct funding of gene drive research.

Gene drives are classified as part of a controversial field of extreme genetic engineering known as synthetic biology (synbio) or ‘GMO 2.0’ in which living organisms can be redesigned in the lab to have new abilities. Synthetic Biology aims to redesign and fabricate biological components and systems that do not exist in the natural world. Today it is a multi-billion-dollar industry which creates compounds like synthetic ingredients (synthetic versions of saffron, vanilla etc), medicines and lab-grown food products. Gates’s ambitions for this radical biotech field extend beyond gene drives and malaria research and into the field of synbio. In an interview, he said that if he were a teenager today, he would be hacking biology: “If you want to change the world in some big way, that’s where you should start—biological molecules.”

The Gates Foundation has had a substantial influence on the synthetic biology industry since its inception. In 2005, when the field was still relatively new, the BMGF gave a grant of US$42.5 million (and later more)  to the University of California Berkeley and Amyris, a startup synbio company, in order to produce the antimalarial drug artemisinin in a laboratory with genetically engineered microbes. The aim of this grant was not only to create the antimalarial drug, but also to create new biofuels, medicines and high value chemicals. The founder of Amyris, Jay Keasling, has told ETC Group that the Gates funds were contingent on finding other more profitable lines of business in addition to artemisinin and so initially the technology was simultaneously applied to biofuel production. Jack Newman, a scientist at Amyris explained that “the very same pathways” used in artemisinin “can be used for anticancer (drugs), antivirals, antioxidants.”

While using philanthropic funds to bankroll a private biofuel business might seem ethically questionable, the supposedly beneficial target of making an antimalarial molecule may not have been so positive either. In 2013, after many years of research by the UC Berkeley Laboratory and Amyris, it was announced that the French pharmaceutical company, Sanofi, would launch the production of synthetic artemisinin. Commercial production of the compound was hailed as more affordable than naturally grown artemisinin, which is farmed in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Mozambique, India, Vietnam and China. However, what was not mentioned during all the hype around the synthetic production of the compound was that artemisinin farmers in these countries would lose their livelihoods as a result of the sale of the synbio version. In the hype and supported by philanthropic money, prices for artemisinin crashed and some natural artemisinin extractors were shuttered. Eventually, even the synthetic product proved too expensive to sell.

The BMGF investments’ in syn bio go further still. The Foundation invested in a number of other synbio companies including Editas Medicine, a genome editing company that controls the CRISPR-Cas9 technology behind gene drives, and Ginkgo Bioworks, which creates microbes for application in fashion, medicine and industry. Gates is also keen on the so-called “cellular food revolution” which grows food from cells in a lab. His investments in the sector include Memphis Meat, a company that creates cell-based meat without animals, Pivot Bio, which creates engineered microbes for use in agriculture, and Impossible Foods, which makes processed meat-like burgers from a synthetic biology-derived blood substitute.

That Gates is pouring so much money into an industry that is oriented toward shifting agriculture and the food systems toward hi-tech approaches is no accident, given how influential the Foundation is in global health and agriculture policy generally, and in promoting industrial agriculture in the global South and especially Africa. In the case of gene drives, while most international debate has focused on their application in malaria and conservation, the industrial farm is where gene drives may first make their impact; the very foundational patents for gene drives have been written with agricultural applications in mind. In 2017, a secretive group of military advisors known as the JASON Group produced a classified study on gene drives commissioned by the US government which was tasked to address “what might be realizable in the next 3-10 years, especially with regard to agricultural applications.” The JASON Group was also informed by gene drive researchers who were present during a presentation on crop science and gene drives delivered by someone from Bayer-Monsanto. Other groups involved in gene drive discussions behind the scene include Cibus, an agricultural biotech firm, as well as agribusiness majors including Syngenta and Corteva Agriscience. The startup Agragene, whose co-founders are none other than the gene drive researchers Ethan Bier and Valentino Gantz of University of California at San Diego, “intends to alter plants and insects” using gene drives. The JASON Group and others have also raised the flag that gene drives have biowarfare potential—in part explaining the strong interest of US and other militaries in the technology.

Shaping the Narrative Around Gene Drives

Not only has the Gates Foundation funded the underlying tools of the syn bio industry and moulded gene drive research for years, it has also been quietly working behind the scenes to influence the adoption of these risky technologies. The way in which policy and public relations about gene drives research has been shaped by the Foundation becomes clear when one examines what happened immediately after the creation of the first functional gene drives with CRISPR Cas9 technology in late 2014.

In early 2015, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine announced that they would have a major inquiry into gene drives—an unprecedented move for such a brand new (only months old) technology. The study did not explore just the science of gene drives, but also aimed to frame issues around policy, ethics, risk assessment, governance and public engagement around gene drives. It was sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH). Several panel members were recipients of Gates funds.

The Foundation has also channeled money into the MIT media lab, home to Kevin Esvelt, who directs a group called Sculpting Evolution and was among the first people to identify the potential of CRISPR-based gene drive to alter wild populations.  Last year the MIT Media Lab was embroiled in a controversy when it was revealed that it had received donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Through Epstein, the media lab secured US$2 million from Gates although it is not clear for which project.

One of the most controversial findings which illustrate the extent to which the Gates Foundation is invested in influencing the uptake of gene drive technology was made in 2017 by civil society organizations following a Freedom of Information request. That process led to the release of a trove of emails revealing that a private PR firm called Emerging Ag, was paid US$1.6 million by the BMGF. Part of their work involved coordinating the “fight back against gene drive moratorium proponents,” as well as running a covert advocacy coalition to exert influence on the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the key body for gene drive governance. After calls in 2016 for a global moratorium on the use of gene drive technology, the CBD sought input from scientists and experts in an online forum. Emerging Ag recruited and coordinated over 65 experts, including a Gates Foundation senior official, a DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) official, and government and university scientists, in an attempt to flood the official UN process with their coordinated inputs.

Emerging Ag now manages an overt advocacy network also funded by the BMGF called the Outreach Network for Gene Drive Research whose stated intention is to “raise awareness of the value of gene drive research for the public good.” Its members include researchers and organizations that work on gene drive research, stakeholder engagement, outreach and even funders. Almost all of its members are separately funded by the Gates Foundation. In 2020, Emerging Ag received another grant from the Foundation for $2,509,762.

Emerging Ag Inc.2020MalariaGlobal Health$2,509,762
Emerging Ag Inc.2017MalariaGlobal Health$1,603,405

Source: Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

Governance and Lobbying at International Fora

During the international negotiations of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP14 in Sharm el Sheikh in 2018, the influence of the Gates machinery was on clear display. The multiple initiatives in which the Foundation had invested beforehand ended up having important consequences. Not only had the Foundation sought to influence the expert panels that inform the Convention before the actual negotiations took place, but they had also managed to ensure that political support for gene drives in Africa, where the first gene drive mosquitoes are due to be released, was established well before the official negotiations, countering civil society concerns about and resistance to this highly risky technology.

About six months prior to COP14, the African Union’s technical arm, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) released a report in support of gene drive mosquitoes for malaria eradication. A year prior to the report, NEPAD was awarded $2,350,000 from the Open Philanthropy Project, a major co-funder of Target Malaria alongside BMGF, to support the evaluation, preparation and possible deployment of gene drives. Open Philanthropy’s funding priorities often move in lockstep with BMGF priorities and they are part of the same’effective altruism’ movement of technocratic billionaires. Additionally, a new crop of African negotiators, new to the CBD, arrived at the Sharm-el-Sheikh negotiations vocally arguing in favour of gene drives. Many of this new cohort were drawn from ABNE, the African Network on Biosafety Expertise—a Gates funded biotech policy network on the African continent that is at the heart of BGMF influence on African biotech policy. It was no surprise then when, at the CBD, the consensus position of the African group of delegates was one that was in favour of gene drives, and they blocked a moratorium on the release of gene drive organisms which was requested by African civil society groups. 

So embedded were the individuals from institutions funded by the BMGF in the official negotiations that even certain people serving as official government delegates were found to have been paid or employed by Target Malaria. On the sidelines lobbyists from other Gates funded outfits, such as The Cornell Alliance for Science also railed against the moratorium proposal.

From bankrolling the technology development and creating the underlying tools, to shaping the narrative, picking the policy negotiators and even paying the lobbyists, Bill Gates and his Foundation have so far been tightly interwoven into every part of the story of gene drive extinction technology. However, although the Foundation has been highly successful in influencing the technology’s future deployment, they have not been able to suppress the global movements which have sprung up in resistance to gene drive technology. And just as health activists and food sovereignty activists have pushed back against the white saviour complex of philanthro-capitalists, so movements in West Africa have been quick to point out the racism and injustice of Gates-backed groups such as Target Malaria, who are using African people and ecosystems as experimental subjects for gene drive technology. In June 2018, over 1,000 farmers and activists protested against gene drive technology in the streets of Ouagadougou. Many are concerned about the eventual agricultural applications of gene drives and in the case of malaria, they believe that indigenous medicine and existing methods are better suited to fight the disease, particularly given the increasing number of countries which have completely eradicated it. In the words of food sovereignty activist Ali Tapsoba, with the organization Terre à Vie, “The best way to fight against malaria remains to put in place a good sanitation policy for our habitats and our environment. It is out of the question for us to let these scientists continue to conduct dangerous experiments outside their laboratories.” It is perhaps at its intended point of experimentation, in Burkina Faso, that the Gates machinery will finally be forced to grind to a halt.

The crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front – review

Africa is a Country, April 2019.

Judi Rever’s account of the Rwandan genocide and its aftermath challenges the official narrative.

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At the end of May 1997, one week after President Mobutu was toppled in a military coup, Judi Rever, a Canadian reporter for RFI, arrives in the Democratic Republic of Congo—then Zaire—to cover the unfolding humanitarian crisis. She travels south of Kisangani to refugee camps where Hutu refugees have sought safety after a series of attacks. Here, in the eery quiet of a clearing in the forest, she comes across “dozens and dozens” of survivors. Some have lost their families and others look as though they are “on the verge of death.” They all say they are escaping attacks by the RPF, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, part of the rebel alliance that has overthrown Mobutu (today, the ruling party in Rwanda). Across the border in Rwanda, in a transit camp where Hutus returning from Congo are being registered by the UN, refugees say the same thing: that they fled Rwanda to Congo because the RPF was killing Hutus.

Back in Paris where she lives, Rever tries to piece together what she has seen. In the media and in political and humanitarian circles, there is one narrative: that “an African renaissance” is beginning in the Congo, heralding a “new age of peace and security.” Rever herself believes, like most people, that during the Rwandan genocide the RPF “swooped in and routed Hutu extremists responsible for killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus.” Yet this narrative is “diametrically opposed” to what she has seen in both Congo and Rwanda. Her interviews lead her to question everything she has read about the genocide. What unfolds in the remainder of her book, In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, is a detailed account of the RPF and their crimes before, during and after the Rwandan genocide.

Drawing from reports by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was set up in the aftermath of the genocide to try Rwandans accused of human rights violations, as well as from select interviews with former intelligence officers and RPF defectors who used to work for Kagame, Rwandans in exile, survivors of massacres, former investigators, academics, and others, Rever’s account reveals the RPF’s methods of operation. It says how they carried out massacres against Hutu civilians “with great precision,” “leaving barely a trace,” what motivated them, and how they managed to evade justice for so many years. Although these crimes have been documented for many years and as early as 1994 by groups including The Human Rights Commission on Rwanda, Amnesty International, the UN, MSF, and a number of notable scholars, In Praise of Blood is notable for providing more information, both “qualitative and quantitative,” about the RPF’s crimes.

A key element to understanding the RPF’s operations during and after the genocide, is its intelligence wing, the DMI (Directorate of Military Intelligence), which Rever describes as the “main instrument through which crimes were inflicted on Rwandans during the genocide” and the “continuing source of control and violence against Rwandans and Congolese.” Investigators for the ICTR found that while the RPF had killed civilians, it was DMI representatives under orders from Kagame who initiated massacres. A controversial revelation in the book, based on the ICTR report and on interviews with former RPF officials, is that a covert group of “technicians” trained by DMI before 1994 were trained to, among other things, infiltrate Interahamwe Hutu militias and incite them to commit massacres against Tutsi civilians. In some cases, she writes, the RPF even actively killed Tutsi villagers in staged attacks that were blamed on Hutu mobs.

Byumba, Giti and ‘claiming land’

Among the many grisly incidents of violence that Rever documents in her book is one which became the “trademark” method that RPF used for killing Hutus: the massacre at Byumba stadium in April 1994, two weeks into the genocide. Thousands of Hutu refugees had fled to Byumba from camps bombarded by Kagame’s forces. After three days without food, RPF soldiers urged them to go to the football stadium of the town, promising food, drink and cooking supplies. After the peasants filed into the stadium and settled down for the night, RPF officers opened fire, killing everyone inside. Bodies were buried, but later dug up and incinerated under Kagame’s orders; Kagame feared that France’s satellite surveillance would find evidence of mass graves. Rever writes that this method of controlling access to an area, luring in large groups of Hutus with promises of food and safety, and then killing them or taking them away to be killed elsewhere, was used across the country during the genocide. The RPF’s success in hiding these crimes depended on concealing the “the evidence by turning human beings into ash.” Sometimes, she writes, the RPF “buried the Hutu dead in graves with Tutsis who had been murdered by Hutu militia.”

In Praise of Blood details several other massacres by the RPF, including at Karambi trading center, where the RPF killed an estimated 3000 people before President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, at Ruhengeri where DMI units with civilian cadres massacred Hutus in July and August of 1994, at Gabiro in a guest lodge that had once been the home of Rwanda’s king, and at Giti. Giti stands out as a “startling use” of RPF “propaganda” where RPF forces massacred Hutu civilians at a primary school in Giti and then agreed with the town’s mayor that in return for RPF protection, he would be known as the only mayor in Rwanda who had ensured that no genocide against Tutsi took place in his commune.

Why would Kagame’s forces undertake such widespread, targeted and horrific killings? Concerning Byumba, a number of people in the book assert that the RPF’s actions were about “claiming land in Byumba, the breadbasket of Rwanda,” for thousands of Rwandan Tutsis who had grown up in Uganda. Indeed, the narrative thread of RPF’s crimes must be placed in the context of their origins in Uganda, their invasion of Rwanda in 1990 and the decision to shoot down the plane of Rwanda’s president, Juvenal Habyarimana, widely seen as the event that sparked the beginning of the genocide. Although most mainstream accounts of the genocide attribute Habyarimana’s death to Hutu extremists, In Praise of Blood explains through first hand testimonies how RPF engineered the downing of the plane. As soon as it was shot down, between 25,000 and 30,000 RPF troops moved into position to launch an offensive “which would have required weeks of preparation.” Several people interviewed in the book believe that the RPF had one main objective which was to “seize power” and use the “massacres as stock in trade to justify its military operations.”

If indeed that was true, it worked: while international organizations and the UN were aware of some of the massacres by RPF, including at Byumba, the international community viewed these events through a “different moral lens” than they applied to the Hutu génocidaires. Kagame’s killings were seen as “reprisal killings” or “collateral damage.”

Counter insurgency and justice denied

While one might categorize the 1994 killings by the RPF as specific to the violence unfolding in the context of genocide, what happened after the genocide during the counter-insurgency when Kagame sent his troops into the DRC under the pretext of hunting down Hutu génocidaires is arguably more disturbing, perhaps for the simple reason that unlike the genocide, Rever states, it went on with “little outcry from the world,” reaching its peak in 1997.

The 1996 invasion of Zaire forced hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees to return home and “face a new round of ethnic cleansing.” Rever writes how during this period, RPF killed Hutu civilians in areas under their control “hill by hill,” including near military bases, and in caves where thousands were hiding from Kagame’s soldiers. Meanwhile, Hutu officials who were unwilling to support the Hutu insurgency and joined the RPF were also killed, along with their families. Some of these massacres have been confirmed in reports by Amnesty International.

Among the RPF’s actions in this period included “false flag” operations. In one incident, based on interviews with former RPF intelligence officers, Rever describes how RPF staged an attack on a refugee camp in Mudende, killing hundreds of Tutsis. This helped to demonize Hutus by putting the blame for the attack on Hutu guerrillas and persuaded the US to “continue training RPF soldiers and supplying Rwanda with military material.”

Although the killings in these years targeted not only Hutu and Tutsi civilians, but also UN observers, Spanish aid workers and a Canadian priest, no action was taken against the RPF internationally. As early as May 1994, during the genocide, a UN refugee agency report documented killings by the RPF. After the genocide, in 2006, a French judge, Jean-Louis Bruguière issued arrest warrants against those involved in the shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane and in 2008, Spain issued arrest warrants for 40 of Kagame’s senior commanders, but these did not result in any arrests. Rever writes that authorities in Europe, North America and Africa refused to extradite those implicated. In 1997, when the Canadian priest was killed by RPF and a witness flew to Nairobi to give a statement to the Canadian embassy, there was no follow up.

The latter chapters of In Praise of Blood offer startling explanations of what was happening in the higher echelons of institutions tasked with pursuing the RPF and the “enormous lobbying, money and influence” Kagame used to “penetrate institutions and people in power.” Rever exposes how a clandestine unit, the Special Investigations Unit, which was set up by the ICTR in 1999 specifically to investigate crimes by Kagame’s army and relied on testimonies from Rwandan witnesses in exile, found that their sources were being intimidated and disappeared. The ICTR suspended investigations against Kagame’s commanders in order not to lose the cooperation of the Rwandan government in investigating Hutu génocidaires. Eventually, Rever writes, the SIU was hijacked by Paul Kagame himself, and the Chief Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte removed from her position “at the behest of the US” after she made it clear that she intended to indict RPF commanders.

In a stunning revelation that demonstrates just how intertwined the relationship between Rwanda and the US was, In Praise of Blood demonstrates how Kagame and the US Ambassador at the time agreed to a deal whereby, rather than going through the ICTR process, the government of Rwanda would have the “opportunity” to prosecute massacres by the RPF. In other words, “the killers would investigate themselves.” Rever writes that the ICTR became essentially “a surrogate of Washington and by extension, Kagame.” The UN tribunal closed in 2015, having convicted 61 people, all of them linked to the former Hutu regime. The trial that Rwanda eventually carried out on its own was seen as a “political whitewash,” even by Human Rights Watch, which Rever demonstrates was primarily interested in massacres of Tutsis in the genocide.

It was not only international institutions and western governments that became intertwined with the powerful interests of the RPF, but also NGOs—specially the London-based organization African Rights which defended the RPF against reports that they had engaged in violence, and was eventually found, according to the book, to be on the RPF payroll. The other organization singled out for their refusal to give adequate weight to the RPF killings is Human Rights Watch which documented RPF killings, but downplayed them as “generalized violence.”

For those implicated in massacres, not only were they not prosecuted, but several moved onto high positions in UN peacekeeping operations; Patrick Nyamvumba who allegedly gave the orders for massacres during the genocide and was in charge of creating units to “screen, mop up and otherwise rid the hillsides of Hutu civilians,” was appointed as Head of UNAMID, the UN-African Union peacekeeping operation in Darfur in 2009. Another man, Jean Bosco Kazura, allegedly in charge of soldiers who killed civilians east of Kigali at the height of the genocide and at Gabiro, became the peacekeeping chief of the UN’s force in Mali in 2013.

The struggle of memory against fear

Any attempt to uncover the carefully buried secrets of a powerful regime is likely to result in reprisals. In Praise of Blood describes what happened to Rwandans who came forward to testify against Kagame and the RPF. While some managed to escape into exile, others were killed, disappeared or imprisoned. Rever writes how she too became a target, not only in Europe where she travelled for interviews, but also in Canada where she received threatening calls singling out her children.

At the end of her book, Rever writes that she chose to focus on the crimes of the RPF and not on the genocide against Tutsis since there already exists a plethora of material about Hutu-on-Tutsi violence. However, for this reason, it is sometimes difficult while reading In Praise of Blood to keep the two narratives in mind and to understand how both unfolded simultaneously within the same time period. Some parts of the book raise questions. For instance, Rever writes that eight per cent of the Hutu population actively engaged in killings against Tutsi and that “the majority of Hutu civilians did not kill their neighbours.” Others, including Mahmood Mamdani, whose book When Victims Become Killerstries to make sense of the killings, assert that contrary to Rever’s claim, hundreds of thousands of ordinary people participated in the genocide.

Other claims in the book which may require further substantiation include a citation from the University of Rwanda which estimates that forty thousand civilians had been killed by the RPF in two regions of the country by early 1993. That is a colossal number by any standard and difficult to understand how such a large number of killings could go unnoticed well before the genocide began. Disputes over numbers are common in the divergent accounts of the Rwandan genocide. Rever estimates that based on her evidence and that of the ICTR investigators, the RPF killed between several hundred thousand and one million people.

In Praise of Blood claims that a parallel genocide against Hutus took place in Rwanda, a claim which has elicited substantial debate from scholars including Claudine Vidal and Filip Reyntjens. Vidal argues that Rever’s book “blurs the line between investigation and indictment” and describes the massacres in such a way as to “classify them as genocide.” Rather than “doing the work of judges” and trying to apply the legal classification of genocide onto the crimes of the RPF, she writes that “journalists and social scientists should be calling for investigations equivalent to those carried out into the Tutsi genocide.” In other words, “There is no need for it to be genocide to justify investigation into these massacres.”

A proper judicial investigation would be required to determine whether or not a genocide against Hutus did take place. Filip Reyntjens at the University of Antwerp argues that although he is not one to advance the thesis of double genocide, the massacres may indeed demonstrate an intention to destroy Hutu, a strong indicator being the separation of Tutsis and Hutus, and the use of help from Tutsis in killing Hutus and sparing Tutsis. Given that the crimes of the RFP will likely go unpunished, and that the judicial truth will not be established, he says, “the historical truth can and must be sought.” To this end, Rever’s work remains significant.

In his book, Mamdani writes that “Violence cannot be allowed to speak for itself, for violence is not its own meaning. To be made thinkable, it needs to be historicized.” In her final chapter, Rever quotes an opposition Tutsi activist who argues that the RPF killings are not reprisals for the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, but rather, revenge for 1959, when waves of Tutsi were forced to flee during the 1959 revolution and the country transitioned from a Belgian colony with a Tutsi monarchy to an independent Hutu dominated Republic. Likewise, in Mamdani’s work, he makes the claim that “The failure to address the citizenship demands of the ‘external’ Tutsi marked the single most important failure of the Habyarimana regime.” There is no doubt that understanding the deeper roots of RPF violence, and by extension, the regime in place today, requires venturing back into the complex and difficult history of Rwanda and the region.

The official narrative of the genocide, which claims that Tutsi victims were rescued from Hutu killers by the RPF, has persisted for decades, rendering the stories of one side continuously visible and subject to official commemoration while actively silencing the memories and stories of the other. This narrative has no doubt served Kagame’s regime extremely well as he continues to receive awardsadulations, over 984 million dollars in aid in 2015/2016 and unwavering support from the likes of Howard Buffet and Tony Blair. Even his decision to rule until 2034, Rever notes has drawn “only tepid criticism” from Washington and London.

In the words of Theodore Rudasingwa, Kagame’s former Chief of Staff, who spoke in the BBC documentary, Rwanda, The Untold Story, “Kagame’s impunity has reached scandalous proportions,” and the cost in terms of lives destroyed in both Rwanda and the DRC has been colossal. In Praise of Blood is a courageous, powerful and meticulously documented work that counters the narrative on which Kagame’s impunity rests, resurrects the memories of countless people, and brings their stories out from the silence and the intricate machinery of fear that the Rwandan regime has worked so hard to maintain.

Cutting Corners on Consent

Project Syndicate, December 2018. 

A new UN agreement requires organizations seeking to release gene-drive organisms – which will fundamentally change or even eliminate entire populations of that species – to obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of potentially affected communities. But what that requirement implies needs to be spelled out – before it’s too late.

MONTRÉAL – On November 29, after two weeks of contentious negotiations at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, 196 countries agreed to stringent rules on the use of so-called gene drives. Given the far-reaching consequences of a technology that causes a particular set of genes to propagate throughout a population – fundamentally changing or even eliminating it – such rules are badly needed. But are they enough? 

Some countries would have preferred a full moratorium on the release of gene-drive organisms – a view shared by many indigenous peoples, food sovereignty activists, and African civil society organizations. The UN’s final agreement met them halfway, recognizing the “uncertainties” inherent in the use of gene drives – which opponents call “exterminator drives” – and calling upon governments to exercise great caution in releasing drive-modified organisms for experimental research. 

According to the agreement, such experiments should be carried out only when “scientifically sound case-by-case risk assessments have been carried out,” and “risk management measures are in place to avoid or minimize potential adverse effects.” Moreover, organizations seeking to release gene-drive organisms should obtain the “free, prior, and informed consent” of potentially affected communities.

As it stands, none of this seems to be happening. Consider the record of Target Malaria, the world’s largest organization undertaking gene-drive experiments, whose employees were included in the official negotiating teams of at least two African countries to push back against excessive limitations.

Target Malaria is soon scheduled to begin implementing a plan in West and Central Africa to release genetically modified “male sterile” (non-gene-drive) mosquitoes in the villages of Bana and Sourkoudingan in Burkina Faso, as a first step toward eventually releasing drive-modified mosquitos. The goal is to reduce the population of the species that transmit the parasite that causes malaria.

But it remains far from clear that Target Malaria has acquired anything close to the villages’ “free, prior, and informed consent.” To be sure, Target Malaria has issued videos of local people who support the project and introduced reporters to them. But when I traveled independently of Target Malaria to meet local communities that would be affected, I heard a very different story, which I recount in a short film.

On my two trips to discuss the project with locals in the affected areas of Burkina Faso – first accompanied by two activists, and then by a translator – a clear pattern emerged. Those with political authority in the center of Bana were aware of Target Malaria and surprisingly hostile toward us. Célian Macé, reporting for the French newspaper Libérationencountered similar problems when attempting to access Bana and Sourkoudingan.

On the outskirts of the villages – still well within the range of the mosquito release – people tended to be more comfortable being interviewed. They were also far less knowledgeable about Target Malaria’s project and gene drives in general. And information about both is available to them from only one source: Target Malaria.

Nearby villages also seemed inadequately informed. Gene-drive organisms are intended to spread indefinitely, and mosquitoes, especially females, can surf air currents at relatively high altitudes (40-290 meters, or 131-951 feet), where winds can blow them hundreds of miles. This means that consent would have to be secured significantly beyond the release point.

Yet, in the village of Nasso, near Bana, authorities told us that, despite meeting with Target Malaria, they still had questions and concerns about the potential adverse effects of the mosquito release. Civil-society groups operating in and around the test-site villages have also not been adequately consulted about Target Malaria’s work.

The more interviews I conducted, the clearer it became that local people had not been involved in a genuinely participatory debate on the Target Malaria project, let alone extended their informed consent. On the contrary, several people I interviewed called for the experimental release of genetically modified mosquitoes to be halted until the risks and effects had been adequately investigated, and civil society across Burkina Faso had been fully informed.

Target Malaria’s lack of commitment to consent is reflected in its own rhetoric, which eschews the unequivocal word “consent,” but regularly uses terms like “engagement” and “community acceptance.” This choice may indicate that the organization’s leaders have already decided to proceed with the release.

Reinforcing this conclusion, after the UN convention, Target Malaria attempted to draw a distinction between the requirement of free, prior, and informed consent in the context of medical research on individuals (where it is demanded) and in a public-health context. According to the organization, “it’s not logistically possible to obtain consent from each and every person affected” by the release genetically modified mosquitoes.

But the reason it is difficult to acquire informed consent from all people affected by gene-drive experiments is the same reason that doing so is absolutely critical. This is a highly controversial technology, with potentially far-reaching ecological effects and as-yet-unknown health consequences. Securing the consent of only a handful of local residents simply is not good enough.

Because Target Malaria’s Burkina Faso experiments are among the first of their kind, they will serve as a powerful precedent for similar experiments worldwide. With proposals for the release of gene-drive organisms in indigenous territories in New ZealandAustralia, and Hawaii on the agenda in the coming years, there is a need to establish a clear threshold for what informed consent means and how to secure it.





The Hubris of Western Science

Target Malaria plans to introduce genetically modified mosquitoes to a remote village in Burkina Faso. Why do we need to be concerned?

Image result for Aedes Aegypti Mosquito.

Africa is a Country, August 2018

Few people need convincing that malaria is a deadly and terrible disease. The World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population is at risk, with 445,000 deaths recorded in 2016, most of which were in Sub-Saharan Africa. Young children and pregnant women are particularly at risk in areas with high transmission, and, although malaria has been on the global radar for decades, the World Health Organization recently noted a “troubling shift in the trajectory of the disease” with progress in reducing transmission and fatalities having stalled at the end of 2016.Prevention and treatment methods have included insecticide treated mosquito nets, sprays, and anti-malarial drugs. 
Now, proponents of a new technology claim they can supposedly eliminate the disease at its source, in the very DNA of malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. It sounds fictitious, but that is the objective of Target Malaria, a research consortium that receives its core funding, $92 million, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and from the Open Philanthropy Project, funded largely by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz.Target Malaria claims that there is a consensus “that new tools are needed to eliminate malaria.” Their “new tool” is a gene drive, a speculative technique intended to engineer the genetics of entire populations of the malaria-transmitting Anopheles gambiae species by a single release of an organism with engineered genes. Target Malaria aims to create strains of genetically modified female mosquitoes: essential genes for fertility are cut, preventing them from having female offspring or from having offspring altogether. These modified mosquitoes will be rigged to then pass on their genes to a high percentage of their offspring, supposedly spreading auto-extinction genes throughout the population.
Target Malaria’s project focuses on four countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, Uganda and Kenya. The project is most active in Burkina Faso: in 2016, genetically modified mosquitoes were exported to the country from Imperial College in London for contained experiments, with approval from the National Biosecurity Agency. The Institut de Recherche en Sciences de la Santé (IRSS) in Burkina Faso, part of the Target Malaria consortium, plans to release the GM mosquitoes into the environment between July and November 2018 in one of three villages of Bana, Pala ou Sourkoudiguin.
The consortium says it is planning a phased approach; in the first phase, it will release 10,000 “male-sterile” (non-gene drive) mosquitoes; in the second, another non-gene drive mosquito will be released into the open, to bias the mosquito population to be male only; in the third and final phase, the gene drive mosquitoes will be released, involving either male bias or female infertility.

Behind gene drive technology

International media coverage of Target Malaria’s project has been substantial, revealing the ubiquitous technophilia that characterizes so much of today’s responses to these kinds of new innovations. Little of this coverage however, has looked at who is behind research on gene drives or questioned their premise.

The gene drive files, a trove of emails and records discovered by civil society organizations and released in December 2017, reveal that it is in fact the US Military that has taken the lead in pushing forward research on gene drives. According to the records, The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has given approximately $100 million for gene drive and related research, making it the largest funder of gene drive research, and it “either funds or coordinates with almost all major players working on gene drive development as well as the key holders of patents on CRISPR gene editing technology.” The files also uncovered “an extremely high level of interest and activity by other sections of the US military and intelligence community” in gene drives. 

It’s not just the US Military that was subjected to scrutiny: the gene drive files found that a gene drive “advocacy coalition,” was run by a private PR firm that received $1.6 million in funds from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and seem to have used covert lobbying tactics to influence UN discussion on gene drives. And while Target Malaria has emphasized their independence from any military agendas, it has since become apparent that Target Malaria’s Andrea Crisanti, who developed the modified mosquitoes at Imperial College is also funded by DARPA’s Safe Genes project.

(Un)Intended consequences?

If the  source of funding for Target Malaria’s experiments and their relationship to DARPA is not worrying enough, there are myriad other reasons to be wary of gene drive technologies, however well-meaning the target. For one thing, gene drives rely upon the new and poorly understood gene editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. Many of the consequences of such gene editing techniques are yet unknown.

The short sighted hubris of altering wild insects populations is also cause for concern. It is a tendency of science and research in the Western world to treat issues in isolation, as if one part has no relationship to larger webs of complex interconnection. Although controlling mosquitoes is supposedly about one strain of a single species, scientists have warned that there are dangers in the unintended consequences of altering one part of a complex ecosystem—a decrease in one species for instance often leads to an increase in another or a loss of important functions (such as pollination), or alternatively, a gene drive could spread between species causing potentially devastating effects. 

These are not just hypothetical concerns. In Panama for instance, following programs that targeted Aedes agyptae mosquitoes using fumigation methods and limited releases of GM mosquitoes by UK Biotech company Oxitec, there was a rise in numbers of the Asian Tiger mosquitoes.

Simple evolution is very likely to outwit too-clever-by-half schemes. Edward Blumenthal, the Chair of Biological Sciences at Marquette University has noted that the anopheles mosquito species may develop a mutation (a phenomena known as ‘gene drive resistance’ is already being noted), preventing the gene drive method from working, or the malaria parasite could find a different host. Researchers have also warned that “a gene drive would be remarkably aggressive,” likely giving rise to invasive species and that real world experiments are “extremely risky.” And, even when a gene drive is applied in one country, neighboring countries would become part of the experiment, “whether they like it or not.” Gene drives and winged insects do not respect national borders.

In addition to impacts on natural ecosystems, there are the very real fears of how gene editing technologies will fare in a world characterized by widening inequalities, violence and warfare in many countries, ecological crises, and a rise in far-right and fascist movements. In today’s social and political climate, being able to genetically engineer undesired species seems just a few steps away from the possibilities of eugenics and certainly opens the way to hostile uses against food sources. The US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology warned the White House directly about the possibility of editing genes and turning viruses or infectious agents into diseases for which no treatment exists.

Burkina Faso as a ‘Guinea Pig’ for experimentation

Within Burkina Faso, a number of groups have been mobilizing in opposition to Target Malaria’s project. This is not the first time Burkina Faso has experimented with genetic modification: In 2008, when the country’s cotton crop was being devoured by pests, it introduced GM seeds for BT cotton produced by Monsanto (now Bayer). The resulting cotton was pest free but of lower quality. As the GM cotton lost its premium pricing, the impact was a drop in the value of its output.

On June 2, 2018, the organization Collectif citoyen pour l’agro-écologie, together with hundreds of peasants and farmers gathered in Ouagadougou, holding banners that said: “Stop and desist: GMO, BT cowpea, genetically modified mosquito,” and “Monsanto, Target Malaria and Bill Gates: respect Africa’s right to self-determination.” These groups want the risks of GM technologies to be properly evaluated and a moratorium on gene drives put in place in the meantime.

Leaving aside the problem of the unintended consequences of the released mosquitoes, there are also enormously unequal power dynamics at play in which a consortium funded mostly by powerful foreign institutions is introducing a new technology developed in a lab in the UK to be released in a rural community in West Africa. It is not surprising that the group COPAGEN, (Collective pour la protection du patrimoine génetique Africain), has publicly denounced Target Malaria’s use of Burkina Faso for its experiments saying that “Burkinabes are being used like guinea pigs” and has appealed to the National Centre for Biosecurity not to authorize the release of the mosquitoes.

Indeed, although Target Malaria has insisted that it works with local communities and obtains their consent before releasing the mosquitoes, it is difficult to see how is possible if, as a few people have pointed out, there reportedly exists no word for a “gene” in local languages. Interviews with inhabitants of the targeted villages indicate that their inhabitants do not really understand how the gene drives work. Gene drive technology is already very difficult for a general public to understand, let alone rural communities who may not have sufficient information about the origins and details of malaria transmission. What in that case constitutes consent? Groups including Third World Network, the African Centre for Biodiversity and ETC Group state that this is a particularly important issue given that Burkina Faso’s biosafety regulation does not have specific guidance for conducting risk assessment for GM mosquitoes, and it is unclear what kind of public consultation is required.

Bringing these concerns to the forefront of high level negotiations around gene drives has been challenging for civil society groups. Last month in Montreal, at the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-22), where government delegates from around the world meet to discuss key issues on biodiversity, the Target Malaria consortium had a representative, Elinor Chemonges, whose role was simultaneously to represent the government of Uganda in a clear conflict of interest.

Target Malaria resembles many of the technical “solutions” that western philanthropists and multinational corporations come up with to solve the social and environmental problems facing our world: from schemes like carbon credits designed to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, to geoengineering projects to solve climate change (which Bill Gates has also incidentally invested in), there is no shortage of speculative technical fixes presented to solve myriad serious problems that we are faced with today, and which obviate the need to deal with their structural causes.

It is noteworthy that Paraguay, and before that, Sri Lanka, eliminated malaria entirely without western scientists in lab coats fidgeting with mosquito DNA. The World Health Organization predicts that Algeria, Argentina and Uzbekistan could be malaria-free later this year. If such strides are currently being made, imagine what possibilities exist if an equivalent sum to $92 million were spent strengthening public health care systems in West Africa, as well as tracking malaria cases and preventing outbreaks, as was done in Paraguay.

If there are any lessons that as Africans we should learn from the past, it’s to be wary of technological interventions that claim to be saving African lives, especially when they are supported and funded by, among others, wealthy western philanthrocapitalists and the US Military.

The hubris of western neoliberal capitalism and its attendant belief that we can master and control nature without end is in large part to blame for the current social and ecological crises we are in today. The only way out of these crises, whether it is climate change or malaria, is to dismantle this very ideology, to create space for indigenous science and knowledge in the path we forge toward the future, and to consider the existing solutions that have been there all along.

Howard Buffett au Congo: Le problème de la philanthropie capitaliste

La colonisation n’en finit pas de sévir, et si l’occupation militaire des territoires n’est plus en vogue pour les pays occidentaux, d’autres moyens leur sont offerts pour asseoir leur position sur nombre de pays. La philanthropie, que l’on pourrait croire armée des meilleures intentions, fait partie des nouvelles formes de ce libéralisme postcolonial : en inondant les États et les structures locales de dollars, les grands investisseurs capitalistes noient dans l’œuf toutes les initiatives pour l’autonomie et la résistance des peuples autochtones. Pour exemple, voici le cas du businessman Howard Buffett, fils de Warren Buffett (troisième fortune mondiale), qui joue un rôle non négligeable dans le « développement » de la République démocratique du Congo et vient influencer les récits des journalistes ou des ONG là où aboutit son financement.

Texte original : « The Problem With Capitalist Philanthropy », Jacobin le 6 février 2018.
Traduction par Édouard Batot

Télécharger l’article en PDF.

Jef Klak, Mai 2018

En 2015, alors que je participais à un séjour de reportage avec la Fondation Internationale des Femmes pour les Médias (IWMF) dans la République démocratique du Congo (RDC), un journaliste local m’avait prévenue : « C’est difficile d’aller où que ce soit dans l’est du pays sans toucher un des projets de Howard Buffett. » En effet, ayant investi dans une série d’initiatives comprenant des centrales hydroélectriques 1, le développement routier 2 et l’écotourisme 3, Howard Buffett est considérablement impliqué dans cette région. Le photographe, agriculteur, shérif, ancien directeur de la compagnie Coca-Cola, et fils du troisième homme le plus riche du monde, a versé des millions dans la région.

Le projet hydroélectrique a été la première étape d’un programme d’investissement mis en place conjointement par l’autorité congolaise des parcs nationaux (ICCN) et la Fondation Virunga, une organisation caritative britannique. En 2015, Buffett aurait promis 39 millions de dollars supplémentaires pour deux autres centrales électriques, et la Fondation Virunga prévoit de financer plus de centrales, d’hôtels et de projets d’infrastructure autour du parc au cours des prochaines années. Dans une interview accordée à Reuters, le directeur du parc, Emmanuel de Merode, a déclaré que ces initiatives, en particulier les centrales électriques, créeraient des opportunités d’emploi pour les communautés entourant le parc.

Et les investissements de Buffett ne s’arrêtent pas là ; de l’autre côté de la frontière, au Rwanda, sa fondation a déclaré en 2015 qu’elle investissait 500 millions de dollars sur dix ans afin de « transformer » l’agriculture du pays « en un secteur plus productif, à forte valeur et plus directement axé sur le marché ». Jusqu’à présent, la fondation s’est concentrée sur des projets de sécurité alimentaire, avec 67,5 % de ses contributions de 2015 bénéficiant à ce secteur 4.

Ces investissements semblent louables. Qui peut s’opposer à l’amélioration de la sécurité alimentaire dans le Rwanda rural ou à la construction de centrales hydroélectriques dans la région du Kivu en RDC, où l’infrastructure de base est limitée et où seulement 3 % de la population a accès à l’électricité ? Quelle meilleure façon de soutenir la région qu’en finançant des centrales électriques et en empêchant les gens d’abattre des arbres pour le charbon de bois ?

Pour répondre à ces questions, il faut d’abord demander : qui exactement est cet Howard Buffett ?

La philanthropie capitaliste et ses conséquences

Howard Buffett, comme Bill Gates 5, appartient au club fermé des « philanthropes capitalistes 6 » qui investissent leur richesse dans la résolution des problèmes majeurs du monde dans des domaines comme la santé et l’agriculture. La déclaration de mission de la Fondation Howard G. Buffett explique que ses investissements « catalysent le changement transformationnel, en particulier pour les populations les plus pauvres et les plus marginalisées du monde 7  ».

Bien que les philanthropes disent aider les démuni·es, Jens Martens et Karoline Seitz ont documenté 8 comment le don de bienfaisance profite également aux riches 9. De riches hommes d’affaires ont créé les toutes premières fondations américaines au début du XXe siècle pour échapper à l’impôt, acquérir du prestige et se faire entendre dans les affaires mondiales. Depuis lors, les philanthropes occupent une position de plus en plus dominante dans le développement économique, influençant tant les gouvernements que les organisations internationales 10.

Les philanthropes capitalistes opèrent au carrefour de la charité, du capitalisme et du développement 11. Comme l’écrit le professeur à l’université de Bradford (Angleterre) Behrooz Morvaridi, ils sont « politiquement et idéologiquement engagés dans une approche de marché 12 ». En investissant de vastes sommes d’argent pour résoudre des problèmes sociaux complexes, élargir le secteur privé et investir dans des solutions techniques, ils avancent l’idée que le capitalisme n’est pas la cause, mais au contraire la solution aux problèmes du monde. Selon les mots de l’historien Mikkel Thorup, la philanthropie capitaliste brouille les cartes dans le conflit qui oppose riches et pauvres, affirmant plutôt que les riches sont « les meilleurs et, peut-être, les seuls amis des pauvres 13  ».

Mais les problèmes que les philanthropes capitalistes prétendent résoudre sont enracinés dans le même système économique qui leur permet de générer une richesse aussi importante en premier lieu. Martens et Seitz montrent que les dons de bienfaisance représentent « l’autre face de l’inégalité croissante entre riches et pauvres  » : ils révèlent une corrélation directe entre « l’accumulation de richesse accrue, les mesures fiscales régressives et le financement des activités philanthropiques » 14.

Dans son livre No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein écrit qu’au cours des deux dernières décennies, l’élite libérale s’est « tournée vers la classe des milliardaires pour résoudre les problèmes » qui étaient auparavant abordés « avec une action collective et un secteur public fort » 15. En effet, les solutions proposées par les philanthropes capitalistes dans des domaines comme la santé, l’éducation et l’agriculture érodent les dépenses du secteur public et détournent l’attention des causes structurelles de la pauvreté. Dans l’agriculture, on peut recenser, parmi les obstacles structurels, des accords de libéralisation des échanges qui suppriment les droits d’importation et permettent aux pays riches d’acheter des produits à bas prix, ou encore laccaparement généralisé des terres agricoles 16 qui, en 2016, s’est traduit par près de 500 transactions affectant 30 millions d’hectares de terre 17.

Buffett a critiqué l’imposition du modèle américain d’agriculture industrielle en Afrique, que d’autres philanthropes, comme Bill Gates, défendent 18. Néanmoins, ses investissements dans l’est du Congo et au Rwanda sont conçus pour soutenir des systèmes axés sur les « lois du marché ». Il a collaboré avec Partners for Seed in Africa (PASA) et Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS) : soutiens incontournables des entreprises semencières qui vendent des semences hybrides et des engrais synthétiques aux agriculteurs et agricultrices 19. Une pratique de privatisation du vivant qui détruit les pratiques ancestrales des agriculteurs (préservation, partage et échange de semences, promotion de la diversité biologique 20). Les deux programmes font partie de la controversée Alliance pour une Révolution Verte en Afrique, que les petit·es agriculteurs/agricultrices et les éleveurs/éleveuses de différents pays africains dénoncent 21 pour son soutien aux grandes entreprises accusées d’« utiliser la propriété intellectuelle pour établir le contrôle des semences par les entreprises  ».

Avec Bill Gates, Howard Buffett a investi 47 millions de dollars dans un projet en partenariat avec Monsanto 22 pour développer des variétés de maïs économes en eau pour les petit·es paysan·nes 23. Les critiques ont reproché au géant de l’agronomie d’essayer de transférer la propriété de « la culture du maïs, la production de graines et sa commercialisation… dans le secteur privé », forçant ainsi « les petit⋅es agricultrices et agriculteurs à adopter des variétés hybrides de maïs, leurs engrais synthétiques et leurs pesticides » qui profitent en fin de compte aux entreprises semencières et agrochimiques 24.

L’ironie est à son comble quand on sait que Howard Buffet a d’abord siégé au conseil d’administration de Coca-Cola (qui a financé des chercheur·es pour minimiser son impact néfaste sur la santé 25) avant de décider de comment les paysan·nes en Afrique devraient cultiver leur terre. Sans oublier que Buffett a également siégé au conseil d’administration du géant de l’alimentation Conagra Foods, accusé d’enfreindre les codes du travail et de l’environnement 26.

La conservation est l’autre grande priorité de Buffett. Certains ont décrit le Parc national des Virunga, véritable chouchou des médias actuellement en partenariat avec la Fondation Buffett, comme un « État dans l’État 27 ». Bien qu’il protège la biodiversité de la région contre le braconnage et l’exploration pétrolière, la création de ce site a également dépossédé les habitant·es originel·les de la région, et ses gardes paramilitaires sont accusés d’avoir brutalisé les communautés autochtones à la périphérie du parc. Couverte d’éloges dans la presse, la centrale hydroélectrique du parc a pourtant suscité de vives controverses récemment. Certain·es habitant·es se plaignent en effet de l’explosion des prix de l’électricité produite par l’usine, passant de de 5 $ à 50 $ pour un usage domestique de base 28. Ces revendications ont été contestées par Save Virunga, un groupe qui soutient le Parc national des Virunga 29.

Buffett a également financé des pourparlers de paix entre les rebelles du M23 et le gouvernement congolais en Ouganda, à un niveau d’ingérence qui révèle l’influence des philanthropes sur les décisions politiques 30. Quand un rapport du groupe d’experts de l’ONU a constaté que le gouvernement rwandais soutenait les rebelles du M23, Buffett a plaidé contre la suspension de l’aide au pays 31. Bien qu’elle se décrit elle-même comme une « entité non politique », sa fondation a néanmoins publié un rapport qui discrédite les conclusions du groupe d’experts et remet en question sa fiabilité 32.

C’est en ce sens que l’essayiste David Rieff souligne 33 que le projet philanthro-capitaliste est « irrémédiablement non-démocratique » sinon « antidémocratique » 34. Dans son analyse de l’action philanthropique de Bill et Melinda Gates, il note qu’il n’existe aucune instance de contrôle sur ce que le couple peut faire, en dehors « de leurs propres ressources et désirs ». La journaliste Joanne Barkan a attiré l’attention sur ce problème fondamental des fondations philanthropiques privées, hors de tout contrôle démocratique : « Elles interviennent dans la vie publique mais ne rendent pas de comptes au public ; elles sont gouvernées en privé mais subventionnées publiquement en étant exonérées d’impôt » et « elles renforcent le problème de la ploutocratie – l’exercice du pouvoir dérivé de la richesse » 35.

Le fait que Howard Buffett puisse investir si librement en RDC est le produit direct du passé colonial dévastateur du pays 36 ainsi que de son assujettissement actuel au système néolibéral. L’économie de la RDC a été ravagée par trente-deux ans de kleptocratie soutenue par l’Occident, par les politiques d’ajustement structurel imposées par la Banque mondiale, l’extraction des ressources par des compagnies minières transnationales et l’élite politique congolaise, et une guerre qui a coûté la vie à des millions de personnes.

Buffett fait valoir que ses investissements sont nécessaires « parce que personne d’autre ne souhaite les faire » 37. Or nombreux⋅ses sont les citoyen·nes congolais·es qui aimeraient voir un secteur public renforcé plutôt que d’assister à sa marchandisation dans des investissements privés. Dans ce sens, beaucoup ont rejoint le mouvement social Lucha (« Lutte pour le changement ») qui a appelé le gouvernement à fournir à l’est de la RDC des services de base tels que l’eau courante et une infrastructure adéquate 38. Dans leur lutte pour l’accès aux ressources élémentaires et aux services publics, et pour pouvoir participer aux prises de décision politique, nombre des membres de Lucha ont été confronté⋅es à la répression et jeté⋅es en prison.

Le pouvoir du storytelling

La Fondation Howard G. Buffett sait présenter son travail avec soin. Des articles au sujet du RDC publiés dans des agences médiatiques réputées, y compris le Guardian et Al Jazeera, ont reçu le soutien de la Fondation Internationale des Femmes pour les Médias (IWMF), qui à son tour a reçu un financement de Buffett. Sa fondation contribue directement à l’Initiative de Rapport sur les Grands Lacs (Great Lakes Report Initiative) qui soutient les femmes journalistes travaillant en RDC, au Sud Soudan, au Rwanda, en Tanzanie, en Ouganda et en République Centrafricaine sur des questions liées à « l’autonomisation, la démocratie, la sécurité alimentaire et la préservation de l’environnement ». Cela semble être un projet bien nécessaire : à une époque où les médias font face à des déficits budgétaires croissants, l’IWMF offre des bourses généreuses aux journalistes à court d’argent. Je suis moi-même reconnaissante pour le soutien apporté par le financement que j’ai reçu de la part de l’association des Grands Lacs pour réaliser un reportage sur l’est du Congo, mais je me sens également mal à l’aise de savoir qui finance l’organisation.

L’IWMF insiste sur le fait qu’elle n’influence pas les récits des bénéficiaires de ses subventions et, dans une interview, a déclaré qu’elle trouvait « inacceptable qu’un bailleur de fonds influence le contenu éditorial des articles [qu’elle] soutient ». Cependant, leurs domaines de prédilection, en particulier la sécurité alimentaire et la préservation de l’environnement, sont choisis en partenariat avec la Fondation Howard G. Buffett.

Ironiquement, l’investissement de Buffett dans l’IWMF existe parallèlement à son soutien à une dictature qui a décimé sa presse locale. Comme le rapporte Anjan Sundaram dans The Guardian, le président rwandais Paul Kagame a tué, torturé, exilé et emprisonné des journalistes à travers le pays 39. Le Comité pour la protection des journalistes a documenté que dix-sept journalistes ont été tué⋅es au Rwanda depuis 1992. Pourtant, Buffett a qualifié le Rwanda de « pays le plus progressiste du continent » et, comme de nombreux donateurs occidentaux, il entretient une relation affinitaire avec son chef 40.

Jusqu’à présent, aucun des articles de l’IWMF publiés à partir du Rwanda n’offre une perspective critique sur le régime de Kagame. Jennifer Hyman, directrice des communications de l’organisation, a déclaré que son soutien aux journalistes étranger·es du Rwanda n’était pas contradictoire, étant donné le mandat de l’organisation de promouvoir la liberté de la presse ; et d’ajouter que l’organisation mène des formations au sein même des pays où elle opère. Pourtant, bien que l’organisation ait dénoncé énergiquement le traitement réservé aux journalistes en Colombie 41, au Bahreïn 42 et en Azerbaïdjan 43, Hyman n’a pas été en mesure de fournir la position de l’IWMF concernant le traitement réservé par le Rwanda à ses propres journalistes.

Un examen plus attentif des bailleurs de fonds de l’IWMF permet d’aller plus loin. Sur son site internet, parmi les donateurs de 2013 de l’organisation, on compte des multinationales comme le géant pharmaceutique Pfizer, qui a fait face à des accusations pour violation des droits du travail, des droits de la personne et pour abus environnementaux, notamment pour avoir utilisé des enfants nigériens au cours d’essais d’un médicament contre la méningite, ayant conduit à la mort de onze enfants 44. Walmart – connu pour ses pratiques de travail abusives 45 – a également contribué, tout comme Dole Food Company, à l’imposition de conditions de travail inhumaines et à l’exposition des travailleurs et travailleuses des plantations nicaraguayennes à un pesticide interdit 46. Les géants du pétrole Occidental Petroleum et Chevron, ainsi qu’Ivanka Trump (fille de Donald Trump), figurent également sur la liste des partisan·es de l’IWMF.

L’IWMF a précisé que cette liste ne constitue pas les donateurs et donatrices majeur·es, à l’exception de Chevron, de Bank of America et de la Buffett Foundation. Répondant aux questions sur l’apparente contradiction dans l’acceptation du soutien de ces entités, Hyman a répondu que la mission de l’IWMF était de « libérer le potentiel des femmes journalistes en tant que championnes de la liberté de la presse […]. Nous nous félicitons du soutien des entreprises, des fondations et des personnes qui croient en cette mission ».

Selon les mots de Behrooz Morvaridi, les organisations non gouvernementales, y compris à travers les médias, promeuvent les priorités des « philanthropes capitalistes d’élite » et contribuent ainsi « à la construction de l’agenda politique qu’elles soutiennent » 47. L’IMWF a réussi à remodeler les discours médiatiques dans la région des Grands Lacs, diversifiant ainsi la gamme d’articles de presse qui émergent de cette région et qui influencent l’opinion internationale. Cependant, en partenariat avec la Fondation Howard G. Buffett, elle a légitimé les activités de Buffett dans la région et son soutien au gouvernement rwandais.

Les révélations des Paradise Papers démontrent à quel point de vastes sommes de richesses sont détournées de pays comme la RDC 48. Il appartient aux journalistes d’interroger l’argent qui entre dans le pays provenant de la classe des milliardaires philanthro-capitalistes, et notamment des hommes comme Howard Buffett, dont la vision du développement régional – la privatisation comme voie de croissance – sape la lutte en cours dans laquelle les Congolais⋅es façonnent leur propre avenir.

  1. « Howard Buffett Bets on Hydropower to Rebuild Eastern Congo », Aaron Ross, Reuters, 20 août 2015. 
  2. « Virunga National Park and its Rangers. A Green Vision for Eastern Congo? », Simone Schlindwein, TAZ blog, 15 juin 2015. 
  3. Ibid. 
  4. Rapport annuel 2015, Howard G. Buffet Fondation. 
  5. Sur le type de philanthropie capitaliste élaborée par monsieur Windows, on lira : « Bill Gates Won’t Save Us », Ben Tarnoff, Jacobin, 15 août 2017. 
  6. « Capitalist Philanthropy and the New Green Revolution for Food Security », Behrooz Morvaridi, International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture & Food, vol. 19, no 2, 28 juin 2012. 
  7. Rapport annuel 2015, Howard G. Buffet Fondation. 
  8. « Philanthropic Power and Development.Who Shapes the Agenda? », Jens Martens et Karolin Seitz, Bischöfliches Hilfswerk MISEREOR, 2015. 
  9. À ce sujet, voir aussi « Seize the Charities », Patrick Stall, Jacobin, 21 déc. 2016. 
  10. À ce sujet, lire l’impressionnante enquête : « Retour social sur investissement. Quand les fondations d’entreprise refont le monde », Celia Izoard, Revue Z,no 11, 2018. 
  11. Voir «  The Philanthropy Hustle », Linsey McGoey, Jacobin, 10 nov. 2015. 
  12. « Capitalist Philanthropy and the New Green Revolution for Food Security », art. cité. 
  13. À ce sujet, voir « Pro Bono? On Philanthrocapitalism as Ideological Answer to InequalityThe Communism of Capital? », Mikkel Thorup, Ephemera: theory & politics in organization, 2013. 
  14. « Philanthropic Power and Development.Who shapes the agenda? », Jens Martens et Karolin Seitz, art. cité. 
  15. Voir « How to Escape the Present », Nicole M. Aschoff, Jacobin, 1er août 2017. 
  16. « The Land Grabbers », Linda Farthing, Jacobin, 2 fév. 2017. 
  17. « The Global Farmland Grab in 2016: How Big, How Bad? », GRAIN, 14 juin 2016. Voir aussi le dossier de CQFD no 133 sur la question : « Libérons les terres ! », juin 2015. 
  18. « Warren Buffett’s Son Disagrees With Bill Gates », Shira Ovide, The Wall Street Journal, 12 déc. 2011. 
  19. « 2,400 Seeds of Hope »Agra News, 19 août 2016. 
  20. « Software and Seeds: Lessons in Community Sharing », GRAIN, Roberto Verzola, 22 oct. 2005. 
  21. « Statement on the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) », GRAIN. 
  22. « WEMA – Drought-Tolerant Maize for Sub-Sahara African Farmers », Monsanto Africa. 
  23. « Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) », Monsanto. 
  24. « Profiting from the Climate Crisis, Undermining Resilience in Africa:Gates and Monsanto’s Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) Project », African Centre for Biodiversity, avr. 2015. 
  25. « Nutrition Experts Alarmed by Nonprofit Downplaying Role of Junk Food in Obesity », Joanna Walters, The Guardian, 11 août 2015. 
  26. « Conagra Foods Appoints Howard G Buffett to Board of Directors »,, 28 janv. 2002. 
  27. « Public Authority and Conservation in Areas of Armed Conflict ; Virunga National Park as a State within a State in Eastern Congo », Esther Marijnen, Development & Change, Vol. 49 3, 12 Fév. 2018. 
  28. « Tension autour de la centrale hydroélectrique des Virunga », Esther Nsap, La Libre Afrique, 7 déc. 2017. 
  29. « Difficult Times for Virunga and its Hydropower Plants: Time to Get the Facts Right ! », Save Virunga, 18 déc. 2017. 
  30. « Risk Reward. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation 2012 annual report »
  31. « Letter Dated 12 November 2012 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee Established Pursuant to Resolution 1533 (2004) Concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo Addressed to the President of the Security Council », Conseil de sécurité de l’ONU, 15 nov. 2015. 
  32. « US Foundation Faults Un Report on Congo », Eugène Kwibuka, The New Times, 2 avr. 2013. 
  33. « Philanthrocapitalism: A Self-Love Story. Why Do Super-Rich Activists Mock Their Critics Instead of Listening to Them? », David Rieff, The Nation, 1er oct. 2015. 
  34. « Counting on Billionaires », Japhy Wilson, Jacobin, 3 mars 2015. 
  35. « How to Criticize “Big Philanthropy” Effectively »Dissent Magazine, 16 avr. 2014. 
  36. Voir notamment une histoire de l’assassinat du leader politique révolutionnaire Lumumba : « Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961) », Sean Jacobs, Jacobin, 17 janvier 2017. 
  37. « Howard Buffett Bets On Hydropower to Rebuild Eastern Congo », Aaron Ross, art. cité. 
  38. « LUCHA: Youth Movement in Congo Demands Social Justice », Marta Iñiguez de Heredia, Pambazuka News, 30 oct. 2014. 
  39. « Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship Review – Rwanda’s ‘Big Brother’ », Ian Birrell, The Guardian, 11 janv. 2016. 
  40. Voir et
  41. « IWMF Condemns Killing of Colombian Journalist », International Women’s Media Foundation, 2 oct. 2015. 
  42. « Nazeeha Saeed – Raising Her Voice for Journalists in Bahrain »Ibid., 8 juil. 2014. 
  43. « IWMF calls for release of detained Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova »Ibid. 1er sept. 2015 
  44. « Pfizer Pays Out to Nigerian Families of Meningitis Drug Trial Victims », David Smith, The Guardian, 12 août 2011. 
  45. « The Fight Against Walmart’s Labor Practices Goes Global », Michelle Chen, The Nation, 8 juin 2016. 
  46. « Costa Rica & Ecuador: Oxfam Reports on Labour Abuses & “Inhumane Conditions” in Pineapple & Banana Farms Sold in Germany », Fresh Fruit Portal, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, 7 juin 2016. 
  47. « Capitalist Philanthropy and the New Green Revolution for Food Security », Behrooz Morvaridi, art. cité. 
  48. À ce sujet, voir par exemple : « How the Rich Stay Rich. An interview with Brooke Harrington », Doug Henwood, Jacobin, 20 nov. 2017. 

The Problem With Capitalist Philanthropy

Philanthropists like Howard Buffett are the darlings of journalists and the NGO world — but are they really helping Africa?

Jacobin Magazine, February 2018

In 2015, while on a reporting trip with the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a local journalist told me, “It is difficult to go anywhere in the east of the country without touching one of Howard Buffett’s projects.”Indeed, having invested in a range of initiatives including hydroelectric power plants, road development, and eco-tourism, Howard Buffett is considerably involved in the east of the country. The photographer, farmer, sheriff, former director of the Coca-Cola Company, and son of the third richest man in the world, has poured millions into the region.The hydroelectric project was the first stage in an investment program the Congolese national parks authority (ICCN) and the Virunga Foundation, a British charity, drew up together. In 2015, Buffett reportedly pledged an additional $39 milliontoward two more power generation facilities, and the Virunga Foundation plans to fund more plants, hotels, and infrastructure projects around the park over the next years. In an interview with Reuters, the park’s director, Emmanuel de Merode, said that these initiatives, especially the power plants, will create employment opportunities for communities surrounding the park.And Buffett’s investments don’t stop there; across the border in Rwanda, his foundation stated in 2015 that it was investing $500 million over ten years in order to “transform” the country’s agriculture “into a more productive, high-value, and market-oriented sector.” So far, the foundation has focused on food security projects, with 67.5 percent of its 2015 contributionsfunding this sector.

These investments seem laudable. Who can object to improving food security in rural Rwanda or building hydroelectric plants in the DRC’s Kivu region, where basic infrastructure is limited and only about 3 percent of population has electricity? What better way to support the region than by funding power plants and preventing people from cutting down trees for charcoal?

To answer these questions, one must first ask: who exactly is Howard Buffett?

Capitalist Philanthropy and Its Discontents

Howard Buffett, like Bill Gates, belongs to the exclusive club of “capitalist philanthropists” who invest their wealth in solving the world’s major problems in areas like health and agriculture. The Howard G. Buffett Foundation’s mission statement explains that its investments “catalyze transformational change, particularly for the world’s most impoverished and marginalized populations.”

Although philanthropists say they’re helping the powerless, Jens Martens and Karoline Seitz have documented how charitable giving benefits the rich as well. Wealthy businessmen set up the very first American foundations at the beginning of the twentieth century to shield themselves from taxation, build prestige, and gain a voice in global affairs. Since then, philanthropists have come to occupy an increasingly dominant position in economic development, influencing governments and international organizations alike.

Capitalist philanthropists operate at the nexus of charity, capitalism, and development. As Behrooz Morvaridi writes, they are “politically and ideologically committed to a market approach.” By investing vast sums of money in solving complex historical problems, expanding the private sector, and investing in technical fixes, they advance the idea that capitalism is not the cause, but the solution, to the world’s troubles. In the words of historian Mikkel Thorup, capitalist philanthropy obscures the conflict between rich and poor, asserting instead that the rich are “the poor’s best and possibly only friend.”

But the problems capitalist philanthropists claim to be solving are rooted in the same economic system that allows them to generate such enormous wealth in the first place. Martens and Seitz showthat charitable giving represents “the other side of the coin of growing inequality between rich and poor”: they uncover a direct correlation between “increased wealth accumulation, regressive tax measures, and funding toward philanthropic activities.”

In her book No Is Not Enough, Naomi Klein writes that over the last two decades, elite liberals have been “looking to the billionaire class to solve the problems” that were formerly addressed “with collective action and a strong public sector.” Indeed, the solutions capitalist philanthropists propose in areas like health care, education, and agriculture erode public sector spending and shift the focus away from structural causes of poverty. In agriculture, structural barriers include trade-liberalization agreements that remove import tariffs and enable rich countries to buy products at a low cost, as well as the global rush for farmland, which, in 2016, translated into almost five hundred deals affecting thirty million hectares of land.

Buffett has criticized the imposition of the American model of industrial agriculture in Africa, which fellow philanthropists, like Bill Gates, advocate. Nevertheless, his investments in eastern Congo and Rwanda are designed to support market-oriented systems. He’s collaborated with Partners for Seed in Africa (PASA) and the Program for Africa’s Seed Systems (PASS), both of which support private seed companies that sell hybrid seeds and fertilizers to farmers, a process that has been criticized for undermining farmers’ age-old practices of openly saving, sharing, and exchanging seeds, and promoting seed diversity. Both programs are part of the controversial Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which smallholder farmers and livestock keepers from different African countries have criticized for promoting big business and “using intellectual property to establish corporate control over seeds.”

Along with Gates, Buffett has invested $47 million toward a project in partnership with Monsanto to develop water-efficient maize varieties for small-scale farmers. Critics have argued that the agro-giant is trying to shift the ownership of “maize breeding, seed production, and marketing … into the private sector,” thereby ensnaring “small-scale farmers into the adoption of hybrid maize varieties and their accompanying synthetic fertilizers and pesticides” that ultimately benefit seed and agrochemical companies.

Putting aside the irony of having someone who served on the board of directors of Coca-Cola — which funded researchers to downplay its dangerous health effects — decide how farmers in Africa should grow food, it’s worth remembering that Buffett also served on the board of directors for the food giant Conagra Foods, which has faced accusations of abusing labor and environmental codes.

Conservation is the other major priority area for Buffett. Some have described the Virunga National Park, a media darling that has an ongoing partnership with the Buffett Foundation, as a “state within a state”; although it protects the region’s biodiversity from poaching and oil exploration, it has also dispossessed the area’s original inhabitants of their land, and its paramilitary-trained rangers have reportedly mistreated indigenous communities on the park’s outskirts.

The park’s much-hyped hydroelectric plant, too, has stirred significant controversy lately, with some complaining that the price of electricity from the plant has exploded from $5 to $50 for basic household usage. These claims have been disputed by Save Virunga, a group that supports the Virunga National Park.

Buffett also financed peace talks between M23 rebels and the Congolese government in Uganda, a level of meddling that reveals how much influence philanthropists wield over political outcomes. When a UN Group of Experts report found that the Rwanda government was supporting the M23 rebels, Buffett argued against suspending aid to the country. Despite describing itself as a “non-political entity,” his foundation published a reportthat discredited the Group of Expert’s findings and questioned its experts’ reliability.

Indeed, David Rieff highlights how the philanthro-capitalist project is “irreducibly undemocratic,” if not “antidemocratic.” In his analysis of Bill and Melinda Gates, he notes that there is no check on what they can do, besides “their own resources and desires.” Joanne Barkan points out the problems with private philanthropic foundations: “they intervene in public life but aren’t accountable to the public; they are privately governed but publicly subsidized by being tax exempt” and “they reinforce the problem of plutocracy — the exercise of power derived from wealth.”

That Howard Buffett can invest so freely in the DRC is a product of the country’s devastating colonial past as well as its currentsubjugation to the neoliberal system. The DRC’s economy has been ravaged by thirty-two years of Mobutu’s Western-backed kleptocracy, World Bank–imposed structural adjustment policies, extraction by transnational mining companies and the Congolese political elite, and a war that took the lives of millions of people.

Buffett argues that his investments are necessary “because no one else is interested in doing it.” But there are numerous Congolese citizens who would like to see a strengthened public sector rather than private investment in services. Many have joined the social movement Lucha (“Lutte pour le changement”) which has been calling on the government to provide the eastern DRC with basic services like running water and proper infrastructure. In their struggle to see Congolese citizens’ material needs met and ensure they can participate in political decision-making, many of their members have faced repression and arrest.

The Power of Narrative

The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has presented its work carefully. Articles from the region published in reputable media agencies, including the Guardianand Al Jazeera, have received support from the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), which in turn received funding from Buffett. His foundation directly contributes to the organization’s Great Lakes Reporting Initiative, which supports female journalists who work in the DRC, South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Central Africa Republic on issues related to “empowerment, democracy, food security, and conservation efforts.”

This seems like a much-needed project: at a time when media outlets face growing budget shortfalls, the IWMF provides cash-strapped journalists with generous grants. I myself was grateful for the support I received from the Great Lakes fellowship to report from eastern Congo, but I also felt uncomfortable with the knowledge of who finances the organization.

The IWMF stresses that it does not influence its grant recipients’ stories, and in an interview said that they find it “unacceptable for a funder to influence the editorial content of the stories [they] facilitate.” However, their preferred areas of focus, particularly food security and conservation, are chosen in partnership with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.

Ironically, Buffett’s investment in the IWMF exists alongside his support for a dictatorship that has decimated its local press. As Anjan Sundaram documents in Bad News, Rwandan president Paul Kagame has killed, tortured, exiled, and imprisoned journalists across the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented that seventeen journalists have been killed in Rwanda since 1992. Yet Buffett has called Rwanda “the most progressive country on the continent,” and, like many Western donors, enjoys a cozy relationship with its leader.

So far, none of the IWMF articles published from Rwanda offer a critical perspective on the Kagame regime. Jennifer Hyman, the organization’s communications director, said that their support for foreign journalists reporting from Rwanda was not contradictory given the organization’s mandate to promote press freedom and that the organization conducts in-country training for local reporters in the countries where they work. Yet, although the organization has been vocal in condemning the treatment of journalists in ColombiaBahrain, and Azerbaijan, Hyman was unable to state the IWMF’s position regarding Rwanda’s treatment of its own journalists.

A closer look at the IWMF’s funders offers further insights. On its website, the organization’s 2013 donors include multinational companies like pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which has faced charges of labor, human rights, and environmental abuses, including using Nigerian children to test an anti-meningitis drug that led to the deaths of eleven children. Walmart — notorious for its exploitative labor practices — also contributed, as did Dole Food Company, accused of enforcing inhumane working conditions and exposing Nicaraguan plantation workers to a banned pesticide. Oil giants Occidental Petroleum and Chevron, as well as Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, also appear on the IWMF’s list of supporters.

The IWMF clarified that this list does not constitute major donors, with the exception of Chevron, Bank of America, and the Buffett Foundation. In response to queries about the apparent contradiction in accepting support from these entities, while at the same focusing on issues around empowerment and democracy in the Great Lakes Region, Hyman responded that IWMF’s mission is to “unleash the potential of women journalists as champions of press freedom … we welcome the support of corporations, foundations, and individuals who believe in that mission.”

In Morvaridi’s words , organizations, including the media, promote the priorities of “elite capitalist philanthropists” and thereby “contribute to the building of the political agenda they support.” The IMWF has successfully reshaped mainstream media narratives in the Great Lakes region, diversifying the range of stories that emerge from that area and influencing international opinion. However, in partnering with the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, it has legitimized Buffett’s activities in the region and his support for the Rwandan government.

Recent revelations from the Paradise Papers demonstrate the extent to which vast sums of wealth are being siphoned from countries like the DRC. It is up to journalists to interrogate the money that enters the country from the billionaire philanthro-capitalist class, and in particular, from men like Howard Buffett, whose vision for regional development — privatization as a path to growth — undermines the ongoing struggle of ordinary Congolese to shape their own future.

Book Chapter: All that Glitters

Book Chapter: ‘All that Glitters: Neoliberal Violence, Small-Scale Mining and Gold Extraction in Northern Tanzania’

In Against Colonization and Rural Dispossession: Local Resistance in South and East Asia, the Pacific and Africa. Ed Dip Kapoor.

August 2017


Under the guise of ‘development’, a globalizing capitalism has continued to cause poverty through dispossession and the exploitation of labour across the Global South. This process has been met with varied forms of rural resistance by local movements of displaced farm workers, small and landless (women) peasants, and indigenous peoples in South and East Asia, the Pacific and Africa, who are resisting the forced appropriation of their land, the exploitation of labour and the destruction of their ecosystems and ways of life.

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Global atlas of environmental conflicts

EJOLT, 2012

Role: Research

Across the world communities are struggling to defend their land, air, water, forests and their livelihoods from damaging projects and extractive activities with heavy environmental and social impacts: mining, dams, tree plantations, fracking, gas flaring, incinerators, etc. As resources needed to fuel our economy move through the commodity chain from extraction, processing and disposal, at each stage environmental impacts are externalized onto the most marginalized populations. Often this all takes place far from the eyes of concerned citizens or consumers of the end-products.

The EJ Atlas collects these stories of communities struggling for environmental justice from around the world. The atlas is a visually attractive and interactive online mapping platform detailing environmental conflicts. It allows users to search and filter across 100 fields and to browse by commodity, company, country and type of conflict. With one click you can find a global snapshot of nuclear, waste or water conflicts, or the places where communities have an issue with a particular mining or chemical company.

Global Atlas of Environmental Conflicts

Kenya’s Civil Society & Extractive Industries: Buying into Neoliberalism?

CODESRIA Newsletter, January 2014

In November of last year, civil society organizations hosted a seminar on the extractive industries in Kenya. Titled ‘Kenya’s New Natural Resource Discoveries: Blessing or Curse?’ and organized with the aim of addressing potential opportunities, challenges, impacts and policy implications of Kenya’s newly discovered resources, including oil, this was a rare opportunity to have an open and informed debate about the implications of mining, oil and resource extraction in the country.

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