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June 19, 2008

Previous green revolution mistakes likely to be repeated in Africa, says report

By John Mbaira

In the absence of a co-ordinated approach, the push for a Green Revolution in Africa will not benefit millions of farmers but will instead severely affect their resiliency even as it realises a boom for big-bucks biotech corporates, a new report says.

“Despite assertions to the contrary, there is a real danger that the Green Revolution will turn into a corporate biotech boom and the destruction of rural resiliency — and diversity — in Africa,” says Green Revolution 2.0 for Africa? This time the ‘“silver bullet’ has a gun.”

Prepared by the Canada-based Erosion Technology and Concentration Group — a respected research and conservation organisation — the report predicts that the mistakes made during the first Green Revolution will be repeated in the second one.

It criticises the introduction of “simplistic” strategies and policies that are not suited to the continent. “The last Green Revolution imposed ‘big-box’ science institutions and a simplistic ‘one-size-fits-all’ plant breeding strategy that had little relevance for Africa.”

It says that the major undoing is that “green revolutionaries” in the first one “didn’t talk with farmers’ organisations and dismissed farmers’ knowledge as irrelevant.”

Since the late 1990s, Africa has received attention from so many quarters, all claiming to be committed to its development. What have been conspicuously missing are declarations on what is in for those pushing the “revolution” agenda (Western governments, big agribusiness and private foundations).

The report questions the difference between the approach adopted during the first Green Revolution and the Alliance for a Green Revolution for Africa (Agra) and other initiatives adopted by those driving the second one.

If it is cash, the first green revolution had lots of it. For instance, the report says that between 1971 and 2000, Africa received between $7.9 billion and $10 billion in terms of public research and development funding.

The report cites five major initiatives to jump-start the Green Revolution on the continent this time around. Starting with Agra, it tabulates the cash pumped into the initiative by both Bill & Melinda Gates and the Rockefeller Foundations, which have invested $100 million and $50 million, respectively.

But even with such funds, Agra is yet to receive widespread acceptance on the continent. The report says that besides the 70 civil society groups on the continent who came together to condemn the initiative at the World Social Forum held in Kenya in January 2007, the Mali-based Nyeleni Foundation rejected Agra altogether.

The problem, it seems, is the company that Agra keeps. “When Agra hired two key players formerly connected to Monsanto’s biotech division, it further guaranteed anger from the entire anti-globalisation movement,” adding that the alliance with Monsanto entrenches suspicions that it will ultimately introduce genetically modified organisms to unsuspecting African farmers.

Bill Gate’s fondness for all things technological reinforces this suspicion. However, the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations have denied this claim.

Besides Agra, the G8, in 2003, pledged to finance the construction of four centres of excellence to advance agricultural sciences in Africa.

These included Canada’s $30 million commitment to the construction of the Biosciences Centre for Eastern and Central Africa in Nairobi and the French pledge to fund a bioinformatics centre in Senegal. On their part, the UK and the US had agreed to set up similar labs in South Africa and Egypt, respectively.

Other Green Revolution initiatives include Syngenta Foundation’s partnership with the Kenya government to set up a $12 million biosafety greenhouse at the headquarters of the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute and Google Foundation’s pledge to offer Tanzania $300 million as development funds during last year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

There is also the Jeffrey Sachs-led Millennium Villages initiative that has been assisting 12 villages in 10 African countries to achieve the Millennium Development Goals through health, education, community infrastructure and agricultural development and marketing.

But, says the report, lying at the heart of the initiatives is a silent merger between business agendas pushed by the private sector and what Western governments want to achieve in Africa.

“It is also indicative of a growing trend toward privatisation of foreign aid, and the fusing of the private sector with governments. These days, where Bill Gates goes, so goes government,” it says.

In addition, big private companies have been gaining increasing influence over such publicly funded international research bodies as the 15 centres that operate under the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Private sector influence over the CGIAR is also growing. The report says that both Syngenta and Rockefeller Foundations attend CGIAR governance meetings.

This was confirmed by Catherine Mgendi of CGIAR. She said the two foundations are part of a number of institutions, organisations and private foundations from 64 countries who constitute the CGIAR.

“The Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture joined the CGIAR in 2002 and is in Africa supporting a programme to encourage African women in agricultural sciences to grow and develop their careers in this field.”

The Rockefeller and Ford Foundations were behind the establishment of CGIAR in 1971.

The report questions the arrangement that has enabled Sygenta Foundation to play a part in CGIAR’s governance

It says the foundation was formed to cater for the business and other interests of the parent companies.

Its parent Syngenta Corporation, a Swiss company, is the world’s second largest agrochemical and third largest seed company.

The report is categorical that the 15 CGIAR centres will end up benefiting the corporations rather than the farmers on whose behalf they were allegedly started.

There is also a growing concern that the major beneficiary of all the new science money will be the CGIAR. The report says CGIAR was started 35 years ago, the brainchild of the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations who were behind the first Green Revolution.

Over the past two decades, CGIAR has been spending 48 per cent of its global budget on Africa — about $150-$200 million per year on crop and livestock research in Africa.

“After 35 years of lacklustre results in Africa, CGIAR’s major donors — the World Bank, the US, Japan, the EU and Canada — are saying that the CGIAR’s ‘big box’ campuses around the world are part of the problem,” says the report.

It says that owing to this, the financial support for the CGIAR system “has become problematic,” hence, over the past few years, the 15 institutes have been looking for support from private companies and foundations.

NEED: A much smaller investment could strengthen the already-existing capacity of small farmers

The report by the Erosion Technology and concentration Group says that African farmers and their representatives are hardly involved in setting the priorities being pursued by those bankrolling the current Green Revolution initiatives.

This has given rise to the suspicion that behind the schemes is a desire to massively introduce genetically engineered seeds into the continent.

“Africans are right to be cautious,” the report says.

Both the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations “are definite high-tech keeners,” who have “supported GE crop research” elsewhere, it adds.

It cites the example of the Gates Foundation’s $43 million support to synthetic biology (also called nanobiotechnology), which it describes as a “high-tech, high cost and high-risk venture to re-engineer the metabolic pathways of microbes to yield a powerful anti-malarial compound that is derived from the Chinese wormwood tree (artemisia).

“Yet, a much smaller investment could strengthen the already-existing capacity of small farmers, in Africa and elsewhere, to cultivate wormwood.”

It says the prospect of synthetic artemisinin production could destabilise the very young market for natural Artemisia, and thus undermine the security of farmers just beginning to plant it for the first time.

However, Agra states in a number of documents that it is not advocating the introduction of genetically engineered seeds in Africa while the Rockefeller and Gates Foundations have also expressed opposition to the use of terminator technology, or suicide seeds, in the developing world.

However, the report casts doubts on these claims, saying, “Ultimately, nothing is written in stone. Neither the G8 in general, Canada in particular, nor the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations have any principled opposition to genetic engineering.

Remember, the staff hired to lead Agra come from Monsanto.”

It adds, “While Agra may have made a tactical decision to avoid genetic engineering for the time being, both the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations continue to put money into genetic engineering of crops for Africa outside the Agra envelope.”

The East African

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