Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
Mariam Mayet speaks to Pambazuka News this wide ranging Pambazuka News interview, Mariam Mayet, the director of the African Center Biosafety speaks about biopiracy, which she calls "the last frontier", the Alliance for a Green Revolution and its impact on Africa, and food and agriculture as social justice justice.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: I am here with Mariam Mayet, the director of the African Center for Biosafety ( Can you tell us about your organization?

MARIAM MAYET: We are based in Jo’burg and we have four main programs. We campaign against genetic engineering in food and agriculture. We campaign against bio-piracy particularly the theft of indigenous knowledge in the context of medicinal plants and new areas around marine bio prospecting.

We also work on the green revolution in Africa – and Agro-fuels. Basically we do a lot of cutting edge research, exposes of what multi-national companies are doing in Africa, and on the bio-tech industry. We look at the seed industry and where the GM-Agro fuels push is coming from. We work with a large network of other groups and communities.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can you talk a little more about bio-piracy – and patenting systems?

MARIAM MAYET: Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies want to bring in new products to the market. They have to find the active ingredient to be able to produce a particular medicine (sometimes they stumble into things accidentally). But the way to get to the plant and the use of the plant is through local people. And when they come into our countries and they appropriate our knowledge and resources, without people’s consent, we call it theft or bio-piracy.

The last frontier of resources base is really our people’s knowledge in regards to medicinal plants and agriculture. And these are highly sought after. When a company finds a particular plant, and the useful properties in the plant they make a product from it, and then register a patent in regards to the use of that plant. And where they duplicate existing uses, we are able to challenge those patents.

For example, we found a company in Germany trying to patent two endemic species in South Africa and Lesotho but they are duplicating local uses. We were able to challenge this. So even in a European patenting system which is very neo-liberal and capitalist, it does not allow to register a patent over the use of something, if a community anywhere in the world has the same use. So we use the small margins to challenge bio-piracy. This was one case, but there are there are thousands of cases like this in Africa.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can you give Pambazuka readers other examples of bio-piracy?

MARIAM MAYET: Yes. Last year we published a booklet called “Out of Africa: Mysteries of Benefit Sharing.” We published 36 cases of dubious acquisitions in Africa, such as theft of the people’s knowledge to produce skin whitening cosmetic by the cosmetic industry.

The hoodia gordonii, a hunger suppressing plant gives us the quintessential case of bio-piracy. This is where the knowledge of the San to stave off hunger when trekking through the Kalahari was appropriated by Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa and passed onto Phytopharm. Phytopharm registered a patent claiming that there were no indigenous people in South Africa, that the San had died off. Stealing knowledge is extremely rife in Africa.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Let’s change gears a little and turn our attention to philanthropy, which Cecil Rhodes once called, philanthropy plus five-percent - which is to say that philanthropy paves way for profit making, or what others call the philanthropy-industrial complex. Can you talk a little about the role of Western philanthropy in Africa?

MARIAM MAYET: Philanthropy in Africa has some history especially in relation to the Rockefeller family. The Rockefeller foundation has a much longer history than the Gates Foundation for example. Gordon Conway who became one of the presidents of the Rockefeller Foundation published a book called the New Green Revolution in 1999. The Green Revolution push we are seeing in Africa is really his brainchild. Their philanthropy has come in the context of pushing a very distinct corporate agenda – to open markets for US corporations. For example in Kenya the Rockefeller Foundation has been involved in sponsoring Florence Wambugu’s sweet potato project because they want to open Africa up to GMOs. So if you give the impression that a genetically modified sweet potato can work because it is the poor person’s crop, there will be more willingness to accept GMO’s. So it is not philanthropy. It’s a form of investment, a corporatized agenda for resource extraction from Africa.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: There was an expose in the LA Times [,0,682... on the Bill Gates Foundation where it was found that the foundation invests money in companies and corporations that cause the very same problems it is trying to solve, companies such as Shell. So the philanthropy arm is trying to save the environment, while the investment arm is making profit from its destruction…

MARIAM MAYET: Exactly, the Rockefellers made their money from Exon, which later became Chevron – so they have old oil money - this wrecked a whole lot of havoc environmentally and in terms of human rights.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: And also the idea of telescopic philanthropy, a telescopic philanthropy that sees far but not what is under its feet – for example there are a lot problems in the United States amongst minority communities…

MARIAM MAYET: Yes, why didn’t they give money to Hurricane Katrina victims? Why do they feel they have to come and rescue Africa? We say that the Green Revolution is a white man’s dream for a black continent. And this dream… this savior mentality is very missionary, very colonial, and imperialistic – and yes they should leave us alone. If they take away all the developmental aid, if they take all the food aid, and the military aid – we would be like Cuba. We would struggle for a while but eventually we would find our way. We would build our own local economies and vibrancy because all these development aid is also an industry unto itself, and it feeds off itself.

Who are the world’s biggest agri-business players? Take Cargil, which owns shares in seed companies, buys the harvest from farmers and transports it all over the world – they are more powerful than some governments because they are in charge of the international prices of grains and trade in grains. You have to really understand this whole capitalist agri-business system in order to understand the logic of the green revolution.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: AGRA, according to its website, is and “African-led partnership working across the African continent to help millions of small-scale farmers and their families lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. AGRA programs develop practical solutions to significantly boost farm productivity and incomes for the poor while safeguarding the environment. AGRA advocates for policies that support its work across all key aspects of the African agricultural “value chain”—from seeds, soil health, and water to markets and agricultural education. AGRA is chaired by Kofi A. Annan, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations”. They say that they are African led and now they have Kofi Annan who is serving as the chairman of AGRA – your response?

MARIAM MAYET: I think they are African followed because the vision was put in place by Gordon Conway from the Rockefeller Foundation. The Rockefeller Foundation brought in the Bill-Melinda Gates foundation, then started to recruit willing and compliant Africans – the coup de grace was Kofi Annan.

If it was African led we would not be asking for consultation and transparency. It would be coming from our farmers, coming from the ground-up. What is African led, are the local struggles, where people are clearly saying this is what we want. Go to speak to the people affected and they will tell you what they want – that would be African led.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can you talk a little bit about the packaging of AGRA? You have Kofi Annan, who has UN credentials, gentle spoken yet charismatic and Bill Gates who appears harmless. There is a lot of star power and money…

MARIAM MAYET: The things is the Green Revolution is a very a violent package because it puts powerful toxic chemicals into Africa. It displaces and destroys local knowledge and seeds. It favors those farmers who will be able to access the system, the more powerful farmers. This will divide the African peasantry.

AGRA also creates a lot of dependency and debt. It is violent. But the geeky sexy richest man who brought us wonderful technology, and gentle Kofi Annan – this is the savior face, our last hope. It is a very strategic move to push a very agri-business, corporatized market driven package – but it will fail in Africa because they do not understand Africa.

We are a very diverse people, we need local solutions that are multi-dimensional and multi-faceted – built on local knowledge and local seeds. You need to speak to people about how they adapt to harsh climates. To have a one-size fit all solution for Africa will be disastrous for us. Even in one country we have different eco-systems, different farming communities, different cultures, different eating habits.

We do not need to grow more foods for exports. We need to build on food sovereignty principles and give people equitable access to land, allocate the water fairly, support traditional farming methods, and create local vibrant economies, before we start exporting coffee, cocoa, and grow maize for export.

We are not saying that everyone must live on the land, or farm – we are talking about a local economy that is also integrated into the national economies. You cannot have two economies. We are talking about a vibrant whole.

I have to say that we are also unhappy with the agricultural systems in Africa and this is why we are saying – that we have to stop talking about food security because this perpetuates the existing paradigms. We have to tell our governments - what the hell are you doing? You have messed up badly, and left a vacuum for the philanthropist to walk in - and take over our countries, in a way.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: So there are ways in which the African governments have been absent in the debate completely…

MARIAM MAYET: None of our governments are going to say no to resources because they are corrupt, and despotic – we have had very few democracies but have huge class differences.

In terms of Agri-ecology we can do a lot of work with peasant movements but we have to always bear in mind that our struggle is a social justice struggle – and we need to hold our governments accountable.

We have to keep demanding from our governments the same things - We want justice in rural areas, equality for women, access to lands, support of traditional farming, we want you to protect our seeds, we do not want GMO’s, we want you to listen to farmers, we want you to build agricultural schools for them, and put money in research and development. I mean look at Nigeria. Once the oil industry took off, it mortgaged its oil to international oil companies, but it stopped developing its own agriculture.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: What is at stake? Food systems?

MARIAM MAYAT: Food systems, social systems, our culture - the dynamics in the rural areas will change, there will be more debt, more dependency, and there will be a small commercial class of farmers.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Can we talk a little bit more about food as social justice? What has the ANC government been doing in this regard?

MARIAM MAYAT: The ANC started off by giving up its many demands articulated in the Freedom charter and through the liberation struggle for nationalization of our mineral and energy companies. They made a deal with the industries, big business and the old government that we will not take the whole cake and nationalize it. What we will do is ask for a small slice of it, and we will call it Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). So it has been pre-occupied with BEE.

Yes we have a lot of political freedoms, we have a democracy - but it has a very neo-liberal agenda and very pro-industry orientation to all its policies. So for example, it is now allowing huge smelters to draw excessive amounts of electricity thereby increasing our carbon-emissions. We are building more coal-fired industries at the cost of 80 billion rands, but we are also going into nuclear technology. It is as if we are taking a big step back.

And along they way they failed to redistribute land back to the landless people, they failed miserably in terms of service delivery to the poor and that has seen a lot of violent protests. And it has failed dismally on its AIDS and HIV policy.

There is a lot of struggle fatigue, it is very hard to get the people mobilized beyond AIDS/HIV and service delivery but I think the time will come when we shall see a resurgence of social movements in Africa.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Would it be fair to say that we need to redefine what democracy means to us and inject a component of social justice?

MARIAM MAYET: As I said, we are never going to achieve social justice within a neo-liberal paradigm because it is always going to be favoring certain classes. So we really need to think beyond political rights, we have to think about our social economic rights. We can only be free once we achieve social justice.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: One last question: Your thoughts on the 2010 South Africa world cup?

MARIAM MAYET: The world cup is going to be a drain of our resources – and we cannot justify the enormous carbon footprint we shall leave behind - where all these people from all over the world take flights to come to watch a soccer match – we will need 2 billion litters of water for all these visitors – we shouldn’t be hosting such an event. We have other priorities.

It is not that I do not care for soccer, I do – but really Africa should not be hosting mega-events like this, for only two sectors will gain – airlines and people who already have a lot of money. The money that is coming in will not filter down to the people. How is the world cup going to benefit the poor people? I do wish African countries all the best in the world cup but we also need to take care of our people and our resources.

**Please send comments to or comment online at