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Interview with Devlin Kuyek by Molly Kane
© Pambazuka Press

‘Who gets to eat and who doesn’t is decided in a few rooms by boards of directors composed mainly of rich men. A handful of people in Northern countries deciding whether Africa is going to eat or not is insane.’


GRAIN supports small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. A small, decentralized organization, GRAIN has a staff team of nine people from eight different nationalities. In 2011, GRAIN was awarded the Right Livelihood Award (the Alternative Nobel Peace prize) for ‘its worldwide work to protect the livelihoods and rights of farming communities and to expose the massive purchases of farmland in developing countries by foreign financial interests’. This week Pambazuka News interviews GRAIN’s researcher, Devlin Kuyek, about their acclaimed new book, ‘The Great Food Robbery: How corporations control food, grab land and destroy the climate. (Pambazuka Press, 2012)

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Why is GRAIN focusing its work on the corporate food system?

DEVLIN KUYEK: GRAIN has spent the last twenty years trying to help people defend biodiversity. That’s meant that we’ve been trying to work on issues that threaten people’s control over their own biodiversity. Lately we see the major force that’s threatening that control as the corporate food system.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: How is the corporate food system the biggest threat to biodiversity?

DEVLIN KUYEK: Biodiversity can only exist through the small farmers, indigenous people, and pastoralists who maintain that biodiversity. So what threatens them threatens biodiversity. The corporate food system is about taking food production out of their hands. With the structural adjustment programs in the 1980s and 1990s Africa was pushed to move towards export agriculture and “Green Revolution” style projects. Some moved ahead, many of them failed. Now, because of the rise in prices of agricultural commodities, corporations are trying to restructure food systems around the world to move commodities around more, and take more profit. Africa is increasingly being targeted as a centre of production for global markets. The talk now is that Africa is one of the last frontiers because much of Africa is not under the model of export production. Land and water are still in the hands of local communities. So there’s a big push to industrialize agriculture for export. Unfortunately, African governments are colluding with corporations who want to pursue agribusiness in their countries, with the help of the World Bank and bilateral and multilateral donors.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: How is this fueling the land grabs we are hearing about?

DEVLIN KUYEK: There are many different kinds of land grabs; some for biofuels, others for mining or tourism. But there is a particular trend that we have pointed to since 2008 where you have foreign interests, governments, corporations working together at a scale like nothing we’ve ever seen before to take over massive areas of land to produce food for export.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Are local people included in these projects as agricultural workers?

DEVLIN KUYEK: Local workers can be hired, but foreign ones are also brought in, especially for the skilled jobs. These things are not stipulated in the contracts, so it’s at the discretion of the company. But what kind of jobs are they creating anyway? If you are talking about plantation agriculture it’s notorious for being the worst paid and most dangerous work in the world. Those protesting the deals say that they want to be farmers and pastoralists, not farm workers.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: But plantation agriculture is not new. What makes this different?

DEVLIN KUYEK: In the past you would have had plantations for oil palm, pineapples and a few other crops. But now you’re seeing this model being applied to staple crops such as wheat and rice, and on a scale that is unheard of.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Where do you see the resistance to these trends in Africa?

DEVLIN KUYEK: Throughout Africa there is a lot of resistance. At the local level, communities are mobilising. There are some land occupations and protests. Groups are organizing - regional meetings, national meetings to pressure the governments, working with the media, doing what they can, even in the face of arrests and military repression. And there is a great international outpouring of solidarity, being expressed in campaigns to get pension funds to divest from land grab investments or in strong declarations against land grabs, such as the Dakar Appeal of a couple of years ago.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Isn’t a lot of this dispossession happening in the name of “development”?

DEVLIN KUYEK: You hear a lot about helping small farmers. But, more and more, governments and business, and even programmes like AGRA [Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa">, are openly talking about small scale farmers as obstacles to development that need to be replaced by a new generation of commercial, modern farmers. This is code language for big farms, often owned by foreign capital, that use the machines, seeds, pesticides and others inputs sold by multinational corporations like AGCO and Monsanto, and that supply the global trade networks of corporations like Cargill and Olam. .

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: But one of the critiques of the people who criticize that corporate model is that they romanticize the lives of small peasant farmers.

DEVLIN KUYEK: One of the chapters in ‘The Great Food Robbery’ is about the dairy industry. Many people will probably be shocked by these numbers, but about 10-15 percent of the global population is involved in dairy production. And in the South, 80 percent of the milk that is marketed is in the informal sector, or what we call the people's milk sector. So in countries like Kenya, which is a large dairy consumer, milk is provided by small farmers with one or two cows and is collected and carried on bicycle to consumers at a price that is about half of what is produced in the corporate sector. There’s no need to romanticize that. It's a system that is providing a critical source of food to millions of Kenyans, a dignified livelihood to hundreds of thousands of vendors and a regular source of income to huge numbers of Kenyan farmers who use it to pay school fees, etc. All that happens when the corporate food system moves into countries like Kenya is that you take away percentages of the market that is in the hands of the people. When Nestle comes in with milk (made mainly of imported powdered milk), it’s not giving healthier or cheaper milk, it’s not giving more money or jobs to the workforce, its not generating more wealth and markets for farmers.

In cotton production, small farmers in Africa are amazingly efficient. They do it way more efficiently than any industrialized country but they get a lower price. That’s frustrating and infuriating, and has nothing to do with the production system. With pastoralists I don’t think you would find many people who would be willing to give up their culture and their livelihoods for mechanization. And why should they? Pastoral systems are more efficient and sustainable than the industrial model. So it’s not romantic – peoples’ livelihoods and access to food are at stake.

In Ethiopia, you have a government that has stated its policy is to go from 80 percent rural population to 20 percent rural population. Who can imagine what all those people are going to do? What’s the plan there? What jobs are they going to have? You can't say that this is about people in Africa choosing to move to cities. People are being forced out of their lands through mining projects, land acquisitions, and overall bad policies.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: Another argument made to justify the land-grabbing is that corporate agriculture is better suited to deal with the impact of climate change because corporations have the seeds and production methods that can adapt to climate change. What do you make of that?

DEVLIN KUYEK: Let's start from the basis that industrial agriculture and the corporate food systems are the main contributors to global greenhouse gas production. There's a chapter in the book that explains these numbers in detail. The loss of organic matter in the soils through chemical fertilizers and unsustainable agriculture practices is destroying one of the most important carbon sinks that we have. Ecological practices, which can really only be implemented through small farmers, can rebuild that soil and capture very important amounts of carbon. So dealing with climate change requires that we shift away from industrial production.

And, with climate change, we also have to change the way food is distributed. More drought, dry weather, and water crises are going to mean a substantial loss of food production. You have to question the global system of food distribution; it’s set up around profit right now. Who gets to eat and who doesn’t is decided in a few rooms by boards of directors composed mainly of rich men. A handful of people in Northern countries deciding whether Africa is going to eat or not is insane. When the food crisis happened there was nothing done about some of the most flagrant practices, like speculation on agricultural commodities. The international system seems completely incapable of dealing with this, which means that people promoting food sovereignty have the right strategy because you cannot rely on the international system to meet your food needs. It has to happen at the local level.

PAMBAZUKA NEWS: So that’s why you put the book together? Who is it for?

DEVLIN KUYEK: The book pulls together our work on many different issues. All of them in one way or another deal with aspects of the corporate food system. The book is meant to pass through channels where the Internet cannot reach, and to give people something more durable that they can use as a resource.

I hope anybody interested in these issues will read the book. But the real target audience is those involved in social struggles directly or indirectly related to food issues, who might be able to use the book to understand how corporations are working, what they are after, and in what ways resistance can happen. Pambazuka Press has published the English version and it is also being translated into Spanish and French.

So much is at stake in Africa. Whole territories are being targeted and affected by land grabbing. And this time the governments are major conduits for it. How are people going to react? In Ethiopia, where the whole southern part of the country is being handed over, earlier this month you had gunmen attack a farm of Saudi Arabian operations and five people died. It’s heating up. It's very explosive. Africa is under greater pressure than it’s ever been, at least since colonial times.

Some governments have tried to get better deals. But it’s hard to point to any government that is successfully resisting. Madagascar's new government said they were going to cancel the contracts but now they’re negotiating others. People have been pressuring their governments and people pressure is definitely being felt and governments are reacting to that. It’s going to explode; you can’t keep people in those conditions.

In the book there are a lot of positive things; and people can find hope. I find the stories about people’s struggles in the dairy sector very inspiring. In Colombia, business and government tried to shut down the people's milk sector, and this amazing alliance of vendors and farmers and consumers came together to defend their food system and they won. The government had to pull back from a law that would have made their milk system illegal. And now this alliance is working with other social sectors in the country to face off against free trade agreements with the EU and US that will also undermine their livelihoods and people's health. What they have done is to form a strong social mobilization linked to other movements. That’s the basis for real change.


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