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Posts Tagged ‘agriculture’

A new imperialism

Friday, October 15th, 2010

by Nick Mutch

One of the words that’s been thrown around ad nauseum for the past century is the word Imperialism. An expression notoriously hard to define, but one that is nevertheless usually taken to mean something along the lines of a major, industrialised, usually Western power (the key culprit  usually being the United States, although France, Britain, Japan and Russia have been  equally guilty) preying on a poorer, less developed nation for its wealth, natural resources or cheap labour. They usually do this through direct military intervention or using superior economic muscle to bully less powerful nations.

080218-F-5677R-101Recently it has been the US invasion of Iraq that has achieved the largest outcry among the press for being ‘the new imperialism,’ with the finger squarely pointed at America’s obsessive desire to control Middle Eastern oil resources. We should be mindful that this conflict is making the headlines, it actually conceals another form of imperialism that is happening around the world right now, one which barely gets a mention in the mainstream media (as stories that do not involve criminals, blood or sex scandals often do not). It is the highly controversial activity known as ‘land grabbing’.

Put simply, land grabbing is the buying up of huge plots of undeveloped or semi-developed land by governments or corporations usually for purposes of cheap food production, and of course, profit. This is a murky issue, clouded by rhetoric from both sides, what is seen by some to be sinister capitalist imperialism is seen by others as merely an efficient and benevolent use of land that is not being put to proper use. Seen under the Western notions of private property, simple transactions of land seem quite harmless, and a sign of healthy economic activity, but the flipside to this is that much of the land being bought by large Western corporations is land that’s been used by indigenous populations for their own food production for hundreds of years, threatening them with not only hunger, but displacement from their homelands as well.

A little recent history is first necessary. It was not nearly as noticeable in Aotearoa New Zealand, although there were grumblings about small increases in grocery prices, but 2007-2008 saw a major crisis in the price of common foodstuffs around the world. Wheat, for instance, nearly doubled in price between February and December 2007, and in US, the Consumer Price Index saw the largest one year jump in nearly 20 years. In response to this, many governments and corporations begun turning to cheap land purchased from poor countries such as Sudan or Ethiopia, in order to grow food for their own countries. An Observer investigation noted that over the last few years, nearly 50 million hectares has been bought or leased in private deals.  To put that in perspective, that is more than twice the size of New Zealand, and it shows no signs of slowing down.

cornandskyIn Ethiopia for example, nearly 3 million hectares of land has been sold, mostly to Saudi Arabia. As one of the world’s poorest nations, it can be easily understood why its government would be willing to sell land, but with over 10 million Ethiopians suffering from poverty and hunger, it must seem like a mean spirited joke.  It is not difficult in a case like this to decide what shouldn’t be done. More difficult is to decide what should be done. One of the key arguments for this kind of agricultural investment, as supporters would refer to it as, is that with modern farming techniques yields on current farms can be improved by 3-4 times. In a world that’s projected to have a population of 9.1 billion by 2050, these advancements could prove invaluable. The caveat though of course is a significant one. The arguments against this kind of development is as simple as asking if we want the future of the planet’s food supply entrusted to a plutocracy (rule by the wealthy).

The World Bank recently held a conference on this exact issue, giving rather vague sounding guidelines about ‘respecting the environment’ and ‘honouring the rights of existing landowners.’ Vague guidelines, with no real enforcement procedures do not exactly compel people to follow them, especially when high levels of profit are involved.  While the issues themselves cannot be seriously simplified, there is only one solution. The individuals and communities whose land is being bought and sold, often without their consent, need a VOICE.

blogcomputerIt is hard for some like me who can wax lyrical about relationship dramas, unfinished assignments and weekend parties on blogs and Facebook and Twitter updates, to believe that there are people who have little or no access to the technology to spread any kind of information. But this is often the case and is demonstrated clearly when you do a google search for ‘landgrab’, and find just a few passing references or short articles in reputable news sites, and the odd anti-capitalist rant. What is harder to find is any kind of truly democratic representation for people whose living spaces and livelihoods may be vanishing before their eyes. We take it for granted, whilst millions of people who desperately need to tell their story are being marginalized. In the words of Harlan Ellison (American writer), they want to scream, but have no mouth to do so.

I will therefore use the opportunity I have, to put on a tinfoil hat*for a few minutes, and say that ‘land grabbing’ is the face of the new imperialism that threatens prosperity today. The new imperialists are not afraid of word of their activities spreading, because they trust that we will be too distracted to care about it beyond a few minutes of moral outrage. We are bombarded with such an overwhelming amount of facts and figures about war, climate change dictatorships and face questions about bioethics, ecology and democracy, that an obscure debate over property in countries far away seems to pale in comparison. Yet we can’t use this as an excuse to bury our heads in the sand.  We shouldn’t avoid this, or all the other issues we will have to face in the future.  Put simply, we can’t.

* The concept of wearing a tin foil hat for protection is associated with conspiracy theorists.

WORLDCHANGING - A user’s guide for the 21’st century

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Edited by Alex Steffen; Forward by Al Gore.

This book is a ground breaking compendium of the most innovative solutions, ideas and inventions emerging today for building a sustainable, livable, prosperous future.

ecohouse_photoSections on Power, Shelter, Business, Community and just Stuff are divided into short, easy to read explanations of a few hundred of the best solutions out there. The guide is put together by a team of people who invite us to join their conversation on the best tools we can use to improve our lives.

You can join our library and get books and DVDs out for Free!

World Vision

Friday, February 20th, 2009


www.worldvision.co.nz

What do they do?
World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organisation dedicated to working with children, families and communities to overcome extreme poverty and injustice. World Vision New Zealand currently supports more than 70 projects in more than 25 countries.

How can I get involved?

  • Sponsoring a Child
  • Getting involved in a Charity Challenge (biking round Cambodia or climbing Mt Kilamanjaro are a few examples)
  • Volunteer to help run World Vision programmes in NZ
  • Participating in/running a 40-hour Famine
  • Donating directly
  • Getting involved in World Vision advocacy campaigns
  • Joining/starting a World Vision group at your school or university

Quaker Peace and Service Aotearoa/New Zealand

Friday, February 20th, 2009

quaker

www.quaker.org.nz/groups/qpsanz

What do they do?
This is the arm of the Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) in Aotearoa New Zealand that deals with social justice issues. They aim to give service and create peace in Quakerly ways.

How can I get involved?
If you are a young Quaker (aged between approximately 16 and 39) you can join the ‘Young Friends’. Regular meetings are held in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch. At their annual camps, held over Easter, Young Friends have speakers come and talk to the group, where there will tend to be discussion on important issues related to justice and peace. Young Friends also pay to offset their carbon from camps, and aim to shop local and eat vegetarian as a means of reducing damage to the Earth.

Caritas

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

caritas

www.caritas.org.nz

What do they do?

Caritas is the Catholic agency for justice, peace and development. Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand is part of Caritas Internationalis, which is a confederation of 154 Catholic aid, development and social justice agencies from around the world. Caritas agencies work in over 198 countries: delivering aid, supporting development, and working for justice.

How can I be involved?

Donate!

Campaigning – Caritas are involved in many campaigns, including Aid, Children, Cluster Munitions Crime and Punishment, Debt, Environmental Justice, HIV and AIDS, Human Rights Make Poverty History Millennium Development Goals, Submissions to NZ Government, and Trade. They offer excellent resources on their website to help you join with them to take action on these issues.

Drug Money - the real cost

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

By Ian Blythe

opium-poppiesWhile taking drugs isn’t new, the incredible growth in the illegal drug trade is! Despite all the risks involved, it has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, and news seems to be spreading of the mula that can be made. It comes down to simple economics: the greater demand the higher the price. Drugs are in great demand and prices are high. But what is the real cost?

It begins with poverty
All drugs have been on a journey. That journey starts with a need and ends with a want. The crop growers or farmers at the start of the production chain are generally poor and desperate for income. They need money to feed their families and pay their bills, just like everybody else. Illegal drugs such as cocaine, heroin and cannabis are more profitable than legal crops such as wheat. A plot of land planted in wheat will earn a farmer $100 while the same plot planted in opium poppies could be worth $4000! Where poverty is found so are plantations for an array of drugs. For example:

  • Coca leaf, which is turned into cocaine, is cultivated in Peru and Bolivia, countries where, according to the World Bank over half the population live below the poverty line.
  • 92% of the world’s heroin derives from poppy plantations in Afghanistan, which was ranked 173rd of 178 countries in the UN’s 2004 Human Development Index.
  • 70% of the cannabis used in Europe comes from Morocco, where 14% of the population live on less than $2 a day.

Unfortunately the cultivation of drugs doesn’t stop the stop the cycle of poverty. While providing a source of income, it can be dangerous work and farmers find that because they are working in an illegal occupation they have no power and can’t fight for fair pay or better working conditions. They can easily be exploited by traffickers and gangs.

Bad for people, bad for the earth
clearedlandDrug cultivation can have a disastrous effect on individuals and communities, but it also has huge ecological implications. To grow poppies or coca leaves means that farmers need to have fertile soil, warm conditions and a private open field. So they end up cutting down or burning trees to make room. Not just a few trees though, millions of hectares of tropical forest have been cleared, just to keep up with the demand. The use of large quantities of pesticides, weed killers and fertilisers to maximise production leads to a loss in biodiversity, polluted soil and contaminated waterways. The topsoil is often left infertile by the end of the season and it can take up to three seasons to return to its original fertility. So the farmers continue to clear new areas of forest.

Who IS benefiting then?
The profit margins for the traffickers and drug dealers are HUGE. With the farmers only receiving 1% of the street value of many drugs, there is a lot of money to be made along the way. Cocaine bought in Columbia worth $1500 per kilogram could be sold on the streets of America for as much as $66,000 a kilogram. This part of the drugs journey is usually controlled by gangs or criminal cartels. Drug trafficking, estimated to account for 8% of the all global trade, has given organised crime immense power and wealth, but with this much money at stake, competition is fierce and often ends in violence.

Customer relations
The drug’s journey ends with want. With 180 million regular drug users around the world this want creates significant demand. Drug addiction is complex, but at it’s core it about a user’s physical and emotional dependence on their drug of choice. Addiction creates a secure market for suppliers and keeps the prices high. Lucrative returns and future prospects of an even higher income keep people involved in the industry

Big pond, little fish
buying-drugsEverybody involved in the chain of production and distribution is accountable for the vast effects of this industry. Society is very fast paced and everybody is looking for instant gratification - kiwis are no different. We are not a major drug producer, but Aotearoa New Zealand is home to an increasing number of users. In the last couple of years there has been a steep increase in usage of Methamphetamine, more commonly known as “P”. As “P” is problematically addictive the spread was inevitable. But P isn’t the only drug we’re using. Cannabis is the most readily accessible drug, as it is not only cheap as chips, but very easy to cultivate. Per capita Oceania (an area that includes us, Pacific Island Nations and Australia,) has the highest level of cannabis users in the world.

Five Facts about the Global Drug Trade

  1. 92% of the world’s heroin derives from poppy plantations in Afghanistan
  2. The income of those involved in growing drug crops is 1% of their drugs street value
  3. Millions of hectares of tropical forest in South America have been destroyed in the cultivation of coca (used to make cocaine)
  4. 180 million people worldwide use illegal drugs regularly
  5. Drug trafficking is estimated to account for 8% of all global trade

TAKE ACTION!
The circumstances may seem overwhelming, but there is a lot you can do to help!

  • First you need to get motivated, so get informed and dig a little bit deeper. Check out the Learn More section.
  • After you feel motivated you need to get empowered - get involved with some of the local organisations working in this area. The New Zealand Drug Foundation not only produces lots of resources, but they run events too. Community Action on Youth and Drugs project (CAYAD) run projects all around the country, call your local council to see what’s going on near you.
  • Next you have got to live it, talk about the REAL COST of drugs with your friends and stand firm for what you believe in.

LEARN MORE

Global Bits - The Trafficking trap
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime -The World Drug Report
New Zealand Drug Foundation

This article was originally published in Jet Magazine.

Feast or Famine?

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

Food for thought… burger Food is an integral part of human existence — we need it to survive. It is part burgerof a global system linked to issues like trade, genetic modification famine, slavery, health, food miles and sustainability. Sounds complicated huh? It gets even more complicated when you consider the huge number of media messages and images we are bombarded with every day, telling us what to eat, how to look and what is beautiful. Basically, food corporations want us to eat cheaply produced food lacking in nutrition and stuffed with chemicals, harvested by poorly-paid labour and flown half way across the world, while advertisers and the media place unrealistic expectations on us to be thin and beautiful. An exaggeration? You decide.

Stuffed or starved? child with foodThere are 800 million people in the world who go hungry every day and there are over a BILLION people who are obese. There is enough food in the world for everyone, but the systems in place mean that some people don’t get enough food and others have access to lots of unnutritious food. Fast food outlets and supermarkets have made food convenient and easy… you don’t have to think, just eat! Un-conscious eating is making us unhealthy and a lot of us obese. But as we keep over-consuming in the developed world, many people in the developing work — including those who pick our cocoa beans, coffee beans, bananas and tomatoes — are struggling because they don’t have access to affordable food. More info: stuffedandstarved.org Killing us softly mannequinsFiji, a country that traditionally valued the fuller figure’, was affected by an outbreak of eating disorders three year after television arrived in 1995. A study by Harvard Medical School found that 74% if teenage girls surveyed felt they were “too big or fat” and 15% of the girls reported they had vomited to control weight. The introduction of western values and (unrealistic) images of beauty was seen as the likely cause of the increase in eating disorders. More info: Borrow the movie Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising Images of Women (DVD) from the Global Education Centre library Freeganomics dumpsterIn the US it is estimated that half of the food produced each year is thrown away. You probably know about vegans but have you heard about Freegans? Freegans are a group of people who live solely off the waste of others and distance themselves from big corporations and consumerism. They go through dumpsters outside supermarkets and other shops (known as dumpster diving’) and pick out the unspoiled food that has been thrown away. They also grow their own food or contribute to community gardens. They are not poor or homeless, they do this in an attempt to minimise their impact on the planet. More info: http://freegan.info When cows lay eggs?! cowNot sure where your food comes from? You’re not the only one. A recent survey of 1,000 British kids aged eight to fifteen revealed some strange ideas. In answer to the question: If cows ate grass, what colour would their milk be?’, eight percent answered brown, green or not sure. Ten percent of the city kids in the survey (the country kids did a little better) didn’t know where yoghurt came from and eight percent were unable to say which animal beef comes from. Of the same group, two percent thought that bacon might be from cows or sheep, and that eggs come from cows. More info: www.foodroutes.org Are biofuels worth it? cropAlthough recently highlighted as a key solution to another pressing global issue — climate change — the production of biofuels may actually be causing more harm than good, particularly when it comes to food. Biofuels need a large amount of water and fertile land — land often found in developing countries which could otherwise be used to grow food crops. The UK government’s Chief Scientific Adviser recently described the global rush to grow biofuels as “profoundly stupid”, pointing out that a global food crisis is going to hit before some of the more serious impacts of climate change. More info here. LEARN MORE: Find out about food production and distribution at Food First or Global Issues TAKE ACTION! It can seem too big and complicated to do anything about, but taking action is the ONLY way things change, so here are a few suggestions to get you started. Get reconnected with your food by growing your own veggies. Check out the action section on www.sustainablehouseholds.org.nz for some great tips on organic gardening. Watch these DVDs, all available to hire FOR FREE at the Global Education Centre: Media that Matters — Good Food A Selection of Short Films on Food and Sustainability What’s Really In Our Food? InsideNew Zealand SuperSizeMe The Future of Food This article originally appeared in Tearaway magazine as part of the Global Focus project.

What’s up with coke? Part two

Friday, March 2nd, 2007

Environmental Destruction in India

Water BottleCoca Cola has bottling plants the world over, allowing the company to take advantage of very low labour and production costs in certain countries, as well as decreasing the bill for the shipping of its products to its customers. One might think this makes the company more environmentally friendly, through reducing emissions caused by the transportation of goods around the world. However there are some who would tell you differently, very differently. These are the people who live on the doorsteps of the Coca Cola bottling plants all over India.

It is an often bemoaned fact that it is in fact cheaper to buy a bottle of sugar filled Coca Cola in New Zealand than it is to buy a bottle of water. Luckily, however, we have the option of turning on the tap and filling our glasses with potable water for very little money. In many Asian and African countries the severe shortage of available, clean, safe drinking water is a huge problem for inhabitants. India is one such country. The Indian village of Plachimada obtain all their drinking water from wells which tap into groundwater around the village. The locals began to notice that they were not the only ones tapping into the groundwater in the area. Coca Cola were also using the ground water, in much vaster quantities than the inhabitants of the area, in the production of their soft drinks.

Fetching WaterVillagers all over India have found themselves in a similar situation, with Coca Cola bottling plants helping themselves to precious life-giving ground water and causing their wells to drop by, in some cases, up to fifty feet (about 15 metres). Lax environmental regulations in the country did nothing to prevent this from occurring. Villagers have been forced to travel large distances in search of adequate drinking water, while the water once readily available to them is now only available in the form of a caffeinated, sugary carbonated drink, bought in planet-polluting plastic bottles.

To add salt to the wound, it has been found that aside from removing drinkable water from these communities, Coca Cola has also been pumping waste water indiscriminately back into the communities, litres and litres of contaminated water flow into the fields and rivers of India, polluting not only the soils, but the small amount of groundwater that remains for the villagers. Areas where this water has been discharged have been signposted by the authorities as water unfit for human consumption, while farmers were sold the solid waste of the Coca Cola factories to use as fertiliser. Tests of the waste found two dangerous substances (cadmium and lead) in the “fertiliser” which mean that in effect it is toxic waste.

The communities of India have thus been hit threefold by the damage Coca Cola has inflicted to their environment through the bottling plants dotted throughout its provinces. The country relies heavily on its agriculture and the devastating mixture of water shortages and polluted soils is having huge repercussions for many of the nation’s poor. However the Indian people are not only being hurt indirectly by the company through the destruction of their farming land, tests of bottled Coca Cola in India have found that the drink contains inordinately high levels of harmful pesticides such as DDT. We all know that Coca Cola isn’t good for us, but the little bit of sugar and caffeine found in the Coca Cola which we drink in New Zealand pales in comparison to the toxic cocktail of chemicals drunk in India. The long-term effects of these chemicals on the human body is as yet unknown, but the cumulative effect of the poisoning of the land along with the poisoning of the body leaves a very undesirable outlook for many of the people of India. And in a country of over one billion souls, that is a lot of unhappy futures.

Coke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottlesCoke bottles

What can you do?
Still wanting to enjoy the Coke side of life? If not there are several groups of protestors who have set up websites which you can check out:
•www.cokewatch.org
•www.killercoke.org

And of course there is the option of making the decision not to drink Coca Cola on moral grounds. If everyone does it the company will have to sit up and listen, or face a fate even worse than that they have inflicted on their workers in India and around the world.

Resources:
www.indiaresource.org
www.corpwatch.org/article

Sweet as sin

Wednesday, February 28th, 2007

By Nicole Mathewson

PebblesMmmm. A sugar rush. You can’t beat it eh? But how much sugar do we consume? A lot more than just what we add to our tea or cereal. What about all those fizzy drinks, lollies and cakes? And it doesn’t end there - sugar is a staple ingredient in most processed foods including savoury ready-made meals. Globally, sugar consumption increases by about 2% per year, and is currently around 150 million tons!

A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down?
With so much sugar, you’d be forgiven for not being able to imagine a life without it. But did you know humans evolved without ever using it? The only kinds of sugar we need to remain healthy are lactose (found in milk) and fructose (fruits, vegetables and anything naturally nutritious). The kind of sugar we’ve come to know and love, though, is sucrose (aka sugar, refined from sugar cane or beet).

Sucrose was gradually introduced to our taste buds over time. It began innocently enough in the 1700s with a teaspoon or two in tea, but by the end of the century consumption had more than trebled. It has continued to increase worldwide ever since.

We have become so used to sugar that many people forget sucrose is just “empty calories” — it has no nutritional value. Medical problems associated with over-consumption of sucrose include obesity, increased chronic fatigue, anxiety, irritability and possibly serious mental conditions. [1] Scary huh? And this isn’t just happening in rich countries — it is also occurring in the developing world, and faster than ever.

“The consumption of sugar still goes up despite all the fanatical attacks from health cranks,” smugly says Sir Saxon Tate, boss of British sugar giant, Tate and Lyle.

A less than sweet industry
Sugar Cane HarvestingAs well as being terrible for our bodies, and almost addictive, sugar also widens the gap between the world’s rich and poor.

From the beginning, the sugar industry has not been nearly as sweet as the product. Sugar production was a big part of the slave trade, funded the expansion of European empires and put much of the original capital into capitalism.

Inequality is still rife today. For example, British Sugar’s majority shareholders, the Weston Family, receive NZ$76,700 a day from their shares, while Bekele, a typical sugar cane cutter in Ethiopia, earns less than NZ$3 a day. [2]

The power of the sugar giants
In the 1970s some companies in the sugar industry, and some which heavily used sugar in their products (e.g. soft drinks manufacturers) banded together and established various foundations’ and institutes’ which used their influence to undermine or silence any reports linking sugar with health problems. [3]

“The sugar industry has learned from the tricks of the tobacco industry,” says Professor Philip James, chairman of a national dietary guidelines committee in the UK. “Confuse the public. Produce experts who disagree. Try to dilute the message.” In the same way that oil companies deny climate change sugar companies try to persuade us that their product is not damaging.

And in New Zealand we can see the influence of these companies. Plans to remove full-sugar drinks from secondary schools have been criticised because the agreement between the Government and two of the biggest beverage companies won’t come into effect till 2009 and still allows diet drinks which can contain caffeine and artificial sweeteners which are hardly healthy. Green MP Sue Kedgley sees it as a public relations move. Children will still be exposed to “nutritionless, enamel-destroying soft drinks with addictive and controversial additives in them”, she said. [4]

Environmental concerns

Sugar plantations are harmful to the environment, being to blame for the loss of huge areas of fertile land (which could be used for growing food for local people, rather crops for export) and reducing water levels. After sixty years of sugar production in Pakistan there has been a 90 percent reduction of freshwater available. Pesticide spraying is also a problem, with twenty five million cases of serious chemical poisoning each year.[5]

It’s not all bad though. You’ve heard of Fair Trade chocolate and coffee, but you might not know you can get fairly-traded sugar too from Paraguay, available from Trade Aid stores. And it’s organic too, so no nasty pesticides were used. The most obvious way to escape from being caught in the sugar trap is to simply eat more fresh fruit and vegetables! You’ll gradually regain control over your appetite and eventually realise you don’t really need sugar at all — but if you must, try to make it fairly traded. Sweet!

Brown SugarBrown Sugar

Did you know?
A can (330ml) of regular soft drink contains up to 10 teaspoons of sugar.

  • We are the 11th biggest soft-drink consumers in the world.
  • Worldwide, about a billion people are chronically overweight and, on the flip side, a billion are chronically hungry.
  • Ethanol is a sugar-based fuel produced by fermenting cane juice. It is clean burning and can be used to fuel vehicles on its own, or mixed with petrol or diesel. Brazil has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by using ethanol rather than importing fuel, and other countries could do the same.
  • Mauritius in the Indian Ocean generates nearly half its electricity from bagasse (the crushed stalks of the sugar cane plant, after cane juice has been extracted for sugar production), and other countries, including Pacific islands such as Fiji could potentially do the same.

Learn more:
Read the New Internationalist magazine on The Sugar Trap

Take Action:

  • Join Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign
  • Be aware of what you’re eating and where it came from.
  • Encourage others to take notice too.
  • Write to your local supermarket to ask them to stock Fair Trade sugar.

References:

[1] http://live.newint.org/issue363/perilous.htm
[2] http://www.maketradefair.com/en/index.php?file=sugar_pr06.htm
[3] http://live.newint.org/issue363/keynote.htm
[4] http://www.nzherald.co.nz/section/1/story.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10414952
[5] http://environment.guardian.co.uk/columnist/story/0,,1932189,00.html

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A version of this article was originally published in JET magazine.

DRUGS: Nobody’s is winning the war

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

Phoebe Borwick and Amy Donohue

opium poppiesThe trade behind cocaine (or coca, as the plant of origin is known) and heroin (which comes from opium poppies) is a global issue. An estimated four million people depend on income derived from the cultivation of illicit drug crops. In the year 2000, the global drug trade was estimated at a value of US$400 billion. It’s an issue worth more than the price of feeding the planet over the same period of time.

From the rainforests of South America to the remotest parts of Afghanistan to Pete Doherty’s honker, we trace the journey of the most profitable crops in the world.

From the dark ages…
Way back when we were still running around with leaves covering our lower regions, South Americans chewed the leaf of the coca plant. Often incorrectly considered a narcotic, cocaine is actually a stimulant and when chewed suppresses hunger, while increasing strength and energy.

Cue the Spaniards arriving in South America and branding coca a plant that the devil invented for the total destruction of the natives’. Or, that’s what one prominent Catholic artist declared.
They changed their minds a bit when they discovered it really did stimulate quite nicely thus legalising it and charging a nifty little tax for their own economic benefit. For a time, coca was even the main source of income for the Roman Catholic Church. Sneaky, sneaky!

…to today…
Ironically, the two most fatal drugs are still legal today and taxed to the hilt by governments around the world. Alcohol and tobacco kill more people than illicit drugs every year and are both widely accepted and available.

The very fact that other drugs are illegal increases the profit to be made. With criminals running the show, the prices skyrocket.

…to leafy fields…
Cocaine is an economical crop for farmers not only because of its high selling cost and ever-present demand, but its quick maturation period. Within one to two years of planting the seed, the coca plant’s leaves will be ready to harvest with a drying period of only six hours. And opium poppies have an even quicker yield.

…to environmental destruction…
More than 30 years ago, the US came up with the superhero tactic to rid the world, and especially their own country (where the demand was coming from), of the evil empire of narcotics. They called it the War on Drugs.
george bush
The most widespread method of destroying the coca plant in the 90s, and the opium poppy still today, was to manually pull up every single plant in a field. Time consuming and tiring, there must have been an easier way?

Consequently, air eradication with herbicides became rather popular. In as little as ten days after spraying, the plants are stripped bare of their leaves and within around 70 days, the plant will be completely dead. RIP, indeed. US-sponsored Plan Colombia was, to effect, an aerial fumigation of this country — the second most ecologically diverse in the world. Spraying caused poisoning and environmental damage.

Herbicides have been linked to diarrhoea, hair loss and skin rashes on children. Also, legal crops like bananas, coffee and pineapples are often destroyed along with the coca plant. Yes, we have no bananas. Not quite the lycra and rippling muscles the US had envisaged. In Afghanistan, post the US-led invasion, local and international troops are enlisted in eradicating poppy crops — as are schoolchildren in some provinces. This is dangerous work.

Imagine you’re a farmer who’s invested cash and time in a poppy field. How would you feel if you saw it being literally stamped out? Might make you want to protect your only chance of making a living. Where’s that gun that’s been lying around since the war? Further problems arise as more coca plants and poppies are eradicated. Demand for the drug remains constant (or grows) while there are fewer crops, resulting in the existing crops becoming more lucrative. More farmers then begin to grow the plant to take advantage of the price increase. What a conundrum!

…to poverty…
With secrecy comes vulnerability and international drug rings are not covered by fair trade agreements. Globalisation of the drug trade has led to even greater exploitation of the crop farmers along with cheaper and easier international trafficking. The globalisation of the drug trade forms a connection between organised crime, small arms, terrorism, human trafficking and all kinds of criminal and seedy life.

In 1999, nearly 80 per cent of opium cultivation took place in Afghanistan. Chances are, a gram of coke purchased in the US, Europe or New Zealand comes from a coca bush grown in the Andean countries. In fact, Bolivia, Colombia and Peru account for more than 98 per cent of the world supply. Already in poverty, working with poor soil and unempowered to change their circumstances — not to mention the influence of drug lords and anti-government groups — farmers often have no choice if they want to keep food on the table.

Yet, the War on Drugs is not being won. The US’ efforts to strip Latin America and Afghanistan of their coca and poppy crops are also stripping the livelihood of millions. While thrill-seekers in the west demand the drugs, and their governments react by trying to stop the supply, farmers will continue to grow the illicit crops unless they are offered a real alternative way to make a living.

….to terrorism…

gun
Yes, that’s right. Terrorism. Stop or they’ll shoot (up). The links between terrorism, drugs and war are extensive and very real. In 2001, just weeks before two planes barrelled into the Twin Towers, the US pledged a further $1.5m to plump out the reported $140m in ‘humanitarian’ aid it sent to Afghanistan. Why?

Because western methods of enforcing drug cultivation laws proved ineffective, but groups with violent means available to them could whip out grenades and guns willy nilly, without a thought for morality. The Taliban was limiting drug production by threatening to shoot farmers of illicit crops. Thus, they were held in high American esteem until everything went to custard on September 11.

But the corruption ran deeper. After the attacks, the Taliban turned tail to force farmers to grow the poppies. They, and other anti-government organisations, act as trafficking middlemen and a defence force, making profit out of the trade and protecting drug smugglers with weaponry and vehicles.

Still wanna get high, butterfly?
So, you still down with shovelling that candy up your nose this Friday? Are you quite content to continue your involvement with one of the world’s deadliest industries? You don’t need to rent Traffic, Requiem for a Dream or Maria Full of Grace to understand the true repercussions of your habit on the developing countries of the world. And if you still don’t get it, then you must be wasted. Go blow your nose and have an OJ.

LEARN MORE

Afghanistan country profile
Colombia country profile
Drugs: an overview
Drug Policy Alliance is America’s leading organisation working to end the war on drugs.
The worldwide collective of committed scholar-activists at Transnational Institute
Illegal Drugs: Scourge or Globalization’s Great Equalizer? by Baylen J. Linnekin

This article was originally published in Tearaway magazine as part of the Global Focus project.