Corporate Colonialism and Africa’s Date with Disaster

In the following piece, Mark relates the population growth to patriarchy, exploitation, and capitalism.

Editor’s note: DGR does not agree with all opinions on this article.


by Mark Behrend

The population of Africa is soaring.

Since 1950, it has grown from 227 million to 1.343 billion — an increase of 590%. Over the same period, South America has grown by 425%, Asia by 330%, and North and Central America by 250%, while Europe has only grown by 35%.

There are many reasons for the disparity, though the basic factors are development, wealth, and education. With development, infant mortality generally goes down and life expectancy increases, driving population up. Development tends to increase prosperity, education, and opportunities, gradually bringing population growth to a halt. Under normal development patterns, this results in a huge population increase when an economy is fueled largely by primary industries. Population growth slows as the economy moves into secondary industries, and levels off in a tertiary economy, where wealth is amassed, service industries emerge, and domestic businesses expand into foreign markets. That’s the upside of industrialization.

The downside is that both sides of this growth curve devastate the natural world.

With an exponential increase in the consumption and depletion of natural resources, degradation of air, land, and water, an ultimately fatal attack on biodiversity, and the exploitation of cultures on the back end of the development curve. Rooted in colonialism, the immediate threat to Africa’s people is that most of the benefits of development are going to European, American, and Chinese corporations. This does not appear likely to change. According to U.N. estimates, populations in North America, Europe, and Southeast Asia are expected to stabilize by 2100, while Africa’s is expected to triple.

Due to a variety of factors, including government inaction, corruption, and poor educational opportunities, birth rates remain high. To state it simply, unschooled girls and women have few options in life but to marry young and have four or more children.  Ignorance can lead to the persistence of superstitions and regressive cultural practices, such as female genital mutilation, and beliefs that contraception causes promiscuity, infertility, and various health problems.

A recent news story reported that 10% of girls in Senegal are still subjected to female genital mutilation.

The practice remains common on much of the continent. A Senegalese activist said it continues, mostly among the poor and uneducated, who are afraid to defy old customs. He noted that victims often experience a high rate of lasting pain, along with a much higher than normal incidence of menstrual problems. A woman in favor of FGM, however, disagreed and said.

“If women are having problems, it’s because of contraception.”

The more obvious problem with contraception in Africa is that it is rarely used. The population of Senegal jumped from 2.4 million in 1950 to 16.3 million in 2018 — an increase of 675% in 68 years. On average, that’s the equivalent of adding 10% of a country’s current population every year, in perpetuity. The country with the greatest population growth, however, is Ivory Coast, with an astounding 978% increase over a similar period (2.6 million to 25.7 million, between 1950 and 2018). This can be linked directly to corporate exploitation, as the numbers clearly show.

Since independence in 1960, foreign corporations have virtually transformed Ivory Coast into one giant cocoa plantation, to feed the developed world’s voracious demand for chocolate. In 2019, the world cocoa market was worth over $44 billion, and is projected to top $61 billion by 2027. Along the way, Ivory Coast has become the world’s largest producer, with an estimated 38% of global production. In the process, however, 90% of the country’s forests have been sacrificed, and the illusion of economic growth has driven an unprecedented explosion in the Ivorian census.

Several foreign corporations are responsible for this, the principal offenders being Olam International (Singapore); Barry Callebaut (Switzerland); and the American companies Cargill, Nestle, Mars, and Hershey. They have much to be responsible for.

Capitalism’s guiding principle of creating an ever-growing demand at the lowest possible cost has led to more than rampant deforestation.

According to The Guardian an astounding 59 million children, aged five to 17, are working against their will in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly in agriculture. Due to the refusal of some agencies and governments to include family farms in forced labor statistics, however, estimates of the number of victims vary widely. Fortune Magazine, for instance , puts the number of child laborers in West Africa at “only” 2.1 million. Additional data from the U.S. Department of Labor indicate that over a million children under the age of 12 work in the cocoa industry in Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together produce more than two-thirds of the world’s supply.

Thousands are recruited from even poorer African countries, often with promises of good jobs and free education. Instead, they become victims of what is arguably the world’s largest human trafficking and slavery network. Even those working on family farms are often kept out of school to work in hazardous conditions, with 95% of them reportedly exposed to pesticides, and at risk of injury from using machetes and carrying heavy loads.

Pressured by organized boycotts by Europeans and Americans, the industry pledged in 2001 to reduce child labor 70% by 2020.

Instead, a new report says that since 2010, the number of West African children engaged in forced labor has increased from 31% to 45% of the total childhood population. The reason, again, is the basic mechanism of capitalism. Industry influences consumers to demand more, by producing more and advertising it at a lower price — thus enabling corporations to pay farmers even less. As a result, wholesale prices for cocoa have been cut in half since the 1970s. This has been achieved by paying West African farmers between $.50 and $.84 a day, while the World Bank’s poverty line is $1.90. Hence the 60% rise in cocoa production since 2010, the 45% jump in child labor, and the accelerated pace of deforestation. Farmers are compelled to produce more, just to make the same money they used to make for producing less.

The cocoa industry explains this by saying that it decentralized production (i.e., encouraged family farming rather than corporate plantations) to hold down costs. So, now it can’t meet its child labor goals, because family farms can’t be regulated like factory farms. Corporations call this good economics, while a neutral observer might call it legalized slavery.

A 2019 study, reported by The Guardian, says research indicates that the best way to end child labor is by educating girls and empowering women, in what remain highly patriarchal societies.

There are 18 steps in preparing cocoa for the wholesale market, and women and girls perform 15 of them. This is typical of labor patterns in much of the developing world. And it goes a long way toward explaining the poverty, overpopulation, and environmental destruction that plague the “Third World” — and, by extension, the planet as a whole. In Ivory Coast, the production demands and poverty forced on local communities has also forced roughly a million people to seek their livelihoods by illegally deforesting and farming in national forests and national parks. Recent surveys found that in 13 of 23 of these so-called “protected areas,” once thriving populations of chimpanzees and forest elephants have been totally eliminated.

At the current rate, Ivory Coast’s irreplaceable flora and fauna will soon be gone, along with a carbon sink half the size of Texas. Similar scenarios are playing out across Africa, as global agribusiness becomes more invested in African lands. Incredibly, the Ivorian government’s response has been to pass a law that would effectively put the nation’s forestry protection under corporate control for the next 24 years. The argument behind this fox-guarding-the-henhouse policy is that corporations see the “big picture,” while local farmers only see their own immediate needs. The policy would expel those one million illegal farmers from public lands, with no assistance or other apparent options, apart from migration, starvation, or lives of crime.

Such is the grim reality of corporate resource extraction in nations that were European colonies less than a century ago, and today have become virtual colonies of E.U., U.S., and Chinese business. China now has a huge and ever-growing footprint, both in East Africa and in Latin America. On the surface, Beijing paints this as a “win-win” relationship, with China building “free” infrastructure, and bringing big business to the boondocks.

The reality, however, is a far different story — with pipelines and powerplants crossing the Serengeti, a superhighway across fragile Amazon headwaters, and a rival to the Panama Canal on its way to completion, in Central America’s most environmentally sensitive wetlands. And if supposedly accountable corporations in Western democracies can’t stop child labor in West Africa, what are we to expect from a secretive dictatorship like China?

Who will feed Africa as its population doubles and triples, with much of the farmland now leased to Chinese agribusiness?

How long can Africa’s (or Indonesia’s, or Brazil’s) rich biodiversity survive, with their habitat reduced to a corporate commodity? Who would you pick to win a competition between gorillas, elephants, giraffes, and zebras, on the one hand, and global extraction industries, on the other?

As the monocrop cocoa farms of Ivory Coast become infertile and lose their productivity, the booming population will inevitably face growing poverty, and a very real threat of starvation. That isn’t the “corporate plan,” of course. The corporate plan, as one Ivorian farmer observed, is simply to make as much money as possible as fast as possible. And African farmers either play along, or the cocoa companies find those who will. The cycle thus compels Africans to make more babies to work the land, and then rape the land to feed the babies.

When it comes to Africa, ‘supply and demand’ is merely a sanitized term for ‘slash and burn’. Capitalism has no long-term plan for the continent, because the corporations are beholden to non-African investors back home. Their competitive edge is based on exceeding the year-end dividends of their rivals. From a business standpoint, the practical meaning of the profit motive is to use up the planet as fast as possible, and report it for tax purposes as normal depreciation.

Crazy as it sounds, the long-term plan of industrial civilization is simply to have a good short-term plan.

Corporations are all about the current fiscal year, just as democratic governments are all about the next election cycle. Sensible goals (relatively speaking) may be discussed and agreed to in forums like the Paris Climate Accords. But that all presumes a world working toward a common goal. When the negotiators get back home, however, they’re in a competitive race again. It’s nation against nation, corporation against corporation — the “real world” of year-end reports and election cycles, where those “sensible goals” they agreed to in principle are put off until next year. And “tomorrow,” as the song says, “never comes.”

Such are the economic realities that prompted the International Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) to project that by 2050, the world will face between 50 million and 700 million food refugees — a polite term for starving people, coming soon to a country near you. IPBES says the most likely number is between 200 and 300 million. At any rate, it will make Europe’s current crisis of African and Asian refugees (along with Latin American migrants fleeing to the United States) look like a picnic in the park, and today’s regional crisis will become tomorrow’s global disaster. Such is the future of corporate capitalism, where the rich plunder the resources of the poor, create a baby boom for cheap labor, and then — when there is no longer any profit in it — abandon both the people and the land.

The destruction can no longer be confined to the developing world.

This time the migrants will follow us home. Indirectly, their barren land will follow us, too — in the form of climate change, sea level rise, and the other unintended consequences of globalization, in what promises to be capitalism’s last century. There is simply nowhere left to run. As Chris Hedges describes it,

“It’s all Easter Island now.”

Returning to the education factor, population experts have long recognized the link between female education and employment opportunities on the one hand, and population stability on the other. Indeed, wherever women and girls have access to higher education, equal job opportunities, and the right to say “no” to having babies, population either stabilizes or decreases slightly.

For proof, one need only look to South Korea, where this otherwise positive formula is creating an economic problem of its own. Women there have achieved relative parity, in both education and employment.  But with patriarchy persisting in the home, fewer than half of South Korean women now choose to marry, and the population is plunging.

In places like Senegal, on the other hand, “women’s liberation” is a largely meaningless phrase.

Only 63% of girls there so much as finish primary school, and less than half make it to high school. After all, what do corporate exploiters need with educated masses in the developing world? How could the plunder continue, if the plundered were taught why they’re being plundered, where their resources go, who reaps the profits, and what the developing world is getting in return?

Such are the hard truths behind industrial civilization. Insane as it sounds, increased population and planetary destruction are the inevitable consequences of “progress,” when sustainability and common sense argue for reducing population, minimizing technology and energy needs, replanting forests, and restoring the land. Corporate executives, of course, denounce such sustainable ethics as wild-eyed, radical nonsense. To their thinking, perpetual growth is the only way to avoid economic stagnation and collapse.

Super-techies like Elon Musk of SpaceX and Google’s Larry Page ignore the math, arguing that we can mine the asteroids, colonize Mars, feed a growing population with hydroponic agriculture, and produce endless clean energy and green jobs. (Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich went so far as to suggest human colonies on the moon. Gingrich apparently wasn’t aware that the moon has a monthly temperature swing of 540° Farenheit, due to its two-week-long days and nights, and total lack of an atmosphere. Mars, meanwhile, has a highly toxic atmosphere, and an average temperature of -67°. Minor details.)

Technological fantasies aside, these so-called leaders leave one question unanswered:

In what school of economics is it taught that when you knowingly and systematically destroy your home planet, you get another one to plunder for free? What part of “there is no Planet B” did they not understand?


Featured image: Al Jazeera

2 thoughts on “Corporate Colonialism and Africa’s Date with Disaster”

  1. Anyone who cares about Africa MUST oppose the so-called “New Deal For Nature” and the green colonialism disguised as “conservation”. The proposal to turn 30% of the planet into a “protected area” is a trap: the real goal is to push tribal peoples off their lands and force them to the so-called “smart cities”, to live unsustainable urban lives surveilled 24/7 and totally dependent on global technofascism.

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