Thursday, June 28, 2012

Land Grab in Africa…Princess Grab in America

There really is no obvious connection between the two elements in my title, but both are on my mind so we’ll see if they come together.

Africa first. The continent whence we all came (and not that long ago; most archeologists now think it was a mere 50,000 years), Mommy Africa, has been the object of colonial exploitation for centuries, so you’d think that in this “post-colonial era” our continent of origin might be given a break. Not a chance. Now that the slave catchers and British plantation owners and apartheiders have been given the boot, the exploiters simply line up for the next, slightly more subtle phase: getting title to the farmland. The facilitators are the post-colonial governments, all desperately in need of cash and development. The victims are, as usual, the poor farmers trying to eke out a living on small plots they’ve always depended on for subsistence. The villains are big multinational corporations seeking to cash in on what they see as the next big profit-generator: food in a world moving towards mass starvation. So the smart money is going towards the buying up or long-term leasing of farmland in areas already half starving themselves—sub-Saharan Africa, in countries like Sierra Leone and Ethiopia. That it will put small farmers and their families out of business, push millions more of these victims into large cities or refugee camps where they will be unable to work or feed themselves and provide the next images of babies with swollen stomachs and flies feeding on their eyes—this doesn’t seem to bother or deter these captains of finance. Their only goal is to find the next big cash cow, and food-growing is apparently where they think it’s at.

The Oakland Institute ( is at the forefront of trying to draw attention to the developing bonanza (or catastrophe, depending on which view you take). Its website features several articles drawing attention to what it calls the “growing global concern about the race for prime farmland in the world’s poorest countries.” The article “Sierra Leone: Local Resistance Grows as Investors Snap up Land,” Guardian, April 11, 2012, for example, points out that between 2000 and 2010, the rush for land had claimed upwards of 200 million hectares of land, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, including 17% of Sierra Leone’s arable land. Another article reporting on a conference sponsored by the Oakland Institute itself, filled in what kinds of commodities the new industrial plantations grow for export: sugarcane for ethanol, crude oil palm, rubber, and large-scale rice production. Speakers at the conference decried these developments, pointing out that just as small farm holdings (they employ about 3.5 million people—roughly 2/3 of the population) were beginning to come back after Sierra Leone’s long civil war, their recovery is being threatened by the land grab. As one farmer, who has lost her cropland to the Swiss investor, Addax Bioenergy, lamented:

“How are we going to get food security if you give all the upland land to the investors? We beg you to listen to us….We are suffering because we have nowhere to go. You come out from war, build a house and now when you speak out, they lock you up.”

A landowner and member of parliament, Sheka Musa Sam, referred to the recent lease of 6,500 hectares of land in his district by Socfin Agricultural Company:

“There is no way we can just sit down for 50 years without getting a living. We need to come together and form a united front. We can’t let them make us slaves on our own land. This evil thing will make the poor people even poorer.”

What Musa Sam and others referred to were the endless problems caused by the land deals:

"the overwhelming negative impacts on women who lose their livelihoods and food production; the effect on children’s education who have to drop out of school because their mothers can no longer pay their school fees; increased hunger, rising food prices and despoiled water supplies; the devastating environmental effects of the investors’ operations; and also concerns about the way the industrial plantations shred the social fabric of rural communities, causing marriage breakdowns, unwanted teenage pregnancies, increased incidence of sexually transmitted diseases, and even the loss of self-esteem when one loses one’s self-employment."

In short, what is being reproduced in Africa are all the ills of industrial farming and industrial development we have seen globally.

The Oakland Institute recently wrote a letter to President Obama urging him to discuss the issues of the land-grab in a May 19 meeting he had with Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Whether the letter did any good is anyone’s guess, but we can imagine that concern for African farmers was not nearly as high on the U.S. priority list as keeping Ethiopia from becoming a ‘safe haven’ for terrorists. What was probably also high on that list was making Africa equally ‘safe’ for genetically-engineered seed from the likes of Monsanto. For although this President has direct roots in Africa, he can never forget what another president (the great Calvin Coolidge) once memorably said:

..the chief business of the American people is business.

Which forms a nice segue into the second topic at hand: the business of Princess making. This is the preoccupation of Berkeley writer Peggy Orenstein—who calls it the Princess Industrial Complex. Her recent book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter, suggests the idea. What Orenstein, herself the mother of a young girl, has found over several years is that American girls are everywhere bombarded with a self-image that seems cute and harmless on the surface, but in reality masks its own kind of grab: a grab for the minds of children and the dollars of parents so eager to indulge their daughters in the fantasy that they are innocent royals, as to be blind to the gross commercialism in which they are partaking and to the underlying dynamics of this fantasy. In a recent article on the subject, “Dodging Disney in the Delivery Room,” (NPR, Feb. 9, 2011) Orenstein quotes from a NY Times report that

“Disney has begun sending sales reps into 580 hospitals nationwide. The reps are offering new moms, within hours of giving birth, a free Disney Cuddly Bodysuit for their babies if they sign up for e-mail alerts from The idea is to encourage mothers to infuse their infants with brand loyalty as if it is mother's milk.”

Yes. You read that right: now, not even the delivery room is safe from the predatory sales pitches of corporate America. This sales “push” is meant to do two things: first, to duplicate the success among preschool girls of the Disney Princess line, hyped up in 2000 to earn a staggering $4 billion annually from a product line numbering no less than 26,000 items! And second, to rectify what Disney execs noticed as a gap in their sales: little girls were not becoming consumers until preschool, “resulting in a good three years of potential revenue loss.” If Disney could get expectant mothers thinking about Disney outfits in the delivery room or earlier, it would be, according to one Disney exec, a “home run.” No wonder. The Advertising Educational Foundation sees 1-year-old infants as an “informed, influential and compelling audience,” able at 12 months to recognize brands and be “strongly influenced” by advertising! Orenstein rightly counters this, pointing out that “studies show that children under 8 years old can’t distinguish between ads and entertainment. Until then, they don’t fully comprehend that advertising is trying to sell them something…” But tell that to the predatory bastards in the executive suites and the ad agencies.

Orenstein has a lot more to say about the perils of the Princess Industrial Complex, specifically that beneath the cute pink that is pushed upon girls everywhere, even in supermarkets, there is a cultural demand: you are what you look like, what people who look at you think of you. Therefore, what you look like as a girl, as a princess in cute pink dresses, and later as a teen and woman obsessed with appearance, should be your constant, your sole preoccupation in life. Nevermind your ability to run and jump, nevermind your ability to read or calculate or think, nevermind your ability to carve out your own, decent path in life. You are, you better be, a clean, pretty and pink object, period. Orenstein also points out what is less obvious: that beneath this preoccupation with pink innocence lies a parental fear of their daughters growing up, of adulthood, of adult sexuality. It’s of course a mixed message because on the one hand, girls are being schooled to think of themselves as pretty and desirable, but on the other are being schooled in maintaining an impossible innocence. The same dual appeal, of course, lies at the heart of the Disney world in general: a mania to represent historical eras, but stripped of all threat and dirt and reality, rendered innocent and clean as they may exist in fantasy, but never in reality. And the rubes just love it.

What can never be forgotten, though, is the main objective here: making money off innocence or the promise of innocence, making a profit from the impulse to escape reality and dwell in the land of Cinderella (her wicked stepmother and sisters cleansed of the reality of the original fairy tale) and the handsome prince who will come to rescue her.

Think about it next time you are tempted to buy a princess-themed present for the delightful little girl in your life. And about how perhaps, just perhaps, the African land grab and the American princess grab are cut from the same cloth after all.

Lawrence DiStasi

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Quiet Wars

The New York Times has been doing a bang-up job on President Obama these days, the latest being David Sanger’s June 1 article, “Obama Order Sped up Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran.” This follows an earlier piece in the May 29 Times describing the President’s hands-on approach to Drone attacks, noting in particular that Obama early on took direct control of that targeted assassination program started by W, insisting that he (Obama) have the last word in selecting who should die via drone (“Obama’s Secret Kill List” by Jo Becker & Scott Shane). What is not clear is whether the Obama administration is approving these pieces, on the theory that the publicity confers ‘street cred’ on the mild-mannered compromiser, demonstrating that under that mild exterior lies a fierce warrior implementing all kinds of mayhem on America’s terrorist enemies. Forget secret prisons. Forget torture and all the attendant messy publicity. With drones—and Obama has increased the use of drones by a huge percentage since taking office, especially in Pakistan and now in Yemen—the President can just pick out a face from those presented to him, approve it as a target, and the drones do the rest—focusing on the alleged terrorist and dropping a missile on his home, car, hideout, or wherever he can be located. No risk of American boys being shot down or exposed. No tearful widows of fallen soldiers to console. As to collateral damage, an even bigger No problema. Wives and children obliterated by missile are fair game; as for the others, the CIA has solved the problem by simply declaring that any male over age 14 killed in a drone attack can be considered a terrorist. After all, what other kind of male would be in the vicinity of a known terrorist?

It’s a lovely little formula. We send out our drones to attack specified targets already selected by (presumably) on-the-ground spies, and in a puff of smoke away goes one more of our alleged enemies. It’s the perfect type of warfare for our squeamish age. No flag-draped, tearful coffins on our side, no broken brains or limbs to have to deal with for years, and no messy trials where terrorists might be able to justify themselves. Just take them out from the sky via smart un-manned vehicles and you’re done. It’s the Israelis who perfected this targeted assassination mode, of course, and who no doubt sold it to their BFFs, Us. Same type of enemy suspects. Same solution: kill and ask questions later. No evidence needed.

Now we are finding out that this type of cyber warfare (and drones qualify as cyber warfare, no question about that, being operated by young cyber warriors directing them via computer keyboards in distant places like upstate New York or Colorado) has another strand. We had heard about the Stuxnet virus when it suddenly went public some time in 2010. It wasn’t supposed to go public of course. It was created by US and Israeli intelligence starting in 2006, code name Olympic Games (these guys have a sense of humor, no doubt about it) in the hopes that the Bush Administration could sabotage Iran’s nuclear enrichment program by getting a super-bug into the computers that run their Natanz centrifuges. Apparently, when Bush left office, he urged Obama to keep at least two of his programs going, this being one of them. Obama did so, and put it on steroids. Stuxnet was then said to have successfully caused hundreds of Iran’s centrifuges to self-destruct, before it somehow slipped out of Natanz and onto the internet. Oops. More recently, we have learned of yet another, more general cyber attack via computer virus, this one called Flame. It too has gone public, causing some consternation, since like all viruses, these things spread beyond what their creators might originally have intended. But the main emotion has been gloating, since once again, our super-smart American techies, along with their fiendishly smart Israeli counterparts, have been able to sabotage those dumb A-rabs, and wreak havoc on their primitive cyber systems. We, the public, are no doubt meant to feel comforted by this. After all, while the messy hot wars are being wound down, these clean, clever little cyber wars have been ramping up with all possible speed to keep us safe in consumer heaven.

The problem, as even David Sanger has admitted, is that little old blowback problem. Because if our techies can come up with computer viruses (and eager beavers in government are now urging the same kinds of attacks on North Korea, on China, and anywhere else we have ‘enemies’), won’t those in the Arab, Korean, and Chinese world soon be able to do the same? And if we have taken off the gloves by attacking another nation’s key facilities, won’t American cyber facilities—far more numerous and perhaps far more vulnerable—also become targets sooner rather than later? Do ya think? Here’s how Sanger puts it:

Mr. Obama has repeatedly told his aides that there are risks to using — and particularly to overusing — the weapon. In fact, no country’s infrastructure is more dependent on computer systems, and thus more vulnerable to attack, than that of the United States. It is only a matter of time, most experts believe, before it becomes the target of the same kind of weapon that the Americans have used, secretly, against Iran.

Well, yeah. And if the United States has now gone totally drone in targeting and killing its putative enemies in Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia and god knows where else, isn’t the same thing going to come back to the United States? Because one thing is certain: once a technology is developed, it quickly becomes part of the arsenal of all states, not just those who invent it. We’ve been learning this lesson since at least the invention of gunpowder. Drones and cyberwarfare will be no different. And with respect to drones, we also now know that these weapons from hell are already coming back to haunt us. For one thing, they simply make war much easier, and for the reasons already stated: no messy foot soldiers to deal with, no deaths in combat to have to apologize for, no nasty wounds to have to take care of. The drone does it all from its invulnerable position in the sky. If it gets shot down, no problem. Just buy another one. And send it out to kill its target, rain or shine, rough terrain or smooth, impregnable enemy fortress or open battlefield. The traditional petty concerns of normal warfare—much less petty concerns about guilt or innocence—no longer apply. Just kill the “bad guys” (and there’s never a shortage of those) and be done with it. For another, these drone things have been selling like hot cakes domestically as well. That’s right. Police departments all over America—New York and L.A. and Chicago already have a supply—are now lining up to stockpile their own drones for use against domestic ‘lawbreakers.’ Because drones make great spies—able to aim their cameras into any walled-in yard or junkyard or forest, able to track bad guys into the most remote hideouts. And in a pinch, they make great assassins too: just send them up to kill whoever has shot first. The drone could probably even document its reasons for implementing a kill: take a video, for example, of some dark assailant who resisted it, and then, voila, it simply had to retaliate to ‘protect’ itself.

You get the picture. We’re all in the cyber pot, now. And why not. We’ve gotten used to helicopters patrolling our skies. Why not drones? You got something to hide? Something on your computer to hide from Flame? Some conversation on your cell phone or words in your email you’d rather not reveal to Big Brother?

And it’s all coming from our Brother in the White House. What could be bad?

Lawrence DiStasi