Monday, November 23, 2009

The Final Frontier


Andrew Rice reports that Saudi Arabia is buying up African croplands. Amazingly, the headline asks whether there is "such a thing as agro-imperialism."

It's a strange question, given that most of the classic narratives of imperialism revolve around agriculture (e.g., tea, opium, rubber, bananas, palm oil). You wouldn't think it'd be necessary to invent a new, fashionably hyphenated name for the economic imperative that gave us the term "banana republic"...unless the goal is simply to treat established facts as controversial theories, so that business as usual can proceed while we quibble over terminology.

Maybe the confusion stems from the fact that in today's fully enlightened world, growing your country's food on a poorer country's land creates jobs and opportunities. This is a far cry from the imperialism of the bad old days, which was explicitly undertaken in the name of Radical Evil and had no use for humanitarian platitudes. In the 1800s, plantation owners paid their laborers starvation wages as an expression of racialist contempt. Nowadays, they do it out of love.

Or failing that, necessity.

A variety of factors — some transitory, like the spike in food prices, and others intractable, like global population growth and water scarcity — have created a market for farmland, as rich but resource-deprived nations in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere seek to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant. Because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent, according to one estimate, if you take out forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa.
I'm not sure how you distinguish "fragile ecosystems" from the other kind. Maybe they don't withstand conversion to industrial monoculture? Or maybe the distinction has less to do with biology than with the power and visibility of a given ecosystem's human defenders. By that measure, California's remaining wetlands are probably a lot more "fragile" than most of Africa.

Either way, Ethiopia is one of the countries that may or may not be falling prey to agro-imperialism.
“We are associated with hunger, although we have enormous investment opportunities,” explained Abi Woldemeskel, director general of the Ethiopian Investment Agency.
As you can see, Abu Woldemeskel has a firm grasp of history. And that goes double for Robert Zeigler of the International Rice Research Institute:
“The idea that one country would go to another country,” says Robert Zeigler, “and lease some land, and expect that the rice produced there would be made available to them if there’s a food crisis in that host country, is ludicrous.”
I'll say. I can't come up with a single example of a country that exported food crops while its people died of starvation, and I've been trying for several seconds. The scenario is even more ludicrous given that we're talking about Saudi Arabia, which has very little clout in international affairs and tends to buckle under the mildest criticism.

But if you want a really clear-eyed view of history, you must consult Susan Payne of Emergent Asset Management.
“Africa is the final frontier,” Payne told me after the conference. “It’s the one continent that remains relatively unexploited.”
Roll over King Leopold, and tell Cecil Rhodes the news! Perhaps it's time for a new Berlin Conference.

Joking aside, there's an awful lot of money at stake here, so it's just as well that global warming turned out to be a hoax.

11 comments:

Festoonic said...

Humans just plain suck.

Anonymous said...

Didn't you know? It's only Imperialism if the colonisers are White.

Phila said...

Didn't you know? It's only Imperialism if the colonisers are White.

There's no such thing as Japanese imperialism, then?

Fascinating.

Anonymous said...

There's no such thing as Japanese imperialism, then?

Fascinating.

Not a fan of irony then, Phila?

Phila said...

Not a fan of irony then, Phila?

Depends. When it's funny, or makes a valid point, I like it quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me, but the point is quite valid. I am looking forward to a day when the Chinese and Indians, in their quest to become economic superpowers, end up doing exactly what the Europeans did before them, if only to put to rest the ridiculous but widespread notion that only White people can be Imperialists, second only in stupidity to the notion that Black people cannot be racist.
That was the point I was trying to make. I'm sorry that I didn't make it clearly enough for you to understand.

Phila said...

That was the point I was trying to make. I'm sorry that I didn't make it clearly enough for you to understand.

You made your point clearly enough. It's just that it's inaccurate, as I pointed out.

And it's also irrelevant both to the article and my post, neither of which advances the theory that "it's only Imperialism if the colonisers are White."

Which is why this "conversation" is now over.

michael said...

I wrote 15 years ago that there would be a large amount of Chinese investment in Africa to cater to the coming numbers of middle class Chinese needing a
vacation destination. This financial invasion is the first stage of this program. Watch shows is almost never the full extent of the action.

Phila said...

It's just that it's inaccurate, as I pointed out.

Inaccurate, I should add, in the sense that it's not really controversial to talk about, say, Japanese or even Chinese imperialism.

I don't know anyone who thinks imperialism is "white" in some inherent, pseudoscientific genetic sense.

nacken3 said...

During the Great Famine in Ireland during the 1840s, the English landlords exported corn to England at at good profit while the Irish were starving. That was an easy example from history and didn't happen too long ago relatively speaking.

I'm not quite sure what your point is in this article. It seems to say that it is alright to have agro imperialism because the USA does it, therefore it must be right. All empires are inherently evil, the USA is an empire, therefore the USA is evil-- at the very least it isn't a paragon of virtue .

Phila said...

During the Great Famine in Ireland during the 1840s, the English landlords exported corn to England at at good profit while the Irish were starving. That was an easy example from history and didn't happen too long ago relatively speaking.

Notice how I said, "and I've been trying for several seconds"? That's a clue that I was being sarcastic.

It seems to say that it is alright to have agro imperialism because the USA does it, therefore it must be right.

Wow. That's an astoundingly weird misreading of this post.

For the record, I do not think that because the USA does something, "it must be right." In fact, pretty much the only reason this blog exists is to argue otherwise.

Don't know what else to say. I'm speechless, really.