Friday, April 2, 2010

Colonialism Still Exists

The following is an article that I have been thinking about since November but only put to paper at the nudging of a friend and co-worker. It has just been published in the online JoiningHands newsletter. It's about my perspective of the forces behind and impact of globalization on a small corner of this planet. Happy reading and PEACE!

On university campuses and in café’s the world over one can easily stumble upon powerfully prose-filled readings and passionate discussions about the exploitation and manipulation of “third world” peoples scattered across the equatorial regions of our planet. Many can rattle on for hours spitting out words, phrases and acronyms such as MNC’s, the IMF, Neo-Colonialism, Core and Dependency Theory and other combinations of letters and sounds that have no meaning to the common layman. As a student of Post-World War II Globalization I know about these conversations because I lived them. For four years I dedicated my university studies to what I believe is the most complex and mystifying human process on this planet; globalization. But years of preparation meant nothing as I stood face to face with the plantations of PHP and the people of Njombé.

“Colonialism still exists.” These are the words that rung in my head as I took my first motorcycle ride on the finely trimmed dirt road through the PHP plantation and out to Pierre Youpa’s field. Pierre, like so many other of Njombé’s small scale farmers, has been forced to stand by and watch as their life’s work was literally ripped up from the ground.

Njombé, a town of 22,000 with a greater metro population of 40 000 (when counting the total Njombé/Penja area) is situated 60 km from Cameroon’s major city Douala. As one of the richest agricultural regions in all of West Africa, Njombe is low-land area with a hot and humid climate blessed (and as we will read, cursed) with the presence of rich soil that has been enhanced by the volcanic ash from nearby volcanoes. It’s prowess as an agricultural paradise has attracted international attention in the form of a monstrosity of a fruit plantation that stretches from main street Njombé to deep into the rural countryside.

This plantation, controlled by PHP (Plantations de Haute Penja), a subsidiary of French Compagnie Fruitière and American Dole, settled into the area in the 1970’s and has continuously expanded from that point on. As it expands it displaces the small-scale farmers who are no competition for this juggernaut of a plantation. The displaced farmers are then faced with a loss of livelihood, given inadequate (if any) compensations and forced to either turn in their hoe and machete or relocate to another piece of land.

Hearing about this situation in 2003, RELUFA began working with the farmers to forge a new path ahead. Through the utilization of a multi-pronged holistic approach, RELUFA’s Fair Fruit project does not work to reverse the overarching situation but rather to empower those most affected to circumnavigate the dire situation and turn their lives in a positive direction.

In November when I first travelled to Njombé I was a newcomer to Cameroon. I was coming fresh from an organic farm in South-Western Minnesota and knew nothing about Cameroonian culture and could hardly say two sentences in French. A friend who knew that I was interested in agriculture and development forwarded me the contact of Christi Boyd, who is involved with RELUFA’s Fair Fruit project. This was the birth of something special. From there the contact was made and plans to visit the fields were settled. As I had no official business my first trip was mostly as an observer.

What I saw however, was the perfect storm of globalization. An international demand for tropical fruit consumption has served as the impulse for a multi-national corporation, with tentacles stretching the span of the tropics, to establish its roots in this fertile region. In turn, the plantation has displaced the small-scale farmers who tilled the soil for generations, and has disturbed the socio-economic political balance of an entire population. The total stranglehold that PHP places on Njombé is a clear demonstration that the perceived progress that our global community has made towards justice falls well short of even a semblance of universal well-being.

Coming most recently from rural South-Western Minnesota, aka the Land of the Corn and Soybeans, I am well accustomed to giant mono-crop plantations but the PHP plantation makes the most massive of Middle America’s corn and soybean farms look like Grandma’s back garden. No joke. This plantation stretches in totality across 45 km2. Now, take a second to picture what 45 square kilometers looks like. That is 3/4's the size of Manhattan. (Whoa!)
The orderly rows of banana and pineapple fields that stretch well beyond the horizon reach around the town of Njombé on all sides and deep into surrounding countryside enveloping the region into a suffocating embrace. Along with the sheer physical space that PHP occupies - which I am truly at a loss to describe - it’s overarching presence is felt in other domains. PHP directly employs about 6,000 people in a variety of positions but you would be truly hard pressed to find a single person not indirectly employed and affected by the plantation.

Since my initial trip 4 months ago, RELUFA has recruited me as an Agricultural Volunteer to work on an irrigation project and sent me on two more trips. On each subsequent visit my previous experiences along with an increased French capacity has enabled my insight to penetrate deeper into the culture of Njombé to see how it has been and continues to be affected by the PHP plantation. On my initial trip I was able to decipher the basics of the situation but on my second and third trips I was able to converse with people about their lives and listen to their perspectives. After talking with townspeople in all walks of life I began to understand the general perspective of the people: “The plantation is crushing us.”

During the most recent trip I had the blessing and the painful experience to listen to Salomon, a Njombé farmer, recount his story. You can read Christi's recount of the story in her letter so I will not go into the details but on a personal level it was deeply moving. Hearing these and other accounts from those actually affected gives globalization a face that no textbook or documentary ever can.

The tactics which are being used in Njombé today are the same tactics that have been played out over centuries all over the colonial world. A classic colonial tactic implemented the world over saw colonial powers remove the livelihood of a given population and replace it with one that is beneficial to the ruling authority. In an agricultural community farming is the source of livelihood and the foundation of the economy. Those who do not directly farm themselves are responsible for making and selling the agricultural materials, buying and selling the final product, trading and transporting the produce to other localities, etc, etc.

By removing small farmers PHP is successfully ripping out the heart of the town. As it systematically destroys the livelihoods of the people of Njombé it superimposes a new economy and forces the population to work directly or indirectly for the plantation in order to earn a living to feed themselves and their families.

More than simply currency, by removing small farmers from their land one of the richest agricultural regions in all of West Africa becomes dependent on foreign imports. (Those of you who have followed the post-quake situation in Haiti understand the fickle balance that occurs when a region becomes dependent on foreign food imports.) Although the tactic is the same, the old label of colonialism has been removed and repackaged into the more consumer friendly wrapper of international business.

How many of us actually know what globalization really means? Are we aware of the global implications of the seemingly insignificant consumer choices that we make on a daily basis? I personally believe that not even the anarchist apparatus that directs our global economy is aware of the impact it has on the individual and community level. Those who are truly aware are those far away from the discussions, the lectures and the scholarly articles.

In fact, the ones who know it best are those who have never spent a minute in a university lecture hall and do not even have the money to purchase the journals containing the letters, words and terms that casually paint the pictures of the very lives that they are leading. Like all of us, they have little understanding of the overarching global trends that have pushed them off of their land. What they do know, more instinctively and concretely than any published academic the world over, is that their lives are being systematically crushed by a giant fruit plantation that is much more powerful than they could ever imagine. These are the very people that RELUFA’s Fair Trade project is working with to alleviate some of the ills caused by globalization and channel them into positive and prosperous business opportunities.

While we at RELUFA work in this hemisphere, it is my hope that these experiences and observations may instill a seed of knowledge that will germinate in due time to enable the average consumer, wherever he or she resides, to decipher the hidden history behind their supermarket produce and see well beyond the pennies and Euros to make a holistic decision about the global implications of a simple purchase of bananas.

Read the article straight from the source, see some snazzy photos and read other articles from RELUFA in Cameroon check out

Peace out!