lunes, julio 11, 2005

In the wake of the Live 8 hype: some critical remarks and questions

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety,
July 11 2005

In the midst of all the hype and hoopla generated by the Live 8 concert earlier this month I believe it is necessary to make some critical questions and remarks. The event's organizer, Irish musician Bob Geldof (You might remember him from the film version of "The Wall"), has received in recent days more attention from the media than all other individuals and institutions dedicated to fighting hunger in Africa and elsewhere. A less informed observer would be led to believe that Geldof is the only person in the whole world that has made a prolonged effort to eradicate African famine. I believe it is necessary for civil society organizations that have addressed the problem of world hunger AND ITS CAUSES, especially in Africa, should send Geldof an open letter to question him on specific matters.

A little historical background is in order. In 1984 Geldof took the initiative of doing something about the tragedy in Africa and assembled some of the most renowned personalities in the pop music scene to form an ad hoc band called Band Aid, whose song "Do They Know It's Christmas" was used to raise funds. The Irish musician deserves credit for his commitment to using rock music to further a cause other than making a profit. But he is not the first or only rock'n roller to follow his ideals. In the last decades we've seen many pop and folk musicians that have taken up public positions that were much more controversial and less popular, and in exchange received much less praise than Geldof, and lots of repudiation and abuse from reactionary sectors. Chilean folk singer Victor Jara comes to mind, but there are many more.

Fame breeds imitation, and Band Aid was no different. Initiatives along similar lines followed in later months and years, like USA For Africa (Responsible for the insufferable "We Are The World"), Farm Aid, Comic Relief, Northern Lights, and the London-Philadelphia Live Aid concert organized by Geldof in 1985. But the world view espoused by the Band Aid-USA For Africa bandwagon was totally ignorant. Never did they make an effort to identify the causes of hunger. Looking at the propaganda they deployed one would have imagined that people starve in Africa for no particular reason. On occasions the tragedy was attributed to droughts and other natural disasters, a convenient pseudo-explanation that leaves us asking ourselves if these disasters are actually worse in Africa than elsewhere.

Twenty years later, Geldof is a much more illustrated man. The Live 8 Concert did undertake to identify and address the causes of hunger and included an inequivocal all to the G8 leaders to do something about it. Specifically, the event's organizers demand debt cancellation and fair trade.

DEBT CANCELLATION. It is simply inmoral to talk about how to pull the poor countries of the global South out of their poverty without demanding the cancellation of the inmoral and odious external debt. But according to some press reports, Geldof supports debt cancellation on the condition that heavily indebted African countries accept the the recipe of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), neoliberal economics and the opening of markets to "free trade". If that is the case, one slavery is being exchanged for another. How does Geldof justify this? He must publicly clarify his position.

How is it possible that Live 8's organizers seek debt cancellation but without mentioning names? Debt does not simply appear out of nowherre. The institutions most responsible for the strangling and unpayable Third World debt have names and addresses: the World Bank and IMF, both headquartered in Washington DC, also known as the Bretton Woods institutions. Just over a decade ago, activists from all over the world united to form the 50 Years is Enough coalition to use the occasion of the Bretton Woods institutions' 50th anniversary to tell the world that their policies and bad loans have been an unmitigated disaster for the countries of the South, especially their poorest sectors. Did Geldof join the coalition? Did he ever make a critical statement about the World Bank and IMF? Did he attend a single one of the many protest marches against them in the last 10 to 15 years?

FAIR TRADE Geldof and company call for fair trade for Africa. But they should clarify exactly what they mean by that. It is true that the rich countries' combination of protectionism and subsidized exports (dumping) has dealt a mortal blow to the economy and food security of Africa and all the South. But the opening of the markets of the rich Northern countries to Southern exports will not necessarily change North-South relations in any essential way. Worse yet, it could reinforce the South's role as supplier of cheap raw materials.

But dumping is a whole different matter. The dumping of the vast agricultural surpluses of the European Union and the USA has been a real massacre to Southern agriculture, especially small farmers, who are the backbone of rural communities and the most promising sector for ecological production and food sovereignty.

Geldof and company should clarify their position on this macabre trade practice. And I hope they do not respond by saying that they oppose all agricultural subsidies, in both North and South. Because it is truly barbaric to pretend that both are equivalent, and because it is totally simplistic to claim that all farm subsidies are bad.

And while we are on the subject of food exports, I wonder if Geldof has ever said anything about how food aid is used as a weapon of coercion against poor countries, how it has often destroyed local food production, how it usually is no more than thinly disguised dumping, and how the United States is using it to find captive markets of last resort for genetically engineered (GE) grain that nobody wants.

What does Geldof think of GE foods? No doubt, having such a deep concern for starving Africans and being a philanthropist of such high media profile, he must have heard the siren song of biotech corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta. How on earth could he not have an opinion about a subject that is so controversial and so closely related to food security? Has he ever sat down with people like Tewolde Egziabher, who represents Ethiopia in matters of biodiversity and biosafety, or with any of the many African farmers and grassroots organizations that are unequivocally opposed to GE crops?

It is not possible to talk about GE foods and world hunger without talking about the agricultural model of the Green Revolution, name given to the globalized model of pesticide-intensive industrial agriculture promoted by the US government, the World Bank and pesticide corporations, among other powerful interests. In all grassroots fora where the problem of hunger has been tackled from a political and ecological perspective, the Green Revolution has been roundly condemned for being inherently antiecological and socially regressive. So, what does Geldof think about it?

One cannot discuss the hazards of GE crops and the evils of industrial agriculture without entering the subject of intellectual property rights. If Geldof is such an illustrated man, he must have learned that millions of Africans die unnecessarily because of HIV, because they have no access to medications that can save their lives. He must know that when the South African government went on to manufacture generic versions of these life-saving medicines the transnational pharmaceutical corporations sued, arguing that they own the patents for them and that Africans must pay the market price for those drugs even if they die as a result. The pharmaceutical lobby may claim that it is negotiating favorable deals with African nations, but the issue is far from settled, as the corporations insist on retaining intellectual property rights to those medications. Has Geldof ever said anything about this?

What about seed patents, an important matter with very obvious and serious implications for world food security?

And regarding positive proposals, Was anything said in Live 8 about the concept of food sovereignty? What about agrarian reform?

Let me leave it at this. It's just that I get irritated when initiatives like Live 8 distract attention from the much more serious and substantial efforts of individuals and organizations that do fight world hunger, who dare call things by their name, who do not aspire to become publicity-seeking media celebrities (like another Irishman, the ridiculous Bono), and who do not fear to tackle unpleasant and controversial subject matter. In a single week, Geldof and Live 8 have gotten more fame and publicity than much more worthy and deserving institutions like Via Campesina and the World Social Forum. This is why I believe it would be very timely for critical NGO's and grassroots movements- especially in Africa- to write an open letter to Geldof and company asking them to clarify their positions on these matters.

I end this message with the wise words of agronomist Jorge E Rulli of Argentina's Grupo de Reflexión Rural:

"We don't want to be helped. Just get your hands off, and that will be sufficient."


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