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The Global African: Land Grabs in Ethiopia & The Legacy of Belgian Colonization

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TeleSUR’s The Global African looks at land theft in Ethiopia & the connection between Belgian colonization and HIV in the Congo.

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BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about the legacy of Belgian colonization in the Congo and a recent report on land grabs in Ethiopia.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us again. And don’t go anywhere.

~~~

FLETCHER: According to a new report from the Oakland Institute entitled We Say the Land Is Not Yours, the government of Ethiopia has been forcibly removing many Ethiopians from their native lands through a so-called village-ization program. The program, supposedly intended to modernize the East African nation, has sold off millions of hectares of land to foreign investors. These investors, often large-scale agriculture companies, are buying very valuable land at a cheap price. Instead of cultivating land and producing food for the people, most of the yields are being used to export to other nations.

After being forced off their land, natives are cut off from access to fertile land, health care, and educational opportunity, languishing in poverty.

The country’s villagization program has faced allegations in the past of torture, political coercion, imprisonment, rapes, and disappearances against those attempting to form resistance.

We’re joined now with our guest from the Oakland Institute in California, Anuradha Mittal, who is the executive director and founder of the institute, which aims to create opportunity for public participation and democratic debates on key issues worldwide. Under her leadership, the Institute has unveiled land investment deals in Africa and around the world.

Thank you very much for joining us on the program.

ANURADHA MITTAL, EXEC. DIR., OAKLAND INSTITUTE: Thanks for having me.

FLETCHER: So I just read this report that you issued concerning land theft in Ethiopia. And I had not seen anything about this in the mainstream media. And I was curious. Let’s start with how did you uncover this situation and what brought it to your attention.

MITTAL: Well, in the case of Ethiopia we at the Institute have been working since 2007, 2008, when we were contacted by the communities both within Ethiopia as well as people who are now in the diaspora, people who have been forced to live in exile, who have fled the country because of the political oppression. And what we started hearing about was that in the name of development, vast tracts of land are being cleared where ethnic groups, indigenous communities have been living as agropasturalists, or growing their food, or using the forest for their medicines, for their farms.

And with this displacement, you’re seeing large-scale plantations of cotton, of sugarcane coming into being in the name of development, that this will lead Ethiopia to the next century and make it a renaissance state.

So we were really concerned by the kind of displacement that is happening. The government plans to give away 7 million hectares of land, leading to the displacement of over 1.5 million people. And there’s no consultation, there is no free prior informed consent. The way communities are being moved is through forced displacement, and we were very concerned about it.

FLETCHER: When the Ethiopian regime that currently is in power took over in the ’90s, overthrowing Mengistu, their program seems to be completely antithetical to what we’re witnessing right now, where the regime seems to be serving the interests of global agricultural capitalists.

MITTAL: You’re right on, I mean, what had happened earlier, the so-called villagization, when people were forced off their lands and the so-called villages were supposed to be created where better social services would be provided. And that was challenged. But not today. It is the same pretext that is being used that better social services would be provided, better education opportunities would be provided to communities who are being moved. And so this is the whole rhetoric of development. But our research on the ground shows that the lands which have been cleared, actually then given away to foreign investors who are coming in from India, from Malaysia, from Turkey and just about everywhere, especially in areas such as Gambela or Lower Omo, and leading to forcible displacement of people.

The other shocking thing, Bill, that–I think it’s important to remember is that this kind of development, which leads to eviction of people against their choice from their homes and lands, is happening thanks to donor countries. It is happening because it has the blessings of financial institutions such as the World Bank.

FLETCHER: I’d like you to explain that a little bit more. Why–what are the, what’s the interest of the World Bank in all of this?

MITTAL: Well first of all, there is this belief that large-scale plantations, large-scale agriculture will lead to development and the benefits of which will somehow trickle down to those at the bottom. We have seen that trickle-down does not really ever happen.

Secondly, you have these loans that are being provided. When you look at Ethiopia, over 60 percent of its budget comes from outside. Some of the key donors are United States, United Kingdom, the World Bank.

And also we have another relationship. In the United States, Ethiopia is our closest ally in Africa. It is our ally in the war on terrorism. So we tend to turn a blind eye to the repression that is happening on the ground.

FLETCHER: Is there an ethnic side to what’s going on? That is, are there certain ethnic groups in Ethiopia that are disproportionately affected by this? Or is this pretty much across the board?

MITTAL: Well, this is happening across the board, and it’s happening to the ones who are in minority. So, for instance, in Lower Omo you have the Bodis, the Suris, the Mursis, the Nyangatoms, the Hamars who are being impacted. In case of Gambela, Anuaks are predominantly targeted. So it is a country which is ruled by a minority, the Highlanders, or the Tigrayans. And their control is being maintained through political and economic repression by displacing people from their lands, which makes their livelihoods even more difficult. And secondly, it helps to control the country politically and stay in power.

FLETCHER: There’s two questions here. One is: what is happening to the populations that are being displaced? In similar situations around the world, there’s a tendency for people to move into the urban centers. Is that what’s happening here? Are people leaving the country? And the second question is about resistance. What kind of resistance is building?

MITTAL: Well, both are great questions. I think Ethiopia is a little bit unique, because given the kind of political oppression you have, given there is no political space to be able to speak out as you hear from the testimonies presented in the report, which we basically felt we had to do because our fieldwork, when we have put out in reports, has been challenged by the Ethiopian government, and this time we could say it is not some Western NGO challenging the Ethiopian government, these are the voices of people within Ethiopia.

So it is a very, very dire situation.

In terms of resistance, again, when we look around the world, given we work around the world, we see resistance on the ground, but it is pretty appalling. In Ethiopia, again, because of the lack of civil society, lack of freedom of media, and the fact that you can be arrested, the fact that Ethiopian security forces are not just arresting people within Ethiopia, but taking away people from Kenya and South Sudan who might have challenged government’s policies, we are finding very little resistance on the ground.

The resistance is more of having the courage to storytell groups such as Human Rights Watch or tell groups like the Oakland Institute what the reality is on the ground. So the resistance is of people who refuse to give up and refuse to move from their lands. And in return they’re facing persecution, they’re facing arrest, intimidation, beatings. You know, the prisons of Ethiopia are full of people who have challenged government’s development strategy.

FLETCHER: Is there any sense of global support for the peoples that are facing these evictions? Or are they pretty much on their own?

MITTAL: Well, I think more and more of the world knows what is happening in Ethiopia. There are groups from International Rivers, Human Rights Watch, Oakland Institute, Survival International who have been supporting the communities on the ground who have been putting out information to inform and educate. For instance, the U.S. Congress just recently deferred–UK’s development agency stopped financing PBS, the program for basic services, which was linked to the villagization scheme of the Ethiopian government. So this pressure from outside is resulting in kind of taking away some of the resources from the Ethiopian government that is financing and is facilitating displacement of people.

But, of course, a lot of work remains to be done. Because of our research, it was exposed by Channel 4 in Sweden that H&M was sourcing its cotton from Lower Omo, these plantations which have come into being by displacing indigenous agropasturalists from Lower Omo. And because of the pressure, H&M had to announce that they would not source cotton from Lower Omo. So I think it is very important to keep spreading the word, to keep educating, and to keep exposing that development strategy which is based on a denial of human rights–and not just denial, but abuse of human rights cannot be a development strategy for any nation.

FLETCHER: Ms. Mittal, thank you very, very much.

MITTAL: Thank you. Pleasure to speak with you.

FLETCHER: Absolutely. I look forward to it in the future.

MITTAL: Same here. Take care. Bye-bye.

FLETCHER: Bye-bye, now.

And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment, so don’t go anywhere.

~~~

FLETCHER: One of the greatest holocausts of the 19th century, indeed of all time, was the murder of 10 million Congolese when the Congo, then known as the Congo Free State, was the personal property of King Leopold of Belgium–more than 10 million Congolese murdered in order to enrich this monarch of Europe.

The legacy of that holocaust lives with us today and is detailed in an excellent piece by Dr. Lawrence Brown. The impact of that holocaust and the colonization of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo resulted in conditions that were fertile for the development of what came to be known as HIV and AIDS. HIV-AIDS first surfaces in what is now Kinshasa, which was at that time, in the 1920s, Leopoldville, in 1920, and spread as a result of the practices that were carried out by the Belgians as they tore the country apart.

The Ghost of Leopold Still Haunts Us is the title of an essay written by our next guest, Dr. Lawrence Brown from Morgan State University, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management.

Dr. Brown, thank you for joining us again.

DR. LAWRENCE BROWN, ASST. PROF., DEPT. HEALTH POLICY AND MGMT, NSU: Absolutely. Pleasure to be here.

FLETCHER: Great. I was really struck by this article. It’s the connection that you make between Belgian colonialism and the development of AIDS. I had not seen anything like that before. And it was so different from the conspiracy theory pieces that people read, the utter denial that we see. What inspired you to write it?

BROWN: Absolutely. I really had been doing a lot of thinking and studying around colonization, how that impacted health of populations and how enslavement, how these historical traumas impact the health of populations. So when I ran across this article that basically found the authors conducting a genetic analysis of the virus itself and tracking it down, through this sort of forensic process, to Kinshasa in the 1920s, I was really fascinated, because I had been looking at the Democratic Republic of Congo and its history. And so when I ran across the article and I began to read it, I noticed the word Belgium really didn’t come up in the article at all. And I was familiar with Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, and the story of how King Leopold and his Force Publique, this military regiment, had brought such terror and devastation to the Congolese populations, killing up to 10 million of the Congolese people, that I was really fascinated by the sheer absence of the mention of Belgian colonization.

So that got my mind to thinking, and I decided I needed to write something to sort of understand, help people understand how the social determinants of health would have impacted the development and the ignition of HIV.

FLETCHER: And you’re describing the Congo Holocaust.

BROWN: Essentially, yes.

FLETCHER: I mean, more people were killed in what was then the Congo Free State, right?

BROWN: Right. It started out as the Congo Free State.

FLETCHER: ‘Cause it was the personal property of King Leopold.

BROWN: Absolutely. King Leopold II of Belgium.

FLETCHER: That’s right.

BROWN: He owned it for about 26 years.

FLETCHER: That’s right. More people were killed there than the Nazis killed in their Holocaust.

BROWN: Absolutely. It was terrible.

FLETCHER: Now, one of the things that I was struck by then is that there are those that have tried to dismiss the issue of HIV and AIDS as being related to a virus by simply saying that it’s because of poverty.

BROWN: Right.

FLETCHER: President Mbeki, the former president of South Africa, was one who was very much in that direction. But you’re making a very different argument.

BROWN: Absolutely. You know, the World Health Organization defines social determinants of health as the conditions in which we live, play, work, and pray. And so the social determinants of health help contribute to a disease’s spread, how it evolves, how it is able to infect and spread among human populations.

And so what happened in the Belgian Congo in the 1920s is that–this article says it started in 1920s in Kinshasa. So it gives us a starting point. So we know, for instance, that the CIA starts in 1947, so the CIA didn’t create this virus. We know that certain things–we can basically say we can rule out some of the conspiracies based on this analysis.

But what we do need to know and figure out is that in the ’20s it wasn’t called Kinshasa, it was called Leopoldville.

FLETCHER: That’s right.

BROWN: This was part of King Leopold’s domain and the Belgians’ domain by the 1920s. They had built an extensive railway system in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as we know it today, using free African labor–or forced African labor of the Congolese. They had thousands and ten thousands of men and women carrying the supplies and materials that were needed to create this railroad. They had folks who lived and died under the strain of the push to create this sort of transportation. And the railroads were used to extract ivory, and then rubber, from which King Leopold II became rich, to extract those resources from the African people.

And so in the article it mentions that having this railway was critical to the spread of the virus because it allowed the transportation from places like Kinshasa, as we know it today, to /kəngɑːli/ and different cities within the nation. And so, understanding that the railways did help the spread of the virus is important, but it’s also important to understand the forced African labor that was used to build that railway and to transport the laborers, even later, after the real railroad was built, along those railways, so the transportation of people back and forth, all in the service of colonization.

FLETCHER: Let me go back for a second, 1920 Leopoldville, when they say that that’s when HIV-AIDS emerged. It didn’t pop out of the air.

BROWN: No.

FLETCHER: So what happened?

BROWN: Well, you have the animal-to-human transmission. It’s just like we’ve been talking about the Ebola virus recently, a zoonotic disease that emerges out of animal-human contact. So, in this case the theory is that chimpanzee meat in some form or fashion was consumed by an African Congolese, and thereby transmitting the simian form of that virus.

Well, how might that have happened? People in that region maybe had been eating that meat on and off for several hundreds of years. They’d known how to eat that meat very properly, cooked it quite well. But under the conditions that the Belgians were putting the Congolese under, they totally disrupted the Congolese food supply to such that witnesses say that laborers were starving because they couldn’t grow their own food. So now they’re importing food from Belgium, they’re importing food so that the Congolese can eat other people’s food to survive, but they’re sending them into the forest to go and extract rubber down from the vines, they’re sending them into the forest, and folks have to climb up the trees to extract this rubber from the tree, many of them falling asleep and dying or injuring themselves in the process. And so, in this environment of extreme hunger, I could see someone saying, I don’t have anything to eat right now, maybe there is a dead chimpanzee somewhere, I’m going to take that and not cook it properly because I’m so hungry under these conditions, and then you have the transmission from animal to human in this case.

FLETCHER: Fascinating. So forgive the very basic questions, but I’m not a scientist. Nineteen-twenty.

BROWN: Right.

FLETCHER: Okay. Then it seems to emerge publicly around 1980.

BROWN: Right. So where was the virus hiding?

FLETCHER: Where was a virus? Right.

BROWN: Well, you know, I think that from what we understand there, really sort of this article gives three primary vectors. We’re talking about the railway that we talked about earlier. It allows for humans to travel up–the host for the virus to travel across the country, transmitting the virus. It talks about–so you have host, you have the transportation.

Then you also have another vector they talk about, commercial sex workers, and so what we know as or what people commonly referred to as prostitutes. And so there are Congolese scholars that say, well, even the commercial sex work is rooted in colonization, because the Belgians would take Congolese women and exploit them in various ways. They would exploit them in terms of helping–using them to please the workers in vile ways. They would use women to–they took some of them as their second wives in the Congo Free State and later the Belgian Congo. So they perverted the very being and the spirit of the Congolese women, and as such created a sort of commercial sex work industry that allowed the virus to sort of proliferate originally.

Now, in terms of spreading beyond the borders, the analysis basically says that by the ’60s or ’70s there were Haitian workers that were working in the Belgian Congo. And by the ’60s, of course, the Congo becomes Zaire under Mobutu. And so the Haitian workers working there, professionals, they go back to Haiti having contracted the virus, and then maybe a few Haitians go to New York or go to the United States, and the virus sort of emerges there in the 1980s. But it had been sort of percolating all along. I think you see in the medical literature there were people dying that they can sort of trace back and say, this was probably the disease. In the ’60s and ’70s they were starting to see something’s going on and it’s not right.

FLETCHER: But what did the Belgians see between 1920 and 1960, when the Congo became independent? Is there any evidence that they even noticed that there was a problem?

BROWN: I don’t think they knew that there was a specific problem with this particular disease. Now, they did have public health campaigns to help stop, like, sleeping disease and other diseases that are infectious diseases that were there at the time.

Now, the important thing to know is that they were reusing syringes to sort of inoculate people against certain diseases that they knew about at the time. And so, inadvertently, I believe, you’re reusing needles, and that could have helped proliferate the spread of the virus as well at the time. So those are the kind of dynamics that even in terms of the colonial public health system, the Belgians could have played a role in terms of helping to proliferate the virus. So, whether it’s the colonial public health system, whether it’s animal-to-human transmission, whether it’s commercial sex workers or the railroads, the Belgian colonization system, first with King Leopold and then under the Belgian government, played a role in the transmission of this disease.

FLETCHER: When the Belgians left the Congo in 1960, they did nothing to help in any kind of transition. They were trying to actually Balkanize the Congo, as you know, the whole fight around the Katanga province and trying to separate it off. There’s no indication that there was–I’m assuming that there was no indication of any effort to deal with any medical issues when they moved out.

BROWN: Yeah, not to my knowledge. But the Belgian government did collaborate with the CIA in terms of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. So the Belgian government plays a very powerful role, in terms of even after they leave, determining, charting the future course of the Democratic Republic of Congo, so that it’s much more likely to move in a less Pan-African direction and more so in a much more brutal dictator direction.

And why is that important? Of course, if you have someone who’s in your stead managing in a neocolonial arrangement, that continues the facilitation of extracting resources from the country. And so you have critical minerals that are predominant all over the country–copper, diamonds, or coltan that’s in our smart phones and cell phones, right? And so people are fighting over those resources today. There’s been a tremendous civil war that’s been going on. Up to 5 million Congolese people have been killed in this civil war.

And you see under King Leopold people’s hands being cut off because they didn’t produce enough rubber. And then in this civil war you see sort of the same thing, people’s hands being cut off as a form of punishment. And it sort of–you know, we look at how people tend to reproduce the trauma that they have experienced under these sort of extreme, harsh forms of brutalization and oppression. And that’s what I think is important to know is that so much of what’s going on in the Congo today finds its root in that period when King Leopold II–.

FLETCHER: Dr. Brown, thank you very much for joining us on The Global African.

BROWN: My pleasure.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time.

End

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