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The Forest and the Thieves

Ryan interviews Janette Bulkan, who has worked on issues of poor governance, corruption, and their negative impacts on people, the economy, and the ecology in highly forested countries for many years.

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Janette Bulkan

Ryan: Will you tell me a little bit about your work, globally, around issues of environmental justice?

Janette: Well, that is an ambitious way of putting it.  My work is actually just a tiny piece of it.  I did my doctoral research on forestry concessions in Guyana.  And I started off looking at the differences between forest law, forest policy, forest regulations, on the one hand, and forest practices on the other, for large-scale and small-scale forest concessions. So I was basically looking at what the law said and what the practice was.  I was actually interested in a technical study to understand what kinds of harvesting practices, or at what levels, would make sense for the very fragile forests of Guyana.  Because these are forests that are located in the poorest soils, globally,land with  just a tiny, like a quarter inch of soil, on the Guiana Shield, which is occupied by Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana, parts of eastern Venezuela and northern Brazil.

But I quickly realized that, and this was back in 2006,that my study wasn’t really about law, regulation, policy vs. practice –– because those laws and regulations were adequate, actually.  Or really thoughtful in many ways.  But my study was about governance and corruption.

I graduated and I went on to teach and I am now at The Field Museum, but I’ve maintained an interest in how these processes play out and affect the most marginalized peoples who live in these frontier areas as in Guyana and in Suriname.

So last year, this initiative called the LDPI –– the Land Grab –– the Land Deal Politics Initiative –– invited me to do a paper on the role of Chinese companies and the state of China, the government of China, in resource grabbing in Guyana. And I completed that paper, of course, before I came to the Field Museum.  After that, the LDPI, this Land Deal Politics Initiative, which is a consortium of the Futures Agriculture Unit in the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, Cornell University in the U.S.A., the Institute of Social Studies in the Netherlands, and I think the University of South Africa.  This consortium raised funding to have a three-day conference on resource grabbing and land grabbing.  They made it possible for me to attend that by covering the cost of my airfare.  And that took place between the 8th and the 10th of April at the University of Sussex in England.

And it was really a moving experience, an intellectually very stimulating experience, but also an experience, I think, where scholars at different places in their career trajectories came together to think about these issues, globally and locally.  So I think the conference had accepted 120 papers for presentation and they had to turn away over 250 excellent papers because of the limitations of time and the actual venue that was chosen.  It’s a very small space in which to have a conference.  And it was only really possible because of excellent administrative arrangements by the University of Sussex, IDS.

Of those 120 papers, they represented people, researchers from 69 universities and 29 independent institutions.  And 17 of them were Africa-based scholars.  So this was all facilitated, in doing this work, by the LDPI, the Land Grab Deal Politics Initiative. And I think it cumulatively began to address an issue that is happening very quickly, which is the consolidation of land under long term lease arrangements between governments and large corporations in parts of our world in which there are no immediate possibilities of questioning –– what are the mechanisms under which this is done, who benefits, who are the winners, who are the losers, what does the State gain, is  it really about food security at the local level, or does something else play out.

So that conference, the LDPI Conference of 6th to 8th of April, isn’t meant to be one off.  There’s a website, on which all the papers are posted.  It’s meant to be a website in which you can upload other things, you can upload other papers and continue a conversation around these issues, because this phenomenon of land grabbing –– a new enclosure movement –– globally, is happening fast, and happening in a way that it is not on the radar screen of many people.

So we’re thinking about what are the implications of this land grabbing for us, wherever we are globally.  And what are the implications for the most marginalized peoples in these far-off places, who are experiencing that new phenomenon in their daily lives.  And what does all of this mean, in our globalized world which is also subject to rapidly changing climate?  Are we, in fact, thinking about these things deeply when we allow corporate decisions to determine land use and access.

Ryan: So, what exactly is land grabbing?

Janette: Land grabbing is this phenomenon enabled by governments, particularly in many parts of the world, where most land, or many areas are legally state lands.  In other words, the land belongs to all the people and they are administered by the government of the day.  Supposedly, or it’s intended to be, for the benefit of the nation.  In reality, in many parts of the world, many countries of the world, these lands are not empty.  They’re not empty lands at all.  But they are used and occupied by a range of local peoples.

Some of these local people may be practicing traditional agriculture, which means that they may be rotating their cultivation areas, and using different parts of the land.  But they may have no secure tenure, because their rights aren’t recognized by the national government.  Other people may be pastoralists.  So they are returning to areas over time.  As they are following water, following the rainy season and the dry season for nourishing their livestock.  And other areas are shared between agriculturalists and pastoralists, for example.  And other areas may be forested areas that are used, again, depending on season or availability, by a range of peoples.

Land grabbing refers to this new tendency, over the last few years, in particular, of Northern governments and some Southern governments –– the global South governments like Libya, China, India, South Korea –– who are no longer wiling or no longer wish to be dependent on the free market to buy food crops.  And they want to ensure food security for their nations by getting 99-year leases on agricultural lands in Third World countries on which they can grow crops, whether for food or biofuels, and ship that produce of that land back to their countries.  And this means, of course, for the people who live on those newly leased lands and are dependent on that land –– they are excluded.  So this titling excludes them.

The local governments in these places where the land is now being handed over by these long-term leases to outside corporations or outside governments –– local governments say, “Oh.  But this process of long-term leases will bring local jobs.  Will bring –– they will pay some taxes to the state.  They will put in the kinds of investments that we cannot afford, for example, maybe put in irrigation or roads. And they will bring employment”.

So the Land Grab Conference was intended, or tried to, interrogate these claims.  Are these claims defensible?  Are they true? In fact, have local people been getting jobs or not?  What’s being produced, is that for the local market or not?  What happens to local people when you commodify their areas?  What does this mean in terms of social relations, ecological impacts and economic impacts as well?

So I think there were many stories, many case studies of land grabbing from Southeast Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  And the conference opened up a space in which to theorize these issues and discuss them in the kind of languages that can reach, I think, a broader audience.  And so in a way to maximize our global responses to what are fast moving exclusionary tactics

Ryan: So you mentioned, this is happening in Africa, it’s happening in South America –– could you give an example of a geography, of a place where land grabbing is happening and what the real impacts is?

Janette: I will maybe tell you about my case study.

Ryan: That would be great.

Janette: I focused on Guyana, which is about 75% forested, and where as I mentioned earlier, the soils are extremely poor.  So, agriculture is not feasible on these forested areas of Guyana.  As in the other cases that I mentioned, these forested lands are mostly, in law –– they are state lands.  In other words, they belong to the people and are administered by the government.  And these forested lands, a percentage is titled to indigenous peoples –– indigenous people of Guyana who make up about 10% of the total population.  But the remainder is covered by –– most of it is covered by overlapping mining concessions and forestry concessions for logging that are issued by the State.   And so what my paper looked at, I looked at how these concessions across the landscape are increasingly controlled, either directly or indirectly, by transnational loggers and miners –– whether legally through concessions which they hold in their own names, or illegally or indirectly by working through others.

I looked in particular at the role of Chinese loggers.  I focused on three sectors.  I looked at timber, and so the forestry industry.  And then mining, looking at two sub-sectors:  bauxite mining and gold mining.  One case study, is the case of bauxite, from which aluminum is smelted. Over the 20th century there have been two large foreign companies that controlled all bauxite extraction in Guyana…  It’s a very capital-intensive industry, so an individual person can’t mine bauxite ore for sale.  Because you have to remove huge layers of over-burden…in Guyana there’s the over-burden, which covers the bauxite and is about 15 meters deep.  So it’s a large investment to be able to begin to extract the bauxite.

Bauxite in Guyana, the reserves are very high-grade. It was an industry that was run-down after State nationalization in the 1970s and under-capitalized and badly managed by the State.  So a Chinese company called Bosai, which is the leading company globally for bauxite now and one of the 100 top companies in China, was able to acquire majority shares in one of the two companies in Guyana for very little.  So now Bosai has strategic control over global sources of the very highest-grade bauxite. Perhaps, I think, they wrote their own investment contract.  Because it’s a secret foreign direct investment agreement in which there are no progress indicators as far as we know.  They have to comply with very little.  They promised that they would invest one billion U.S. dollars in an alumina plant in Guyana…but with the caveat that such investment was dependent on the global economic climate for bauxite. So the company now simply says, “Oh the economic climate globally is not good.”  So there has been no inward investment by Bosai in Guyana.

And that pattern of having external, very strategic, Chinese companies who write their own investments and who thereby through secret deals with the government have extended control over critical resources is repeated in the forestry sector of Guyana.

In the case of gold, it is artisanal gold mining by a large number of small and medium scale operations.  There is no large company, so it would be very difficult for Chinese companies to enter that complex world of gold mining and displace the thousands of small operators.   What the Chinese buyers concentrate on is acquiring good further down the supply chain and they buy a great deal of this gold illegally.  In other words, legally the gold is all supposed to be sold to the Guyana Gold Board.  But Harvard University did a study, based on the government’s data, which said that between thirty to eighty percent of all the gold mined in Guyana is illegally sold.  Many Chinese merchants pay more than the world market price for that gold, thereby laundering their illegal proceeds from many activities in the countries of Guyana and Suriname, and then get their proceeds, in gold, shipped back to China.

Ryan: So why would the local government allow this to happen?

Janette: Which government?

Ryan: The Guyanese government

Janette: This is a question I ask myself each day.  Why does a government make such perverse decisions?   In Guyana, unfortunately, it is not an isolated case of a government controlled by a very small clique of decision-makers.  In our case, in the case of Guyana, the executive arm of government is immune from prosecution and has a wide range of powers.  The President does not have to take any consultation to the Parliament.  He appoints the judiciary, the heads of the judiciary.  And so decisions are taken, in secret, by the head of state, alone.  In all of these sectors, in mining, in forestry, in allocation of big contracts, in hydroelectric power, in everything.  In many of these cases, because these contracts are secret, and there is no oversight, whether locally or internationally.

Ryan: So you mentioned that much of land grabbing happens for agricultural purposes.  What’s an example of that?

Janette: Because I didn’t focus on this I don’t wish to get into specifics.  But for example, in Ethiopia, there were papers that looked at –– I went to listen to papers that looked at specific case studies where the government of Ethiopia has signed leases, long-term leases, 99-year leases, with companies from India which gave those companies sole rights to these areas, where, up until this moment, local peoples had been planting their crops.  And also depending on permanent crops like mangoes and other food crops.  And for grazing their livestock.  And in these areas, which are large by Ethiopian standards (I don’t remember the area in hectares), the implications, as this land is now increasingly being fenced in for irrigation for growing crops that are destined for India, it will probably mean displacement, future poverty, huge social problems –– malnutrition and breakdown of their societies –– of peoples who, up until now, in Ethiopia, have depended on this land.

So this violence, being meted out by the State on its peoples, even while the State claims that they are doing this for national benefit.  Because very few jobs are being created, and the produce of this area will not be entering into the local market, but to be shipped elsewhere.

Ryan:  So that produce is to ensure food security in India.

Janette: Yes.  Food security elsewhere.

Ryan: Do you think that these kinds of deals simply should not be done at all or do you think that they should happen under different circumstances?  Ideally, what would the future hold for these kinds of inter-governmental relationships?

Janette: I think these deals should not be done at all.  I think in the countries where… the lessee countries –– whether India or United States or United Kingdom –– who are also involved in land grabbing for agriculture in Brazil and many places.  In these source countries of investment there is also land grabbing.  There is also a corporate model of food production which is not good for the land, not good for our people, not good for our economy or society.

We need to begin back at first principles –– looking at an equitable form of food production in every part of the globe.  Really, the idea of being a locavore and eating local foods makes economic sense, makes ecological sense, and makes social sense.  So I can think of no one agreement for producing food somewhere else in some part of the globe for shipping to another place which makes sense to me.

I think the vision, which many papers suggest is: you need small scale, local food production, and in which an excess be can be sold through cooperatives that help people bring their produce together for shipping and handling, that can then be sold in a transparent and equitable manner to people elsewhere in the globe who want to enjoy those fruits.  But through this chain of food production and consumption, there isn’t a dispossession in one place for the benefit of another.

So to answer your question, I can think of no process which would justify enclosing the lands in the Third World or a developing country for growing crops to be shipped elsewhere if that is not for the benefit of local peoples who manage that process.  If they manage that, on a small scale and through cooperatives –– as happens in many parts of West Africa, with cocoa production, for example –– you can begin to see a global system of exchange of foods and trade and commerce that makes sense in all the ways we want these to make sense.  Equity, fairness, fair trade, transparent.

Ryan: So the theme this month at Dr. Pop is: “Who’s Watching the Watchers?”  So who is working to hold these governments accountable?  To hold these corporations accountable?

Janette: I think there’s no one, actually.  Because the governments who are leasing lands to big corporations in these marginalized places like Guyana, or in Ethiopia, or the Philippines, or Thailand take refuge behind their sovereignty.  They say, “Oh, we are sovereign nations.  We have shaken off colonial exploiters.  We do not need anyone to be telling us now what we do with our lands.  We were elected by people to do this”.

I think because there is no third party –– third party oversight that I know of –– part of the oversight will have to come from citizens of Third World countries and First World countries who demand that there are internationally independent, voluntary, third-party certification schemes to monitor the fairness of this food we eat.

So that if, for example, we were to refuse to buy foods that came through a food chain that began in the dispossession of someone from Ethiopia.  We refused, actually, to buy that coffee or buy that cotton or not buy those vegetables.  We would then send those signals back to those countries.

In this case it would require that kind of consciousness by Indian and Chinese citizens as well.  Not just Western citizens, because much of this food is going from these places to other more developed Southern countries.  Again, I think these are situations where one has to think of many ways of putting pressure on the backroom deals behind much of the current land grabbing.  There’s no clear system yet for oversight and governance.

Ryan: if someone wants to get involved in issues of land grabbing, where can they start?

Janette: I would say they can look at the Land Grab website, which you have, Ryan.  I’d say you can think about where one is located.  And think about local processes in your own area.  And think about how you might look at them through this prism of land grabbing.  And what might be the decisions one takes as a consumer.  I think this is so powerful, because if you think of a world of consumers who pays attention to what they eat.  What everyone eats.  What decisions we make when we decide to spend a dollar on food.  And then what that means when we begin to amalgamate our initiatives and talk to our friends and begin to think about putting pressure.  We can actually change the way in which this world is ordered that doesn’t help us in the long term or in the short term, because its just simply means more processes of dispossession of local peoples, destruction of the environment, more use of pesticides and fertilizers and these corporate ways of agriculture.  And an end product of food that is so processed that it isn’t even good for human consumption.

And so getting away from that, even on a selfish, individual scale, by insisting on taking decisions locally, by not enabling land grabbing through the way that we spend our dollars, can be part of a larger global process of reversing these senseless corporate decisions.

Ryan: Great.  Thank you very much.

Janette: You’re welcome.

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