Lucka 5: All they want for christmas is land
A year ago I wrote an article for Panorama about the 8,9 million acre land grab that is taking place in Gambella, Ethiopia. I have also written about the food access issues faced by the residents of West Oakland, thousands of miles away. But in a truly global food system, are these problems perhaps more closely related than they initially appear?
Av: Agnes Bridge Walton
The indigenous people who live in Gambella are being moved from their land and villages, mostly by force, to new settlements designated by the government. They have been promised land, health care and education. None of these promises have been fulfilled and what was, at the time of my study, a worrying situation has become progressively worse. Housed on largely unfertile land, often with no source of water, these people are now starving. One aid worker I talked to described the government villagisation program as ”[having] the potential to be an awful, awful thing”. That potential is currently being reached.
What is happening in Gambella is an unprecedented violation of human rights. Therefore, the idea that the displacement and subsequent suffering of thousands of indigenous people has anything to do with the food deserts of Oakland, California, might seem far-fetched. But if we delve a little deeper, certain interesting links appear.
Not long ago, the city of Oakland wanted Foods Co. to open a supermarket in the food desert of West Oakland. The City Council decided it would be appropriate to use eminent domain, a law that allows them to seize land, in order to help a company whose revenues in the last 12 months exceed $88 billion. The same strategy is being employed by the Ethiopian government for companies in Gambella.
Kroger will stand to reap serious rewards from the land it aquires in Oakland. Even a poor neighbourhood generates huge profits. But the money people spend there will end up outside their community, just like the value of the food produced in Gambella is moved to Riyadh, Delhi and stock exchanges in the west. It is estimated that this could amount to $375 million a year being lifted straight out of the extremely underpriviledged West Oakland. At the same time, there is little hope that new supermarkets will bring many, if any, living-wage jobs to the area and the people who shop there.
Without jobs that allow them to buy food, or land to grow it on, the people of Gambella are starving in the midst of agricultural surplus. The people of West Oakland will continue to hunger for real food, and suffer from their unhealthy diet, until living-wage jobs are brought to the area. In both places, people have little choice but to eat the cheap, mass-produced food that is the only diet they can afford.
A question of inequality
Geographer David Harvey makes the observation that in a capitalist economy there will be a spatial inequality. This means that capital and wealth is concentrated in certain areas where costs are low and profit rates high. This explains the differing wealth of urban and rural areas but also the internal inequalities in a city. West Oakland for example, though urban, is disadvantaged in relation to other urban areas.
But a constant need for expansion, of profit but also of territory, is a characteristic of the capitalist economic system. When a company makes money it has to invest this money in the creation of a future profit. Often, this means the investment of a capital surplus into production technology leading to jobs being replaced by machines. This, however, leads to what is often known as a crisis of accumulation. In other words, companies reach a point where there is an abundance of unused labour as well as an abundance of profits from their investments but this accumulated capital and unemployed labour cannot be profitably combined. There are simply not enough people with the means to buy the goods they would produce.
At this point capital is forced to seek out new markets. For example the food deserts of Oakland or land in which to sink their accumulated capital because, in the long run, these areas now seem the most profitable to them.
Of course, though they are economically marginalized, these places are not empty of people who use the land and the values derived from it. In order to gain access to, or dominance over, these areas and their resources, the capitalist necessarily must deprive somebody else of this same right. This is what Harvey calls ”accumulation by disposession”. We might call it state-sanctioned theft. What is clear is that, in this expansionary phase of capitalism, land must be taken from someone to fall into the hands of others. The term land grabs reflects this very element of dispossession; land is not being aquired or purchased, it is being grabbed.
The City Council seems to think that Kroger will bring redevelopment to West Oakland. In Ethiopia, the government is also looking for development. Both of these governments imagine that land grabbing corporations will bring jobs, better nutrition and infrastructure to their communities. In truth, they bring none of these. At least not for the people who need them the most.
Instead these companies are extracting the value that lies in the land; the money people spend in their shops or the crops they can grow on it. They are taking away the resources that these communities need in order to survive and thrive, and they are doing so with the encouragement of misguided politicians who will even spend scarce public money to help them. Land grabbers are stealing from communities all over the world and they are getting very rich in the process.
Gambella and West Oakland are not as far apart as they may look on the map. They are both products of a political system that believes food security to be synonymous with access to food; whether it is foreign food aid or cheap processed calories. They are both products of an economic system that sees land and food as commodities that should be bought and sold for great private gain. Rather than as the fundamental human rights, resulting in healthy, rooted societies.