By Jonathan Matthews
December 11, 2002
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"Carrying his placard the man in front of me was clearly one of the poorest of the poor. His shoes were not only threadbare, they were tattered, merely rags barely being held together."
So begins a graphic description of a demonstration that took place at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg ... The protesters were "mainly poor, virtually all black, and mostly women ... street traders and farmers" with an unpalatable message. As an article in a South African periodical put it, "Surely this must have been the environmentalists' worst nightmare. Real poor people marching in the streets and demanding development while opposing the eco-agenda of the Green Left."
And seldom can the views of the poor, in this case a few hundred demonstrators, have been paid so much attention. Articles highlighting the Johannesburg march popped up the world over, in Africa, North America, India, Australia and Israel. In Britain even the Times ran a commentary, under the heading, "I do not need white NGOs to speak for me".
With the summit's passing, the Johannesburg march, far from fading from view, has taken on a still deeper significance. In the November issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology, Val Giddings, the President of the Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), argues that the event marked "something new, something very big" that will make us "look back on Johannesburg as something of a watershed event -- a turning point." What made the march so pivotal, he said, was that for the very first time, "real, live, developing-world farmers" were "speaking for themselves" and challenging the "empty arguments of the self-appointed individuals who have professed to speak on their behalf."
To help give them a voice, Giddings singles out the statement of one of the marchers, Chengal Reddy, leader of the Indian Farmers Federation. "Traditional organic farming," Reddy says, "led to mass starvation in India for centuries ... Indian farmers need access to new technologies and especially to biotechnologies."
Giddings also notes that the farmers expressed their contempt for the "empty arguments" of many of the Earth Summiteers by honoring them with a "Bullshit Award" made from two varnished piles of cow dung. The award was given, in particular, to the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva, for her role in "advancing policies that perpetuate poverty and hunger."
A powerful rebuke, no doubt. But if anyone deserves the cow dung, it is the President of BIO, for almost every element of the spectacle he describes has been carefully contrived and orchestrated. Take, for instance, Chengal Reddy, the "farmer" that Giddings quotes. Reddy is not a poor farmer, nor even the representative of poor farmers. Indeed, there is precious little to suggest he is even well-disposed towards the poor. The "Indian Farmers Federation" that he leads is a lobby of big commercial farmers in Andhra Pradesh. On occasion Reddy has admitted to knowing very little about farming, having never farmed in his life. He is, in reality, a politician and businessman whose family are a prominent right-wing political force in Andhra Pradesh -- his father having coined the saying, "There is only one thing Dalits (members of the untouchable caste) are good for, and that is being kicked".
If it seems open to doubt that Reddy was in Johannesburg to help the poor speak for themselves, the identity of the march's organizers is also not a source of confidence. Although the Times' headline said "I do not need white NGOs to speak for me", the media contact on the organizers' press release was "Kendra Okonski", the daughter of a US lumber industrialist who has worked for various right wing anti-regulatory NGOs -- all funded and directed, needless to say, by "whites". These include the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based "think tank" whose multi-million dollar budget comes from major US corporations, among them BIO member Dow Chemicals. Okonski also runs the website Counterprotest.net, where her specialty is helping right wing lobbyists take to the streets in mimicry of popular protesters.
Given this, it hardly needs saying that Giddings' "Bullshit Award" was far from, as he suggests, the imaginative riposte of impoverished farmers to India's most celebrated environmentalist. It was, in fact, the creation of another right-wing pressure group -- the Liberty Institute -- based in New Delhi and well known for its fervent support of deregulation, GM crops and Big Tobacco.
The Liberty Institute is part of the same network that organized the rally: the deceptively-named "Sustainable Development Network." In London, the SDN shares offices, along with many of its key personnel -- including Okonski -- with the International Policy Network, a group whose Washington address just happens to be that of the CEI. The SDN is run by Julian Morris, its ubiquitous director, who also claims the title of Environment and Technology Programme Director for the Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that has advocated, amongst other interesting ideas, that African countries be sold off to multinational corporations in the interests of "good government".
The involvement of the likes of Morris, Okonski and Reddy doesn't mean, of course, that no "real poor people," were involved in the Johannesburg march. There were indeed poor people there. James MacKinnon, who reported on the summit for the North American magazine Adbusters, witnessed the march first-hand and told of seeing many impoverished street traders, who seemed genuinely aggrieved with the authorities for denying them their usual trading places in the streets around the summit. The flier distributed by the march organizers to recruit these people played on this grievance, and presented the march as a chance to demand, "Freedom to trade". The flier made no mention of "biotechnology" or "development", nor any other issue on the "eco-agenda of the Green Left".
For all that, there were some real farmers present as well. Mackinnon says he spotted some wearing anti-environmentalist t-shirts, with slogans like "Stop Global Whining." This aroused his curiousity, since small-scale African farmers are not normally to be found among those jeering the "bogus science" of climate change. Yet here they were, with slogans on placards and T-shirts: "Save the Planet from Sustainable Development", "Say No To Eco-Imperialism", "Greens: Stop Hurting the Poor" and "Biotechnology for Africa". On approaching the protesters, however, Mackinnon discovered that all of the props had been made available to the marchers by the organizers. When he tried to converse with some of the farmers about their pro-GM T-shirts, "They smiled shyly; none of them could speak or read English."
Another irresistible question is how impoverished farmers -- according to Giddings, there were farmers on the march from five different countries -- afforded the journey to Johannesburg from lands as far away as the Philippines and India. Here, too, there is reason for suspicion. In late 1999 the New York Times reported that a street protest against genetic engineering outside an FDA public hearing in Washington DC was disrupted by a group of African-Americans carrying placards such as "Biotech saves children's lives" and "Biotech equals jobs." The Times learned that Monsanto's PR company, Burston-Marsteller, had paid a Baptist Church from a poor neighborhood to bus in these "demonstrators" as part of a wider campaign "to get groups of church members, union workers and the elderly to speak in favor of genetically engineered foods."
The industry's fingerprints are all over Johannesburg as well. Chengal Reddy, the "farmer" that the President of BIO singled out as an example of farmers from the poorer world "speaking for themselves", has for at least a decade featured prominently in Monsanto's promotional work in India. Other groups represented on the march, including AfricaBio, have also been closely aligned with Monsanto's lobbying for its products. Reddy is known to have been brought to Johannesburg by AfricaBio.
And here lies the real key to the President of BIO's account of the march, and specifically to the attack on Vandana Shiva. Monsanto and BIO want to project an image of GM crop acceptance with a Southern face. That's why Monsanto's Internet homepage used to be adorned with the faces of smiling Asian children. So when an Indian critic of the biotech industry gets featured, as Shiva was recently, on the cover of Time magazine as an environmental hero, the brand is under attack, and has to be protected.
The counterattack takes place via a contrarian lens, one that projects the attackers' vices onto their target. Thus the problem becomes not Monsanto using questionable tactics to push its products onto a wary South, but malevolent agents of the rich world obstructing Monsanto's acceptance in a welcoming Third World. For this reason the press release for the "Bullshit Award" accuses Shiva, amongst other things, of being "a mouthpiece of western eco-imperialism". The media contact for this symbolic rejection of neocolonialism? The American, Kendra Okonski. The mouthpiece denouncing an Indian environmentalist as an agent of the West is a ... Western mouthpiece.
Paul Krugman, an economist and columnist for The New York Times, has criticised "contrarianism without consequences" in relation to the debate over global warming and the controversy over the bookSuperfreakonomics, saying "The refusal of the Superfreakonomists to take responsibility for their failed attempt to be cleverly contrarian on climate change is a sad spectacle to watch... having paraded their daring contrarianism, the freakonomists are trying to wiggle out of the consequences when it turns out that they were wrong."
-- Contrarian, by Wikipedia
The careful framing of the messages and the actors in the rally in Johannesburg provides but one particularly gaudy spectacle in a continuing fake parade. In particular, the Internet provides a perfect medium for such showcases, where the gap between the virtual and the real is easily erased.
Take the South-facing website Foodsecurity.net, which promotes itself as "the web's most complete source of news and information about global food security concerns and sustainable agricultural practices". Foodsecurity.net claims to be "an independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world". Despite its global reach, however, Foodsecurity.net's only named staff member is its "African Director", Dr. Michael Mbwille, a Tanzanian doctor who's forever penning articles defending Monsanto and attacking the likes of Greenpeace.
The news and information at Foodsecurity.net is largely pro-GM articles, often vituperative in content and boasting headlines like "The Villainous Vandana Shiva" or "Altered Crops Called Boon for Poor". When one penetrates beyond the news pages, the content is very limited. A single message graces the messageboard posted by an email@example.com, the domain name of The Bivings Group, an internet PR company that numbers Monsanto among its clients. There's also an event posting from an Andura Smetacek, recently identified in an article in The Guardian as an e-mail front used by Monsanto to run a campaign of character assassination against its scientific and environmental critics.
The site is registered to a Graydon Forrer, currently the managing director of Life Sciences Strategies, a company that specializes in "communications programmes" for the bio-science industries. A piece of information that is not usually disclosed in Graydon Forrer's self-presentation is that he was previously Monsanto's director of executive communications. Indeed, he seems to have been working for the company in 1999 -- the same year the site of this "independent, non-profit coalition of people throughout the world" was first registered. Foodsecurity's "African Director", Dr. Mbwille, is not, incidentally, in Africa at the moment. He is enjoying a sabbatical observing medical practice in St. Louis, Missouri -- the home town, as it happens, of the Monsanto Corporation.
Foodsecurity.net forms but one of a whole series of websites with undisclosed links to biotech industry lobbyists or PR companies, as our previous research has demonstrated. But despite the virtual circus oscillating about him, if the President of BIO were really interested in hearing poor "live, developing-world farmers ... speaking for themselves", he need look no further than Chengal Reddy's home state of Andhra Pradesh. Here small-scale farmers and landless laborers were consulted as part of a meticulously conducted "citizens' jury" on World Bank-backed proposals to industrialize local agriculture and introduce GM crops. Having heard all sides of the argument, including as it happens the views of Chengal Reddy, the jury unanimously rejected these proposals, which are likely to force more than 100,000 people off the land. Similar citizens' juries on GM crops in Brazil and in the Indian state of Karnataka have come to similar conclusions -- something that the President of BIO is almost certainly aware of.
But rainchecks on the real views of the poor count for little in a world where "something new, something very big" and "a turning point" in the global march towards our corporate future, turns out to be Monsanto's soapbox behind a black man's face.
Jonathan Matthews is a writer and researcher focusing on the biotech industry. He co-founded the campaigning news and research service Norfolk Genetic Information Network, also known as GM Watch.