By Jonathan Mathews
"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, a Vice 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
A powerful rebuke, no doubt.
But if anyone deserves the cow dung, it is the Vice 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
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
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 Vice 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org - 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
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.
[Since 1998 Jonathan Matthews
has been researching and writing on the industrial alignment of the
bio-sciences, and the public relations
activities of the biotech industry and its supporters. He co-founded
the campaigning news and research service Norfolk Genetic Information
Network, also known as GM Watch - http://www.ngin.org.uk