On Growth, Sugar and the Forest

Another day, another World Heritage Area. Today we headed through the Queensland sugar plantations to the rainforests of the Kuku Yalanji people. The experience was a direct clash between destructive but highly productive Western agriculture and indigenous no-growth stewardship of the land. For two centuries, this has been a history of the former defeating the latter. The Yalanji have been here for 40,000 years, though, so this little story is just a blip. What we saw was the contradiction between “globalization” and the planetary.

It was during the American Civil War that Queensland jumped into the business of sugar cane production to meet the fall in supply. Sugar cane was an immensely labor-intensive process and so indigenous labor from across the Pacific was brought in under compulsion.

Sugar planting in Queensland around 1870

Missionaries had no hesitation in calling it slavery (above). As a self-governing colony (until 1901), Queensland nonetheless had a free hand. The compeled labor was brought in from relatively close locations like ni-Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands and as far away as Polynesia. They were called “blackbirds,” and are still trying to get their story recognized.

In more recent times, the industry declined until the rise in demand for ethanol led to a massive revival. Although the cane growing is now highly mechanized, the square plantations of seven foot high plants, each as thick as a large finger, would be recognizable to any plantation owner or worker.

As ever, the grass (sugar cane is a grass) is visibly destructive. The crop rapidly denudes the soil because the indigenous tropical flora, although spectacular, are evolved to grow in the poor, sandy soil. Later we were shown a tree in the forest from whose seeds the Yalanji make bread. It’s eight hundred years old and only about twelve feet high. Sugar cane seedlings that I saw were therefore surrounded by black compost and white chemical powders. In between the fields, which are in all stages of production from planting to recently harvested, stand a few remnants of the forest.

Higher up, where the cane can’t grow, the rainforest and its people survive, protected now as a National Park and a UNESCO heritage site. Today the steep green slopes were shrouded in mist and cloud, looking more like Aotearoa New Zealand than the Sunshine State. The Kuku Yalanji people have recently begun to offer guided tours of their land and its culture.

Guides from the Kuku Yalanji people

Our walk, guided by Jenny, also known as Butterfly, was beautiful and informative. Apparently uninteresting plants were revealed to be means of cleaning, healing, or sources of food. Shelters were left for others to use, rather than being demolished. Few now live in this traditional way, but there’s a commitment to remembering and passing on the old ways. It’s easy to be naive and romanticize this way of life. But as Raymond (Kija/Moon) emphasized at the end of our tour, these people have survived in this place for millennia without rendering it unusable, as Europeans have managed in a couple of centuries.

Raymond performed the digeridoo for us, and showed the required technique of circular breathing, also used by some jazz players like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Wynton Marsalis. Accompanying himself with clapsticks, he gave a virtuoso performance, imitating the sounds of numerous animals above the drone-like beat. He also insisted that the instrument was forbidden to women, although there are many known instances to the contrary. It seems to be another instance where a reaction against European culture is producing a more conservative form of indigenous culture. For example, art works that were formerly permitted by Elders to be seen in galleries have recently been reclassified as secret.

It’s hard to be censorious. The cassowary bird is a key link in the rainforest ecosystem.

Cassowary bird

It eats fruits that are poisonous to humans and disseminates the seeds in its scat. Humans have now taken to feeding the flightless bird. The cassowary becomes accustomed to being fed and sometimes attacks people for food. Human food has altered its digestive system, so we were told, with the result that it is less able to digest the fruits it normally eats. It’s at these small intersections that things go out of joint and violence results.

If it’s a direct choice between sugar culture and indigenous conservation, it’s seems clear where we should go. But it isn’t. The Kuku Yalanji are not proposing that kind of return to a lost beginning, in part because the land could no longer support the numbers of people that there are here, and in part because electricity, health care and other such modern conveniences are not worth revoking. There are some people living traditionally off the coast of the island of Kauai, part of the Hawai’ian archipelago, it should be said, and traditional navigation is making a return across the Pacific. By the same token, we can’t choose modern-style growth as a solution because there aren’t enough resources for everyone to live in the Anglo-US-Australian way. This is the sharpest edge between the myth of “globalization” and the actual experience of the planetary. All the choices are bad.

From Debt to Land: via the Farm and the Forest

Yesterday, I talked with friends about whether it might be possible to do for climate and food justice what David Graeber and others like Occupy Student Debt have done so powerfully with debt–transform it from a guilt-inducing issue to a mobilizing one. In Debt Graeber both refuses to accept that the modern has priority and more simply still talks about a one-word term that has resonance for all of us.

As I write a major university is evicting people who wanted to farm disused land: and I wondered if land might be that word for the set of issues around food, climate, animals, and so on? This is just the beginnings of an idea but here’s my train of thought, FWIW.

Quick background: in Albany, CA, Occupy the Farm took over some land owned by the University of California at Berkeley on Earth Day (April 22) and began to cultivate it as a local farm. Although you might want to see the name as a shortening of “occupy this land in order to make a farm.”

Occupy the Farm

Lesley Haddock, one of the occupiers, specifies:

Since taking over this land, the university has chopped up the original 104-acre plot and sold piece after piece to be developed. Now only 10 acres remain. That remaining plot has been transferred from the College of Natural Resources to U.C. Berkeley Capital Projects, the branch of the university responsible for securing development plans. Five of the remaining acres are already fated to be paved over for a high-end senior complex.

The occupiers have cleared and tilled the land and planted thousands of pre-prepared seedlings on about five acres of the plot. It’s a really beautiful action. The University is using the law and the police to get them out.

It’s easy to see that there is a direct link from debt to land here. UC needs to raise money because the state has cut its funding due to the Republican refusal to raise any form of taxation. Tuition is about as high as it can go, so the privatizing logic goes that it’s time to asset strip.

The land at Gill Tract happens to be Class One soil, perfect for farming. To put that in perspective, compare the urban farmers in Brooklyn, many of whom have to cultivate in planters because the soil is too contaminated, or plant sunflowers to help clean the soil of heavy metals. Even so, such land sells for about $180,000 a square foot, according to the NY Times. While the buildings that UC wants to create could in theory go anywhere, and good urban farmland like this is very scarce, it becomes highly valuable when it converts from land to “real estate.” One rumor has it that there are plans to build a Whole Foods on the site.

Now the cycle of escalating force has begun. First the UC police turned off the water. Today they locked the fence, so people are passing water and food for occupier/farmers over the fence.

Water over the fence at Gill Tract

All this reminded me Hardt and Negri’s reference to the Charter of the Forest in Peter Linebaugh’s Magna Carta Manifesto. So I looked it up and it is very intriguing. Magna Carta is so known because it was linked in 1217 to the Charter of the Forest. According to the British Library,

The Charter of the Forest, 1217

The Charter of the Forest restored the traditional rights of the people, where the land had once been held in common, and restrained landowners from inflicting harsh punishments on them. It granted free men access to the forest (though at this time only about 10 per cent of the population was free).


Free men could enjoy such rights as pannage (pasture for their pigs), estover (collecting firewood), agistment (grazing), or turbary (cutting of turf for fuel).

As Linebaugh puts it, the Charter defined the limits to the privatization of the commons. Against the conservative view of the commons as a disaster waiting to happen (because everyone would use them to the maximum), he cites a definition from 1598 that stresses that the common is

a Communitate, of communitie, participation or fellowship.

You might begin to think about this defense of (limited) rights as defining a long period of land use rights from the eleventh century to the eighteenth in which there were two notable attempts to scale them back

The first was back by King John, leading to the Charters of 1217 and then King Charles attempted to revive and extend his feudal rights in the 1630s, leading to the English Revolution. The Diggers and other radicals claimed that they were defending “Anglo-Saxon liberties” against tyranny and you could see the 1649 Digger slogan “the earth a common treasury for all” as being in the spirit of the Charter.

The Marxist historian Christopher Hill used to suggest that when the Diggers called for people to abstain from waged labor and instead till the common land, it was a call for a general strike. There were explicit calls for workers to take “holidays” during the English Commonwealth (1649-1660) that led to the Chartist call for a Grand National Holiday, or general strike, in 1839. Enclosure–the private occupation of common lands– has long been understood as a key moment in the agricultural and industrial revolutions alike. The larger farms produced more food, while the displaced tenants became factory workers.

So it’s perhaps less surprising than it might seem that during the 1999 global justice protests in London, banners were again seen with “the earth a common treasury for all.” Perhaps where the Earth, the global, the environment, ecology and so on have failed to become real abstractions that motivate social movements, land might do it. Just a thought.


M17: Why Occupy is Hunger, Climate Change and GMO food

Storm over GMO corn

OWS and the campaigns against hunger, against GMO food and against climate change are different ways of saying the same thing: capitalism is an autoimmune disease that is now threatening the viability of its host. Occupy signifies here that these issues cannot be contained, let alone solved, by the normative political process, whether at national or interstate level.

It’s important to recognize how far things have gone in the past year. Harper’s magazine tells us:

  • there has been a 33% decline on newspaper mentions of “global warming” and “climate change” in 2011
  • Obama used the phrase “climate change” once in the State of the Union but mentioned “energy” 23 times.

Autoimmune capitalism believes it can afford the planetary degradation that is now under way worldwide and is indifferent to it. European airlines filed this week to be exempted from the EU carbon levy because of a possible trade war with China: in short, climate can only be a priority if it has no impact on capital.

By the same token, there was barely a ripple when Climate Central reported on sea level rise this week:

At three quarters of the 55 sites analyzed, century levels are higher than 4 feet above the high tide line. Yet across the country, nearly 5 million people live in 2.6 million homes at less than 4 feet above high tide. In 285 cities and towns, more than half the population lives on land below this line, potential victims of increasingly likely climate-induced coastal flooding. 3.7 million live less than 1 meter above the tide.

There’s a 1 in 6 chance that the Battery in New York City will flood– not far into the future but by 2020. Zuccotti will become waterfront. You can only assume that people either think that these reports are false or that when they happen, there will be benefits because 5 million people will need new homes.

As I’ve often argued, the reason there’s a global movement of which Occupy is the U. S. variant is the interface of climate change and hunger. In 2008, a global food crisis was caused by the interplay of climate-change induced drought;  the switch to biofuels caused by climate concerns reducing the food supply; and the creation of the Goldman Sachs Commodity Futures Index.

This index was allowed to trade in futures as of 1999, on the principle “long only,” i.e. that prices would always rise. Investors included: Barclays, Deutsche Bank, Pimco, JP Morgan Chase, AIG, Bear Stearns, and Lehman Brothers. Foreign Affairs magazine commentator Frederick Kauffman notes:

In the first 55 days of 2008, speculators poured $55 billion into commodity markets, and by July, $318 billion was roiling the markets. Food inflation has remained steady since.

What that means is an 80% price rise from 2003-8 that has kept moving upwards. One half of the world’s population spends 50% of their income on food. The real consequences were so-called food riots in 37 countries–they should have been called anti-autoimmune capitalist riots.

From here we can summarize:

•2008 food crisis added 40 million to world hungry list
•2008: 943 million hungry
•2009: One billion hungry
•2008: 100 million Africans move into poverty
•A one-meter sea level rise, now regarded as inevitable, will destroy the Nile Delta
This already disastrous situation is now being exacerbated by the intervention of genetically-modified plants into Africa. The African Center for Biosafety, based in South Africa, reported this week:

Between January 2008 and January 2012, the cost of a 5kg bag [of] super maize meal increased by a staggering 83%. In 2007, the poorest 30% of the population spent approximately 22% of their monthly income on food, including on maize–a staple. The latest figures from January 2012 put this at nearly 39%.

In South Africa, Monsanto has cornered 77% of the seed corn market that generated over R1 billion in revenues, while one in four South Africans is “food insecure,” or hungry, in plain English.


In Europe this week, researchers showed that both the genetically modified component of MON810 Bt corn and the Roundup that is sprayed onto that corn kill human kidney cells. So in a particularly telling instance of autoimmune capitalism, the patented seed will either kill you by starvation because you can’t afford to grow it; or kill you by kidney disease because you emmiserate yourself to eat it.

Oh, and by the way? There are plenty of Roundup resistant plants in the U. S. now anyway, about twenty at last count. How could this have been predicted? Because Monsanto found the gene in plants growing downwind of its filthy Louisiana chemicals plant in the first place.

What to do?
For you: do not eat GMO based products–which is likely to mean anything with soy or corn in it, which is to say just about all food industry products. Go organic, go local, grass-fed meat and poultry only.


For all of us: be at or with the March Against Hunger tomorrow M17:


Seeds of Democracy and the Smog of Law

Today was the inaugural Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park seed swap and seed library. Just to be sure we got the point, a federal judge rejected a class action lawsuit by organic farmers against Monsanto. Chemical culture got a boost from the UK government who decided that their own Parliamentary recommendations on clean air are too expensive, even though the pollution is acknowledged to kill thousands a year. To adapt Gandhi, we might say that Western democracy would be a very good idea.

Seed swapping at Liberty/Zuccotti today

Occupy the Food Supply’s day of action began outside the Stock Exchange and then marched to Liberty. We heard from David Murphy (below), an Iowa-based activist with Food Democracy Now! about the threat posed by Monsanto’s aggressive patent campaign for its genetically-modified corn. He held up an ear of Oaxaca corn that he had acquired at the recent California seed swap (covered here).

Murphy with indigenous corn

Because it has been decreed by agribusiness that corn is yellow and that other forms are therefore not corn, this green cob is a biological misfire in their view. In fact, Monsanto used the food crisis to push GMO corn into Mexico:

After originally denying authorization for a pilot program to cultivate its GM corn in Sinaloa last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) just gave the company the green light to plant genetically modified yellow corn resistant to the herbicide glyphosate as a part of a pilot program in Tamaulipas’ current agricultural cycle. According to the National Commission for the Use and Understanding of Biodiversity (CONABIO), Tamaulipas is home to 16 of the 59 remaining strains of native corn.

The risk of contamination between the GMO corn and native varietals is clear to everyone except agribusiness and their allies, who don’t care. Nonetheless, Monsanto also aggressively sue farmers who find themselves accidentally growing Monsanto’s patented pesticide-resistant plants because of seed dispersal. That is to say, they not only patent life, they sue it.

The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association and several other growers and organizations filed a counter-suit against Monsanto to prevent the company from taking such hostile action. Regrettably but unsurprisingly, today we learned that:

U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Buchwald, for the Southern District of New York, threw out the case brought by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) and dozens of other plaintiff growers and organizations, criticizing the groups for a “transparent effort to create a controversy where none exists.”

The hard lesson here is that seed democracy is unlikely to be fostered by a legal system whose prime function is the defense of “property” rights.

Against this grim background, Liberty was filled with would-be urban growers collecting and swapping seeds. The organizers had sensibly brought an extensive collection, which they gave away in packets and then encouraged us to sub-divide amongst ourselves.

Seed distribution

The promise exchanged was that everyone who grew plants should let a portion run to seed and bring them back to the next seed swap, or to create a seed library. On the way downtown, I happened to read an essay by Jeff Sharlet about OWS in which he spoke of the “joyousness” and “beauty” of what he called “the physical democracy” of Zuccotti during the encampment. In the more confrontational atmosphere post-eviction, we sometimes forget what that was like and how good it felt. This event reminded me and gave me hope.

And in case you wondered why we occupied in the first place, a quick look over the Atlantic shows why. In November 2011, a Parliamentary committee reported that air pollution caused over 30,000 death in 2008. EU air quality standards are being flouted wildly in London, whose air is notorious.

Welcome to London

Yet today the appalling heirs to Mrs Thatcher (another quick boo for Meryl Streep here, please) in power in the UK dismissed the issue as generating “disproportionate costs.” Disproportionate to whom? Certainly not to the one in five Londoners whose deaths are attributable to the pollution, a figure the government did not dispute. And, let’s see, who thinks we’ll have a debate about London air quality before the Olympics in the way that we did before the Beijing Olympics?

These two issues are linked biologically as well as conceptually. Aldo Gonzalez, a Zapotec engineer who has led the struggle against GMO corn in Mexico, points out that indigenous varietals evolved over 10,000 years in a great diversity of climates and altitudes. It may very well be literally life-saving to have some of these hardier plants at our disposal once the neo-liberals have had their way with the climate.

Let’s go back to the beginning. When the Occupy movement began, the Very Important People wanted to know what our demands were. When the courts and the representative governments reject basic claims to life–except should one happen to be a foetus–there was and is no point in making demands to them. You have to sow democracy.



Seeds of Change

A seed is a dense amalgam of bioinformation. SInce Darwin did his first experiment on seeds, they have also been subject to biopolitics in the most direct sense. As Monsanto and other corporations seek to privatize the genetic commons, it’s time to join the seed revolution.

Sow Seeds Not Greed

Charles Darwin’s first published experiment was called “Does Sea Water Kill Seeds?” This apparently innocuous question concealed a major biopolitical contest. Darwin sought to prove whether or not seeds could germinate after being soaked in sea water. As he observed in his essay:

such experiments…have a direct bearing on a very interesting problem, which has lately, especially in America, attracted much attention, namely whether the same organic being has been created at one point or on several on the face of our globe.

Darwin spliced two related issues here: first, the debate prompted by British geologist Edward Forbes who asserted that Europe’s landmass had been far more extensive in the relatively recent past so as to account for the spread of plant varietals to islands like the Azores.

For the “common sense” of received science said that sea water killed all seeds. Therefore, if the same species was observed in different places, then it must have been “created” separately. Pro-slavery apologists used this argument to propose that there were distinct and different forms of the human species and it was therefore acceptable for white North Americans to enslave Africans.

Darwin’s simple test demolished the theory: seeds germinate perfectly well after an immersion in salt water, meaning that they could be disseminated by the ocean across the planet. Species thus originated once and not repeatedly. But other interesting questions opened:

But when the seed is sown in its new home, then comes the ordeal: will the old occupants in the great struggle for life allow the new and solitary immigrant room and sustenance?

Darwin’s language here is fascinating and provocative, showing that five years before the formal publication of Origin of Species, he was already thinking far down the road. His experiment did not, of course, demolish slavery’s logic but it removed one of its purported strands of “empirical evidence.”

Fast-forward to our own day, and the occupants are making very little “room and sustenance” for the “immigrants” in all senses. As the chart below shows, only 4% of the commercial vegetable varieties being grown in 1903 are still in cultivation today.

The decline in seed varieties charted

Whereas there were nearly 500 commercial varieties of lettuce in 1903, now we must choose from only 36–if you’ve ever wondered why your “Mesclun” always tastes the same, here’s your answer.

The reduction in variety is part of the effort to commandeer the food supply. Monsanto now  controls 93% of the soybeans and 80% of the corn growth in the United States by its seed monopoly and produces 27% of all seeds sold. Many of these, especially the corn and soy, are genetically manipulated and have worked their way into the entire food chain.

Activists have had some signal successes against this monopoly in Europe where France and Hungary recently joined Germany, Austria, Peru and Luxemburg in banning GMO seeds. Hungary insisted that sprouted plants from genetically-modified seeds be thoroughly destroyed.

French beekeepers demonstrate against GMOs at Monsanto HQ

In the US, while the seed industry remains in charge, organizers have created a brilliant alternative strategy: the seed library. The seed library stocks seeds of all kinds, “lends” them to a library user, who then “returns” them once the crop is harvested. One of the founders of this movement was Gary Paul Nabhan, co-founder of Native Seeds/SEARCH.

Seed libraries are formal and informal, sometimes actually taking space in public libraries next to books as in Richmond, VA. The action combines two of the best internal projects of the Occupy movement: to offer nutritious, organic and non-genetically modified food to the Occupiers and others; and to create libraries.

On February 27, there is a day of action for Occupy the Food Supply. More exactly, following Darwin, the project is to un-occupy food, seeds and thereby our bodies. Their coalition of organic farmers, farm laborers, urban farmers, seed activists, librarians, foodies and all those concerned with personal health reaches far beyond the stereotype of Occupy.

Join them, support the action, plant heirloom seeds, join a seed library–it’s all fun and it’s all radical in the old sense: it goes to the root.