Activists protest Gates Foundation plan for African farmers

Protesters outside the Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle criticize the philanthropy's approach to agriculture reform in Africa.

Activists in Seattle and London held demonstrations on Monday to protest efforts by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and others to privatize seeds as part of a push to industrialize farming in Africa.

“Most of Africa’s farmers are smallholder farmers who farm for subsistence and a little bit for the market,” said Matt Canfield, one of the protesters with Community Alliance for Global Justice who carried signs outside the Seattle headquarters of the Gates Foundation claiming the world’s biggest philanthropy is championing the ‘corporate takeover’ of African agriculture.

“The goal of the Gates Foundation is to bring (African farmers) into global market value chains,” said Canfield, a member of a group called AGRA Watch, which was launched to watchdog a Gates Foundation initiative known as AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa.

In London, at a simultaneous demonstration, protesters with Global Justice Now chastised USAID for agreeing to a ‘secret meeting’ with the philanthropy (closed to the public, with its location undisclosed). The London protesters contended, as reported by IPS, that the focus of the conference was to discuss a report prepared by the consulting firm Monitor-Deloitte on how corporate seed producers could penetrate the African market.

Chris Williams, a spokesman for the Gates Foundation, issued a statement in response to the protests:

“The Gates Foundation is focused on helping smallholder farmers grow more food and lift millions of people out of poverty across Africa and South Asia. Poor farmers in Africa face many challenges – including droughts, pests and crop disease – all of which make it difficult to grow enough food to feed their families and earn an income.

Chris Williams

Chris Williams

“We invest to help farmers overcome these challenges, including working with NGOs, government institutions and private sector companies to better understand and bring resources and solutions to address problems that otherwise wouldn’t get solved.”

Smallholder farmers in Africa produce the majority of the continent’s food, and are the focus of aid and development groups from all over the world seeking to improve the lot of these poor communities. The Gates initiative AGRA is aimed at finding ways to increase farm productivity and farmer incomes by finding new methods for solving problems with unproductive soil, unreliable water supplies, low-quality seeds, and scarce markets for smallholder farmer crops.

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The protesters in Seattle said the Gates Foundation clearly is not listening to smallholder African farmers, but rather to Western agribusiness interests eager to exploit the continent and these poor farming communities.

“The people most directly impacted aren’t being involved in the decision making,” said Heather Day, executive director for Community Alliance for Global Justice (CAGJ) in Seattle, which hosts AGRA Watch.

“They don’t have any farmers or representatives of farmer organizations, of which there are many, at the table at this meeting in London,” Day said. “It’s a matter of social justice, also self determination, and ultimately food sovereignty.”

Day’s organization, CAGJ and AGRA Watch, as well as the London-based Global Justice Now group, argue that Gates and USAID clearly favor pushing a ‘big agribusiness’ approach that favors heavy chemical use of pesticides and fertilizers, the Western strategy of farming that is essentially a “one-size-fits-all industrial model of agriculture that threatens the livelihoods of small farmers.”

“They are trying to create opportunities for trans-national corporations to make profits,” Canfield said.

“We robbed Africa of its minerals, we robbed Africa of its people … now the next deal for exploitation, the new colonialism, is: ‘let’s take their seeds’ and interfere with their food sovereignty, their right to have a secure system to feed their children,” said Phil Bereano, an AGRA Watch food sovereignty activist and emeritus professor at the University of Washington. “It’s outrageous, actually.”

Williams, with the Gates Foundation, said the goal of these efforts are not so much to privatize seeds as to improve seed quality and crop demand. Better seed technologies and efforts to improve market forces benefiting smallholder African farmers are intended to empower them.

“Ultimately, farmers themselves should be able to choose the seeds they want to use, whether those are saved seeds or the newest hybrids,” he said. Williams also noted that the Seattle protesters held signs claiming the Gates Foundation has invested in Monsanto, an agribusiness firm that aggressively promotes genetically modified seeds.

That’s not true anymore, he said.

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Williams said the philanthropy’s asset trust did once hold Monsanto shares but it has not held any for the past several years. He said foundation trust files an IRS 990 form which lists all holdings on an annual basis and activists can check this on the Gates website.

Canfield said the harm of seed privatization to individual farmers is that “it gets them on a cycle of having to produce more to buy more inputs.” A good example of this, he said, is the much-celebrated One Acre Fund, supported by the Gates Foundation.

“What they do is go to small, rural communities throughout Africa and give them kits that are loans of hybrid seed … and fertilizer,” Canfield said.

The farmers get huge increases in yield initially because they are using the fertilizer and hybrid seeds, which they haven’t used before, he said. The approach spreads throughout the community and everyone grows the same crop because it is most productive.

But the community then also becomes dependent on these new materials and strategies while the local market suffers because everyone is producing the same crop. Meanwhile, the Western strategy of employing heavy use of chemicals (and often water) often destroys the soil along with long-held cultural and agro-ecological practices of these communities, he said.

“So, ultimately it is going to impoverish smallholder farmers and also just take people off the land,” Canfield said. That serves the interests of big agribusiness interests, or those in Africa seeking to establish more ‘plantation-style’ farms and may even improve overall productivity or yield, he said, but how does this serve smallholder farmers?

Last October, CAGJ’s AGRA Watch project hosted Africa-US Food Sovereignty Strategy Summit in Seattle. The goal of the four day summit was to build relationships, “promote farmer-led solutions to hunger and climate crises, share research, develop strategies and explore ways to protect communities faced with the consequences of industrial agriculture as promoted by the Gates Foundation.”

At the demonstrations, activists handed out packets of seeds, in Seattle they were the Seattle Seed Company Kale seeds “organically produced by local seed breeders for our maritime bioregional climate.”

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Hannah Ellison is our social media manager, and is finishing up her BA at the University of Washington in Law, Societies & Justice. She has previous experience in nonprofit work, social media management, newspaper article writing and publishing, nightclub security, wild-land firefighting, and organic farming.