"I'm what the world considers to be a phenomenally successful man. And I've failed much more than I've succeeded. And each time I fail, I get my people together, and I say, "Where are we going?" And it starts to get better." - Calvin Trager
Of all the workshops I signed up for today, there was none I was as looking forward to and as anxious about than the one about trade and Africa. And the title of the workshop summed both feelings up for me: Global and Regional Trade Systems: Empty Promises for Africa.
Of all the arenas my involvement with the Millennium Development Goals have drawn me into, none is at once as important and perplexing to me as trade. Good people, prayerful people, faithful people tell me widely different things about things like "free trade" -- which is difficult enough to reconcile. But the debate is more vehement than any I know -- with each side alternately calling the other evil self-aggrandizing manipulators and wacked-out anarchists.
I have never heard a reasoned, evenhanded debate on the merits of different positions about trade. The debate would have you believe that it is a clear choice between good and evil -- only each side believes to the core that they are the former and the other is the latter.
I didn't figure I would get such a reasoned conversation in this workshop ... and I was right. And the cases made by the speakers were compelling that free trade and the rules which govern it are written and enforced by the West -- and therefore the deck is always going to be stacked to their benefit. The stories they tell certainly jive with the stories I heard and the things I saw in Ghana -- the inability of people to add value to their product, trade rules that supported a system of de facto indentured servitude, a system in Ghana that allowed Western companies literally to own the gold in Ghana's ground, the means of getting it out and to exercize control over the government officials who would be the only hope of keeping significant pieces of that wealth in the country.
But the other arguments ring in my head, too. More and more, I think the problem is that free trade is something that sounds good ... and theoretically if we could get to a place where everyone was on a level playing field it would be the best system ... but we're not at that point. And until we are, because human nature is for the powerful to use their power to their advantage and at the expense of others, the result is devastating.
In some ways, there is a parallel to the arguments about affirmative action in our country. People against it argue that it is racist and that it defies the goal of a color-blind society. But all they are showing is that they don't understand the culture of privilege. That in a world that was color blind and with no inequalities of privilege of course affirmative action wouldn't be necessary. But sometimes artificial systems are needed as interim steps to achieve a balance.
And she began (with me typing furiously trying to capture every impassioned word. She rattled off various terms used in the trade conversation -- buzz words -- and she said:
"It's jargon. And this jargon is a conspiracy. And I have no business dealing with a conspiriacy.
"Trade ... we learn from history it is one way that people have been able to come up with as a strategy to create wealth. They create wealth because they have had enough to eat and then to exchange with others, to add value to what they have been able to create. For those who have enough ... it is a very good arrangement for them....
"Slavery was another very good trade arrangment. Colonialism was another very good trade arrangement.... In the name of civilizing those who don’t know any civilization. Until people realized that relationship is not right and made it not acceptable....
"We are here now with globalization. The trade arrangements is not acceptable. Is unjust, is a conspiracy."
And then she continued, speaking of her own life in Kenya:
"We produce coffee. It has broken our mother’s backs. It has totally destroyed our environment because of the agribusiness bringing wrong chemicals to our soils and health hazards to us who get involved in this.
"This is because the conspiracy is we grow what we do not need and import what we do not need. That is not acceptable. We grow coffee – we do not even drink that coffee. I need food. We have no food security policies in place in Kenya.
"I’m a small scale farmer of coffee myself. One kilo of coffee to the farmer is paid even in currency that can neer buy anyting because shillings are not any kind of currency in kenyas. One kilo of coffee makes 600 cups. How much is a cup of coffee here? $3?... As far as Kenya is concerned, one kilo is paid between 2 shillings and 2 shillings, 50 cents. When you multiply when the cups have been sold, it goes to about 40,000 shillings, that one kilo of coffee.
"You can see the lineup of all the people between the farmer and the drinker – that is the value added to sustain certain lifestyles and to sustain certain arrangements of the world."
When she was talking, there was fire in her eyes and in her voice ... but then she turned it up even another notch:
"There are historical processes that have enabled power to be centered in a particular way and exercized in a particular way. Where we are now is not acceptable, cannot work. We cannot continue growing and importing what we don’t need. It is wrong. My priority as an African woman is what my children eat. Food security is important to me."
She definitely had me. But then her next words really hit home. They hit home because they echoed words I had heard spoken by people in Lui, in southern Sudan. They hit home because they were a finger pointed directly at my home, at St. Louis. She continued:
"In Kenya, we have no business going into business with international corporations who are now endangering our lives with genetically modified food. And if people can decide what we eat, they can decide on how we think, how we act and how long we live. That’s where the danger is.
"As I talk to you, Monsanto, the notorious agricultural company, is in my country, and my president is on record saying to his people the only way to deal with hunger is genetically modified foods. This is killing my people! How long will we carry this burden?"
Unfortunately, it also makes people dependent on Monsanto for seed. Even worse, because the seed spreads, it infects other fields -- even people who didn't/couldn't afford to buy Monsanto's seed -- and renders their seed sterile as well.
Wahu Kaara phrased it biblically:
"Read Genesis.. how the world was started. How it was patterned. The environment needs biodiversity. God allowed us also to be able to uitizlese the land but within certain structures or guidelines.
"Monsanto is disobeying that order in imagining that they can be in charge of our lives in deciding how we eat....
"They can say 'If Kenyans are not giving good profit, we are taking that seed to Nigeria.' and in that process when you interact with that seed it destroys the biodiversity of your own country. It is interfering with all the other vegetables.
"Why do they have to take our genes? Who has control over our genes? It is only God. This is about the sacredness of life and the value of life. It is only God who has control. Why are we allowing people to take control over our lives. Do not interfere with my life."
The argument has holes. Certainly there are modifications -- like dwarf wheat -- which have literally saved millions of lives from hunger. But the combination of trade organizations mandating growth of certain crops and developments like the terminator gene adversely affecting biodiversity need to be looked at theologically -- in terms of stewardship of the creation God has given us.
If you go to the Monsanto website, you'll see this logo. I'm someone who likes to believe the best in people and despite the ability of corporate action to drag us to the least common denominator of ethical behavior by sufficiently distancing us from the actions and consequences, I always remind myself that corporations are people to.
And yet we have the reality. Reality that apparently is easy dismissed around the negotiating table but which strong, amazing like Wahu Kaara and Bullen Dolli insist are killing their people and sentencing them to de facto subsistence slavery.
I've spoken with our bishop before about arranging a conversation. Let's get Bishop Bullen and some people from Lui in the same room with Dick Clark and maybe some others. Let them tell their stories -- all of them. Let us assume the best from each other and call ourselves to the highest standards of compassion and love for each other and for our planet.
I went up to Wahu after the session and thanked her. When I had told her that some of the people in Monsanto were in my church, she seemed surprised they went to church -- so complete was her demonization of them. I understand her anger, even if I am not in her shoes. And though it is my privilege not to have her sense of immediacy and anger, I still believe that we need to be careful to distinguish between actions that have demonic consequences ... participating in the demonic ... and people themselves being demonic.
I told her of my dream to get these people together in one room. To have stories told and to pray and talk and dream together. I asked her that if I pulled it off, would she come? She said yes ... but did so with an interesting mixture of joy and bemusement -- and she was probably right. Right that it is ideas like this from which great hope springs. Right that I have no idea what I'm getting into in talking about something like this.
But when I get back to St. Louis and we meet as a Companion Diocese Committee, this is what I will talk about. Of all the effects we can have with this relationship, if by some chance those conversations could happen and true listening could occur and the stories of each could change the hearts of enemies into partners and friends, than that would be extraordinary indeed. And a chance like that ... no matter how small ... is worth taking.
| Mike at 3/11/2006 04:04:00 PM
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"Christ's example is being
demeaned by the church if they ignore the new leprosy,
which is AIDS. The church is the sleeping giant here.
If it wakes up to what's really going on in the rest
of the world, it has a real role to play. If it doesn't,
it will be irrelevant."