Land Grabbing, GRAIN, TIAA-CREF, Africa and Brazil

ImageGen.ashxNew Orleans    Funny how some issues, even very big ones, linger right off your radar and then seem to pop up everywhere. Recently, I’ve felt that way about “land grabbing.” Working mostly in cities and slums around the world, out of sight is too often out of mind. Meeting in France with ReAct, our international partner, and getting a better understanding of their on-the-ground organizing of rubber and palm oil farmers in Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Morocco to force accountability from the French-based transnational, Bollore, I had thought the issue was wages and working conditions, but the more I listened, the clearer it became that the issue was actually land grabbing.

According to Wikipedia, “land grabbing is the contentious issue of large-scale land acquisitions: the buying or leasing of large pieces of land in developing countries, by domestic and transnational companies, governments, and individuals.” Adrien Roux, the coordinator of ReAct is attending a pan-African conference in Nairobi on land grabbing now and meeting with ACORN Kenya’s organizers as an extra benefit to his short visit. We can look forward to understanding the global planning and response when we get his report upon his return to France.

Meanwhile there’s a troubling story in the Times about the US-based giant retirement fund, TIAA-CREF, including a well-documented analysis of its troubling role in land grabbing in Brazil. Their behavior is especially dodgy given the rules Brazil had put in place in 2010 to limit foreign investment in land to prevent such exploitation. TIAA-CREF seems to have tried to play button-button with the new legislation and put the lawyers and its partners to work to concoct a wink-and-nod formation that seemed to follow the letter of the law while trampling the spirit of it and then pouring in even more millions into such land deals. Were they depleting rain forests? Technically no, because they were involved in after-market transactions abetting shadowy, unscrupulous, and often rough handed wheeler dealers who grabbed the land and laundered it for purchase by TIAA-CREF and its partners later.

Having dealt with them on some business for my mother some months ago and finding them pretty reasonable in the rapacious crowd of vultures exploiting the elderly and the infirm, I was sadden to read about their shifty dealings in Brazil. On the other hand it was uplifting to read about the think-and-action tank in Barcelona, called GRAIN, an acronym originally for Genetic Resources Action International. The outfit had begun as a research think tank and took a look at its work and re-engineered itself into an organization designed to support small farmers and social movements on the ground with their research. They also reorganized as a small collective now staffed out by almost half women and eleven different nationalities. Clearly, if their work in uncovering the shenanigans of TIAA-CREF is any indication, the victims of land grabbing have found an effective ally and friend in GRAIN, and that’s good news.

Working in cities we become familiar with all of the ways that crooks steal the houses and properties of lower income families with false deeds, forged papers, and financial mayhem. It’s easy to forget that of course the same thing is operating, perhaps even on a larger scale, in stealing land from poor and indigenous farmers around the world. It’s the story of America and our history after all, but somehow we think we’re past all of that now, rather than still right in the middle of the mess. Wrong!

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Catching Up in Korogocho

Daniel Kairo head of ACORN Kenya under our mission statement

Daniel Kairo head of ACORN Kenya under our mission statement

Nairobi  Technically it was a holiday in Nairobi, which only meant that there were fewer traffic jams and that schools and banks were closed, but for many, if not millions, it was another workday. We had several meetings in Korogocho with our leaders and with a larger group of members and others, including addicts, scheduled to discuss the issue of drugs in the community.

There were changes in Korogocho since my last visit, though many outsiders would not have noticed them. There were more paved roads. Electricity poles were more numerous. Nairobi Water now had a small office in the community along the roadway. There was enough water that there was an active motorcycle power washing business going on as we walked to the meeting space donated by one of our partners.

 

some of the ACORN members after a meeting in korogcho

some of the ACORN members after a meeting in korogcho

There’s a saying in post-colonial east Africa that when the occupiers came “we had the land, and they brought the Bible, and when they left, they took the land and left the Bible.” This deeply religious strain can be heard everywhere from the midnight vigils on Friday nights until past 2 AM in the morning to the pervasive way that the values go deep among the ACORN Kenya leadership. In the planning meeting five of the seven in attendance had connections to various denominations from bishop to pastor to elder. Meetings often begin with prayer in the United States, but in Kenya they begin with prayer, end with prayer, and sometimes, judging from the meeting in Korogocho, there’s something like prayer in the middle. Importantly though, Daniel Kairo, the elected chair of ACORN Kenya, made a point of welcoming and thanking some of the more active members who were Muslims and specifically emphasizing the inclusive nature of ACORN work and membership. The organizers told me that they would estimate that the village of Highview where we first began organizing six years ago is now a majority Muslim. In the debriefing after the general meeting this point was made by several leaders that they needed to be more ecumenical in the way the meetings were conducted to adapt to the changing demographics in the slum.

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The spirit and “sharing” was good though and the evaluations of the meeting were very positive. Some of the hope for seeing addicts transformed in the process had dissipated and there was suggestion of a Korogocho-wide march and demonstration being organized to pressure the political and police chiefs to clean up the area and put pressure on the distribution points for drugs in the community. There was a call for other partners to join in the effort as well. This was definitely a more promising turn in that campaign.

There were other issues that also were emerging. The need to move the dump away from the Korogocho border and finally to the space obtained by the Nairobi City Council years ago, but still deadlocked in politics and conflicting special interests, was seen as a high priority. The health impacts on the community at every level were horrid, so this could be a very important push.

The membership now, depending on how it is counted, ranges between 600 and 1000 with about 200 actively paying dues every month and others coming in and out depending, but there is a real ACORN organization here with real members, leaders, and campaigns, and that’s a big change over recent years. People from other slums in the Eastlands of Nairobi have started attending meetings and the leaders feel they need to see how to engage a larger area, but there’s so much work to be done that we are humble to the task.

 

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