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From blessing to curse

Capitalism, by its very nature, transforms paradises into deserts. Take Uganda, a country that enjoyed fertile soil, excellent water supplies, good rains and sizeable deposits of copper, cobalt, gold, and other minerals.

Now after a long drought which has left many people dying of hunger, the country is bracing itself for another round of torrential rain and floods which have replaced the former more stable climate. Uganda has faced similar severe conditions in 1994, 1997 and 2007. Last year’s main food crops were washed away,

There is no doubt that Uganda is suffering the effects of global climate change; and its local contribution to the problems include draining of wetlands for agricultural use, deforestation and overgrazing. Cash crops, such as coffee and vegetables for export, have exacerbated the problems.

Farmers are now being told to look at changing the crops they grow, to reflect the new seasons. The government is promoting growing of cassava, which can survive on low soil fertility, and grows quickly. Cassava is a quick fix for hunger, but lacks key vitamins and minerals needed for long-term health.

Now this week it was announced that some of the world’s biggest oil companies – including BP, Shell and state-owned Chinese oil companies, are planning to bid to take over a small British firm which has struck oil near Lake Albert.

Tullow, the company involved, has found an oil field that may be as big as some of the North Sea’s biggest.

But is this find a blessing or a curse? Ugandans are looking with great concern at what oil has meant for Nigeria. Environmental destruction has gone alongside wholesale corruption and robbery, leaving the Nigerian people worse off then before the oil find. Dictatorships have been kept in place with the oil money; thousands of people in the Niger Delta have died or been killed.

The government of Yoweri Musaveni had asked Tullow to refine any oil they found in Uganda, to ensure the country benefited from jobs and revenue. Now Tullow is selling, Ugandans will be subject to the same corporate smash and grab operations.

And at the same time as the oil companies are moving in, the Ugandan government is fighting a rearguard action to stop the all-Africa land grab from reaching their country. Musaveni has just blocked an attempt by Libya to purchase a 60 square mile ranch in Masindi province. Already Indian agribusiness has bought up the Ugandan rice crop, and Chinese growers are also looking their way.

In a civilised world, it would not be possible for rich countries to literally take the food from the mouths of people. But in countries where the food supply is insecure and famine threatens – such as Sudan, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya – thousands of acres have been bought up. And it is not only for grain crops, but also bio-fuels, where British, US and German firms are the biggest culprits.

The global capitalist system actually needs a level of starvation for its survival, and continued profits. And so it is a system that does not deserve to survive. The challenge is to remove it by first replacing the political structures that support the rights of private property and profit above all other considerations.

Penny Cole
Environment Editor
28 August 2009

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