What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Friday, April 27, 2012

Occupying our Tuesday

So over the last few days we've really gotten into some solid actions here, mostly through the 99 pickets campaign (#99pkts) for May Day.  On Tuesday we started out with an action in support of Street vendors in NYC.  I mean, after all, what is NY without a hot dog vendor on every corner?!  New York City has been continually shrinking the area in which vendors can operate, granting less licenses (which packs them on top of each other), and in turn forces out mostly minority and immigrant workers trying to legally earn a living. The Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations have been definitively against vendors for a couple decades now. Vendors are competition for brick and mortar companies and/or those that can afford to sign leases and have access to capital to fund retail faced start ups. Street vending is a way to get started with less initial capital expenditure (Macy's and Dagastino's in fact started like this), but it is competition to store fronts and big retail chains (Macy's and Dagastino's are now staunch opponents).  

The push by the street vendors is to start with a reform in the fines received and how they are administered.  They used to pay $250 a violation and the fees didn't compound with different offenses, now it is $1000 and if you get a fine for being too close to a subway and for not having your name tag around your neck they compound and cost much more.  (I was todl by oe vendor he makes about $7000 pr year profit).  If you want to know more you can read coverage from the Village Voice on a short research study by U of Wisconsin that lays down the ECONOMIC foundation for why the fines are too high. 
"In 2009 street vendor enforcement cost the city $7.4 million. In addition, the city collected a small percentage of fines. Out of $15.8 million in total civil vending penalties in 2009, $14.9 million went uncollected."
Fines between $1-399 were paid 47% of time, $400-799 - 25%, $800+ - 7%. If the goal is to put street vendors out of business through exorbitant fines, then the city may be succeeding, if it is to make revenue off of legal enforcement of the laws, it is grossly failing. Fact is the city is losing money on this enforcement, it is putting small business entrepreneurs out of business (gasp!), AND yes, I believe it is reinforcing institutionalized socio-economic and racial hierarchies of power and disparities in opportunity that are paramount to reinforcing the horrors of racism and capitalism so grossly entrenched in America and the world.

Which leads me to Tuesday's second picketing action along a common theme!  Land Grabs in the developing world, specifically in Africa.  Obviously I spent some time in Sierra Leone and talked to a lot of people while there.  Several things were blatantly happening there that I found truly disturbing and were detrimentally affected the local populace.  One was an agricultural project by a European non-profit that swallowed up hundreds of hectares of land.  They were working on planting biofuels for export.  The issue was though, that while they had the greatest of intentions, they were still displacing thousands of people from their ancestral lands, taking there farming area, decreasing the amount of arable land for local food production (they live on 1200 calories a day per person), while promising to move them and give them jobs - which were not materializing while I was there.  So people were getting their property and ability to farm and eat taken so that they could become wage-laborers mostly tied to the land or sent to a big city to fend for themselves.  Sad, very sad.

The biggest thing going on though was the Africa Minerals investment in Tonkolilli to take down an entire mountain range for one of the world's largest iron ore deposits.  They promised 10,000 jobs and signed a 66 year lease with an option to renew.  What was the local compensation?  They were moved off their lands, and the only jobs I had seen were for foreign workers staying at the "posh" Wusum hotel and for local drivers to drive them around.  I go back to James Ferguson's concepts of socially thin development models I've spoken of in the past.

The protest there it self was organized by Ethiopian groups in response to what had been happening in their country and is satirically addressed in this video:    

The protest was also put on by the Oakland Institute and was in response to a conference at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan by Global AgInvesting.  The conference - at $3000 a place - was not designed to encourage small Ethiopian farmers or their families in NYC to participate, rather it was for Wall St., private equity types, big agricultural companies, university endowment and public pension funds, etc.  Every year, a land area the size of France is divvied up throughout the world to those with the means to take it.  As a press release on the conference states:
"This conference promotes the large scale acquisition of land by foreign investors, a dangerous practice known as "land grabbing" that is leading to record levels of hunger, skyrocketing food prices and environmental degradation.  Community groups, faith leaders, non-governmental organizations, Occupy Wall Street and members of New York City’s Ethiopian community are mobilizing against these destructive trends... Proponents claim that foreign investments in agricultural land in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe will help feed a growing world population and promote development. In fact, these schemes do not contribute to rural well-being. Far from increasing food production for local consumption, land grabbing usually results in export crops, including biofuel feedstocks and cut flowers. Land grabbing has already caused the violent displacement of tens of millions of small producers, worsening poverty and hunger and driving waves of migration. Women farmers, the majority of smallholders, suffered especially."

"Development" isn't about people in the West making money off the sweat of African backs so they can buy a TV, it is about allowing for the exchange of ideas and options and perhaps empowering people with the agency make their own difference in their lives.  Fact of the matter is that this is just another way for capitalist exploitation and imperialism to expand and accumulate large areas of the world - or colonialism 2.0.

I spoke at length with two American female farmers from North Dakota attending the conference and we had very different views on this situation.  They wanted to the feed the world.  Ok, I commend them for that.  They would like to eventually turn a profit on that and they want to use genetically modified foods.  I strongly disagree with that.  However, I was not trying to dwell on an issue that scientifically neither side is willing to concede of the "proof" of the others' argument.  I rather wanted to ask about the locals, the land, and how it would be obtained in their projects.  They however had little remorse - starting the conversation with the bold and generalized statement that "everyone wants to make money" and who's follow up was framed in colonial language that I rarely get to hear much outside of  old anthropology and history books.  As an anthropologist of sorts as well, I strongly disagree with these types of statements and generalizations.  Yes, in the western capitalist mind it is often taken for granted that "everyone wants to make money", that everyone wants things the way "we" do.  But the world is full of many different types of people, and starting from a place of "everyone wants what I want" is a bit naive not to mention wholly arrogant.

These woman said they were going to employ the people who's land they were taking, provide jobs, give them the means to sell crops abroad and make money.  hmmmm.... this sounds familiar.  Sierra Leone in 1961 at independence was a net exporter of rice and could feed its whole population, but once capitalist deregulation and structural adjustment programs came in, when the country was plunged into civil war three decades later it was a net importer of rice and couldn't feed its population.  Arable land had gone from being used for rice for local consumption to cash crops to be sold abroad and for property owners to make money off of.

These women thought they were doing the right thing.  And in colonial, imperialist, capitalist, and classical economic "development" terms they were.  BUT THAT DOESN'T WORK!!!!  The rich get richer and the poor get further behind.  Capitalism does not work for those on the fringes - about 99% of us some would say!

The bottom line is that Occupy and multiple organizations came together to protest against the rich taking advantage of the less advantaged - be them New York politicians and retail giants, or giant agricultural and financial investors.  We as a society have to question the laws and norms of our society - protest them even.  We need to change society at large to be one that works FOR all of us rather than for just a small few with control over the ideas our minds, and/or the outright ownership of the means of production.  Question it, rise up above it, over throw it!!

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