Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Malawi: Children of the Tobacco Fields

The Material World Column from the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

We all know that tobacco harms those who smoke it. Few are aware of the damage it does to those who pick and process it.

The “children’s organisation” Plan International recently issued a report about children in Malawi, some as young as five, who toil up to twelve hours in the tobacco fields for an average daily wage of 11p. (Hard Work, long hours and little pay).

The finding that has attracted most attention is that these children are being poisoned by the nicotine “juice” they absorb through the skin – and also ingest, as they have no chance to wash hands before eating. Many of the ailments that plague them -- headaches, abdominal and chest pain, nausea, breathlessness, dizziness – are symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness.

But much of their suffering has nothing to do with nicotine. All have blisters on their hands. All have pains – in the shoulders, neck, back, knees – caused by overexertion of their immature muscles. About a third of the children are coughing blood, which suggests TB.

Many of the children examined had been beaten, kicked or otherwise physically abused by estate owners or supervisors. Many of the girls had been raped by them. One boy had deep knee wounds as a result of being made to walk across a stony field on his knees as punishment for “laziness”.

Who owns the estates?

Who are these estate owners?

Commercial tobacco farming in Malawi began late in the 19th century, when it was the British colony of Nyasaland. White settlers seized much of the best arable land for plantations of tea, coffee, tung trees (for their oil, used as a wood finisher) and – mostly -- tobacco. Even today the majority of owners of large estates are descendants of the colonial settlers, although now there are also black owners.

In 1948 some tung and tobacco plantations (estates) were taken over by the Colonial Development Corporation, funded mainly by the British Treasury. After Malawi gained formal independence in 1964, these came under state ownership. Later they were reprivatised. Another recent change is the direct acquisition of some estates by international tobacco companies.

The estates were established on land stolen from traditional peasant communities. The process began in colonial times but continued even after independence, under the Banda regime. Land theft impoverishes local communities and compels those worst affected to offer themselves – or their children! – to the estate owners as wage slaves.

Tobacco is also grown on many small family farms. Here too, children work and suck in nicotine juice, alongside their parents.

The tobacco cartel

Malawi’s tobacco market is dominated – through subsidiaries -- by two international corporations, Universal Corporation and Alliance One International. These corporations operate a cartel, refusing to compete and colluding to keep tobacco purchase prices low. This in turn intensifies the pressure on farm owners to minimise costs by exploiting cheap or free child labour – a practice that the corporations hypocritically claim to oppose.

Representatives of the corporations sit on several committees that advise the government of Malawi on economic policy. By this means they ensure that their interests are served and block any initiatives to diversify the economy and reduce the country’s dependence on tobacco.

The main reason why child labour is so prevalent in Malawian agriculture is the poverty – in particular, land hunger -- of most of the rural population. This reflects not any absolute shortage of land but rather the highly skewed pattern of land ownership. Large tracts of land lie fallow on the big estates.

A pathetic contrast

How does Plan International propose to help the children on the tobacco farms?

Well, it will “educate farm owners and supervisors” and persuade them to provide the children with protective clothing. Taking the tobacco companies’ PR at face value, it will urge them to “scrutinise their suppliers more closely”. It will not, however, support a ban on children picking tobacco because that is “unrealistic” – as indeed it is if you refuse to challenge underlying social conditions.

But what a pathetic contrast such “realism” makes with Plan International’s “vision” of “a world in which all children realise their full potential in societies that respect people’s rights and dignity”!

Environmental degradation

Besides ruining people’s health, tobacco degrades the environment. The tobacco monoculture that dominates much of Malawi depletes the soil of nutrients. It also causes extensive deforestation, as trees are felled to provide firewood for curing the tobacco leaves, and this in turn further erodes the soil. Water sources are contaminated. After over a century of tobacco cultivation, all these processes are already far advanced. (For fuller analysis, see the chapter by Geist, Otanez and Kapito in Andrew Millington and Wendy Jepson, eds. Land Change Science in the Tropics: Changing Agricultural Landscapes, Springer 2008.)

Tobacco in socialist society?

Will tobacco be grown in socialist society? On a small scale, possibly, by addicts for their own use. But it’s hard to imagine socialist society making planned provision, within the framework of democratic decision-making, for tobacco production. People aware of all the harm caused by tobacco will surely prefer to halt cultivation of this noxious weed. They will seek to restore soil fertility, reverse deforestation and enhance local food supply.

Even if, for the sake of argument, we suppose that the decision is made to continue producing tobacco, will it be implemented? Will the free people of socialist society, no longer spurred on by economic necessity, voluntarily poison themselves just to feed others’ addictions?

Stefan

More articles from the Material World series can be viewed here.

Joining the killing machine (2009)

From the November 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
The campaign to win the young to war has come a long way from the ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster with the pointing finger of Kitchener used in the ‘First Great War’.
As is usual at this time of the year, we are called upon to remember the dead, the fallen of wars; not only two ‘World Wars’ but of recent continuing wars in far away places. Poppies sold, a festival of remembrance held and televised, boy-scouts, girl-guides, sea, air and army cadets, new and old soldiers march down to the local war memorial to repeat that yearly ritual, customary observance and practice.
The main event is held at the Cenotaph, the monument built to honour people whose remains are interred elsewhere or whose remains cannot be recovered and lie scattered across the fields and arable land of France; as was and still is the case for many casualties of that First Great War. The Cenotaph is in London’s Whitehall, a stones throw from Downing Street where all decisions of war have been taken and plotted particularly in the last and current century. This year’s remembrance falls in the year that marks the 70th anniversary and outbreak of the Second World War and as usual the Queen and her Royal Family dressed-up as Fleet Admirals, Air Marshals and Field Marshals with medals and self-awarded honours, will join our political leaders in honouring by this act of remembrance the war dead who, we are told time and again, gave their lives for the freedoms that we (supposedly) enjoy today.
During the summer with its cricket field, pubs and a centuries-old church Wootton Bassett became the focuses of international media attention, not unfortunately because of its idyllic picturesque village qualities; typical of an old English town in all respects but one: every corpse that returns from Britain's wars abroad passes through it. In what has become a public show of respect? Wootton Bassett is near Royal Air Force Lyneham, the base to which the country's war dead are returned. Commencing about two years ago, townspeople began gathering for the processions of each soldier as the body, in a flag-draped casket, was moved from Lyneham to a coroner's office in Oxford. The inaugural processions were attended by just a dozen saluting war veterans at first. Crowds then swelled to the thousands when the repetition of these sad processions became commonplace as the convoy of coffins through Wootton Bassett turned from a trickle to a stream.
Newspapers carried front page coverage that included pictures of mothers, fathers, wives, children and in some cases distraught girlfriends of the fallen. Anyone who picks up a newspaper or owns a television set cannot have failed to miss the risks that are involved and taken by the young in the modern wars that are Afghanistan and Iraq and have proven to be oh so deadly.
Every now and again, Brown and Cameron, before the exchange of insults during questions to the Prime Minister, will pay a tribute of hollow words acknowledging deceased military personnel. But with the public witnessing the return of young military casualties the pendulum of public opinion began to stick and stay put on questioning or opposing the military mission. The government during the summer, sensing the public perception, gave support to the first ever armed forces’ day, the idea being that parades and ceremonies would be held in every community around the war memorial to honour the role and function of armed forces personnel past and present – to use government language – honouring their commitment. This year's main national celebration was held at the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, Kent. The official party included Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester, and the Chief of the Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup.
Brown said: "The people that have come here today have shown the high esteem and regard in which they hold the Armed Forces of our country. The Armed Forces who do so much, the families who make such sacrifices. I don't think we say thank you enough, today is our chance to say it and say it with one voice, thank you very much to our Armed Forces."
Brown’s comments, were, if nothing else, very telling about government and military strategists’ concerns and about having public opinion on side. If opinion is off side, then one thing is for sure and that’s that it’s not directed against service personnel who are merely uniformed workers, working like any other workers under instructions. The British armed forces have some of the most difficult and far-flung commitments to maintain. Major commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq co-exist with others from peacekeeping in Cyprus to patrolling the Falkland Islands. To meet these commitments, an estimate is made of the required number of trained full-time personnel, known as the ‘trained requirement’. The actual number of trained personnel, known as the ‘trained strength’, is usually slightly less than requirement. The trained requirement in 2007 stood at 183,610; the trained strength stood at 177,760, of which 99,280 were in the army, 34,940 in the navy and 43,550 in the air force.
In terms of personnel, the UK regular armed forces are the third-largest in Europe after Germany and France. Britain is the world’s largest military spender after of course the US, and its armed forces being the most stretched in the world, over £2 billion is spent each year on recruiting and training 20,000 new personnel to replace those who either leave or are killed on active duty. The armed forces, as the statistics show, draw their non-officer recruits mainly from among young people with low educational accomplishment living in poor communities. A large proportion joining for disadvantaged reasons, including the lack of civilian career choices; a survey in the Cardiff area in 2004 found that 40 percent of army recruits were joining as a last resort and the army revealed in 2004 that while roughly 45 percent of all young people leave school with 5 GCSE subjects graded A-C only, 17 percent of all Army recruits in 2003–04 had English at A-C level, with the figure for Maths at about 10 percent. On average Army recruits have 0.9 of a GCSE at grade A-C. ... Records also show that 24 percent of all Army applicants in 2003–04 were unemployed for a significant period before applying.
The killing locomotive that is the army always needs fuel to feed into its boiler, so tens of thousands of pounds are spent on newspapers and the media convincing youngsters to sign away (no apology) their lives. On the way back from visiting a friend, I found one of those free newspapers that are handed out every evening at tube stations in London and lying on the seat next to me on the train on which I was travelling, what caught my eye was a double-page spread advertisement placed in the London Metro by the army and, I assume, acting on instructions from the Ministry of Defence and the government. The advertisement carried the image of a beautiful young woman in combat fatigues. I have no reason to believe that this young person isn’t a serving member of the armed forces and with the looks of a model.
The advert had a personal testimony of army life given by Major Laura Blair, 31, (can you believe that name) who is a member of the Adjutant General’s Corps; they apparently specialise in HR Personnel. Laura, if she does exist, says wonderful things about army life and ends by advising anyone who may be interested in an army career to either pop into one of the Army Careers Offices dotted around London or visit the Army Show Rooms in Hounslow or Dalston to find out just what life in uniform could offer them.
Recruitment literature for army careers emphasises potential benefits: career interest and challenge, comradeship, the active lifestyle, travel and training opportunities. It omits to mention or obscures even blots out: the radical change from a civilian to a military lifestyle, ethical issues involved in killing, risks to physical and mental health, the legal obligations of enlistment, the state’s legal and moral obligations to its armed forces personnel, and the right of conscientious objection. By suggesting that soldiers are highly satisfied with army life, the literature also glosses over the ambivalent attitudes of the majority. The omissions conspire against the potential recruit’s right and responsibility to make an informed choice about whether to enlist. The literature also does little to enable parents to ask searching questions of their children and of recruiters in order to assure their children’s best interests.
One thing that remains the same about war is that workers fight it and die in it, and that’s best summed-up by the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War who died earlier this year: Henry John “Harry” Patch (17 June 1898 – 25 July 2009) – known as ‘the Last Tommy’. Harry, apparently, hated war, and called it “organised murder, and nothing less.”
NL