PCUSA Anti-Hunger Program Mobilizes against Free Trade, Corporate Investments
Alan F.H. Wisdom – posted first by the IRD
May 24, 2013
An initiative of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Hunger Program is organizing U.S. and overseas activists to oppose free trade agreements and resist corporate investments in developing countries. This “Joining Hands” initiative was featured in a workshop at an April 5 PCUSA-sponsored conference on “food justice.”
Joining Hands describes itself as “an initiative of the Presbyterian Hunger Program that fights the root causes of hunger by sparking the formation of networks in developing countries. These networks lead the struggle against hunger at a local level while working with PC(USA) presbyteries and congregations to address global hunger issues.” Hunger Program associate Valery Nodem hailed Joining Hands as “the new approach in the church to do mission.” With the rest of the Hunger Program, it is funded through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering.
The Rev. Alexa Smith, PCUSA staff associate for Joining Hands, characterized the initiative as an effort to shine light into the dark places of international commerce. Developing country decisions to enter free trade agreements and allow foreign investment are often made without consulting the people most directly affected, according to Smith. “Most of the decisions that were causing people problems were not public decisions,” she said. “They were decisions that were made in the shadows.” Smith asked her audience to imagine a poor farmer caught by surprise when “a bulldozer was moving toward your house to displace you because the government had leased the land you were living on to a corporation very cheaply to grow a monocrop for export.”
The Joining Hands associate saw such incidents as symptomatic of a global problem: “There are 1.5 billion people in more than 50 resource-rich countries who remain mired in poverty.” Although the resources are abundant, many of those countries have “very authoritarian governments” that appropriate the proceeds from foreign investment for themselves and their loyalists. “Most of the money is siphoned off at the upper level and never filters down for basic needs like infrastructure, health care, education, and housing,” Smith charged.
Transparency as a Solution
As part of the solution, Smith urged more public information regarding foreign investment deals. She highlighted the “Publish What You Pay” campaign, in which Joining Hands participates, to establish a global transparency standard for oil, gas, and mining agreements. The campaign had success in inserting into the 2010 Dodd-Frank financial reform bill a requirement that U.S. corporations entering such agreements overseas disclose the amounts paid to the host governments. “The church was a game-changer” in getting this provision passed, Smith declared. She decried a lawsuit by oil companies seeking to strike down the requirement.
Similarly, the PCUSA staffer demanded “more transparency in international tribunal processes” for enforcing free trade accords. She was concerned that foreign investors are bringing complaints against developing country governments for breaking their promises of open markets. In such cases, the free trade agreements typically call for independent, confidential arbitration, in order to insulate the decision from political pressure. But Smith apparently felt that political pressure, facilitated by more public information, would be a positive factor in such situations. Joining Hands officials and publications have been almost uniformly critical of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and other current or prospective free trade agreements.
Speaking at the April 5 workshop, Valery Nodem conceded that “agricultural investments can play a major role in reducing hunger, fighting poverty, providing jobs.” But Nodem contended that “there are very few examples of land leases that have turned into development opportunities or poverty reduction for poor people.” Most of Third World land leased by agricultural investors, he said, was used for biofuels and cash crops for developed country consumers, not food to feed local people.
“Two-thirds of what is produced is shipped away,” Nodem lamented. He rejected this crop choice as a violation of “food sovereignty”—the notion that every nation should supply its own food, rather than exchanging food and other products on international markets allowing each nation to specialize in items that it could most advantageously produce. The Hunger Program staffer advocated tighter regulations to ensure that agricultural investments served a positive purpose.
‘Fighting Back’ against Corporations, Technologies
Nodem was encouraged that people, such as the networks supported through Joining Hands, “are becoming more aware and they are starting to fight back” against the corporations. He counted rising numbers of “divestments or abandoned or postponed projects” as victories for the poor.
Nodem was particularly suspicious of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) developed by multinational corporations. He rejoiced to recount how Haitian farmers had rejected a gift of seeds from Monsanto. Nodem was also pleased to report that “more and more countries around the world have banned or put in
place GMO restrictions.” In the United States, he hailed “the whole organic thing” that disdains fertilizers and pesticides.
The workshop included clips from three videos that movingly illustrated the anti-corporate theme. A video on Ghana showed how foreign-operated oil wells and gold mines had driven tribespeople off their land and polluted the environment. Another video depicted a grief-stricken Ghanaian farmer watching as mechanized equipment dispatched by a foreign corporation cleared land that he had once lovingly tended by hand. “They only think of their profit,” he remarks bitterly.
The third video, narrated by PCUSA missionary Jed Koball, focused on the town of La Oroya, Peru. Koball called La Oroya “one of the most polluted places on Earth” because of a metal smelter owned by the Doe Run Company. “In Peru thousands of children are sick because of forces beyond their control,” he said, “because of the way that an otherwise legitimate profit motive can result in pollution and sickness for vulnerable communities.” Koball reported that 97.2 percent of children in La Oroya suffer from lead poisoning, causing them to lose 1 to 3 points of IQ per year.
“So at the end of the day, what is my job?” the missionary asked. “I think it’s pretty simple: to tell the story, tell the story in Peru, tell the story in the United States, tell the story of injustice, the story of a people finding their voice, the story of a partnership across great distance, and through this story to tell the story of our faith, of how God’s justice is being proclaimed, how God’s hope is being heard, how God’s peace is being lived out, how God’s light continues to shine even in the darkest corners of this world.”
The Rest of the Story
There is no reason to doubt the stories of abuse communicated through the Joining Hands program. In a fallen world, where authoritarian governments and other unjust structures leave many people powerless and vulnerable, it is not surprising that sinful individuals and institutions take advantage. Lack of transparency can make the problems worse.
Free trade may in some sense globalize the opportunities for exploitation. Yet at the same time free trade limits exploitation by undercutting the old local monopolies that used to hold all power. More open economies allow the poor and others to take the initiative in providing for their families. Some of them create their own jobs as entrepreneurs; others find employment with the very corporations that the PCUSA program habitually denounces. All of them benefit from the unprecedented abundance of food produced with the assistance of despised technologies such as fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic modification.
Indeed, this opening of new markets and new opportunities is the means by which hundreds of millions worldwide have emerged from poverty in recent decades. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reports that over the last 20 years the proportion of undernourished persons in the world has dropped from 19 percent to 12 percent. This is the story that the PCUSA’s Joining Hands initiative is not telling. Perhaps corporations are not always the bad guys.
As posted first by the Institute for Religion and Democracy: http://www.theird.org/communities/presbyterian/pr-13-05-24-pcusa-anti-hunger-program-mobilizes-against-free-trade?erid=1924412&trid=8eba59c7-7f2c-40a7-b82f-7ace37e51ab4