Welcome to the new version of European Tribune. It's just a new layout, so everything should work as before - please report bugs here.

Midnight Thought on the Arc of the Sun (6 April, 08)

by BruceMcF Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 01:17:03 PM EST

Excerpted from Burning the Midnight Oil for the Arc of the Sun (6 April, 08),
in the Burning the Midnight Oil blog-within-a-blog, hosted by kos,
though to the best of my knowledge he doesn't know it.

The Coming Revolution in Africa, is how G. Pascal Zachary titles his piece for the Wilson Quarterly (Winter 2008, Vol. XXXII, no. 1, pp. 50-66.{1}) ...

... and yes, it takes a journalist to see the coming Revolution clearly, since so much of the so-called "development" profession has a conflict of interest. As Pascal notes well into his piece:

Even as a steady diet of stories about "urgent" food crises in Africa dominated public discussion, these successes became impossible to ignore. In 2004, the International Food and Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) published a series of papers titled "Successes in African Agriculture". The papers both reflected and provoked a revolution in thinking about African farming. They also ended a long conspiracy of silence among aid agencies and professional Africanists. For decades the "food mafia," led by the World Food program and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, had refused to acknowledge any good news about African farming out of fear that evidence of bright spots would reduce the flow of charitable donations to the UN's massive "famine" bureaucracy, designed to feed the hungry.

Diary rescue by Migeru


See, the idea was that Africa would become the next Southeast Asia, or China, taking over their place at the bottom of the manufacturing food chain while using the income generated to buy food from "cheap" producers like the US, Australia, Argentina, etc.

The only problems with the idea are:

  • No large nation has developed a robust domestic manufacturing economy without first undergoing an agricultural revolution;
  • There is no indication that China, Southeast Asia, or India and the rest of South Asia are interested in surrendering their dominant positions at the bottom rungs of the ladder of industrial manufacturing even as they make determined efforts to also climb up to higher rungs on the ladder
  • There is no indications of any success between the Sahara and the boundaries of South Africa in developing a robust domestic manufacturing industry; and
  • the "cheapness" of the current low cost food producers is a combination of government subsidy and cheap oil in oil-fed agricultural systems, both of which are coming under pressure, the first from the shift toward subsidizing agriculture through biofuel programs and the second because the global oil production peak seems to now be in our rear view mirror.

IOW, its only problems is that it flies in the face of reality on every single point that it is possible to fly in the face of reality.

So what happened? Well, the reality is that in this time of rising incomes in India and China, and rising agricultural prices in the US and the EU, people started to notice that there were opportunities to go to Africa, make offers directly to local producers, and get agricultural commodities at a cost that made the whole process worthwhile.

A key point that Pascal Zachary makes regards the reliance of African agriculture on small producers:

International buyers of major African crops from Europe, Asia and the United States have told me repeatedly that small farmers in Africa, relying on their own land and family labor and using few costly inputs such as chemical fertilizers, are more efficient producers than plantations. Counterintuitively, Africa's attractiveness to global food buyers is growing precisely because its agriculture is dominated by small farmers. And there are plently of them.

This is an important point ... though the "counterintuitively" speaks to a different intuition than mine ... and it is double important given Peak Oil. African small producer agriculture is almost everywhere a positive Energy Return On Investment (EROI) activity, because the main energy input is a person with a hoe, and the product sold is the normally the surplus remaining after the producer has been fed out of the output.


Be Careful of Wishful Thinking

Now, it is still possible to turn that positive EROI into a negative EROI overall, by dumping more energy into the commodity once it leaves the producer's plot of land. Indeed, as soon as Pascal Zachary turns from reporting to policy making, reality is left behind again, as one of the items in the "wish list for Africa's farmers" is, "Agricultural Airpower" ...

Just as the mobile phone bypassed the vastly expensive challenge of upgrading dysfunctional African land-line systems, a big push into rural-based aviation, aimed at moving crops from the bush to African cities and beyond, would leapfrog the problem of bad roads.

Biofuel powered ambulance
This point is, of course, certifiably insane. The problem of bad roads can be solved with rail and, where suitable, river barge for inter-district transport, as it was before, and cycle-powered transport, which cause much fewer problems in maintaining dirt and gravel roads, for intra-district transport. The combination promises a reduction in the energy cost in getting crops to markets and goods to rural small town producers. It is an extremely 20th century idea in general to just throw energy at the problem ... and undermining the big strategic advantages of African agriculture is so typically 20th century, that if this had been tried and fallen apart during a foreign currency crises, Pascal Zachary would have been reporting on it as another "typical" 1980's and 1990's failure in African development policy.

That is, there is a Wish List full of 20th century Wishful Thinking, sitting side by including detailed reporting from Pascal Zachary gives a strong indication of how badly things can go awry when applying 20th century thinking when its blind assumptions simply do not apply.

So as with anything ... take Pascal Zachary's reporting with a grain of salt. As soon as it loses contact with the reality on the ground and starts to head into the policy realm, it lapses into a substantial amount of conventional wisdom every bit as divorced from reality as the flawed conventional wisdom regarding African development that it dissects with surgical precision.


Looking Ahead to a 21st Century Partnership

This is a critical point when looking ahead to the strategic position of an Energy Independent United States. We have all too often only seen Africa in the Discovery Channel and in heart gripping appeals to help with famine and crises. We have to turn the channel.

The 21st century may well be the Asian Century. However, if African agricultural development remains on track, the 22nd century could well be the African Century. And if we find a way to sidestep our own past habits of only looking to Africa as a source of mineral wealth and as a Geopolitical playground, and offer to Africa a Balanced Trade Deal that is good for both sides, then seeing the 22nd Century mature into an African Century would be very, very good news for our old Republic.
______________________________________
Notes
{1. This is the pre-cursor to the hyperlink, called the "source reference". Just like a hyperlink, it text in a special format that allows another text to be quickly and conveniently accessed. There are advanced programs that make use of text in this format, but the program with the easiest to use user interface is called, "go to a library, and ask a librarian".}

Midnight Oil - Dead Heart (Unplugged)


We don't serve your country
Don't serve your king
Know your custom don't speak your tongue
White man came took everyone

We don't serve your country
Don't serve your king
White man listen to the songs we sing
White man came took everything

We carry in our hearts the true country
And that cannot be stolen
We follow in the steps of our ancestry
And that cannot be broken

We don't need protection
Don't need your land
Keep your promise on where we stand
We will listen we'll understand
...


Display:
So the diary shows up in my comment page.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 6th, 2008 at 10:49:16 PM EST
Excellent. (Sorry I didn't get to it before).

small farmers in Africa, relying on their own land and family labor and using few costly inputs such as chemical fertilizers, are more efficient producers than plantations.

This is the key to local development, not the endless attempts to persuade us that we need to encourage plantation culture (in favour of top-end interests). It's to be hoped small farmers with know-how won't all be driven by often impossible market conditions to leave the land and congregate hopelessly in megapolises. Current high food prices may have the right effect on that -- but policy and investment decisions are needed too.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Apr 8th, 2008 at 05:19:10 AM EST
... article linked to, part of the support for local agriculture has been the previous history of driving people into the cities, which in many countries creates both a supply of land to be worked with new methods, as well as turning all subsistence crops into cash crops.

Its not universal ... again as partly recounted in the article. Some nations, like Mali, are so densely populated that substantial increases in agricultural productivity will still leave them in a near-Malthusian state.

And roving bands of soldiers financed by alluvial diamonds, as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, are worse than plagues of locusts for agricultural development. And no story about an "agricultural revolution" in Africa can ever be a complete success story unless the breadbasket of Central Africa is one of the success stories.

I'd say the core anchors for political stability in sub-Saharan Africa are South Africa, the DRC, and Nigeria. One way to understand the strong "project" focus among economics working in economic development in the continent in the 80's and 90's is in terms of the elephant in the room ... given that all three anchors were instead spreading instability, the only solace was to try to get some project up and running and providing some marginal benefit as things fell apart.

So until the DRC gets on track with agricultural development, all of the good news is provisional.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Tue Apr 8th, 2008 at 09:37:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Mali is densely populated? It's not the African country that leaps to my mind in that regard, deeply ignorant as I am....I guess a lot of Mali is desert, but still. Is there some key feature of Mali that causes you to mention it instead of Malawi, Burundi or Rwanda?

Incidentally, I may be getting involved in a conservation planning exercise in the Congo Basin, but sometimes it as myself "why bother".  I mean, I am pretty sure we can adapt our boreal-based method produce some interesting results that could be the starting point for a systematic implementation by a regional authority. But then it occurs to me that any given effort in Africa can be undone by 500 guys with automatic  rifles, of which no shortage, as you point out.

by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 02:21:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... my fingers were being lazy.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 05:42:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... that, unlike the classical USAID type development project, it is something that can be propagated by the people on the ground once it gets started.

In that case, "why bother" is because if it gets rolling, then individual instances can get knocked out, but not each seed that has been planted.

And if it is the classical USAID model where its a one-off, non-reproducing, dependent-on-imported inputs project, then in that case, not bothering would be the ideal approach.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 05:53:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It is (or will be if the deputy minister ever signs the forms) a CIDA funded agroforestry initiative of some sort. My involvement is strictly in a protected areas / biological conservation capacity. It's possible it could have the sort of KT legacy of which you speak, and that would be worthwhile, I suppose. Though when I consider the enormous impact all our research is not having on boreal conservation, where there are no starving gazillions or unreconciled armed conflicts, I still wonder.

I'll write something up about this project if and when, and would value any remarks you have at that time. It'll be a completely new thing for me, working in (or at least, on) Africa.

by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 06:00:37 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Actually, even if the project itself is not locally sustainable, it could well be very worthwhile to have a component that reduces the damage it does until it comes grinding to a halt.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 06:08:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'll get back to you when I know more. The PI is one of those wheeling dealing academic woozles, so I have taken steps to get things in writing before I accept responsibility for a grad student. I have someone I recruited for another project, but she's Congolese of some sort, it turns out, and wants to work on conservation issues in that part of the world. I am all for helping people follow their dreams, provided it doesn't kill me.

Singing: look, look, look to the rainbow...

by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 08:09:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
An Academic?

<Prepares Garlic, religious siverware and sharpened sticks> ;-)

Any idiot can face a crisis - it's day to day living that wears you out.

by ceebs (ceebs (at) eurotrib (dot) com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 08:13:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
For I, too, am an academic. I just try to not be a woozle, nor associate much with those who are. Unless I have Mr. Pointy close at hand. That, or a deftly prepared memo to the chair of the Graduate Program.
by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 08:19:36 PM EST
[ Parent ]
... the East, or where? I'd be awfully nervous of going any further east than the general Kisangani region.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 10:54:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I really don't know, BruceMcF. The system we have developed works over very large areas indeed, so we could do the entire Congo River Basin, in principle. We have a prototype design of a network of ecological benchmarks developed for the entire Canadian boreal, for example.

In practice, as with the boreal, we'd probably want to divide up the region into ecologically meaning chunks...I have no idea how to approach that for the Congo, which is what the grad project will mostly be about...that and determining the appropriate ecological representation criteria. In the boreal, we use a number of remote/sensed attributes (categorical land cover glasses from GLC 2000, and some continuous measures of productivity, soil moisture deficits, and riparianicity). Some of these may make no sense in the region, but I am no Tropical Ecologist.  I guess my interest in this project is to see if the components of the abstract system we have developed for northern forests can be shown to have functional analogues in a completely different system.

There will be a lot to learn. I am leaning to the north and west, as I find The Gabon really intriguing...the Land that People Forget (To Screw Up)? And if this gets off the ground, I promise to put up a short diary about the problem.

by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 12:24:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You could divide the Congo river basin into subbasins (one for each tributary, and then do the same for the tributaries until you get bite-sized regions).

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Tue Apr 29th, 2008 at 09:24:49 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Just as the mobile phone bypassed the vastly expensive challenge of upgrading dysfunctional African land-line systems, a big push into rural-based aviation, aimed at moving crops from the bush to African cities and beyond, would leapfrog the problem of bad roads.

This requires some kind of Thomas Friedman memorial award.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 05:12:25 PM EST
We can give it an honorary [Moustache of Understanding Alert]

When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done. — John M. Keynes
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 05:14:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Why bother with rural aviation? Let's leapfrog directly to the 25th century, with a teleport network, having both bulk-commodity and family-sized access ports generously strewn about the continent. The magic of the market will surely bring this about, now that the demand has been created by my clever typing.

Sheesh. How much Stupid (tm) can one person have?

by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 08:14:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Precisely.

Teleport. Sure, at the moment you need a hypothetical spaceship with a hypothetical matter / anti-matter engine to run the sucker, but those are just technical details. Surely the market will incentivize those egg-headed people to make one that is more physically feasible with a better EROI.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Apr 13th, 2008 at 10:53:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Let's see. The implication of rural aviation in Africa is that subsistence farmers (they could be nothing else because, hey, no transportation infrastructure) should start growing something of high enough value to warrant air transport. That would be exotic mangos or flowers, most likely. These valuable yet inedible items would be loaded onto airplanes coming and going between a handy international cargo airport built in the middle of nowhere and I suppose somewhere in Europe. The planes would return loaded with what, exactly? What kind of food will these farmers be able to buy with their earnings so that they can feed their families? Anything worth putting on a plane from Europe to their fine new airport would be  no damn good to eat, and they couldn't afford it anyway. But makes economic sense for the flower merchants. They could undercut those greedy producers in Nairobi. Until, that is, the locals all starved.
by PIGL (stevec@boreal.gmail@com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 12:46:01 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, the local producers produce food for subsistence, and flowers as cash crops, and the money from the flowers goes into mobile phones, which goes somewhere else ... China, Europe, the national capital, for the farmer it doesn't really matter who the yellow bellied surplus suckers are or what part of the globe they live in.

Oh, yeah, and the farmers are charged for the cost of shipping in the mobile phones and diesel generators to recharge the mobile phones, at the same rate that the flowers get charged, even though it is totally back traffic and in a competitive system would cost maybe 1/10 as much as the main traffic freight on the flowers.

Like I said, Pascal Zachary is stronger on reporting than on analysis:

Floral exports from Ethiopia are growing so rapidly that flowers theaten to surpass coffee as the country's leading export earner. In Kenya, tens of thousands of small farmers who live within an hour of the Nairobi airport grow French beans and other vegetables, which are packaged, bar-coded, and air-shipped to Europe's grocers. Exports of vegetables, fruits and flowers, largely from eastern and southern Africa, now exceed $2 billion a year, up from virtually zero a quarter-century ago.

All useful reporting ... when it comes time to see that there are serious risks involved if the agriculture is primarily for export, well, noticing that seems to be an exercise left for the reader.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 01:05:50 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Add in the ecological and resource-sharing problems when coffee plantations have been grubbed up to free land for flowers, green beans, lettuces, all requiring irrigation in countries that are short of water.

Unfortunately, it can happen easily when farmers have already been for years (even generations) in a colonial cash-crop system (coffee). Tell them they can make more per acre with another crop, and they'll go there all the more readily that they're accustomed to working for export only.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 03:46:45 AM EST
[ Parent ]
think radio-controlled hang gliders...

cowfart-powered zeppelins...

etc

"We can all be prosperous but we can't all be rich." Ian Welsh

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 04:08:05 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you, I'd rather think biodiesel powered river barges and grain, bean and vegetable powered bicycles.


I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Apr 14th, 2008 at 11:21:28 AM EST
[ Parent ]


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]