Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 422 | Septiembre 2016



Thousands of African migrants on our borders

Central American governments, including ours, were able to keep quiet for years about Africans arriving on our borders, but they no longer can. Thousands are coming and will keep on doing so, for many interrelated reasons, no longer just “economic” or the pull of the American Dream. The presence of certain African nationalities is increasing at the same rate as lucrative investments in biofuels, land grabbing and expulsions.

José Luis Rocha

Globalization is shaking up Central America. One evidence of that can be seen when we trace the spatial-temporal starting points of the growing numbers of African, Asian, Haitian and Cuban migrants heading north through the countries of the isthmus in a seemingly unending caravan, the embodiment of a socioeconomic dynamic now connecting formerly remote areas and populations.

Now united with Africa

In the 1970s, a group of Congolese seen crossing Rivas’ valleys would have been less newsworthy than five simultaneous apparitions of the Virgin Mary. In recent months, however, Congolese and other Africans are in the Nicaraguan media every day. What’s happened to make this migration so commonplace? There are many explanations among others : the media networks, the “demonstration effect”; the growing number of migrants who finance the journeys of new migrants; the strength and experience of the networks of coyotes, as those paid to get undocumented migrants where they are trying to go without getting caught are called; the demand for labor and the lobbying and support by humanitarian organizations...

I want to focus on the Central American governments’ reactions and the forces driving these men and women from their lands, because they underpin the current situation and the accumulated reality in the countries of origin. These forces are bringing Central America into contact with Africa in ways unforeseen less than a decade ago. And I’ll focus on the Africans for contentious economic reasons: to expose the specific ways poverty—that ubiquitous and polymorphic beast—is being covered up, often obscuring more than it explains.

How many are coming?

In today’s world, with 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons and 33,972 more displaced daily, 21.3 million of them refugees and 10 million stateless, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it was impossible for Central America not to be affected by those fleeing their countries in search of better living conditions or simply survival.

The 2015 UNHCR report on global refugee trends listed the main countries of provenance for refugee applicants as Syria, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea and Colombia.

Citizens from at least five of those countries have come to Central America, but the region’s governments have acted as if those displacements didn’t exist. They have sided with those unwilling to show solidarity with the world’s poor, those the Internationale calls prisoners of starvation and for whom socialist Nicaragua claims to fight.

The migration of Africans, no longer possible to ignore, went unperceived for several years but now the increase in volume and policies of rejection have made it more visible. Central America’s governments share the custom of not releasing the numbers of detainees in their migrant detention centers. But the need for English-to-Spanish interpreters to fill out UNHCR forms in Managua’s Migrant Detention Center gave me the chance to learn that 208 Cubans were detained just in the first 6 months of 2012 and that, as early as in 2009, the authorities detained 86 Somalis, 90 Eritreans and 21 Ethiopians. This migration has increased with the crisis taking place on the African continent.

Not a new reality, but one on the rise

We don’t know how many there are now. We can get an inkling from the 2015 management report of Nicaragua’s General Directorate of Migration and Immigrant Affairs (DGME), which starts by thanking “God, the Virgin Mary and all our heroes and martyrs.” It talks about the “regularization of 9,848 migrants at the DGME National Refuge Center, extraordinary work undertaken by the designated inspectors.” The report makes clear that it’s dealing with unauthorized migrants but doesn’t specify their nationalities.

The media provides us with other data about the increase in this migration and the wide range of nations it encompasses. The news speaks about Nepalese and Haitians (26 detained in Carazo on June 23, 2016), other times of as many as 42 Africans from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Haitians, also detained in Carazo this past August 4, according to police sources. Two days earlier the Rivas police found eight bodies on the shores of Lake Cocibolca, presumably of African (or Haitian?) migrants. Two more bodies appeared later and from the statements of a survivor it was learned that they came from the DRC.

Just five days earlier the Nicaraguan Army disclosed that in the first seven months of 2016 it had detained 2,507 undocumented foreigners in the department of Rivas, of whom 674 were captured in July: 486 Africans, 94 Haitians, 69 Asians and 25 Cubans.

In Guatemala, between January and September of this year, the migration authorities detained 850 from the Congo, 48 from Ghana, 28 from Somalia, 25 from Mali, 21 from Senegal, 15 from Guinea, 12 from Eritrea, 12 from Camaroon, 10 from Gambia, 5 from the Ivory Coast, 4 from Burkina Faso, 2 from Toto, 2 from Angola, 2 from Ethiopia and 1 from Nigeria.

A less limited source for information about migration’s volume and composition—although always incomplete because it focuses on detainees—is the Mexican government’s Migration Policy Unit, which reports Africans in the “lodged” data that appears in its statistical bulletins. When it detains migrants, it doesn’t register persons but rather “events.”

In 2010 they registered an unprecedented 1,282 detainment events of Africans: 723 from Eritrea, 311 from Somalia and 167 from Ethiopia being in the largest numbers. In 2011 there were 287 detainment events of Africans, the majority of them 136 Eritreans. In 2012 there were 323, mostly 176 from Somalia, 61 from Eritrea, 22 from Ghana, 20 from Nigeria and 11 from Ethiopia.

In 2013 there were 545 detentions, 339 from Somalia, 69 from Eritrea and 65 from Ghana. In 2014 the numbers rose to 785: with 403 from Somalia, 169 from Ghana and 83 from Eritrea. In 2015 there was a jump to 2,078 detentions, with 864 from Somalia, 631 from Ghana and 155 from Eritrea.

The first half of 2016 exceeded the whole of 2015 with 3,689 detentions, 1,982 from the DRC, 396 from Ghana, 237 from Senegal, 208 from Somalia, 196 from Mali and 140 from Eritrea. This record enables us to see the ratios in which the numbers of African migrants increase and how and when new nationalities are added.

Another source is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with data about the growing arrival of refugees to the United States. Those from Eritrea went from 327 in 2005 to 1,488 in 2014, with a spike of 2,570 in 2010. Those from Somalia totaled 64,007 in this period and those from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who were just beginning to be detected by Mexican Migration and its Central American homologues, totaled 1,535 in 2009, doubling to 3,174 in 2010 and tripling to 4,540 in 2014.

A migration that’s invisible, just visible and made invisible

These figures enable us to establish that the flow of Africans has been far greater than detected or declared by the Migration police from the Central American isthmus. Their statistics have sought to minimalize this transit, to make the Africans invisible, a purpose that became unachievable when the Africans changed their routes and instead of entering Central America through the Caribbean Coasts by boats, where they were caught, began to massively cross through Rivas’ backyards. Sources whose statistics depend on official figures have helped make them invisible.

Nicaragua’s migration profile, released in 2012 by the International Organization for Migration (OIM), states that in the 1990-2003 period “5,624 foreigners were held by the authorities, mostly coming from South America,” and added that migrants from Africa and Asia were “notable” in the 2007-2011 period, totaling 711 in 2011.

The profile for Guatemala doesn’t once mention Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia or Ghana or any other African country, or it’s demonyms, by name. The word “African” is only mentioned three times, and then just to describe palm plantations. No equivalent migration profiles exist for Honduras and El Salvador.

There are exceptions. A report from the Central American Institute for Social and Development Studies (INCEDES) used official data from the Guatemalan police, but then argued with it: “According to figures from the National Police these cases have grown on average by 370 cases a year. For the 1990-2005 period the Police recorded 6,055 foreigners, which indicates an enormous under-recording of the irregular migration flow. The National Police calculate they register only 5-10% of cases, so in reality the number of irregular migrants for this period could be from 60,550 to 121,100. According to this data, migrants detained in this period mostly came from Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, India, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Continental China.” The presence of Costa Ricans is perplexing, especially compared to the absence of Africans, Cubans and Haitians.

Invisible because unacknowledged

For years the Central American governments could keep quiet about the arrival of Africans and other refuge applicants. Nicaragua’s case was greatly helped by their discreet entry through the Caribbean Coast region, which is ignored by the rest of the country. There the National Police caught them and sent them to the detention center in a corner of the DGME offices in Managua.

Citing the excuse of a thorough police investigation, the authorities didn’t initiate any procedure for several months. When the entry of new migrants made the overcrowding untenable, the number of inmates put the center’s budget in crisis or it was nearly time for the warders’ vacations, they would be made to fill out some refugee applications and their cases were submitted to a commission that granted them this status by the bucket load in a matter of hours. Such prosaic reasons don’t amount to a policy, but they are significant. Knowing that the migrants would immediately restart their march northwards, they quickly erased them from the refugee register.

Nicaragua would have registered several thousand refugees had it not automatically discharged all those who benefitted from this status over the years. It’s likely that this is also the prevailing practice in the rest of the region because the 2014 UNHCR annual report mentions just 280 refugees in Nicaragua, of which only 59 have cases pending resolution. Guatemala appears with 164 refugees and 109 pending cases, Honduras with 26 and 15, while El Salvador shows 35 and none unresolved.

We’re now facing a humanitarian crisis

This panorama changed when the humanitarian crisis, which the Euronews chain assumed was a purely European problem, affected the region. The flow increased and the routes diversified.

Then the government of socialist Nicaragua, disregarding the cry of “Workers of the world, unite!” put a bung on its southern border, alleging a “firewall” policy defining it as “security policy against organized crime, drug and human trafficking,” according to what Daniel Ortega confirmed on August 12, 2016, converting this model into an extended phenotype of the one used by the United States’ DHS. When anti-imperialist Nicaragua adopted a policy which the US embassy in Managua declared was legitimate, refugees piled up in Costa Rica. And that’s where invisibility ended because Costa Rica had acknowledged them as refugees.

The region’s only figures about refugees with an acceptable credibility level are those from Costa Rica (12,924 refugees, 7,820 in a condition similar to refuge, 16,675 attended by UNHCR and 1,774 cases still to be resolved) and from Panama (2,271 refugees, a shameful 15,000 in situations similar to refuge, just 298 attended by UNHCR and 1,402 cases pending). These figures lead to alarming conjectures about the reliability of those from northern Central America.

The 15,000 in similar situations as the refuge in Panama are a blatant forgery, but the shamelessness doesn’t reach the level of the figures from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which don’t register people in these categories and present such low figures of applications for asylum. These figures—the most recent offered by UNHCR—are from 2014, two years ago. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then…

Most of all, the larger number attended by UNHCR in Costa Rica means that because its government recognizes the presence of refugees, UNHCR is under a moral obligation and pressure to attend to them. The non-recognition by northern Central American governments sets the stage for the international organizations to wash their hands of the issue and, however much they may say they condemn the coyote networks, it allows them to continue operating at full throttle. It also sets the stage for invisibility.

A “firewall” in Nicaragua

The refugee issue is very badly managed and plagued by bickering between the region’s governmental authorities. It’s a test, revealing to the public an inoperative flank of the Central American Integration System. The region’s States are on the same page when it comes to anti-immigrant attitudes but their differentiated policies have rendered it impossible to form a single regional front to deal with the refugee issue. Nicaragua’s firewall, for example, doesn’t resolve the regional problem; it just confines it to its Costa Rican neighbor.

The migrants found their own solution, groping for blind spots where they can pass through Nicaragua. Some Nicaraguan citizens help them and pay the price a xenophobic law exacts. As El Nuevo Diario journalist Tania Narvaéz reported: “Rosa Mendieta is from the community of Amayito in Diriamba, Carazo. She says that when she sees Africans and Haitians passing by she gives them food, more afraid of being imprisoned than anything else… That’s what happened to Ricardo López, a resident of the Casares coastal area, who was picked up for questioning by the local coast guard. By all accounts it seems to be because López took food and clothing to the undocumented, without informing the authorities beforehand.”

In order to counteract this image, on Saturday August 6, six days before Ortega would confirm the “firewall” policy, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry issued a communiqué where it explained its institutional position: “The Foreign Ministry, Police, Migration and Customs authorities are coordinating our efforts to guarantee this migratory movement is orderly and safe, which our people need as part of their own life and the relationships between fraternal peoples. Faced with the threats from organized crime and all the dangers mentioned above, we are working to organize this transit, protecting the physical integrity and life of families and communities.”

Will this coordination work? The Nicaraguan government is committed to extremely anti-immigrant legislation and the “firewall” policy is the logical consequence of its regulations. The scattered laws on migration in Nicaragua were condensed, amended and updated into General Law 76, passed in June 2011 and put into force on August 1 of the same year.

We have a xenophobic law

On repealing Law 153 of February 24, 1993—which regulated the most important aspects regarding migratory procedures and the powers of the Nicaraguan migratory authorities for 18 years—and the law on illegal human trafficking, Law 761 became main legal migratory body, covering all aspects except for those covered in Law 655 about the protection of refugees and consular protection.

There are several particularly important aspects that directly concern human rights. Article 11 recognizes foreigners as having the same rights as nationals under the Nicaraguan Constitution. Article 40 recognizes Nicaraguan nationality for children of unknown parents who are found within national territory. Article 45 applies ius soli and ius sanguinis (the granting of Nicaraguan nationality through being born in Nicaragua or being the child of Nicaraguan parents). Articles 46 and 47 accept the holding of multiple nationalities and the impossibility of losing Nicaraguan nationality even when another nationality is held. Article 162 states that irregular foreigners held in the National Refuge Center—no longer called the Detention Center for Illegal Migrants—have the right for their home countries’ diplomatic or consular representatives to be informed of their internment. But none of the articles referring to refuge sets the limit of their internment, which will run for the full “duration it takes for the processing of their deportation, re-embarkation or resolution of their migratory status” (Article 163).

Law 761 was hastily discussed in the plenary, after laying for over four years in a drawer of the National Assembly’s Population Commission, “perhaps forgotten by its owner.” Due to DGME interest in charging the law’s new—and considerably higher—fines, fees and tariffs, it was passed in record time once it made it to the plenary.

The most controversial article is 62, which states that a Nicaraguan with dual nationality “for purposes of staying or leaving the country must do so as a Nicaraguan.” In practice, this means that all Nica/Gringos or Nica/Spaniards, to mention just two of the most significant examples, who visit Nicaragua and don’t have a Nicaraguan passport, must process it during their brief stay, which, furthermore, usually coincides with the Christmas holidays and the migration bureaucracy’s vacations.

The new law includes provisions hostile to the undocumented, very similar to those that national politicians challenge when they find them in US or Costa Rican laws.

Articles 151, 152, 153 and 154 prohibit hiring foreigners with irregular migratory status, imposing fines on those who violate this prohibition and forcing employers to send weekly reports on the foreigners who work in their companies, detailing first and last names, position, nationality, duration of the contract and home address, among others. Article 122 establishes a fine of C$5,000 (US$168) for employers who hire undocumented workers and twice that for repeat offenders.

The law protects them as refugees but...

Article 156 prohibits owners, administrators or managers of hotels, boarding houses and the like of lodging foreigners with irregular migratory status. And Article 157 requires them to keep a register of foreigners, duly numbered and stamped by the DGME, and this book must be made available to that institution. Article 122 imposes a fine of C$2,000 to foreigners who enter or leave the country by an unauthorized border post and a fine of C$50 a day for unauthorized stay. Article 171 legalizes as grounds for deportation “having been sentenced for serious or less serious crimes.”

With these articles the Nicaraguan government reproduces within its country the requirements that have complicated the lives and multiplied deportations of its citizens in the United States and Costa Rica.

Another legal instrument, in open conflict with the above, is the 2008 refugee protection law, which grants rights that in practice are not exercised. For example, Article 10, paragraph C of the refugee protection law establishes that children, sick, elderly, disabled or victims of any kind of violence be moved to a special refuge where they can receive the care they need. In the case of potential refugees, Article 18 of this law establishes that “all applicants shall be informed of the rights inherent in due legal process,” which doesn’t usually happen.

Many of those arrested and subsequently deported qualify en masse for refugee status, according to the circumstances the refugee protection law stipulates must be present for official recognition of that status: “A) That because of well-founded fears of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, gender, membership in a particular social group or for political opinions, is outside their native country and unable or, because of these fears, unwilling to seek the protection of that country; B) That lacking a nationality and for the motives stated in the preceding paragraph is outside the country of former habitual residence and is unable or, because of such fears, unwilling to return there; C) That having fled their country or the country of habitual residence because their life, safety or freedom has been threatened by widespread violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances seriously disturbing public order.”

And when they do manage to enter…

Of course, there’s no chance of qualifying as a refugee if the government doesn’t allow them to enter the country and present their application. When they do manage to enter, the DGME’s tracking, detention and processing system systematically violates the refugee law, according to which “in the event that an applicant for refugee status is detained for being undocumented and/or for having entered national territory irregularly, the competent authority may not hold them for more than seven days, the time for the required investigations to be conducted.”

The investigations and processing almost inevitably take more than a month for the Africans requesting refuge. Monetary penalties are a violation of Article 10 of the refugee protection law: “No penal or administrative sanctions will be imposed for the irregular entry or presence of refugees or applicants for the status of refugee who have entered or are found in national territory without authorization, provided they present themselves to the competent authority within a year claiming reasonable cause for their irregular entry or presence.”

There is inveterate racism in Central America

The rejection of migrants—certain migrants—isn’t some¬thing new or exclusive to Nicaragua. Anti-immigrant legislation is widespread in the whole region and is rooted in inveterate racism. Colonial consortia were very active in human trafficking with the coming of the Spanish and British crowns. They brought thousands of African slaves to Central America.

Since 1565 Africans were taken to El Salvador, the country where African presence has been made least visible, as victims of a forced migration to work in the indigo and sugarcane plantations. In the late 19th century, 3,300 black people were counted there. After being converted by racist xenophobia into a national stain and subject to an assimilation process to join the mestizo majority, in the 1930 census, they barely reached 90. Although it was more of an ideological than physical reduction, it received an accolade from the migratory legislation in force from 1933 to 1959, through which not only residence but even entry—even if only in transit—was strictly forbidden for Chinese, Mongolians, blacks, Malaysians and gypsies (Hungarians), as well as for Arabs, Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians among the other so-called “Turks,” former subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

The law used three criteria to refuse admission: health (rejection of the sick, disabled, mentally defective, elderly), criminal (rejection of drug traffickers, convicts, pimps, cardsharps, deadbeats, communists) and racial, the category used for rejecting all these nationalities.

The anti-immigrant laws of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala

The Salvadoran migration law and its 1959 regulation, still in force today, reflects the same spirit as its predecessor in Article 10, which reads: “Under no circumstance will entry be permitted into national territory, either as temporary or permanent residents, of the following persons: a) Those suffering from contagious diseases; b) Those who profess anarchical or undemocratic ideas; c) Those who in any way could pose a danger to the peace or security of the State; and d) Those whose presence in the country constitutes a threat to public interest, in the prudential judgment of the Ministry of Public Security and Justice.” Subsection “b” was repealed in 2005 as it was considered an affront to ideological freedom. The others remain in force.

It’s still perplexing that El Salvador, a country with almost 2 million citizens in the United States and an economy that’s sustained by remittances from them and Salvadorans who emigrated to other countries, continues to cling to a law established more than half a century ago. To correct this black hole, the law becomes an inverted funnel—with a narrow entry point and a wide exit—through Decree 655, “Special law for the protection and development of the Salvadoran migrant and family,” passed in 2011 by the Legislative Assembly. For Salvadorans who emigrate or return, the 2011 law; and for foreigners, the 1959 Migration Law and the 1986 Aliens Act, both patched up with some corrective amendments.

In Honduras, a new migration law came into effect in 2004. Transportation companies that convey people without migratory documentation are punishable by fines of up to five minimum salaries and the undocumented and those giving them employment by up to three minimum salaries. The same spirit flutters over the Guatemalan migratory legislation. By means of Decree 95-98 during Álvaro Arzú’s administration, the Guatemalan Congress established 10 categories of visas and various penalties for irregular immigration, including fines of up to 700 quetzals (almost US$93) for unauthorized entry and 50 quetzals (just under $7) per person for those who lodge irregular migrants.

European funding to stop “irregular immigration”

Seeking to compensate for the deficiencies of the rejection implemented by the nation-States, supra-national bodies also promote, finance and implement the fight against unauthorized migration, masking it as political correctness. Different programs with the seraphic intention of preventing crimes related to irregular migration are transformed into a reinforcement of criminal processing and address migratory flows as a national security issue.

With European Union funding, various organizations are implementing the “Program for the Prevention of Irregular Migration in Mesoamerica.” The beneficiaries are: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and the Dominican Republic. Its objectives: “To promote and support strategies for the prevention of crimes linked to irregular migration” and “to create and strengthen human and institutional capacities for confronting crimes linked to migration.”

They want to achieve the second objective by “training national authorities in border control, identification of false documents, identification of traffickers’ networks, and the need to include international protection safeguards in the case of refugees.” The national security approach is here to stay because it has those who will pay for it and the good guys are on its side.

Prejudices about this migration

The authors of the 2012 Nicaraguan migration profile contend, with an obvious lack of familiarity with their study’s subject, that “this migration [of Africans] is fundamentally due to economic reasons.” This statement is in line with the multilateral organizations’ interests of not placing due responsibility on the triggers of this migration and the situations under which it occurs.

UNHCR, IOM and the OAS want to curb crimes related to migration, but it’s striking that their regional campaigns and statements don’t include public statements and educational campaigns—especially among the migration officials, who need them so much—to explain the origins of this migration. In this way, African transit through the region seems an imbroglio of suppositions and prejudices whose depoliti¬cization and decontextualization become a breeding ground for its presentation as a threatening, irrational, inexplicable wave and perhaps a carrier of viruses, strange anomalies and violence that typifies how Africa appears in the international news. Expressions such as “human tsunami” and “sea of people,” which politicians and the media often use to refer to this migration, are in line with the Nicaraguan policy officially called a “firewall.”

They come from Somalia, land of wars

Africans are passing through Central America because colonial and neocolonial curses continue creating expelling situations. All these migrants’ countries of origin have been objects of interest in the great powers’ geopolitics, fueled by innovative investors’ entrepreneurialism and big capital’s geophagia.

Somalia and Ethiopia were pieces in the Cold War’s global chess game since 1977 when—by virtue of a coup d’état—the president of Somalia, Mohamed Siad Barre, decided to dispute the Ogaden desert with Ethiopia. Although at the start of his mandate Siad Barre had opted for socialism, Somalia became a pawn of the United States since the Kremlin, which initially supported both sides, opted for the Ethiopian revolutionary junta and Soviet weapons and Cuban soldiers arrived there. In the late 1980s, Somalia became the largest recipient of US foreign aid. This aid, mostly military, created technological conditions for the emergence of inter-clan conflicts, which have destabilized the country ever since. Its most finished product was Al-Shabaab (The Youth), an Islamic guerrilla group with pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda.

They’re fleeing famine and corruption

In 2007, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index crowned Somalia the most corrupt country on Earth, a position it’s kept unbeaten for ten years and only since 2014 has shared with North Korea. Corruption plus drought has produced the greatest famine this country has suffered since its independence. In 2012 the US journalist Jon Lee Anderson had already written that the number of people in Somalia depending on international food aid has tripled since 2007, reaching an estimated 3,600,000 persons. The warlords boycotted the entry of food because they had declared war on the West and this includes the UN. Food arrives by plane and boat, and is distributed by local humanitarian aid workers who are systematically killed by Shabaab militants.

Without lessening its status as a hotbed of corruption and inter-clan hostilities, Somalia today is the country with the juiciest possibilities for reckless investors. The relative trust inspired in the western powers by the regime of Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud, with shiny credentials as a former UN consultant and official, has cleared the way for land-grabbers. Somalia is among the nine countries of Sub-Saharan Africa on whose lands the investors have fixed their rapturous eyes. The Saudis invite Somali ministers and heads of state to forums where they discuss future investments. For now Somalia continues to be more important in the geopolitical fight against Islamic fundamentalists while Ethiopia, its neighbor and inveterate rival, has taken the lead in the great global land auction.

They come from Ethiopia: country of lands under auction/h2>
After decades of obscurantism and submission to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie and after a communist regime nearly exterminated its forests, Ethiopia today is the Mecca for new investors in biofuels and food. The Italian journalist Stefano Liberti explained that up until 2011 one million hectares had been assigned and three million more were under negotiation, a surface area equivalent to that of Belgium.

German Consortium alone has 13,000 hectares in Ethiopia to cultivate jatropha, a crop used to produce biodiesel. The National Biodiesel Corporation (German, Israeli, US American, three eternal frenemies) has 190,000 hectares. The biggest land grabbers in that country are India Varun International with 600,000 hectares, Saudi Star Agricultural Development Plc. with 500,000 and India Karuturi Global Ltd. with 300,000. Other biofuel investors in Ethiopia are companies with headquarters in Great Britain (80,000 hectares), Malaysia (31,000), Denmark and the United Arab Emirates.

Ethiopia is also Saudi Arabia’s vegetable garden

The Saudis, who have no problems with oil but do with food, have made Ethiopia their national vegetable garden. By express mandate of the monarchy, Saudi companies went hunting for land where rice, wheat, corn, palm, coffee, roses, peppers, beets and other vegetables are grown.

Obviously, as its proponents point out, these investments create jobs but they also carve up fragile food systems. All they do is move the food problem from those who can pay for their security to those with enough manpower and land but not capital.

Stefano Liberti summarizes it like this: “Those fleshy tomatoes; those red, green and yellow bell peppers; those eggplants smooth as a child’s skin, aren’t intended for Ethiopians but for the wealthiest consumers from the Arab Gulf States.” The manager of Jittu International hammers home this point: “What we produce here is for exportation. We can get our produce from the field to the consumer in any restaurant in Dubai within 24 hours.”

In that enclave, everything is foreign: the capital is Arab, the seeds and the manager-agronomist come from Holland, Spanish engineers designed the greenhouses’ structure, the fertilizers are European and the computerized irrigation system needs hardware and software that come from different industrialized countries.

Geophagia and biofuels

It isn’t possible to establish an unambiguous correlation between migration and land grabbing but it’s a fact that Ethiopians began to travel through Nicaragua in noticeable numbers in 2007, the year the Ministry of Mines and Energy introduced biofuel production as a development strategy. Production itself is in its infancy.

Land distribution and planting took place in the first four years. The exception was the Fincha sugar factory, which has generated 2.1 million gallons of ethanol from molasses since 1999. Since then the plantations have been diversified to produce fuel from jatropha, palm oil and castor oil. Ethiopia is a country that can auction 23,305,890 hectares suitable for growing biofuels.

Up to 2011, between 1.5 million and 2 million hectares had been allocated. An additional 3 million will be leased out in the next five years at an annual cost of between US$6.89 and $80. The most attractive are the 700,000 hectares that can be irrigated with waters from the Awash River. The race to do this with these lands is already on. The government doesn’t care that its citizens are protesting about a geophagia that’s endangering their food security.

They’re also coming from Ghana, the Congo and Senegal

Ghana, in the far west of Africa, is one of the most promising destinations for biofuel production. Ten regions in that country are committed to the new panacea for getting out of poverty. Ghana leases 55,000 hectares to a consortium of entrepreneurs that includes Brazilians, Norwegians, Dutch, Swedes, Germans, Chinese and British, all united in the cultivation of jatropha to produce biodiesel. The José García-Carrión Group, with Spanish capital, has 10,000 hectares for the production of pineapples while BioFuel Africa Ltd. alone leases 23,762 hectares in the north of Ghana, where jatropha competes with food production.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, another country sending out migrants who cross through Central America, is granting 8 million hectares for growing food and 2.08 million hectares for producing biofuel from African Palm, respectively to a South African company and a Chinese company (Zhongxing Telecommunications). Some sources question the Chinese investment but others confirm it and state that the Congolese government contributed over 10 million hectares to the 51-63 million hectares it has negotiated in Africa in 177 agreements. In the decade 2000 to 2010, Oxfam Novib (Netherlands) and the International Land Coalition have identified more than 1,200 agreements of intent and investment for leasing a total of 80 million hectares. What is happening in the Congo is an extreme case because the negotiated area represents almost half the area suitable for agriculture.

In Senegal 510,000 hectares were already negotiated, which represents 6% of the area for agricultural use. These lands are concentrated in the areas with the best irrigation. It’s only the beginning. Ten years ago a Senegalese Lutheran pastor told me: “Look at Nigeria and Angola. They are constantly at war. Do you know why? It’s because they have oil and diamonds. We in Senegal have nothing, that’s why the West ignores us and why we have peace.” These words were spoken a year or two before the investors discovered that, although small, Senegal is a country that’s half-forest and half-agriculture. And it has another essential factor: a government willing to rent out its country. Peace came to an end. Now Senegal has been the scene of burning riots in defense of food security endangered by land grabbing.

They grab land and drive out the people

Land grabbing has been beefed up in the countries where the migrants crossing Central America come from. Although, as with many social phenomena, it isn’t possible to establish unambiguous, crystalline correlations, it’s impossible not to address the fact that this grabbing is operating as a blind, ejecting force—just as effective as the fencing legitimated by the Enclosures Acts were in 18th- and 19th-century England—but as a systematic force where the villains of the piece are invisible because we can only see the last link (the companies that lease, plant and produce) and not the first (the pensioners, for example) nor the intermediaries (the financial speculators). However, numerous studies have noted the links connecting land grabbing and food security. The other element of the tripod is missing: migration.

The countries where cultivated land doesn’t benefit its inhabitants are those where the African migrants come from who pass through the region. The “events” of DRC citizens detained in Mexico numbering just one in 2014 and eight in 2015, jumped to 1,982 in the first half of 2016. The presence of certain nationalities among those detained by the world’s migration authorities is expanding at the rate and in the direction of biofuel investments. It isn’t a coincidence that almost half the cultivated lands in the DRC are earmarked for that industry or for the production of food for export. Of course, the control that Rwanda exercises over mining resources isn’t negligible, but the new modality is land grabbing.

The food crisis and the 21st century “gold rush”

How and when did this land grabbing start? Countries with plenty of liquidity don’t usually lose sleep over basic food production but conditions changed with the food crisis of 2007-2008. If the crisis alarmed the Central American countries, it aroused a kind of atavistic terror of hunger in the Arab Gulf states, which are extremely dependent on imported foods.

They realized that their trillion dollar financial reserves wouldn’t be worth the paper they were written on in the event of a global food shortage. They saw the decision to block exports by certain countries producing rice and other common staple crops as a homeopathic sign of the future. The food production giants, such as India, Argentina, Ukraine and Vietnam, adopted protectionist measures.

In that portentous future, how could Saudi Arabia feed its 26 million inhabitants and even less the 39 million it would have in 2035? Summits and councils of ministers and heads of State in Riyadh, Dubai and Abu Dhabi resulted in the decision to guarantee food security by making some African countries into their vegetable gardens and grain stores. What couldn’t be produced in the desert could be produced in Africa. Investors became interested in countries they hadn’t noticed until the prices of everyday staple foods such as corn, wheat and rice skyrocketed with the 2007-2008 food crisis. Susan Payne, director and founder of Emergent Asset Management, a company that already leases and cultivates lands in five Southern African countries, says that 60% of the world’s uncultivated land is in Africa, which is destined to grow and we have to participate in this growth.

This situation triggered food speculation. In a world where playing roulette on the stock market has been the abracadabra for money to make money and heap up trillions of millions, it didn’t seem necessary to be properly grounded. In many areas of the world basic grains have been a plebeian crop in the hands of small-scale producers. The intervention of the big-timers with their capital and gigantic granaries was a starting gun for fortune hunters with a shotgun of speculations. Who would have foreseen a few years ago that the 21st-century gold rush would be a race in pursuit of corn, rice, wheat, sugarcane and vegetables?

Africa: Cheap lands and cheap labor

Investing in food and biofuel stocks has become one of the most profitable of activities. The petrodollars that flow towards plantations in Africa are the best letter of recommendation. Hunger sells: the fact that in a not too distant future China could become a high demand market (it has 20% of the world’s population and only 7% of arable land) portends well for this market and a dynamic future for gambling on it.

Some food and biofuel production consortia—especially those from northern Europe—say they are acting with the best intentions and tout the benefits of biofuels and job creation resulting from their investments. But the demand for labor isn’t very high and the wages are very low. It’s not only the land that’s being marked down; it’s also labor. Capital flows in search of more land and more labor for less.

Skilled plantation workers (mechanics, supervisors, and drivers) in Ghana earn between US$138 and $690 a month. Agricultural workers earn less than $60 a month. The Ethiopian Investment Agency, a governmental body commissioned to promote foreign investments, promotes its country like this: “The labor costs in Ethiopia are below the African average.” It’s suggested that that’s why Jittu International is there, in possession of the most advanced farm in all Africa and paying Ethiopian workers US$0.78 a day. These wages are given to them in little cellephane envelopes with the managerial discourse commending the entrepreneurial pipe dream and justifying this plunder as the natural price for “technological transfer.” There is no such transfer or much job creation. There are just displacements, food insecurity and disputes about water sources.

Corrupt elites auction lands and people

The DRC, Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Liberia, Madagascar, Senegal, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia, just to mention the most extreme cases, are nations whose lands are leased for a few cents to countries and businessmen that are now extending their domains and acquiring areas with climatic conditions or soils they lack in their “home” territories. Colonialism now has the form of a contractual relationship between two gangs of bureaucrats stuffed into suits: those effectively representing the investors and those who say they represent the citizens of the country up for rent. The ministers attend forums to offer their lands at the lowest price. Journalist Stefano Liberti attended a meeting between government leaders and potential investors where the presidents vied with each other as if they were in a vegetable market: hectares at US$6.69, hectares at $0.78, free lands… anyone offering less?

Ethiopia sells for between US$6.69 and $27.89 a hectare, according to soil quality and location. Because this price seemed astronomical to the Indian company Karuturi, it negotiated another agreement with the Ethiopian government for the 400,000 hectares it cultivates: zero cost for the first six years and US $0.67 in the following 84 years.

Annual reports from Transparency International (Perceived Corruption Index) and the World Bank (Doing Business in a More Transparent World), in which countries are respectively ranked by their level of transparency and domestic firms’ security in business transactions, enable us to see the concurrence between the more corrupt countries and those attracting the most foreign investment. The countries the World Bank most advises local firms against are those attracting the most foreign investors in foods and environmentally friendly fuels.

One might think that entrepreneurs want to play “extreme business” if we didn’t know that businesses prosper when they have the right connections more than with transparency and a fair, rigorously applied law. The intrepid investor Susan Payne knows her investments are high risk and also knows who to deal with...

Land leases and flexible laws governing the labor supply are a political tool. They are the completely unambiguous message from the presidents of republics under the hammer to the international community to let them know that they are indispensable. According to a veteran Ethiopian politician, if heads of State lease their lands, the international community won’t have anything to say about a lack of freedom of speech, political repression and electoral fraud. Even Islamophobia exits stage left.

In Central America it’s the same as in Africa

Central America has also been up for auction. After signing the 1996 Peace Accords in Guatemala, the World Bank advised a compliant President Álvaro Arzú to modernize the mining sector. Modernizing means that the mining companies are now 100% foreign owned, as well as having their income tax rate reduced from 58% to 31%, and being granted enormous amounts of water free of charge, in a country where ordinary citizens have to pay up to $140 a month for it.

Honduras is the most emblematic case of land grabbing, with an agrarian reform reversal principally applied from 1990 to 1994 by Miguel Facussé, René Morales Carazo and Reinaldo Canales when they bought 20,930 hectares of land for planting African Palm, almost 75% of the 28,365 hectares awarded to peasant families by the 1960-70 agrarian reform.

Mining is Honduras’ new industry engulfing lands and water. So far, the government hasn’t granted areas as humongous as those in the African countries but the affected villages are equally damaged. The Canadian company Aura Minerals, operating in Honduras through Minerales de Occidente S.A., is swallowing up the community of Azacualpa, Copán, occupying its lands and polluting its environment. The 800 metallic and non-metallic mining concessions granted by the Honduran government since the 1980s are a massive land-swallowing enclave that has transformed a banana republic into a mining republic, exchanging the item produced but using identical methods and perks.

Water, “the next frontier”

Nicaragua is also a candidate for land grabbing. The mining concessions granted during the UNO government (1990-1997) were a first step, but the biggest was the most recent: it’s impossible not to situate within these offerings the abject 2013 Nicaraguan canal concession, which won’t bring a canal but does threaten to be a powerful legal device for redistributing land. There are also cases of water grabbing: as with the rice producers who have left the people of Tisma and Malacatoya without water and have turned those places into a lunar landscape and a seething nest of expulsions.

At a conference in Geneva organized by the US Soyatech agency, A. Judson Hill, the visionary CEO of NGP-Global Adaptation Partners, pointed future investors towards the new El Dorado: Water is the next frontier, as it will become increasingly scarce. The development of agriculture will have increasingly more needs: we must head towards this sector.

Hill is aware of the difficulties, because he acknowledges that this merchandise has a very strong emotional value for the community. But the fact that water is a public good, a big obstacle in his judgment, is being changed by the trend towards privatization: He who manages to take control of the water reserves, intercepting the trend of States to delegate distribution services into private hands, will simply make a heap of money.

Everything is interconnected

Simplifying these dynamics to the minimum, they are simultaneously economic, political and demographic. They are woven from situations that connect places and protagonists operating in distant places on the planet: investors in biofuels from Norway and in foods from Saudi Arabia; the Chicago stock market where they negotiate shares linked to investments in foods and pensioners from Minnesota and Ottawa whose pension funds were put on this market; Dutch agronomists managing plantations and Spanish engineers who design the irrigation systems; vehicle owners in Brazil who choose ethanol instead of gasoline; the Bush and Obama administrations that promoted corn production for biofuel and the farmers from Iowa who received the subsidies; consumers of Ethiopian tomatoes and carrots in the Arab Emirates, agricultural workers in Ghana and Tanzania; food security activists in Senegal; and Congolese peasants who compete for water resources with the large plantations, among many other links in this endless chain that, as in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film “Babel,” connects events and persons that appear disconnected at first sight.

Everything is increasingly complex

The complexity involved in these processes and the imbroglio of its protagonists makes it harder to trace the causes of the expulsions. The responsibilities are very elusive, hanging from moral and political threads, translucent and too long to find the far end. The connection between agricultural policies and the expulsions they generate isn’t visible at first glance because they’re always wrapped in a nebula of promises: jobs, technological transference and commitments to the environment.

It may sound farfetched to posit a causal chain connecting some pensioners in the US with some refugees in Ethiopia but the connections exist and can be established. In the case of the pensioners, the key variable is speculation with the pension funds which, with the 2007 food crisis and the collapse of other investments—housing, for example—made investments in food the new 21st-century gold rush.­

The Dutch sociologist Saskia Sassen argues that the logic of the globalized world has reached unprecedented levels of complexity, distinguishing new accumulation patterns from its predecessors. The legal agreements and the immense range of possibilities the financial instruments offer result in previously unimaginable connections. An example is the very “innovative” inter-State environmental policy: carbon trading. The industrialized countries expand their right to pollute the planet by paying other countries for carbon sequestration, inter alia, by financing silvopastoral production systems.

In another field—that of the green baize of finance—hyper wealth’s restless complexity is manifested in the expansion of the range of what can be financed: the possibility of confiscating livelihoods and of speculating with large stocks of food. These exchanges and this capacity of finance to pervade new territories are new elements of this complexity.

Contrary to everything Sassen argues, in the cases of both carbon and finances we can also talk of an oversimplification, of reducing social and environmental processes to the quantifiable. In fact, Brazilian researcher Camila Moreno has just published a book, Carbon Metrics and the New Colonial Equations, in which she criticizes international environmental policy’s emphasis on “carbon measurement,” which she sees as another example of the West’s obsession with measurement and accounting, powerful and illusory abstractions (GDP, calories, miles, pounds and now tons of CO2), that seem objective and reliable.

A capitalism that increasingly expels

Based on simplifications, these complexities’ connection with population displacements obeys systemic dynamics. That’s why Sassen talks about expulsions and why she highlights the link between situations that appear unconnected and whose links are only seen at a more subterraneous level, when we transcend the categories we are familiar with and have used to divide up the world: capitalist economy, communist China, sub-Saharan Africa, environment, finances…

The result is that this phase of capitalism’s prevalent characteristic is expulsions: evictions in Germany, Spain, Hungary, England and the US of those who can’t pay the mortgages on their houses; displacements of peasants in Africa and Latin America by land grabbing and competition and/or shortages of water resources: mobility towards new territories because of water pollution; abrupt changes in human settlement patterns through natural disasters associated with climate change…

United with the Africans

The Africans trying to cross Central America are just more of the populations affected by these expulsions characterizing the current phase of capitalism. The fact that some have been expelled for the best of reasons—to create a world with cleaner fuels, make previously unproductive land produce, invest to create higher yields for pension funds—shows how hell is still being paved with good intentions.

As the expellers’ consciences are lilywhite, they see the migrants as going in search of their own Mecca of goodies and breeding grounds for their own self-satisfied consciences. For our part, we Central Americans must know that this flood of refuge seekers didn’t leave their countries all the way in Africa just because of the magnetic pull of the American Dream.

The expulsions, which are also affecting our region’s countries, unite us with them and demand our solidarity with those that the Martinique poet Aimé Césaire in Notebook of a return to the native land described as “…those who invented neither powder nor compass / those who could harness neither steam nor electricity / those who explored neither the seas nor the sky / but who know in its most minute corners the land of suffering / those who have known voyages only through uprootings….”

Many questions remain unanswered: Why do Africans from only these nationalities come to Central America when there are other countries in Africa that are also being affected by land grabbing? How important are the decisions of those expelled? Does expulsion deny them all choice? Who will win the game: the anti-immigrant policies or the hospitality of the people for whom Christianity and solidarity aren’t just empty words or demagogic devices?

And the question that involves us in a more direct and inescapable way: Will the migrations of Central Americans multiply even more when the widening wave of land grabbing extends further into Central America?

Jose Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Institute of Research and Projection on Global and Territorial Dynamics at Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University.

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