Ghana: Inspirational Global Action amid Devastating Global Free Trade
by Kimberley McCoy
|Activists gather for an Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) protest in Accra, Ghana on June 29, 2007. Photo: Kimberley McCoy|
While sitting in a small restaurant in the northern city of Bolgatanga, Ghana, waiting for a tomato and egg breakfast, two young girls sat at a nearby table sorting through a pile of locally grown brown rice. The girls, most likely the owner’s daughters, passed each grain of rice through their hands, removed small stones and placed them on a small plate on the end of the table. The rice would later be made into rice balls to be served in large bowls of spicy tomato soup, a typical Ghanaian meal.
While in Ghana this past summer, I had the opportunity to intern at the Accra offices of the Ghana Trade and Livelihood Coalition (GTLC). GTLC is a coalition of farmer-based organizations, local food crop producers, civil society organizations and nongovernmental organizations. GTLC acts as a unified voice for farmers’ rights and is an advocate for trade policy reform. GLTC listens to farmers’ concerns, researches market trends and studies trade law and agreements to understand the root cause of development problems. GLTC then works to educate Ghanaians about farmers’ struggles, encourages people to choose local products and advises politicians on current trade policy issues. The methods for action are familiar and universal: educate, agitate and organize. The coalition’s current campaigns focus on the rice, tomato and poultry industries, three staples in the Ghanaian diet.
Global Economy, Local Disaster
At that restaurant in Bolgatanga, that may have been the only time in my nine-week stay in Ghana that I actually saw local brown rice on the menu. But in the north, the more rural section of Ghana with an economy dominated by agriculture, this is a more likely occurrence. It is possible that the girls searching for pebbles know the farmer that grew this rice; maybe he is their uncle. The south, near the coast, is home to Ghana’s capital and largest city, Accra, home to more business and industry than agriculture. The farmers of the south are often cocoa farmers, Ghana’s cash crop grown for export. In the south, where I had my internship, local brown rice seems to be an unlikely choice for most people. While walking through the markets of Accra, I passed sack after sack of imported white rice from countries like Viet Nam, China, Thailand, and perhaps most common, the US. The use of imported rice is widespread. One popular dish, wacke, a mixture of black eyed peas and rice, is traditionally made with brown rice, yet nowadays cooks add a coloring ingredient to give the white rice the look of brown.
When local brown rice is available it is always twice the price of its imported competitors. Local farmers can’t compete with the cheap prices of imports, and they can’t compete with the American brand names. US companies, with the help of government subsidies and Western-favored trade policy, are able to dump enough cheap rice on Ghana to destroy the local market. One US company, Texas Star, even airs TV advertisements making claims about its high quality, purity and nutritious value. Another US brand prints the words “The Right Choice” directly on the bag.
Local brown rice, on the other hand, has gained a reputation as an inferior product due to the fact that many farmers cannot afford high-tech milling machines. The rice often ends up broken or with stones in it. Yet, unknown to many, brown rice is far more nutritious than its white rice competitors. Removing the germ and the inner husk, or the bran – the process used to make white rice – also removes much of the rice’s nutritional value, leaving only a simple carbohydrate. In a country where many struggle to get enough food to eat, eating a food stripped of most of its vitamins only worsens the situation.
Much like the rice industry, tomato and poultry farmers find themselves in increasing poverty due to cheap imports from Europe and the US. Tomato farmers often see their harvests literally rot away as there are not enough buyers. The government-owned Pwalugu Tomato Factory closed its doors in 1990 leaving no way to add value to their crops through the canning process. Earlier this year, the factory reopened under the new name Northern Star Tomato Factory with the help of private investors. But the factory may have to once again close its doors because it is finding it difficult to compete with the cheap European tinned tomato paste that now floods the market. Poultry farmers find themselves in a similar situation. Billboards making claims about the health benefits of US chicken look down over Accra traffic as people opt for the chicken dinner made from imported frozen chicken parts rather than a fresh local bird.
Free Trade is not Fair Trade
With similar issues facing so many local industries, GTLC has no lack of meaningful campaigns. However, Ghana and all of the developing nations face yet another threat. Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), yet another set of free trade agreements, are scheduled to be signed into effect at the end of this year. The EPAs are between the European Union (EU) and the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries and will give more freedom to EU corporations and make it even more difficult for poor nations to compete. Ibrahim Akalbila, GTLC’s coordinator, told the press that “EPA will worsen the plight of our poor farmers, who are already struggling to make a living in the face of unbridled trade liberalization.” Ghana needs protective measures to help create fairer trade, and trade agreements that aim to create an even playing field in order to really reduce poverty and foster development.
Soon after my arrival in Ghana I attended the People’s Forum on the EPAs organized by the GTLC. The forum acted as a counter-conference to the African Union, the meeting of the African Heads of State that was occurring in Accra at the same time. Activists gathered from all over Africa to discuss how Africans could work together to stop the EPAs. Listening to these important discussions I heard stories unique to each participant yet similar in their goals to end the exploitation of Africa. As a gift for helping to register the participants, I was given a T-shirt with the words “Africa is Not for Sale” printed across the front.
During my stay in Ghana, I saw how activists brought these issues to the forefront of the national media, gained public support and stood up to politicians who too often close their eyes to such injustices. It all seemed very familiar. I took away with me an enormous feeling of global solidarity. This is the type of globalization for which to strive.
On September 27, GLTC organized a march through the streets of Accra as part of the global day of action against the EPAs. Thousands of farmers and activists marched to the Ministry of Trade and Industry to demand that Ghana not sign the agreement. Protesters held signs that read “EPAs will Kill Development,” and “We are signing our own death warrants.” As the deadline approaches, Ghanaians and all 75 former European colonies known as the ACP will continue to fight for justice and defend their livelihoods.
For more information visit: www.isodec.org.gh and www.epa2007.org.