Climate Change, Land Grabs, and Revolution in Burkina Faso

Like virtually every country in Africa, Burkina Faso has been assailed by North Atlantic military intervention over the past four decades, as well as an escalation of land grabs since 2008. More land has been grabbed in Africa over the past 15 years than in the rest of the world combined—more than 55 million hectares, according to Blessing Karumbidza of the Global Justice Ecology Project. The economic tensions between local producers and international powers that have contributed to the revolutionary dissatisfaction with the establishment in Burkina Faso can be found in virtually any country subject to the harsh and cruel conditions of the global land grab and the crisis of climate change. The revolution in Burkina Faso represents a crucial break, summoning the revolutionary leaders of past generations to maintain a legacy of popular control.

The popular movement that has spread throughout the small African state contains the process of liberation both inspired by and inspiring different forms of political engagement throughout the continent. While some, including the present military junta, insist that we are seeing a youth rebellion, the revolution has formulated a deeper, systemic challenge. The promise of Thomas Sankara, the “Che Guevara of Africa” who ruled Burkina from 1983 until his assassination in 1987, was the suture of the generation gap and the progression of egalitarian economic policies. While Sankara emerged as a powerful leader in Burkina Faso in the 1970s, a powerful student movements broke through in nearby Sierra Leone, the independence movement of Guinea-Bissau ascended to power, and the People’s Republic of Benin was declared. West Africa was uniting under common dreams of liberation fueled by the legacy of Kwame Nkrumah, Sekou Toure, and other noteworthy West African leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. After the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the assassination of Amílcar Cabral, Sankara appeared among the most important radical leaders in all of Africa. The current revolution, with its rekindling of Sankara’s legacy, can be seen as a return to the legacy of national liberation—not just as a youth movement, but a rejection of the neoliberal trajectory set into place after Sankara’s death.

This rekindling can be seen in the movement’s strategy and tactics. The absence of genuine movements linked to an intergenerational leadership led to the decline of social mobilizations in many places. For instance, the student movement of Sierra Leone disintegrated into what the leaders of the RUF would call “the bush path to democracy” (and what scholar Ibrahim Abdullah correctly deems “the bush path to destruction”). Rather than descending into Civil War, Burkina’s largely-urban revolution has developed through popular mobilizations and insurrectionary strikes against symbols of the established regime. It emerges as a popular rejection of two decades of political “decentralization,” wherein administrative powers and resources were supposed to be liberalized and granted to local councils. But at the same time, it is being supported by the leaders of the West, who seek to use it as an exhaust valve for popular resentment, enabling them to strengthen their grasp on the region through the elections to come.

Liberalization and Land

Sankara’s death at the hands of a putsch led by his comrade Blaise Compaoré opened up an economic opportunity for neoliberals at the end of the Cold War. The BBC puts the point diplomatically: “[Compaoré] largely followed the economic orthodoxy prescribed by international financial institutions. But Burkina Faso did not escape the poverty trap. It remains one of the least developed countries in the world.” In point of fact, no country that has adopted IMF strictures has “escaped the poverty trap,” because the institutions of neoliberal reform are, themselves, dedicated to underdevelopment—extraction-based economics designed to loot natural resources.

Since 1991, privatization of national services in Burkina Faso has moved in step with the “localization” of powers. “Decentralization” reached a new institutional height in 2006, following on the heels of what has been seen as the dissolution of the state mining company by the World Bank (although the Bank claims the company went bankrupt on its own). As droughts expand in the Sahel, agriculture becomes increasingly problematic, shifting the economic sector from cotton to gold mining in the absence of alternatives for subsistence. As the cost of land has increased, displacement led to the growth of urban areas, and Compaoré began to enact land reform laws to the effect of an official “agribusiness” strategy. Installed at the beginning of the 21st Century, formalized by a 2009 land reform law and a 2012 elaboration, this policy has allowed domestic business interests to grab hundreds of hectares of land in the country’s south. Much of this land remained uncultivated and is either leveraged for speculation or managed by unskilled financial powers, while the decentralization of authority has afforded the opportunity for local officials to garner revenue through new taxes and registration fees for new settlements, allotments of land, and attempts to formalize the small-producer sector.

The organization providing the resources and support for Compaoré’s land reform package is Millennium Challenge Account, a US foreign aid group praised by the Heritage Foundation and established under the Bush Administration with a bipartisan effort in the US Congress. The objective for Millennium Challenge Account is to assign a “human rights” ideology to US development funding. In 2012, Burkina Faso hosted the Enhanced Integrated Framework (EIF) monitoring and evaluating workshop for French-speaking countries in North Africa, which further entrenched its position as a testing ground for the World Bank’s plans for Africa (in particular, plans to cultivate sesame, an oilseed that grows better in the changing climatic conditions).

The emphasis on private sector production boosted within the World Bank project, known as Aid for Trade, which encompasses EIF, and includes “mainstreaming” trade—transforming local industries and domestic producers into international markets and transnational corporations. The G8-brokered Cooperation Framework with Burkina Faso, signed in 2012 around the same time as the EIF’s workshop, increases investment from multinationals in order to develop more than 50,000 hectares of agricultural lands. A plan to resettle people displaced by the development is also called for, but details are sketchy.

The West African Gold Rush

Sparked by the same climate change-induced droughts that displaced agrarian workers in the late 1980s, the gold rush has increased with the formalization of the mining sector in recent years—a process expedited after the housing market crash in the US caused investors to look for greater potential abroad. As the North Atlantic strove to maintain low interest rates after the crash, the price of gold rose; as the banks and equity firms looked for safe investments in assets that maintain such conditions of low inflation, gold mines stuck out as a profitable venture.

According to official figures, the production of gold increased in Burkina Faso by 32 percent in 2011. The next year, British mining company Amara Gold purchased the Canadian OREZONE’s gold mine in Burkina in 2012. A year later, the Canadian company, TrueGold, completed the feasibility study on their “Karma Project”—a “low cost, heap-leach” open-pit gold mine, and the Cayman Islands-based Endeavour Mining, which started one gold mine in the country in 2008, completed the feasibility study on another mine. The greenwashing Canadian firm RoxGold has also become deeply involved.

The gold mining industry, which still remains largely in the hands of the central government, has become the major site of struggle amidst “decentralization.” Up to fifty percent of these artisanal miners are children between 5 and 17 years old who toil in environmentally hazardous conditions for around two dollars a day. Groups dedicated to halting the mercury poisoning of the land through such gold mining practices are often tied to the World Bank, whose agenda is actually to increase and legitimize the formal mining sector—i.e., enormous open-pit mines where workers and local communities are still subject to hazardous environmental conditions.

The gold mining industry, which still remains largely in the hands of the central government, is perhaps the main site of struggle within “decentralization.” Until recent years, the mining industry has been dominated by artisanal miners in the region. Up to fifty percent of artisanal miners are children between 5 and 17 years old who toil in environmentally hazardous conditions for around two dollars a day. Yet groups dedicated to formalizing the industry and halting the mercury poisoning of the land through such gold mining practices are often tied to the World Bank, whose agenda is actually to increase and legitimize the formal mining sector—i.e., enormous open-pit mines where workers and local communities are still subject to hazardous environmental conditions.

One of the principle organizations attempting to transform the artisanal mining sector through “sustainable development” is the Artisanal Gold Council, a Canadian nonprofit whose Executive Director boasted at this year’s Precious Metals Conference in Dubai of a collaborative relationship with the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility, a booster for the notorious greenwashing strategy, REDD+, which is responsible for the dispossession of the Sengwer people in Kenya, among other problems. According to their website, Artisanal Gold Council is partnered with Canada’s Ministry of Natural Resources, the ministry responsible for the tar sands expansion and innumerable odious mining projects throughout the Global South, as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Their main focus is the formalization of artisanal mining, which fits in nicely with the “development” schemes projected by the World Bank.

Against the Comprador State

While the increase of gold mining is seen as providing development for the country, independent rural development expert Seydou Yabré reflected the spirit of the revolution when he told journalist Kingley Kobo, “Those World Bank and IMF figures are seen only on paper and not in the pockets of the Burkinabes.” The tethering of Burkina Faso’s economy to the global commodities market, and specifically gold, has caused economic turmoil rather than development. When the price of gold fell last year, the economic growth of Burkina Faso declined by more than a quarter, from 9 percent to 6.9 percent. Even with a seven percent growth rate, per capita income remains a mere $790. Rising interest rates and projections that interest rates will continue to rise, as the European Central Bank seems to turn back on their promises to expedite “quantitative easement” strategies, suggest that things are not likely to get better under the present neoliberal system.

On October 4, the price of gold slid to a four-year low; a few days later, President Hollande wrote Compaoré asking him to resign, promising him an important post in international diplomacy. In a matter of weeks, Compaoré, a favorite of the North Atlantic elites for 27 years, was gone. The way that Hollande, Obama, and the rest of the “Free World” has abandoned their erstwhile ally suggests that he has served his purpose—the process of neoliberal transformation has been largely accomplished, and the unpopular consequence requires a political transformation to vent popular anxiety over the decline in growth and lack of alternatives. The ongoing decline in the price of gold will be externalized and suffered by the people of gold-producing states like Burkina Faso, not by those corporations extracting the metal.

Those looking to the legacy of Sankara recall that, as university student Ibrahim Sanogo tells Kobo, “Sankara was not just fighting imperialism for the sake of politics but he wanted the Burkinabe people to develop themselves and their land and rely essentially on themselves instead of the West.” The claims that the modern revolution in Burkina Faso has centered on demands for greater “development” are misguided unless they confront how the development is taking place, and who is responsible. The comprador state has been overthrown, but, to paraphrase another great African leader, there is no easy path to liberation.

Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). This article is also being published at earthfirstjournal.org/newswire.

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Alexander Reid Ross is a contributing moderator of the Earth First! Newswire. He is the editor of Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014) and a contributor to Life During Wartime (AK Press 2013). His most recent book Against the Fascist Creep is forthcoming through AK Press.

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