Environment, 3 December 2002
Under the banner of populist protest, multinational corporations
manufacture the poor
By Jonathan Matthews

"Carrying his placard the man in front of me was clearly one of the
poorest of the poor. His shoes were not only threadbare, they were
tattered, merely rags barely being held together."

So begins a graphic description of a demonstration that took place at
the Earth Summit in Johannesburg. The protesters were "mainly poor,
virtually all black, and mostly women... street traders and farmers"
with an unpalatable message. As an article in a South African periodical
put it, "Surely this must have been the environmentalists' worst
nightmare. Real poor people marching in the streets and demanding
development while opposing the eco-agenda of the Green Left."

 And seldom can the views of the poor, in this case a few hundred
demonstrators, have been paid so much attention. Articles highlighting
the Johannesburg march popped up the world over, in Africa, North
America, India, Australia and Israel. In Britain even The Times ran a
commentary, under the heading, "I do not need white NGOs to speak for me".

With the summit's passing, the Johannesburg march, far from fading from
view, has taken on a still deeper significance. In the November issue of
the journal Nature Biotechnology, Val Giddings, the President of the
Biotech Industry Organization (BIO), argues that the event marked
"something new, something very big" that will make us "look back on
Johannesburg as something of a watershed event - a turning point." What
made the march so pivotal, he said, was that for the very first time,
"real, live, developing-world farmers" were "speaking for themselves"
and challenging the "empty arguments of the self-appointed individuals
who have professed to speak on their behalf."

To help give them a voice, Giddings singles out the statement of one of
the marchers, Chengal Reddy, leader of the Indian Farmers Federation.
"Traditional organic farming...," Reddy says, "led to mass starvation in
India for centuries... Indian farmers need access to new technologies
and especially to biotechnologies."

Giddings also notes that the farmers expressed their contempt for the
"empty arguments" of many of the Earth Summiteers by honoring them with
a "Bullshit Award" made from two varnished piles of cow dung. The award
was given, in particular, to the Indian environmentalist Vandana Shiva,
for her role in "advancing policies that perpetuate poverty and hunger"

A powerful rebuke, no doubt. But if anyone deserves the cow dung, it is
the President of BIO, for almost every element of the spectacle he
describes has been carefully contrived and orchestrated. Take, for
instance, Chengal Reddy, the "farmer" that Giddings quotes.  Reddy is
not a poor farmer, nor even the representative of poor farmers. Indeed,
there is precious little to suggest he is even well-disposed towards the
poor. The "Indian Farmers Federation" that he leads is a lobby of big
commercial farmers in Andhra Pradesh. On occasion Reddy has admitted to
knowing very little about farming, having never farmed in his life. He
is, in reality, a politician and businessman whose family are a
prominent right-wing political force in Andhra Pradesh-his father having
coined the saying, "There is only one thing Dalits (members of the
untouchable caste) are good for, and that is being kicked".  

If it seems open to doubt that Reddy was in Johannesburg to help the
poor speak for themselves, the identity of the march's organizers is
also not a source of confidence.  Although the Times' headline said "I
do not need white NGOs to speak for me", the media contact on the
organizers' press release was "Kendra Okonski", the daughter of a US
lumber industrialist who has worked for various right wing
anti-regulatory NGOs - all funded and directed, needless to say, by
"whites". These include the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a
Washington-based "think tank" whose multi-million dollar budget comes
from major US corporations, among them BIO member Dow Chemicals. Okonski
also runs the website, where her specialty is helping
right wing lobbyists take to the streets in mimicry of popular

Given this, it hardly needs saying that Giddings' "Bullshit Award" was
far from, as he suggests, the imaginative riposte of impoverished
farmers to India's most celebrated environmentalist. It was, in fact,
the creation of another right-wing pressure group-the   Liberty
Institute-based in New Delhi and well known for its fervent support of
deregulation, GM crops and Big Tobacco.

The Liberty Institute is part of the same network that organized the
rally: the deceptively-named "Sustainable Development Network." In
London, the SDN shares offices, along with many of its key
personnel-including Okonski-with the International Policy Network, a
group whose Washington address just happens to be that of the CEI. The
SDN is run by Julian Morris, its ubiquitous director, who also claims
the title of Environment and Technology Programme Director for the
Institute of Economic Affairs, a think tank that has advocated, amongst
other interesting ideas, that African countries be sold off to
multinational corporations in the interests of "good government".

The involvement of the likes of Morris, Okonski and Reddy doesn't mean,
of course, that no "real poor people," were involved in the Johannesburg
march. There were indeed poor people there. James MacKinnon, who
reported on the summit for the North American magazine Adbusters,
witnessed the march first hand and told of seeing many impoverished
street traders, who seemed genuinely aggrieved with the authorities for
denying them their usual trading places in the streets around the
summit. The flier distributed by the march organizers to recruit these
people played on this grievance, and presented the march as a chance to
demand, "Freedom to trade". The flier made no mention of "biotechnology"
or "development", nor any other issue on the "eco-agenda of the Green

For all that, there were some real farmers present as well. Mackinnon
says he spotted some wearing anti-environmentalist t-shirts, with
slogans like "Stop Global Whining." This aroused his curiousity, since
small-scale African farmers are not normally to be found among those
jeering the "bogus science" of climate change.  Yet here they were, with
slogans on placards and T-shirts: "Save the Planet from Sustainable
Development", "Say No To Eco-Imperialism", "Greens: Stop Hurting the
Poor" and "Biotechnology for Africa". On approaching the protesters,
however, Mackinnon discovered that all of the props had been made
available to the marchers by the organizers. When he tried to converse
with some of the farmers about their pro-GM T-shirts, "They smiled
shyly; none of them could speak or read English."
Another irresistible question is how impoverished farmers - according to
Giddings, there were farmers on the march from five different countries
- afforded the journey to  Johannesburg from lands as far away as the
Philippines and India. Here, too, there is reason for suspicion. In late
1999 the New York Times reported that a street protest against genetic
engineering outside an FDA public hearing in Washington DC was disrupted
by a group of African-Americans carrying placards such as "Biotech saves
children's lives" and "Biotech equals jobs." The Times learned that
Monsanto's PR company, Burston-Marsteller, had paid a Baptist Church
from a poor neighborhood to bus in these "demonstrators" as part of a
wider campaign "to get groups of church members, union workers and the
elderly to speak in favor of genetically engineered foods."

The industry's fingerprints are all over Johannesburg as well. Chengal
Reddy, the "farmer" that the President of BIO singled out as an example
of farmers from the poorer world "speaking for themselves", has for at
least a decade featured prominently in Monsanto's promotional work in
India. Other groups represented on the march, including AfricaBio, have
also been closely aligned with Monsanto's lobbying for its products.
Reddy is known to have been brought to Johannesburg by AfricaBio.

And here lies the real key to the President of BIO's account of the
march, and specifically to the attack on Vandana Shiva. Monsanto and BIO
want to project an image of GM crop acceptance with a Southern face.
That's why Monsanto's Internet homepage used to be adorned with the
faces of smiling Asian children. So when an Indian critic of the biotech
industry gets featured, as Shiva was recently, on the cover of Time
magazine as an environmental hero, the brand is under attack, and has to
be protected.

The counterattack takes place via a contrarian lens, one that projects
the attackers' vices onto their target. Thus the problem becomes not
Monsanto using questionable tactics to push its products onto a wary
South, but malevolent agents of the rich world obstructing Monsanto's
acceptance in a welcoming Third World. For this reason the press release
for the "Bullshit Award" accuses Shiva, amongst other things, of being
"a mouthpiece of western eco-imperialism". The media contact for this
symbolic rejection of neocolonialism? The American, Kendra Okonski. The
mouthpiece denouncing an Indian environmentalist as an agent of the West
is a.Western mouthpiece.
The careful framing of the messages and the actors in the rally in
Johannesburg provides but one particularly gaudy spectacle in a
continuing fake parade. In particular, the Internet provides a perfect
medium for such showcases, where the gap between the virtual and the
real is easily erased.

Take the South-facing website, which promotes itself as
"the web's most complete source of news and information about global
food security concerns and sustainable agricultural practices". claims to be "an independent, non-profit coalition of
people throughout the world". Despite its global reach, however,'s only named staff member is its "African Director",
Dr. Michael Mbwille, a Tanzanian doctor who's forever penning articles
defending Monsanto and attacking the likes of Greenpeace.

The news and information at is largely pro-GM articles,
often vituperative in content and boasting headlines like "The
Villainous Vandana Shiva" or "Altered Crops Called Boon for Poor". When
one penetrates beyond the news pages, the content is very limited. A
single message graces the messageboard posted by an -
the domain name of The Bivings Group, an internet PR company that
numbers Monsanto among its clients. There's also an event posting from
an Andura Smetacek, recently identified in an article in The Guardian as
an e-mail front used by Monsanto to run a campaign of character
assassination against its scientific and environmental critics.

The site is registered to a Graydon Forrer, currently the managing
director of Life Sciences Strategies, a company that specializes in
"communications programmes" for the bio-science industries. A piece of
information that is not usually disclosed in Graydon Forrer's
self-presentation is that he was previously Monsanto's director of
executive communications. Indeed, he seems to have been working for the
company in 1999 - the same year the site of this "independent,
non-profit coalition of people throughout the world" was first
registered. Foodsecurity's "African Director", Dr. Mbwille, is not,
incidentally, in Africa at the moment. He is enjoying a sabbatical
observing medical practice in St. Louis, Missouri-the home town, as it
happens, of the Monsanto Corporation. forms but one of a whole series of websites with
undisclosed links to biotech industry lobbyists or PR companies, as our
previous research has demonstrated. But despite the virtual circus
oscillating about him, if the President of BIO were really interested in
hearing poor "live, developing-world farmers. speaking for themselves",
he need look no further than Chengal Reddy's home state of Andhra
Pradesh. Here small-scale farmers and landless laborers were consulted
as part of a meticulously conducted "citizens' jury" on World
Bank-backed proposals to industrialize local agriculture and introduce
GM crops. Having heard all sides of the argument, including as it
happens the views of Chengal Reddy, the jury unanimously rejected these
proposals, which are likely to force more than 100,000 people off the
land. Similar citizens' juries on GM crops in Brazil and in the Indian
state of Karnataka have come to similar conclusions - something that the
President of BIO is almost certainly aware of.

But rainchecks on the real views of the poor count for little in a world
where "something new, something very big" and "a turning point" in the
global march towards our corporate future, turns out to be Monsanto's
soapbox behind a black man's face.

Since 1998 Jonathan Matthews has been researching and writing on the
industrial alignment of the bio-sciences, and the public relations
activities of the biotech industry and its supporters. He co-founded the
campaigning news and research service Norfolk Genetic Information
Network, also known as GM Watch -

For further information about citizens' juries on GM food and farming in
the Global South see:
the report on Food and Farming Futures for Andhra Pradesh,,
the press article, "The Locals Know What Aid They Need",
and the website of the development charity, ActionAid,

For more information about Monsanto's cyberwar against its critics: