Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Athenai and the Plague of Monoculture

Like Rhonda, mentioned a couple of days ago, it's not an accident that Athenai sounds like Athens. This huge area is 'owned' by a Greek who lives somewhere in Nairobi. There is little to see but sisal. Sisal is one of the disastrous monocultures that dominates parts of Kenya. The crop was introduced by the colonials before petrochemical products made plastics much cheaper than sisal based ropes, string, matting, etc.

The sisal estate dates back to the 1950s, when labour was dirt cheap. Luckily for the owner, labour is still dirt cheap, but it's hard to make much money from the product now. But it's an enormous holding and there is little else for people to do there but work for a pittance in the fields or in the factory. It's as if the colonial days never ended, really.

The factory is quite a museum piece, all in working order. The sisal is crushed, dried, brushed and turned by machines from the fifties, still in working order. They are not working today because of power rationing. There is a shortage of the oil that generates so much of Kenya's electricity. Never mind the long hours of sunshine or even the ample winds that blow through this area.

HIV rates are high in this area, as they are in all the hubs of monocultures. Rates are high around the sugar factory in Mumias, the tea plantations in Kericho and the flower producing units in Naivasha. Many people in Athenai are too sick to work and are unable to afford medical care, let alone food, education or other social services.

I'm unsure what would be a long term option: do people continue to work with sisal, as they have done for decades, or do they diversify? If they diversify, what would be the best things for this relatively isolated area to get involved in?



Tin Angel said...

An evocative and thought-provoking post: based on a google search, no-one has drawn a link between HIV and monoculture before.

Simon said...

Hi Tin Angel
Well, the problem is not essentially the monoculture. It's just that crops, usually cash crops, such as sugar, sisal and tea, can only be grown economically in large quantities and only processed economically if there is a good supply of cheap labour, preferably labour that has no representation and few rights in law.

This creates areas where people desperate for work, even at slave wages, flock to. They end up living in dormitory or slum accommodation with no amenities or services. They often migrate from poor rural or urban areas as single people, even if they are married, because family accommodation and/or transport is rarely provided.

The shanty towns that grow in these areas usually house mostly men. Therefore, smaller numbers of female sex workers arrive looking for work, too.

Of course, conditions are terrible and people suffer all sorts of health problems. Because they are temporary migrants, they bring diseases back to their home areas and concentrate diseases from their home areas in the shanty towns.

Levels of deprivation are so terrible in these areas that you cannot blame the monoculture, per se. Companies involved in these crops could provide decent family accommodation or transport or, at least, better conditions. But that would might compromise their profits.

Tin Angel said...

Thanks. The effect of monoculture on HIV transmission is indirect, yes. however, is monoculture the dominant form of agriculture in Africa? Is it increasingly becoming more dominant? in which case, its effects, though indirect, will be large.
A monocultured crop requires a "monoculture" workforce: masses of people, all living identical lives, those lives which require the least possible investment by the company. Maybe the monotony itself leads to more involvement with prostitutes! But conditions are made ideal for HIV, anyway.

Simon said...

Hi Tin Angel
Your comments are pertinent in several ways. Monoculture is certainly dominant in many areas. As to whether it is becoming more dominant, I can't say.

But there is one particular trend that is very worrying and that is the increasing popularity of biofuels. Huge tracts of land are being sold or leased to Western countries so biofuel crops can be grown.

These crops are being grown on factory production scales and employ as few people as possible. They appropriate land that once supported many people who now have no livelihood. And they use far more water than conventional, small scale farming.

This is in countries that have shortages of water, which results in people dying of thirst and even in power production being affected because of reliance on hydroelectricity.

So I would agree that the effects of monocultures are profound. Personally, the fact that the connection is indirect makes this no less of a problem. HIV is being transmitted in areas where rights are being denied.

As for monotony leading to greater resort to recreational sex, this has been suggested many times. People in slums, in areas with no electricity or amenities, people who are bored, have little else to do but go to places to meet other people. Very often, they have sex.

As you say, ideal conditions for HIV transmission.