New technologies and the threat to sovereignty in Africa


, by Pambazuka

Produced in collaboration with the ETC Group, this special issue presents a range of articles discussing the staggering developments in bio- and nanotechnology and the alarming implications for the African continent and the global South at large. Firoze Manji and Molly Kane outline the sheer scale of this ‘technological tsunami’, the immense challenges for Africa’s self-determination and the action by activists to challenge the corporate assault on bio-sovereignty.

Africa faces today the threat of a new form of conquest, a conquest that is being made possible through astonishing technological revolutions in biology, quantum physics, chemistry and engineering.

Today, all living matter can be modified through genetic engineering; new life forms created and released into the environment through synthetic biology; the properties of common elements and compounds dramatically modified through nanotechnologies (technologies working at the scale of atoms and molecules) and nanomanufacture (creating, for example, semiconductors at molecular level, and even non-nuclear nanobombs); and there is a even a convergence between nanotechnologies, information technologies and cognitive science that potentially enables the development of cerebral implants for monitoring or even controlling our brains.

Reading about such developments is like reading science fiction. The difference is that this is real; it is happening now. These technologies are being developed in a world that is grossly unequal, under conditions where accumulation and profiteering rule, enabling the rich to get richer by any means, while the majority are pauperised. They have developed under conditions created over the last 30 years that have allowed corporations to monopolise atomic-level manufacturing – whether of living or inanimate matter – and legitimise wide-scale corporate biopiracy, with Africa, a continent of extraordinary biodiversity, being a significant victim. Plants that have long been used in Africa are being patented by corporations in the North. But perhaps most significant of all for the continent is the fact that corporate eyes are looking greedily at the profits to be made from the hundreds of billions of tonnes of undifferentiated plant matter that can be used as the alternative source of carbon to fossil fuels, enabling the manufacture of transport fuels, electricity, chemicals and plastics, fertilisers and all those products that ensure the comfortable lifestyles of the North, under the guise of supporting the ‘green economy’.

As we celebrate 50 years of independence in a number of countries across Africa, we cannot but mourn, at the same time, the gradual erosion of self-determination and sovereignty that has been the consequence of 30 years of structural adjustment programmes, PRSPs (poverty reduction strategy papers) and neoliberal economic policies. Today, we have less influence on economic and social policy than the IMF (International Monetary Fund), World Bank and international aid agencies. But the neoliberal economic policies have created precisely the ‘enabling environment’ for corporations to take full advantage of the new technological revolutions and to flourish through exploitation of Africa’s natural resources – both living and inanimate.

The new technologies, or more precisely corporate control of the new technologies, represents a potential and growing threat to the continent. A continent that has already faced a turbulent history of colonial conquest and economic conquest under neoliberalism now faces a technologically mediated conquest by the oligopolies.

It is a characteristic of technological revolutions that the full scale of the social, economic and political implications of their use is rarely appreciated until, like the rising tide of a tsunami, it sweeps away everything in its path. The full consequences of what has been dubbed the ‘technological tsunami’1 needs to be publicly discussed and strategies developed to counter these trends.

These trends are being challenged around the world – in local communities, national movements and in global meetings of the United Nations such at the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Committee on Food Security of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation). Citizens are joining together to expose the dangers of governments giving free reign to corporations to use new technologies to solve problems that at root require social and political solutions.

In many parts of the world, people like the Coalition for the Protection of Africa’s Genetic Resources (COPAGEN) in West Africa are organising to protect the commons, their homes and their futures against irreparable harm.

This special issue of Pambazuka News, jointly produced with the ETC Group 2 seeks to arm those engaged in the battle for a fairer world to engage in the debates, discussions and dialogues that can prevent the impending conquest of the continent, its people and its natural resources.

Pat Mooney summarises the principal trends that are leading to the ‘geopirating’ of the commons; Kathy Jo Wetter explains what nanotechnology is all about; Oduor Ong’wen looks at biopiracy and intellectual property rights; and Gareth Jones and Mariam Mayet examine the development of synthetic biology with particular reference to the production of the anti-malarial drug, Artemisinin. Jim Thomas takes on the hype surrounding the ‘green economy’ and explains the role of the ‘biomassters’. Khadija Sharife provides detailed case studies on corporate profiteering in forestry in Tanzania as well as how biotechnologies are leading to dispossessions in Kenya. Pat Mooney looks critically at the UN REDD programme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) and how it serves corporate interests. Blessing Karumbidza shows how climate change adaptation and mitigation-oriented programmes in Africa has opened up new forms of resource imperialism. Anne Maina recounts a personal story of Kathulumbi Seed Bank Community Development Committee in Kenya. Diana Bronson looks at the implications for Africa of geoengineering, highlighting the actions taken by the campaign ‘Hands off Mother Earth’. Resistance is building up not just in Africa, but across the global South. Silvia Ribeiro speaks about the 35,000 people who responded to Bolivia’s call for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth (PWCC) in Cochabamba in April 2010.

1 ETC Group for the South Centre (November 2005),

2 About ETC GROUP: ETC Group is an international civil society organisation. See below for further details.