The Institute for Policy Studies is a progressive think tank and research institute based in Washington, D.C. since 1963. Receiving no corporate sponsorship or government funding, the IPS retains its independence in order to speak out effectively on a wide range of issues. They are supported primarily by private donors. Emira Woods has been with the Institute for Policy Studies for four years and currently serves as the director of Foreign Policy in Focus with the mission to raise the visibility of issues connected to the African world. With roots in Liberia, Ms. Woods travels to Africa several times a year.
She sat down with The Final Call’s Assistant Editor Ashahed M. Muhammad for a wide ranging discussion on the African Diaspora and the mad scramble for Africa’s human and natural resources.
The Final Call (FC): There is talk about Africa’s heightened strategic importance globally, and the concept of globalization. Clearly, Africa and Black people have always been the centerpiece of globalization before there even was the term.
Emira Woods (EW): Definitely. We know that Africa has been at the centerpiece of the global economy for five hundred years since the days of slavery. From the time that we as African people were pushed into slavery to sustain the economies of the West until today, you have had the African economies, the resources that come from the continent whether it is steel or iron ore that creates the steel that comes from Africa, or it is rubber that you could not have the tires on the cars without the rubber that comes from Africa. These vital resources for the global economy come from the African continent. What has happened, just as in the days of slavery and in the days of colonialism, Africa is looked to as a place to extract the resource and not really to develop the people.
I think that there has been a sustained effort to under develop Africa, really for five hundred years. So you have corporations whether it’s the big oil companies now, that are celebrating historic high profits and yet the communities on which the oil lies, will have no schools, poor housing, inefficient or non-existing health care and no roads to speak of. I mean complete degradation of these communities, in spite of the fact, that oil has been flowing from some of these communities in Nigeria for example, since 1956, yet the communities remain without any of the basic necessities of human survival. This is the problem, especially multi-national corporations going after their greed, going after resources and not seeing the people. And just as it was wrong in the days of slavery, it is as wrong today, to have this type of exploitation of a continent.
FC: Give us an example of some of the exploitation. You mentioned rubber and iron ore.
EW: In the case of rubber, Firestone since 1926 has been engaged in Liberia taking the rubber from Liberia. The rubber grows on trees, it’s kind of like maple trees and the rubber is the sap of the tree that runs down from the tree. Firestone has created exploitive situations where they are using child labor, in their largest rubber operation in the world in Liberia. They are not paying proper taxes and fees to the government and they have created these agreements that don’t benefit the people or the government. Firestone in 1926 made an agreement for six cents an acre for all the rubber they wanted. For centuries they have continued to dominate the pricing structure of these key commodities that come out of Africa, so that the government and the communities on which the resources lie are not benefiting whatsoever. They are exploiting the resource, exploiting the labor, destroying the environment, dumping toxic waste into water ways and its people are paying the price.
FC: Now, the six cents an acre, that has changed but Liberia is still being exploited and Firestone still pays a small fee compared to the profits generated right?
EM: Yes. The six cents an acre remained until 2005 in the case of rubber and then in 2005 it was shifted to 50 cents an acre and now, just this year a new concession agreement has been signed for $2 an acre. This is still not a lot but it is an increase from what it was in 2005.
FC: And they are still reaping huge profits. And the iron ore you mentioned in Liberia that has a special relevance, tell us a little bit about that.
EW: The iron ore, the steel that you need to make beautiful buildings right here in Chicago, the steel that you need to build the cities of the U.S. and the U.K and the rest of the countries around the world, that iron ore to make the steel comes from Africa. In the case of the iron ore, again there was historic abuse of African countries, in which you have a price per ton that was exploitive–five cents per ton back in the 1920’s and that amount remained constant again until about 2005 in the case of Liberia. It went up slightly but not dramatically. What you see is a systematic abuse of the people, destruction of the environment, abuse of labor. Because of the color of our skin, it was almost as if the people were invisible. It goes back to what Ralph Ellison said (in his book) Invisible Man but now it’s “Invisible People.” We were invisible as people in the days of slavery where they used us to build their economies. It is almost as if multi-national corporations want us to remain invisible today.
FC: Invariably when we talk about Africa and the Diaspora–Black people here in the United States–the question is asked about our role. As a model, you can see what Jewish Americans do for Israel. They maintain cultural and economic ties creating an effective lobby here in the United States for their interests. In your view, what are some real ways that we can go about building that type of power?
EW: We have to seize our power, as voters, especially in an election year. You have people talking about change left and right. We have to tell them what change means for us–for the African Diaspora. What change means in terms of our economic survival, what change means in terms of our political independence as a people. We have to push that agenda so clearly in terms of our voting power. There is a lot we can do also in terms of our consumer power. How we spend our dollars. We can make choices that can determine. Does Firestone hear from its consumers that they cannot continue to exploit child labor or they will stop buying their tires?
FC: Many African ambassadors I have spoken with make it seem like it is just so simple for Blacks here to do business in Africa–almost too easy. Apparently there are still barriers such as propaganda and the corruption of some African nations which is a reality.
EW: But the corruption is in the corporations as well and often times the pressure is put on the African leaders, but they don’t talk about the other end of the deal.
FC: Of course that is a critical factor. I want to know what can be done on this end to get people to see that if you are able, why not invest in business in Africa? If you are investing time and resources building a reality here in America that really doesn’t include us why not invest in Africa if we have accepted the fact that we are a part of that reality?
EW: I think it is relatively easy. I think more people need to start traveling to the continent, I think more people need to start learning about what’s going on in the continent especially now in the Internet age. I think the first step is getting connected and being a part of a commitment that we make as we advance into this 21st century as a people. That linkage that we see ourselves connected on both sides, both within the continent and within the Diasporas that we see when something like Katrina happens, there’s a need for everybody to speak out. When something happens especially to African descendants and Latin America there is a need for everybody to speak out, wherever you are in the Diaspora and when something happens on the African continent, everyone has to step up. We need to build and reinforce that throughout our world.
FC: Thank you.