‘The greens want to do right, but they are so wrong’

Meet the Sixties black civil rights activist who now thinks that environmentalism is one of the greatest threats to Africa.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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‘We are fighting the same battle, for the liberation of black people. In the past that meant taking on old racists and colonialists – now it means challenging environmentalists too.’

Roy Innis doesn’t mince words. As national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the New York-based black civil rights group founded in the Forties, he has caused a mighty stink with his attacks on greens. Innis thinks that environmentalist thinking is helping to ‘strangle Africa’. He argues that European Union restrictions on the use of the pesticide DDT to combat malaria are ‘killing black babies’; that Western liberals’ handwringing over genetically modified crops and food is ‘holding Africa back’; and that ideas of sustainable development are causing a ‘stagnation in African development’. As you can imagine, he hasn’t made himself especially popular in the process – he’s even earned the tag ‘Uncle Tom’, a stooge for Big (White) Business, from some of the more intemperate greens.

‘Yeah, I’ve heard that one’, he says. ‘I’d like to know where these people were in the Fifties and Sixties when my organisation provided the shock troops on the civil rights battlefield. Look at my work on civil rights and you’ll see I’m the opposite of an Uncle Tom.’

How has the chairman of an organisation whose members confronted the racist cops and KKK members of the American Deep South in the heady summer of ’64 ended up eye-balling greens, those usually well-meaning young trendies, in 2006? CORE was founded in 1942, as the Commission of Racial Equality, by a group of interracial students in Chicago. It grew through the Fifties and Sixties to become one of the main groups involved in the protests against segregation in the South in 1963 and 1964. It organised the ‘Freedom Rides’, when both black and white activists rode on public buses through Birmingham and Montgomery in Alabama in a naked challenge to that state’s segregation of public transport, and sponsored the 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I Have A Dream’ speech. CORE also opposed imperialism and colonialism in Africa and other parts of the Third World (1).

Yet now Innis, chairman of CORE since 1968, speaks passionately about challenging greens. That’s one hell of a turnaround, isn’t it, from taking on the racist authorities to attacking people who care about nature? ‘We’re being consistent’, he says. ‘Our aim has always been to raise up black people, at home and in Africa. Some of the old barriers to doing that are still around but there are new ones as well.’ And one of the biggest new barriers, he reckons, is the politics of environmentalism. He’s particularly disturbed by the global restrictions on the use of DDT to fight malaria. His wife is a Ugandan, some of whose friends and family members have been killed by the disease. Innis has been on numerous fact-finding trips to African countries to uncover the impact of malaria on people’s lives and livelihoods. ‘What hits me every time – every time – is that this is a disease we can control’, he says. ‘We eradicated it in America and Europe with DDT, so why not in Africa?’

DDT – or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, to give it its full, if rarely used, name – is a flashpoint issue in the debate about environmentalism. The pesticide kills mosquitoes, the blood-sucking pests that spread malaria. It was one of the main weapons in the Western authorities’ war on malaria in the mid-twentieth century. Malaria once killed thousands of Americans and Europeans every year. It did in Oliver Cromwell, among others. As Innis has written, ‘From Italy and Romania to Poland to the English Channel…malarial mosquitoes ruled over Europe for centuries’ (2). The development of DDT in the twentieth century helped to put an end to that. After the Second World War governments in Europe and the US intervened aggressively against malaria, including with DDT, and consigned the disease to the dustbin of history – at least in the West – where it belonged.

But in the Sixties and Seventies, green activists raised concerns about the impact of DDT on wildlife and the environment. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, widely described as the ‘bible of environmentalism’, claimed that DDT harmed birds of prey and their eggs (3). Following intense lobbying and campaigning, DDT was banned in America in 1972 by the Environment Protection Agency and its use was severely restricted in Europe, which impacted on its use in countries in Latin America and Africa where malaria is still a big problem. And all of this happened despite the fact that, as a member of the organisation Africa Fighting Malaria points out, where heavy use of DDT in agricultural settings did occasionally cause harm to birds of prey that harm subsequently ‘proved reversible’, and ‘after 50 years of study there is not one replicated study that shows any harm to humans at all’ (4).

Yet African states are still put under pressure to avoid using DDT. This year the EU warned of possible agricultural sanctions against Uganda, Kenya and other countries that defiantly use DDT and vow to continue doing so. An EU official warned the Ugandan authorities that if indoor spraying of DDT meant there was ‘a risk of contamination of the food chain’, then while ‘[it] would not automatically lead to a ban of food products…it will mean that that particular consignment cannot be sent to Europe’ (5). ‘The EU should be saying that DDT is safe and poses no threat to EU consumers’, says Innis. ‘Instead they make either direct or oblique threats about possible trade sanctions. What they’re really saying is, “We’ve benefited from DDT and gotten rid of malaria but you people in Africa cannot do the same”.’

Innis has seen for himself the devastation caused by malaria. At Christmas his nephew, also a CORE activist, returned to a school in Uganda that he sponsors and found that 50 of the 500 children had died from malaria in a 12-month period. ‘What a waste of human life’, says Innis. ‘What an avoidable tragedy.’ He says the reason the malaria thing makes him so angry is that even in the poorest parts of Africa this disease can be stopped by a simple application of DDT. ‘You just spray a small amount, twice a year, on the walls of homes and it keeps 90 per cent of mosquitoes from coming in. It irritates those that do come in, which means they rarely bite. Every African home that needs it should have DDT sprayed on the walls.’

It isn’t only the restrictions on DDT that anger Innis. He also champions the development of genetically modified crops, arguing that they could massively benefit African farmers. ‘Lots of people in America and Europe panic about GM, but I’ve spoken to Africans who want it’, he says. ‘We don’t want Africa to be left behind again and to lose out on this scientific revolution. GM could increase yields and ensure a good quality of nutrition.’ And he isn’t very impressed by arguments for sustainable development, claiming that it ‘stagnates real development, which is what Africa needs’.

Innis recognises that most green activists mean well. ‘They want to do right, but they are so wrong on some things’, he says. His main concern is that environmentalist thinking has been elevated into an official dogma, taking centre stage in numerous debates about the developing world at the UN and the EU. He goes so far as to claim that green thinking about the Third World is ‘like a new form of colonialism’; he talks of ‘eco-imperialism’. ‘It is a colonialist mentality’, he says. ‘Making decisions for other people from one’s own perspective rather than from the perspective of the people being affected – that is my definition of a colonialist mentality and that is the approach taken by some officials and green activists to the Third World.’

The attitude of green groups (and other aid organisations) towards Africa and its problems are certainly deeply patronising and even dangerous. But I wonder if perhaps Innis, and other commentators and activists who try to challenge environmentalist orthodoxies, focus too much on the individual greens themselves – as if Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth were single-handedly, as part of some dastardly plot, subjugating the Third World to their political whims and storming the UN and the EU to force officials to spread environmentalism around the world. I would argue that these groups merely express, if in a more explicit form, the narrow outlook and low horizons of Western politics more broadly today. From the top down in the West – and especially in that creaking and slothful institution, the EU – meaningful development and industrialisation are seen as too risky and potentially damaging. Greens add a radical gloss to what is in fact a mainstream orthodoxy.

And by focusing on flashpoint issues such as DDT or GM, anti-green critics could also be said to be avoiding the hard arguments about what the Third World really needs. No doubt easy access to DDT would help to combat malaria and make life more pleasant for hundreds of thousands of Africans. But there are more fundamental reasons – to do with lack of development and widespread poverty – that means diseases can take hold in Africa in a way that they don’t in most of the West. I’m sure introducing GM to Africa would be beneficial to farmers, but it would be no substitute for industrialisation and urbanisation, for liberating people from being reliant on farming in the first place, whether it be of the GM or non-GM variety.

Yet Innis is raising important – and controversial – questions. He’s received a lot of flak for his arguments. Some greens seem especially irritated that a black man with a track record of fighting for civil rights is daring to criticise their aims and agenda. They claim that he has taken CORE from its civil rights roots to ‘the far right’. One commentator has awarded CORE the ‘Uncle Tom award’, and the organisation has been accused of accepting ‘Black Gold’ (geddit?) from oil companies and from Monsanto, the multinational biotech company developing GM technologies (6). Innis denies it. ‘I wish it was true. Where is the money at? I haven’t seen it. I wish government and industry were giving more support to our programmes, but it’s just not true.’ Anyway, what does it matter where he gets his funds from if his arguments are on the money? Too often in these kinds of debates there is a tendency to look endlessly for some hidden pay packet or agenda instead of addressing the arguments being put forward. Forget about CORE’s bank balance: what do greens make of CORE’s arguments about the impact of environmentalism’s low horizons on progress and development in Africa?

‘If you criticise these things, you get a rough ride’, says Innis. ‘Environmentalism is seen as the gospel truth, but it’s far from that. We should be free to debate these things. For some people, it will be a life-and-death debate.’

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) See the Congress of Racial Equality website

(2) ‘Africa Malaria Day – action or bombast?’, by Roy Innis

(3) DDT, eggshells and me, Ronald Bailey, Reason, 7 January 2003

(4) See Without DDT, malaria bites back, by Roger Bate

(5) Uganda defies EU, begins DDT programme to fight malaria, Paul Driessen, Environment News, 1 May 2006

(6) The Uncle Tom Award, Freezerbox, 14 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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