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September 2004, Volume 10, Number 4

Africa, China, Brazil

Africa. Land continues to be a point of conflict between whites and Blacks. In summer 2004, Masai tribesmen marched onto sprawling ranches held by white settlers in Kenya's lush Rift Valley, claiming the tracts as their own over the objections of the Kenyan government. Some whites have 950-year leases on their land, but the new constitution may reduce all leases to a maximum 99 years; however, no major land reforms are planned.

The Masai are cattle herders, and on August 15, 1904 their elders signed an agreement that said "of our own free will, [we] decided that it is for our best interests to remove our people, flocks, and herds into definite reservations away from the railway line, and away from any land that may be thrown open to European settlement." A drought is making grazing land scarce for the Masai, who consider all land to be communal and who use cows as a measure of wealth. Some cut fences on white-owned ranches so their cattle could graze.

Some large farms in South Africa are substituting wild animals for crops, displacing farm workers as they turn thousands of acres into game preserves, such as those adjacent to Kruger National Park that charge up to $1,000 a night. One farm of 12,000 acres is being turned into a preserve, displacing 550 farm workers and their families.

China. China is sometimes described as the world's workshop, reflecting the growth of factories producing goods for export. The Russian slogan of "produce first, live later," expanded production at the cost of wrecking environmental havoc, which may hasten internal and international migration. Only about half of China is habitable, so 20 percent of the world's residents are concentrated on seven percent of the world's cultivable land. Deserts, which occupy 18 percent of the land, are spreading, generating massive dust storms, and the burning of coal adds to air pollution.

China has about 120 million hectares or 300 million acres of farm land, but its productivity is threatened by falling water tables and drying rivers, especially in the northeast, the main wheat-growing area. By 2030, when the population is expected to be 1.6 billion, China is expected to import over a third of the grain it consumes, but may also be exporting more fruits and vegetables.

The state owns all land in China, farmers have only long-term leases, which enables local officials to seize land to build roads, dams, factories or real estate projects, often for personal profit. Protesting farmers and their families have been beaten by police, who generally obey local officials. The central government in Beijing has recognized the problems of farmers and warned local leaders not to overtax them or take land, but has been unable to have local officials everywhere obey.

When Chinese farmers find a profitable crop, they sometimes overplant, reducing prices. This is what happened to litchis (lychees), the walnut-sized fruit with pale, sweet flesh that has seen retail prices fall from $4 to $7 a pound to under $1 a pound. Easy credit and distrust of government warnings create the conditions for lemming-like investment, so that litchi production has risen almost tenfold in the past decade, to an estimated 1.5 million tons in 2004. A fully grown litchi tree 10 feet tall can produce 170 pounds of litchis a year.

Orchids, whose complex shapes and colors and exotic and inaccessible homes in swamps and tropical forests, are a $2 billion a year global business. Taiwan, which already produces about a quarter of the world's orchids, aims to turn orchids into an everyday item, using the genus of orchids known as phalaenopsis, or moth orchids. Orchids often begin in labs in the US or Japan, are shipped by air in glass flasks to places like Thailand to grow, and then shipped close to their market to be potted and grown in greenhouses for the last six to eight months before they bloom. USDA in summer 2004 allowed potted orchids to be imported from Taiwan, and the government there created the Taiwan Orchid Plantation near Houbi, near the hometown of Taiwan's current president.

Thailand is the leading supplier of cut orchid flowers, such as those used in the leis given to tourists in Hawaii. Taiwan, the Netherlands, and Hawaii are the main producers of potted orchid plants.

Brazil. More Brazilian nuts are produced in Bolivia than Brazil, a result of the activities of an extended family named Mutran, Syrian-Lebanese immigrants who arrived at the end of the 19th century in eastern Brazil. The Mutrans dominate trade in Brazil nuts, and critics say they paid such low prices that many nut farms were sold to loggers and cattle ranchers, deforesting the eastern Amazon. The state government of Acre built a nut processing facility to compete with the Mutrans and to slow the rate of deforestation, but the Mutrans have shifted much of their land to cattle ranching.

Larry Rohter, "Why Brazil Nut Business Is Shifting to Bolivia," New York Times, August 26, 2004. Marc Lacey, "Tribe, Claiming Whites' Land, Confronts Kenya's Government," New York Times, August 25, 2004. Keith Bradsher, "Orchids Flourish on Taiwanese Production Line," New York Times, August 24, 2004. Michael Wines, "Garage the Harvester, Bring on the Rhinos and Zebras," New York Times, August 20, 2004.