Friday, 3 April 2020

My Real Education with Farmers, Pagan Rituals, IMF and Neoliberlism


A rural farmer and an agent for SUNTEC
with founders, Viren, Pradip and Myself  
I knew that we are witnessing a social transformation as we 
sold solar photovoltaic (PV) home lighting systems to Sri Lankan rural homes since 1986.  The country had already moved away from socialism to a free market economy in 1977 aligning with the west.
  
Urban Sri Lanka was fast becoming a part of the neo-liberal global economy.  

1980s rural Sri Lanka though, was yet in a time warp.  Life 
had not changed much from ancient times in the way people 
lived in close-knit communities, farming with buffaloes, the 
bullock cart for transport and oil lamps to light up the 
darkness for a few hours.  It did not differ from Leonard 
Woolf’s image of the Village in the Jungle, where people 
struggled to survive with nature – the encroaching forest and 
its predators.

Having grown up in a middle class anglicized home in the 
urban town of Kandy, Sri Lanka and moving to Toronto in 
1973 as a 14 year old, I had little interaction with rural people of Sri Lanka. I learned of rural life through short visits, folklore, books and jokes at the expense of the “simple” rural farmer.  

The jokes were about their simplicity, superstitions, pagan 
worship of the earth, fire, air and water (many are also 
ritualistic Buddhists and Hindus), as we thought ourselves to 
be so sophisticated and superior living our modern techno-
industrial lives.

That is why I was surprised and humbled with my first 
meaningful encounter with farming families in 1985 while 
doing market research for the solar energy business.  I was 
taken by their open hearts - welcoming smiles, generous 
hospitality and the sense of joy and contentment that I felt, 
especially from the elders.

Naturally, rural life was slow where relationships mattered 
leading to a sense of community.  People were aware of their oneness with nature and did their best to protect the land, soil and water sources. The Sri Lankan government provided institutional safety nets to the farmers, as they were the backbone of the economy. 

However, life was not rosy and idyllic either.  Farmers were 
at the mercy of the weather and markets - both unpredictable.  

At the time (1986), 84% of the country’s homes did not have 
access to grid electricity and running water, mostly in rural 
areas. Nightfall was dark, bleak and people got the little light 
they needed from coconut and kerosene oil lamps before 
they turned in around 8 pm.

They wanted to desperately move from this darkness to light, for the health of their children who studied by these oil 
lamps and for the safety of their lives as tragic accidents would set fire to their homes.  

Typical newspaper ad
The SUNTEC solar home system charging a 12 Volt battery, 
powered 3 to 6 small fluorescent lamps in a simple utilitarian 
lampshade.  So desperate were people to get electric light, 
some even sold their cow, losing a regular source of income, 
to purchase a system. 

It was the woman, the concerned mother, who influenced this significant purchase costing about 10% of their annual 
income. They feared for their children’s health as they 
breathed in the kerosene fumes. 

I was most ashamed at my own surprise when women said 
they wanted to keep their wattle and daub walls clean from 
the soot and asked whether we have a nicer lamp for the 
living room, as they would entertain guests and wanted it 
looking presentable.  

I was learning some important lessons in life with my own 
biases and prejudices.

Why would a rural woman be different in the way she wanted to keep a nice home? 

Just because they were rural people, still living life as it had 
been lived for generations, why would they not aspire to a 
better life and to be treated with dignity and respect?

My conditioned worldviews were being turned upside down.

From Darkness to Light

Getting electric light into a home was a celebration.  
Happy faces as system was being installed
Installing the first few systems in a village was one big party as it continued into the night. We were thrilled to be a part of this as doing business seemed liked a social service earning us good karma.

In the second month of the launch of the sales in July 1987, we received some frantic calls from our dealers saying the systems were failing. When we investigated, we found customers had added a 12 Volt Black and White TV to the system, overloading it. We had to stop selling the 20-Watt Photovoltaic (PV) module systems in favor of the larger 36-Watt PV modules to meet the higher load.

As I visited customers often, I started seeing whole families 
and their neighbours fixated on a fuzzy TV. Many women 
complained of how the tube had taken over everybody’s life. 
Then I realized that rural life was never going to be the same 
again.

Unprecedented Change

Rural people getting visually connected to the outside world through the television coincided with the 1980s globalization process leading to an unprecedented transformation of Sri 
Lanka’s rural communities. People were teased with a better life of glitter and glamour in their living rooms through the television set. 

The rest is history, as we know how electronic media can 
change a society by influencing them for better or worse 
through what Edward Bernays described in his 1928 book 
Propaganda.[i]  Bernays stated;
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
This invisible government is the big corporate sector in the hands of a few people - pharmaceuticals, oil and chemicals (fertilizer, pesticides, plastics), armaments, luxury consumer goods and services etc. - who now control democratic governments globally.  

Media propagates these to us by stoking our emotions - fear on one end of the spectrum to desire for recognition, status, comfort and happiness on the other - way beyond our needs to live well.        

It is important to keep Bernays in mind as we explore what happened with Globalization. The corporate controlled propaganda machine came into action after Clinton administration's Telecommunications Act of 1996, which took away the power from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).[i]

This consolidated power with six media companies that control the global narrative and the mission to propagate neoliberlism to every corner of this planet.

Globalization

Globalization was a concept to connect and create an 
interdependent world economy with people and cultures 
through cross-border trade in goods and services, 
technology, investment and information.

Globalization encouraged each country to specialize in what 
it produces best using the least amount of resources, known 
as comparative advantage. This was supposed to make 
production more efficient, promote economic growth, and 
lower prices of goods and services, making them more 
affordable, especially for lower-income households.[ii]

The propaganda of the advantages of globalization, 
however, has not delivered on what was promised – global economic stability. It had not made people happier either.

Structural changes promoted by the International Monetary 
Fund (IMF) to promote globalization saw an empirically 
based, but socially callous and economically disastrous 
programs for developing countries like Sri Lanka.  

Economist, author and Nobel laureate,
Joseph Stiglitz

Joseph Stiglitz had a front seat view of all this as an economic adviser to President Clinton (who ushered in neoliberal policies in the US and for the world) and from 1997, the Chief Economist at the World Bank. 

As I read his seminal book, Globalization and Its Discontentsa brave critique of the IMF and how it adversely impacted the developing world, I realized I had witnessed the fallout of the heartless, mean spirited way the IMF and other global institutions had acted in the interest of their masters – the Group of Seven (G7): Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and their corporate benefactors.

Stiglitz saw through the corporate led imperialistic ambitions 
of the globalization programs where these wealthy nations 
kept their power through economic and political advantage.  
He cited this as the Washington Consensus. Whether there 
was true consensus or not, Stiglitz saw this as the IMF, World Bank, and the US Treasury among others coming together to dictate policies for developing countries.[iii]

This is how market fundamentalism or neoliberalism ideology was globalized with the media's help, whether the developing world liked it or not.  

Stiglitz firmly believed that the IMF and other international 
institutions, acted against the interests of impoverished 
developing countries. This left the door open for China to walk in with bags of money.

Government Social Safety Nets Destroyed

The IMF’s structural adjustment program destroyed the close links inherent in a socialist economy between government and rural people.These links worked through culturally sensitive agricultural extension programs and safety nets.

Around 1990, the IMF, using its Poverty Reduction Strategy 
Program (PRSP) forced Sri Lanka to get rid of the safety 
nets and agricultural subsidies as conditions for aid funds, leaving farmers at their wits end. 

Institutions like the (Rice) Paddy Marketing Board, who offered a minimum price to farmers when the market was flooded with oversupply of harvested rice, disappeared overnight. This left the farmers at the mercy of “fat-cat” traders who wore them down with their unscrupulously low prices.  

PRSP was a reckless program which increased the private sector role in the Sri Lankan economy forcing cutbacks on general public services, social welfare and community services.

In a 2003 research paper The IMF-World Bank Plan for Sri Lanka: Will It Help or Hinder South Asian Success?written for the US based Center for Economic Research by Debayani Kar states;
  “There is not sufficient evidence provided by the IMF and World Bank in the case of Sri Lanka or elsewhere in the developing world that greater private sector involvement, either in public enterprises or essential social services, will lead to increased poverty reduction or higher economic growth.”
I witnessed the results of this mean spirited program. To my horror, two farmers we knew (as SUNTEC customers) committed suicide as they could not meet the monthly micro-finance debt for the seeds and fertilizer.  That was heart-wrenching and sadly, we heard of many other suicides in this period.

This is when I witnessed first-hand the faceless neoliberal ideology where money and profits were the masters.These global policies decimated rural farming communities around the developing world and Sri Lanka was not spared.

Neoliberalism  

Neoliberalism is characterized by free market trade through deregulation of financial markets and media, privatization of many essential services - transport, healthcare, education, power and energy and shifted states away from the welfare provision. Neoliberalism celebrates individuality, separates people and communities on Darwin’s misinterpreted principle of survival of the fittest. 

This destroyed the very foundation of rural community-based economies and traditional family structures. Neoliberalism is an amoral system that continues to commodify the thinking feeling human being. 

The fundamental structure of neoliberalism is based on the 
machine metaphor without a conscience, devoid of human 
consciousness. It came from the western narrative of 
individualism and Cartesian duality of the separation of mind 
and body.

This has led the modern industrial world to develop 
technologies for our convenience without thinking of the 
consequences.   

These conveniences enable people to concentrate in urban 
centers which leaves fertile rural areas to large global 
multinational conglomerates to industrial farming using 
machines and chemicals which have given tremendous 
power to companies like Monsanto (now owned by Bayer). 

These practices destroy the soil without thinking of the 
consequences for what is natural for human beings and the 
very nature we are a part of. 

Urban concentration may make it easier to provide services such as education, healthcare, telecommunications and 
transport.  

However, in many countries this has resulted in inadequate 
infrastructure, lack of affordable housing, flooding, pollution, 
slum creation, crime, congestion and poverty leaving people 
more vulnerable than ever before. 

Luckily for Sri Lanka, the government realized the folly of 
letting go of cultivating its staple crops, hence acted fast to revive rice paddy farming by 1992. They encouraged farmers through incentives to cultivate the fallow lands again and eventually reestablished the Paddy Marketing Board.[iv]  

These actions stemmed the rural flight, which would have had devastating consequences for Sri Lanka.

Urban Concentration

Latest population data suggests that Sri Lanka is one of the least urbanized countries on earth, even though there has been a growth of regional cities, towns and the periphery of the city of Colombo.

Urban areas inhabited 18.6% of the total population in 2019 and annual rate of urbanization is 0.85% (2015-20 est.).[v]

Debayani Kar goes on to state in the research paper; 
"The ownership of small land parcels by the rural poor has arguably provided them with a last means of survival and prevented farmers from becoming fully destitute. 
Encouraging these small-scale landholders to sell their land and seek off-farm employment in villages and urban areas in large numbers creates a potentially dangerous situation, since they will not be guaranteed employment when they reach the cities. 
Furthermore, combining this land law reform with the other policies of privatization and labor market reform contained in the PRSP could lead to increased economic instability, rather than the desired outcomes of poverty reduction and growth.”

Why would the IMF and G7 countries go ahead with these policies, if these are the results of their programs?

We all know Sri Lanka, like the rest of the developing world facing geopolitical realities, come under pressure from corporate driven politics of the developed world.  

IMF and the G7 countries are clearly seen to be in cahoots with the corporate world to implement these misguided policies yielding short-term financial gain to markets, but not socially, environmentally and finally not economically sustainable.

Chris Hedges - Truthdig,com
When we listen to wise advocates for change such as Chris Hedges in his Munk Debates talk [vi]Neoliberalism has Killed Democracy: It’s time for a Revolution, we realize the global neoliberal project has gone awry as even the USA is facing a crisis with globalization taking jobs away and creating an underclass; 
“The whole neoliberal project has created a global oligarchic class, where eight families own as much wealth as 50 per cent of the world’s population. The world’s 500 richest people in 2009 added US$12 trillion ($16 trillion) to their assets, at a time when nearly half of all Americans have no savings and nearly 70 per cent cannot come up with $1,000 in an emergency without going into debt. This is the problem we live under. We don’t even control our own economies".[vii]
Sri Lanka’s Opportunity

Sri Lanka is fortunate as most of the land is yet owned by the government. The global oligarchic class has not got a strong foothold yet on the land, which is crucial to feed people, as 80% of Sri Lankans still live in rural areas as small-scale farmers.  

Several insurgencies and the tragic 30-year war could be a reason for the country not being overrun by large-scale agricultural enterprises supported by the likes of Monsanto and Bayer.

However, there are new challenges such as the Millennium 
Challenge Corporation (MCC)[viii] sponsored by the US government. MCC does have good features that will force Sri Lanka in the area of good governance. However, the Land Project which will increase the availability of spatial data and land rights information is bound to adversely impact the poor rural farmers, as that is what happens in the neoliberal free economy.

“The MCC’s economic growth constraints analysis identifies existing legal limits on plot size and land consolidation as impediments to commercial agriculture and proposes to liberalise the land market and enable acquisition of land by foreign entities.
Some of these proposals are in line with land reforms pushed by the World Bank and other development aid programmes since the mid-1990s. They ignore the importance of small-scale agriculture despite obvious failure of large-scale, export-oriented, corporate agri-business across the world.
Indebted rural communities (many of them small producers) would be forced to use land granted to them as collateral to pay off their loans, leading to land grabs by creditors, the transfer of prime land to multinational corporations, the loss of livelihoods for local farmers. 
Conversion of leasehold to freehold could render many landless and force people into the informal sector as day labour.
Moreover, export-oriented commercial agriculture often entails excessive use of agro-chemicals and mono-cultivation which harms biodiversity, food security, and the health and well-being of cultivators - many of whom already suffer from chronic kidney disease (CKD)."[ix]

The 1960s Green Revolution ushered in the use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides to Sri Lanka as it lagged in productivity when farming communities had indigenous knowledge that could have been harnessed better to use natural methods to increase productivity.  

Ranil Senanayake
Systems Ecologist Ranil Senanayake, stated in an article; 
“We have caused much damage ourselves, by not only poisoning the soils and killing all life that depended on our rice ecosystem, but also selling poison filled foods and feeding our children and our parents toxins that make them sick and weak.”
To paraphrase Executive Director of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Ganeshan Wignaraja, who has some suggestions for the MCC; 
“Rather than a potential land grab for the wealthy local and foreign corporations, the MCC could help improve agricultural productivity, modernize ancient irrigation tanks and introduce new technology and management practices into small-holder farms”.[x]
Senanayake adds;
“The way forward to restore the soil and agricultural practices of Sri Lanka must have two features. One is the re-training of farmers on the management of their lands without a heavy energy and toxin input. The other is to build back the fertility of farming soils so that the natural productivity is re-established.”[xi]

Ranil Senanayake highlights the father of Sri Lanka, Hon. 
Hon. D.S. Senanayake 
D.S.Senanayake, First Prime Minister who wrote in his book Agriculture and Patriotism (1935);

 Agriculture is not merely a way of making money by raising crops; it is not merely an industry or a business; it is essentially a public function or service performed by private individuals for the care and use of the land in the national interest; and farmers in the course of securing a living and a private profit are the custodians of the basis of the national life.
Agriculture is therefore affected with a clear and unquestionable public interest and its status is a matter of national concern calling for deliberate and far-sighted national policies, not only to conserve the national and human resources involved in it, but to provide the national security, promote a well round prosperity and secure social and political stability.”

Luckily for the planet Sri Lanka like a few other developing 
countries still has many small-scale farmers who worship the earth, fire, water and air and continue to toil the soil to grow food for us. We have to speak out and support them.  

COVID Realities

It is even more poignant in the wake of COVID 19, to honour the last peg on the supply chain who will feed the rest of us with a value that is consummate of their toil. Their lives are the most uncertain and at the mercy of the weather and markets.  

We have to champion for them as consumers, to mitigate their market risks, so they earn a fair return to make their farms sustainable. We need to speak out against the obscene profits the middle-men, wholesalers and retailers make by the time this food gets to the table. 

Nature’s Realities

I cherish what I learned from these humble yet wise farmers, who worshiped the very elements all sentient beings are made of – earth, fire, water and air.

I also witnessed a sense of fearlessness in them that came from their spirituality. People working with nature understood life’s uncertainties and lived with a sense of equanimity that grounded them. 

At the time I met them in the 1980s, they had not fully joined the competitive consumerists world, which is driven by fear. That is why, with what little they had, they were so generous, joyful and happy. 

Their sense of community came from fairplay, which research shows is a mammalian attribute, over self-interest.[xii]  

On personal note, I do ponder on the role I played in bringing solar electricity, so they could get a television and join the amoral consumerist world. Then I realize, it was inevitable.  

However, I am with Stiglitz when he says, "change has to be sequenced and paced". Just because we have the power, we should not indulge for short-term economic gain, as there are vulnerable people who have feelings and needs impacted.   

COVID 19 is the reminder for all of us to reflect on the biological imperative of fairplay over self-interest.  

When we focus on our life force - the breath - meditate to connect the separated mind and body, it includes our consciousness (which is ignored in the modern techno industrial complex), to complement the five senses in how we witness the world - to live, love, work and play.  

We realize the power of our consciousness to shape outcomes when we accept the quantum nature of the universe. 

Imagine what a collective consciousness can do to change the modern techno-industrial paradigm to include the worship of the earth, fire, water and air to shape the new paradigm, as that is what we are made of. Then we will realize our oneness with this universe and the nature of life - it is born, lives and dies and perhaps born again for another cycle.  

When we are comfortable with that nature, when we are not trying to avoid our mortality through consumerism, we can be fearless in facing life's uncertainties, as my farmer friends did.   

That fearlessness will help us to open our hearts again to gain confidence, be better grounded, self aware and mindful to learn to control and balance modern technologies that encroach us and be critical of the global narrative that is beamed to us. 

Only in the democratic world can we still voice our opinions freely to inquire and influence - to ensure the delicate balance between our sentient nature and the artificial world of technology that could imprison us. We have to be aware and vigilant to guard that freedom.  

THE APPEAL

That is why COVID 19 is the greatest opportunity for this planet, as it has forced most people, who have too much and those do not have much, to go within - to reflect, ponder and become mindful - focus on the breath and realize that the nature of life is fairplay, the big LOVE, togetherness, community and not selfishness, competition and separation based on survival of the fittest.   

The need of the hour is for the G20 plus to come together with selfless leadership for humanity - not to close minds and borders in fear, retreat to our superficial identities of race, nation, religion, colour and creed. 

That is a hollow losing battle for humanity which will implode on us.  Now is the time to let go of trying to fix things through a selfish lens of superiority - for profit with guns. Now is the time to quiet our minds to let wisdom and intelligence guide us as one humanity. 

That begins with self to face this reality fearlessly - and that self LOVE, compassion, peace and harmony within can bring equanimity to live in grace with uncertainty and impermanence to spread beyond us to all sentient beings to thrive together in a 'power of balance'. 

May that leadership emerge within and among us is my wish to the universe.
  
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This article is a tribute my teachers - my pagan friends, the farmers - may you be safe, may you be well, may you be happy.... 

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[i] https://billmoyers.com/story/twenty-years-of-media-consolidation-has-not-been-good-for-our-democracy/


[iii] https://www.piie.com/commentary/speeches-papers/review-globalization-and-its-discontents
[v]https://www.indexmundi.com/sri_lanka/demographics_profile.html
[vi]https://munkdebates.com/podcast/revolution
[vii]https://nationalpost.com/opinion/munk-debates-chris-hedges-neoliberalism-has-killed-democracy-its-time-for-a-revolution
[viii]https://www.mcc.gov/where-we-work/program/sri-lanka-compact
[ix]http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article51509
[x]https://www.eastwestcenter.org/publications/making-the-millennium-challenge-corporation-compact-work-sri-lanka
[xii]https://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/041612.html