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Late Victorian Holocausts:
El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World

By Mike Davis
Verso
464 pages, $27

Mike Davis is one of the fiercer flamethrowers of the American left: His influential books City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear skillfully dismantled the urban myths of Los Angeles and the utopian dreams of California. Now, after spending so much time on the contemporary West Coast, Davis has gone hunting in the archives. Late Victorian Holocausts excavates a forgotten and chilling history: the wave of famines that struck India, China, Brazil and other tropical countries in the late 19th century, as a result of which more than 50 million people perished from hunger and disease--a death toll approximately equal to that of World War II.

Researchers now think that El Niño, the cyclical fluctuations of temperature and air pressure in the equatorial Pacific so familiar from recent headlines, was particularly active at that time as well. As Davis details, this led to repeated failures of the monsoon rains and to terrible droughts across the tropics. But he's not out just to talk about the weather. His devastating thesis is that "El Niño worked in sinister partnership with the world market."

Far from being the unfortunate lot of tropical peasants, these mass starvations were

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directly linked to the policies of European colonialism--reaching its zenith at that time--and to the emergence of a truly global economy. The book's main contention is that while droughts can't be avoided, famines can; they're actually social crises created by the interaction of climate with socioeconomic conditions, public policies and land-use practices. Indian and Chinese farmers were victims not of a malicious Mother Nature, but of "growing social vulnerability to climate variability."

The colonialist transformation of local agriculture into a cash-crop export system played an essential role in worsening that vulnerability, as Davis shows. Small holders were tied to the world market--and then often strangled by it. Take the example of an Indian farmer who once produced enough rice and vegetables to feed his family, and perhaps to sell or barter a small surplus. Financially pressured to grow crops for export, he became indirectly dependent on trade quotas and fluctuating commodity prices. When oversupply and competition pushed those prices down, he was unable to shift easily to alternatives. Marooned at the peripheries of the world economy, such small farmers were nevertheless still buffeted by the shocks of distant markets rippling around the globe.

But the shift away from subsistence farming had a devastating effect on people's basic ability to survive hard times. In a country like Indonesia, the move to monocultures (growing a single crop) disrupted diverse agricultural strategies that had evolved to cope with the unpredictability of the monsoon. Likewise, the traditional granary reserve systems of India and China, a safety valve in lean years, were forced to shut down--mostly to cut costs or placate opponents of such communitarianism. So when El Niño caused a drought, people starved in their villages.

And since the rules of political economy were sovereign in a place like British India, the death toll soared. Shockingly, exporting surpluses from a hungry nation was a common practice of British colonial policy; Davis notes that "between 1875 and 1900, years that included the worst famines in Indian history, annual grain exports increased from 3 million to 10 million tons: a quantity ... equivalent to the annual nutrition of 25 million people." Lord Lytton, the British viceroy in India and one of the book's nastier villains, believed that relief aid only encouraged indolence among the natives. Davis catalogues the appalling results of such inaction through gruesome photographs and the graphic accounts of contemporary travelers and officials.

Famines were a good opportunity to strengthen the colonial balance of power,

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weakening local autonomy everywhere from New Caledonia (still a French possession today) to South Africa. The Dutch used drought periods to suppress recalcitrant tribes on Borneo and turn them into rattan exporters. And in the Philippines, where severe El Niño episodes coincided with the advent of American imperialism, the United States cut off food sources to subjugate resistance, trying out a strategy used more than half a century later in Vietnam.

Prior to the 19th century, Asia was nearly as wealthy as Europe. But instead of developing internal markets and infrastructure, colonialism spirited profits out of the colonies. India held up the setting sun of the British empire by providing low-cost raw materials and absorbing finished goods (it was "the greatest captive market in world history"), ensuring that free trade for some involved managed trade for others--what Davis sardonically calls "Victorian structural adjustment."

Late Victorian Holocausts is powerful and well argued; it's also an impressive work of scholarship, demonstrating the author's ability to move fluidly through academic waters, juggling scholarly articles and period sources with ease. And even while wheeling out plenty of hard statistical evidence, Davis strives to maintain a personal element, arguing that "it is necessary to pin names and faces to the human agents of such catastrophes."

Although he is clearly aware of the long-term effects that the famines had on contemporary underdevelopment--the book's subtitle is "El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World"--Davis does not intend to draw those parallels himself. Unlike his more contemporary efforts, this book's historical focus may largely confine it to a specialist audience. That would be a shame, because it's hard to read such damning stuff without a striking sense of its relevance today.

For these great interlocking movements of natural disasters, poverty, hunger and globalization have only intensified in scope. In the late 20th century, we saw a similarly dramatic increase in severe El Niño cycles, and related events like floods, droughts and forest fires; almost all scientists believe that global warming is worsening their effects. Meanwhile, with the international economy more tightly bound than ever, trade liberalization, commodity prices and exchange rates are structurally adjusting the lives of people around the world. Sustainable agriculture in Asia, Africa and Latin America continues to be absorbed into a global network of monoculture plantations that grow cash crops (like flowers or coffee) for export.

"Despite three decades of rapidly expanding global food supplies, there are still an

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estimated 786 million hungry people in the world," writes Peter Rosset, co-director of Food First/The Institute for Food and Development Policy. Much-touted increases in food production, like that achieved by the Green Revolution of the 1960s, often mask the need for changes in distribution--for it's the misallocation of food and resources like water and land, not their scarcity, that perpetuates world hunger. In a depressing update to one of Davis' case studies, Rosset reports that 5,000 Indian children are dying of malnutrition each day, despite national grain surpluses. This further highlights the desperate need for a social ecology that places environmental crises in the context of socioeconomic disparity--between rich and poor, but also between North and South.

In today's world, multinational corporations, aided by development institutions, patent lawyers and, sadly, corrupt local elites, have replaced colonial bureaucrats. Hunger has become a useful way for corporations to ratchet up profits. Biotech firms are now busy preaching the virtues of genetically modified seeds, which they claim will finally solve the problem of Third World hunger. The U.S. government recently donated a large shipment of genetically modified food to alleviate a famine in northern Kenya--using hunger as a vector by which to create and control markets for a profitable new technology. Relief aid itself rarely addresses the root causes of famines in the very nature of the global economy. In the 19th century, natives were accused of laziness and denied handouts; now aid is used as a way of easing our consciences while creating new markets--which hurts local farmers even more, and may lead to further famines down the road.

The debate will continue over whether the solution to the world's hunger problem is more and better globalization, or the revitalization of local economies. Meanwhile, as in the colonial era, an enormous number of people are suffering. And arguing that the hungry must wait while their leaders make wrenching structural changes dictated by a particular economic program sounds a lot like the sacrifices once demanded by Mao or Stalin. One kind of dogma has merely replaced another.

Like Victorian colonialists, today's globalizing elites may sincerely believe they're doing the right thing, that free markets will eventually feed the planet. But to deny the obvious increase in human misery around the world is to be complicit in it. Davis' book is essentially one of moral outrage, rightly scathing toward the undue consideration given to theories--of any kind--over lives.

Jonathan Cook is a writer and environmental activist in New York. His e-mail address is [email protected]

 

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