The Chicken War In Cameroon, Globalization's Losers Fight Back and Win

When it comes to chicken, Europeans seem to only like the breast. The rest of the chicken is almost impossible to sell and ends up being exported at dumping prices. But farmers in Cameroon are refusing to be the victims of globalization, they have fought the import of European chicken legs -- and won.

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Bernard Njonga gingerly steers his Toyota Land Cruiser through the evening rush hour traffic in Yaoundé, the capital of the West African nation of Cameroon. The heat is oppressive and Njonga, who hasn't been able to figure out how the air-conditioning works yet, has his windows rolled down.

Suddenly someone knocks on the car door, giving Njonga a start. A stranger stands at his window, sticks his arm into the car and shakes Njonga's hand, thanking him profusely for his courage and for everything he has done -- for Cameroon and for its farmers. Njonga smiles awkwardly. There have been many changes in his life recently.

Once an ordinary official at a farmers' association, he now makes television appearances and gives radio interviews – and there are always a few men standing outside his office. Every time Njonga leaves and enters the office they reach for their mobile phones to report to their bosses. Njonga is convinced that the men work for the government. He greeted them once, just to see what would happen, but got no response.

Njonga has earned the gratitude of strangers and attracted the government's attention because he triumphed over adversaries many believed were invincible. His biggest adversary was the country's President Paul Biya who has ruled Cameroon for the past 25 years. Biya is essentially a dictator who allows the country's parliament to exist as his personal applause machine.

Njonga forced the president to fire an allegedly corrupt minister. This alone was a sensation in Cameroon -- a non-politician, a civilian, changing the composition of the cabinet. For Cameroonians it was unheard-of.

But more significant than the fact that it could happen was how it happened -- not through intrigues or political action, but through public pressure and protests by a people that suddenly discovered some of its power and took to the streets. Njonga had unintentionally created Cameroon's first extraparliamentary opposition, in fact, the first true opposition in the country.

Njonga's second adversary was Europe, the world's biggest economic power, which uses Africa as a place to dump its garbage and other unwanted products. Njonga fought to make sure that this could no longer happen in Cameroon. This too was a spectacular victory, a real triumph. It catapulted Njonga, an educated farmer, from the narrow world of Cameroon onto the stage of international politics. In his own country, he is now seen as an expert on the consequences of globalization. He showed his fellow Africans how to defend themselves against a system of global trade in which they usually end up the losers. He now travels to places like Sao Paulo and Hong Kong to attend conferences on the consequences of growth and the limits of globalization.

Njonga's rise to prominence began with a campaign against European chicken legs. The legs were being sold in the markets in cities and villages, and their mere existence was driving Cameroonian farmers to despair, because the imported poultry was ruining their business, making it virtually impossible for the farmers to sell their own chickens.

The legs were imported from abroad and sold in Cameroon at dumping prices. One kilo went for about 800 West African francs, or €1.20. The domestic chickens, which were only sold live, were twice as expensive by the kilo. The farmers had good reason to be upset.

Many of them had invested in their chicken farms in recent years. They had taken out loans and built coops, hoping to benefit from structural change in Cameroon. Families were steadily moving from rural to urban areas, searching for work and a better life. They left behind their farms and the ability to feed themselves with the grain, milk and meat they had produced. Commercial chicken farms were developed to help meet the increased demand brought about by growing urban populations.

Fridolin Mvogo is one of these farmers, but instead of only investing in chicken coops and structural change, he invested in globalization. He believed in going with the times, said goodbye to the common chicken and, together with a neighbor, bought 2,000 brand-name chickens, bred and genetically optimized by global breeding companies.

These animals are only remotely related to the ordinary backyard chicken. Mvogo's "Hybro" brand chickens are highly efficient feed conversion machines that convert 1.65 kilograms of feed into one kilogram of body tissue. They even outperform pigs. It takes them only 35 days to grow to slaughter size and their meat is juicy. From the perspective of a farmer who wants to produce as much meat as possible in as short a time as possible, the brand-name chicken is superior to the common chicken in every respect.

When Mvogo decided to invest in these high-performance chickens a few years ago, chicken legs were already being sold in Cameroon. They had started appearing on Yaounde's markets, but there weren't enough of them to keep Mvogo awake at night. He was convinced that they would disappear sooner or later. But they didn't.

In fact, their numbers increased from year to year, primarily because of the efforts of a company that had discovered Cameroon as an easily accessible and unsaturated market for cheap chicken parts. The name of the company, headquartered in the Dutch town of Dordrecht, is Kühne & Heitz. Its employees were responsible for about 70 percent of Cameroon's poultry imports. This was a good business for Cameroon's meat dealers, but a disaster for Mvogo. Realizing that he couldn't sell his chickens, he, like many other farmers, called up Njonga, the General Secretary of the Cameroonian farmers' association SAILD. They wanted Njonga to get rid of the foreign chicken legs and they didn’t care how he did it.

The farmers had no idea what they were asking Njonga to do. Not only was he up against a company in faraway Holland, but he was also dealing with consumers, who set a disastrous chain reaction in motion that begins in European and American supermarkets and ends in the markets of Cameroon.

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