by Ed Felien
“Darwin's Nightmare”: See it, and thank God you don't have to live it!
We need to face this.
We need to understand the costs of globalization. We need to ask the questions. We need to find the answers.
The Walker Art Center is now screening “Darwin’s Nightmare,” a compelling documentary about the effects of globalization on a few small fishing villages in Tanzania on Lake Victoria.
development, these were simple villages where the principal occupation was subsistence
farming supplemented by fishing. Then a European introduced the Nile perch into
the Lake. Soon this voracious predator devoured all the native species, and
soon after, the Lake began to choke from overgrown algae. The Europeans understood
there was a market for Nile perch fillets, so they created an industry. and
built a packing plant with a blast freezer that now employs hundreds of locals.
Local fishermen who once fished only for their families are now commercial fishermen.
For some this is the gateway to prosperity, modernization and the industrial
revolution. Perhaps a couple of hundred are employed as industrial workers in
the packing plant, and another couple hundred might be individual contractors
catching the Nile perch. For these Tanzanian natives there might be some measure
of prosperity. But, clearly, the principal beneficiaries of this development
are the middle managers of the factory from India and the Russian pilots and
ground crew who transport the fish to Europe.
The victims of this forced development are manifest and obvious. Orphaned children
run in gangs. They find packages used to wrap the fish and boil down the wrapping
to extract the glue that they sniff to get comatose. Some of them are on crutches.
They run about like casualties of the Industrial Revolution in New England in
the 1820s. Before child labor was abolished, children would work 12-hour days
and sometimes fall into the looms and lose a limb. It is not clear how the children
in this film were permanently maimed, but the image is one of Dickensian horror.
There is no social structure to take care of them. They live as scavengers and
is often the only alternative for women without other means of support. They
run the risk of being killed by a trick immediately or slowly through the infection
of AIDS. Their laughter and gaiety is the hollow joy of the doomed.
Throughout the film the filmmakers ask what the planes are bringing into Africa
before they leave filled with frozen fish. Everyone they ask says they come
in empty. In one of the final interviews the filmmakers interview a Russian
pilot. He talks of bringing in guns and tanks to Angola and bringing grapes
to Europe: “Angola children receive guns for Christmas Day. European children
receive grapes. So many mothers ... I have no words in English.”
The conclusion we are led to is that the Russian planes are bringing in guns
to spark civil war, but the situation in Angola was unique, and the reality
was slightly different. Thirty years ago there was a war of national liberation
led by socialists that eventually drove out the Portuguese colonials. When the
Angolan socialists took power they were immediately attacked by the Apartheid
government of South Africa and the United States. The United States poured money
and war material into Angola through South Africa. Russia naturally supported
the socialist government.
It is possible that today the Russian planes are bringing war material into
Africa before stopping in Tanzania to pick up fish, but the Angolan instance
hardly proves that point.
The film opens with a lone air traffic controller trying to kill a fly in his
office overlooking the simple airstrip that services the small community. The
action is emblematic of the film. The Tanzanian government official is probably
comparatively well paid. His equipment and airstrip are primitive, but they
exist, and because they exist, Tanzanians believe they are moving down a path
of modernization. Perhaps the packing plant is a step down that path as well,
but the only details we are given about working conditions are from the night
watchman who guards the plant with a bow and arrow for a dollar a night. He
is quick to tell you that the last night watchman was murdered, and this was
the only job he could get.
Are the Tanzanians better off or is their condition worse because of development?
our vantage point, in a post-industrial society fat from the fruits of imperialism,
we recoil in horror at the degradation of the human condition.
But to the Tanzanians, perhaps, they may feel they finally have choices in their
lives. They no longer have the limited horizon of rural poverty. There are other
alternatives, and for many—more choices means they are more free.
We can only hope that soon they may develop progressive political leadership
that will help them organize unions and create a government that will provide
social welfare for those left behind in this adventure in capitalist development.
The first step in that process would have to be self-awareness. They need to
know who they are and what is happening to them. This film is a very important
contribution to that first step.
“Darwin’s Nightmare” runs nightly at the Walker through
Saturday, Oct. 22 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 23 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $8
($6 for Walker members).||