We are told that the lives of many of the poorest people across the world are often at the mercy of 'natural disasters'. Millions of people in the Third World are driven into destitution or early graves by a drought or flooding which we are told human beings have no control over.
But the reality is more brutal. Human beings do have control over these life and death situations. An excellent new book by Mike Davis uses the example of famines at the end of the 19th century to show that disasters are often not 'natural' at all. He shows how imperialism and colonialism killed millions and stripped continents of their natural resources.
In Ireland, Africa and India the local population starved to death while food was exported so that their rich conquerors could grow even richer. British imperialism dominated these countries, and others. Resources were sucked out and used to bolster British business interests across the world. The British ruling class defended the seizure of India as a colony by claiming it brought prosperity, and improved communications, roads and railways. 'The accomplishment of all this work, and this expenditure of money, have increased to an extent absolutely incalculable the wealth and comfort of the people of India,' according to Sir Richard and General Sir John Strachey, two leading British officials in India.
These claims are still repeated by apologists for colonialism today. But between 1875 and 1900 there were some of the worst famines in Indian history. The life expectancy of ordinary Indians fell by 20 percent between 1872 and 1921.
During the same period annual grain exports out of India increased from three million to ten million tonnes. Lord Lytton was the head of the British government in India during the first famine. He said, 'There is to be no interference of any kind on the part of government with the object of reducing the price of food.' He dismissed any idea of feeding the starving as 'humanitarian hysterics'.
However, Lytton was happy to 'interfere' to boost the profits of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce by removing duties on British cotton imported into India at the height of the famine. When drought hit India in the 1870s, businessmen used the railroads to transport grain from the worst affected areas to central depots for hoarding. The famine was most intense in the Madras region. Some 100,000 refugees packed out Madras city, desperate for food.
Many starved to death in front of the troops who were guarding pyramids of imported rice. The Madras Chamber of Commerce responded by suggesting the police build flogging posts to deter starving people from stealing grain.
This pattern was repeated again and again. Some 143,000 people in the province of Berar died of starvation between 1899 and 1900. As they starved to death, 747,000 bushels of grain were exported from the area. A passenger on a train through India at the time described seeing children screaming with pain for lack of food. He wrote, 'Even now there are four wagons of rice coupled to the train behind, but no one will give anything to the children. 'These wagons are reserved for the inhabitants of those towns where people still have money and can pay.'
The famine was not due to a lack of resources to feed the population. It was because British rulers' priority was to keep the price of grain high so they could maintain their profits. 'The famine was one of high prices rather than scarcity of food,' concluded a commissioners' report.
The British government also grew worried that its French rivals would use the spread of plague from India as an excuse to impose a trade embargo. Davis writes, 'The secretary of state in London was telling the viceroy he was more concerned about plague than famine because a market once lost or even partially deserted is not easily regained.'
At least £100 million was spent on Queen Victoria's jubilee celebrations in 1897. Yet British officials refused to pump in money to help famine relief. Instead relief camps were barbaric.
A British journalist wrote that British officials turned people away from relief camps if they were too weak from starvation to work for their rations. And when one British official was asked to explain why there was a particularly high death toll in Gujarat, he responded, 'The Gujarati is a soft man, unused to privation, accustomed to earn his good food easily. Very many, even among the poorest, had never taken a tool in hand in their lives.' 30 million starved in China
British Colonialism in China and Brazil played the same deadly role. Britain's stranglehold over China was achieved through trafficking opium from India. By the time famine hit at the end of the 19th century, the Chinese economy could not grow enough food to feed its people. Around 30 million people starved to death between 1876 and 1900. Similarly, in Brazil, Britain's rulers controlled all the country's foreign debt. London banks, in particular the Roths-childs, owned the country's money supply.
Local farmers were pressured into abandoning subsistence crops for commercial crops. Again millions of people had no means to survive when drought hit. Davis says that the El Nino climate cycles bringing drought in some areas and flooding in others were particularly intense during the late 19th century. But each environmental problem was escalated into a catastrophe in India, China and Brazil because of the world system. 'Millions died, not outside the 'modern world system', but in the process of being forcibly incorporated into its economic and political structures. They died in the golden age of liberal capitalism,' says Davis. They continue to die today.
The interests of big business still mean that poor countries suffer when droughts or floods hit. The huge death toll during the earthquake in Gujarat, India, earlier this month was escalated by poorly built houses and buildings.
The property companies' profits were put in front of safety. Many buildings collapsed completely flat when the earthquake hit, killing tens of thousands. Engineers can design buildings that minimise the impact of natural disasters. But big businesses cut corners to save money. The same happened when an earthquake rocked El Salvador in January. The country was robbed of its valuable hospitals due to the lack of strong supports on the buildings.
In August last year some 40,000 people died in an earthquake in Turkey when just one year of the government's arms expenditure could have made every house in Turkey secure from earthquakes. Global institutions like the World Bank ensure that businesses put profits first in countries around the world, which means the poor pay a needlessly high price for natural disasters.
Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino, Famines and the Making of the Third World, by Mike Davis. Published by Verso, £20.
Available from » Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, in central London. Phone 020 7637 1848.