Rethinking Colonialism

For the Third World, economic globalization is just more of the same

by Anna Manzo

Toward Freedom magazine, November 1998


In industrialized nations, historic colonialism is rarely equated with "economic globalization." Yet, as multinational corporations assert rights over nation-state sovereignty, globalization increasingly looks like a highly-evolved form of colonialism, resubordinating the economies of newly industrialized countries (NICs), as well as labor markets of developed nations.

"It's important to look at the development of the economy from the mindset of the global powers," says Philippine Green Party leader Roberto Verzola, "because they will eventually impinge on the rest of the world, often shaping our destinies and steering our development in directions we never wanted to take." Verzola also coordinates Interdoc, a network of international non-governmental organizations tracking the impact of the emerging global information economy on developing countries.

According to Verzola, the dates and the colonizing countries may have varied throughout the Third World, but the colonial experiences have basically been the same. Military conquest was carried out by the use of superior military technology, then followed by the imposition of new religions, culture, a colonial administration, and the drawing out of the land's wealth.

This system-colonialism's first wave- dulled resistance. "The colonial mindset set in when the people started to accept the colonizers' words: 'We bring you Christianity;' 'We bring you civilization;' 'We will teach you democracy," said Verzola. "When occupation forces were withdrawn, the formal political power transferred to local elites very often retained the same colonial set of laws, bureaucracy, and armed forces that had served the colonizers."

The Philippines' longest colonial experience in the Pacific region-first under control of the Spanish, and then the US-offers a case study in contrasting colonialism past and present. The first indigenous resistance to colonization began in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan and several crew members claimed the islands for Spain, violated their women and were slain by native leaders. But the Spanish returned in 1565 with superior weaponry, conquering much of the 7100-island archipelago within 10 years.

After military conquest, Spanish priests converted lowland tribespeople to Christianity, often building churches with forced labor. Friars replaced local shamans and made Christianity more appealing by incorporating many elements of indigenous religions. However, Mindanao Muslims and highland tribes were successful in resisting colonization and maintaining their traditional culture until 1898, when US military presence and a market economy began to undermine their lifestyle.

Philippine independence from Spain in 1898 marked the first successful liberation from a European colonizer in Asia, but was short-lived. According to Pulitzer prize-winning author Stanley Karnow, the Spanish-American War began as a "pious endeavor to liberate Cuba from Spanish oppression," but ended in "the former colony [the US] itself becoming a colonialist" when the US brutally annexed the newly-independent Asian republic. Walden Bello, director of Thailand's Focus on the Global South, sees the 1899 Philippine annexation as critical to global US strategy.


In colonialism's second wave, three driving forces alternately dominated in US interests: the strategic military extension of the US state; corporate expansionism, and missionary democracy. Imperialist intentions had to be sanitized as democracy in response to a strong anti-imperialist movement in the US-a special problem because of the US' own anti-colonial revolution against Britain. "However, replicating the American system of 'independence' through electoral democracy allowed different factions of the elite to compete relatively peacefully for political power," explains Bello. This offered an effective form of political control: an illusion of democratic choice. The poor could participate in elections, but wealth subverted the process.

The US tried to export this model, but failed when it chose countries like Korea and Vietnam, caught up in nationalist revolutions. Disenchanted, US officials made anticommunism the credential for choosing allies-a system that led to US support for dictatorships such as Park Chung-Hee in Korea, Marcos in the Philippines, and Suharto in Indonesia.

A US priority in international relationships has been to insure access for US corporate investment and products by pressuring governments to eliminate tariffs and other policies protecting domestic business, the opposite of early protectionist measures to develop the US' own industrial sector. Verzola believes this arrangement fosters dependency on the colonial power, compromising a nation's economic sovereignty. Relationships with institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization exacerbate the condition. Promising development funds, jobs, technology, and protection from communism, they instead impose trade liberalization and austerity programs that stagnate development.

Agricultural liberalization, for example, endangers the self-sufficiency of indigenous farmers by requiring monocropping for export. "For several years, farmers converted rice cultivation to potato crops to produce french fries for McDonald's restaurants. But when the fast-food chain found pre-cut and frozen potatoes cheaper elsewhere, 50,000 farmers were suddenly out of work," says Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who coordinated the declaration of indigenous women at the Beijing Women's Conference and lobbies on behalf of indigenous communities.

"Additionally, we are told not to grow rice because we can import rice that's grown more efficiently elsewhere. But if you import, you need foreign currency; you cannot buy products abroad with Philippine pesos. Workers need to work abroad to get foreign currency-or rely on more IMF loans," she says. "We should not be forced to change our crops to those that the government, IMF, or international markets have decided are 'globally competitive."'


In the latest wave of colonialism, the nation-state is asked to play a subservient role to multinational corporations; corporate rights are often more favorably treated than individual rights. Corporations have become aggressive in asserting their freedoms via "liberalization," overcoming government control through "deregulation," and taking over government activities through "privatization," according to Verzola.

Supra-national institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization are working to further negate national sovereignty through emerging global legal infrastructures; for example, the proposed Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) would allow multinational corporations to dictate changes to a country's national, state, and local regulations governing labor, health, and environmental standards. Other legislative processes are deregulating information technology, communications, financial services, and the biotechnology industry, allowing the formation of unprecedented monopolies.

Many Third World and indigenous cultures view "ancestral knowledge" and natural resources as collective assets, meant to be shared rather than exploited by individual owners, Verzola observes. In Western cultures, the right to private property is absolute and almost everything is commodified. Information itself is an object of commodification and privatization. In the genetic engineering and biotechnology industries, for example, a handful of the major biotechnology corporations are fighting for monopolistic patent rights to the 80,000 genes making up the human genome.

At a 1994 conference on sustainable development, Tauli-Corpuz learned that her tribe, the Philippine Igorots, was targeted by the Human Genome Project, along with 700 communities worldwide. She also discovered that some international medical missions arriving in the Philippines had a hidden agenda: to collect genetic material from diverse indigenous communities for research and eventual product development by multinational pharmaceutical companies.

Tauli-Corpuz has protested the commodification of this "new natural resource" by calling for an international moratorium on bio-prospecting until further legal protections can be developed. Ironically, her daughter's nearly-completed graduate research in molecular biology was recently shelved by her professor after an institutional infusion of research money from the Human Genome Project. Adding insult to injury, the young woman was asked by the same professor to collect genetic materials from 100 of her relatives. She declined.

"One day, you might find that you don't even own your own body," says Tauli-Corpuz. We're protesting this project because it violates the way we look at life, its sacredness, the whole idea of dignity, of what knowledge should be and how it is used."

In the biotechnology arena, foreign nationals aren't the only ones whose genetic material is being patented by commercial US firms. One Alaskan businessman, John Moore, found a cell line from his spleen had been patented for an anti-cancer agent worth $3 billion. A California Supreme Court ruled that Moore had no property right over his own body tissues.

As Verzola observes, the hardest battle is in recognizing and overcoming the colonial mentality that immobilizes the people, during their impulse to fight.


Anna Manzo is a Connecticut-based writer. Research assistance provided by Scott Harris, Public Affairs Director of WPKN Radio in Bridgeport, CT


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