Saturday, January 24, 2015

Correa's take on development

Here is an article about a speech given by Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador.  He calls for strategic protection of infant industries in developing countries, freer movement of labor and less free movement of capital, and above all a stress on national sovereignty as opposed to transnational organizations as the major drivers of development in a country.  I tend to agree with all these points, particularly his citing of Ha-Joon Chang, the Oxford economist that I think is the most accurate and prescient writer right now on how countries really develop.  Correa and his peers in other Latin American countries are often dismissed as unrealistic by the very neoliberal institutions that they criticize, but I feel that, beyond the polemics, they are arguing for what should be rather uncontroversial points.  Namely that national sovereignty should take priority over conditions imposed by unelected bodies like the World Trade Organization, and that countries wanting to develop economically should look to history to emulate what worked for countries like France, the US, or Korea in their own development.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

On resisting marketing

This is a very well-thought, at times overly heavy article about resisting the fake thrill that advertisements and consumption give us.  It gives a philosophical basis for something that more and more of us are realizing--that mass consumerism offers only a false satisfaction and should not only be passively avoided, but actively rejected in our daily lives.  This is difficult for those of us who put it into practice--getting rid of your TV, constantly critiquing the images you're fed, teaching your children about the immorality and lies of consumerism, all these seem like heavy, joyless exercises, and in the midst of a community full of avid consumers, you can easily come off as some sort of a radical.  After all, why would you shun enjoyment?  (I've run into a similar feeling as I at times consider that perhaps we should limit the constant search for new scientific knowledge and technological "improvements" and opt instead for contentment with the constant and the proven).  And even after taking these seemingly drastic measures, it's always easy to fall back into the lull of seeking out shiny new consumer pleasures, or taking comfort in a familiar brand from childhood.  Of course the author's correct answer is that true joy comes from sincere creation (and I would add love and family and community), not from consumption (which is often inherently destructive of the self and others).  But it's hard to argue for boring old love and free thought and creation when you're faced with shiny, polished ads and brands and breathless bullshit.  Anyway, this article gives me strength and inspiration to keep up the good fight!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Non-viable ag technologies in Africa

This is an article about a joint effort between Dupont and 4H (the youth agriculture club) to bring 4H programs to youth in Ghana and other countries.  The article is ostensibly about how Dupont and other such companies may be using US government programs to get a toehold in promising new markets, in this case by using 4H program youth as free advocates for Dupont Pioneer seed.  This is a valid concern. 

But as an agronomist, and specifically a systems agronomist who studies how peasant farming systems work, there is something else that jumps out at me from this article; at current price points, the input-intensive agriculture that Dupont is promoting through Ghanaian 4H clubs just isn't economically viable in the prevailing context.  Simply put, if the seeds you plant (not to mention the herbicide you spray and the machinery you rent) cost more than the final product you sell, then you are not going to use those seeds (or herbicide, or machinery).  Another way of looking at it is that the current, "primitive" practices of the peasant farmers are in fact much more productive and profitable than the model Dupont and 4H are pushing.

If I proposed to someone a business venture that would require more up-front investment than the final payout, that person would laugh in my face.  That person would think I was a fool for even proposing the venture.  However, in the interaction between peasant farmers in postcolonial countries and glossy, rich-world ag companies, it seems that it's the farmers themselves who assume they are fools for not being able to make the venture work.  The cultural dynamic is such that peasant farmers find it more reasonable to assume that the farming systems that have sustained their family for generations are inherently inferior to a farming system that isn't even sustainable in the first generation.  At least that's what's depicted in the article.  I'm sure there are plenty of farmers in Ghana who quickly see that the Dupont 4H model of agriculture is a fool's venture, but they're not quoted here.

In this case, if Dupont's prices really are indicative of their cost structure, then for now their hybrid seed will never be viable in Ghana's current farming context (it would be different if the seed were an open-pollinated variety, which can be replanted multiple times before you have to buy new seed, and which would thus allow farmers to amortize the up-front seed costs).  The only way it might be workable for a Ghanaian farmer to use Dupont's seed is if Dupont lowers seed price (which would assume that right now they're charging an artificial, gouging price), or for Ghanaian farming to totally flip its structure to resemble more closely US farming conditions--large expanses of land farmed by one farmer and a bunch of machines, which might facilitate lower per-hectare costs in other areas so as to permit the assumption of high seed costs.  But that would represent a drop in net wealth creation per hectare as compared to the present system, and would only be workable if all the farmers displaced by machinery found better-paying jobs in the cities. 

Given all this, it seems that Dupont's model would be a great fit for Ghana today, if only Ghana today were actually the Midwestern US in the 1950s!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rice on rice

Here is a fascinating article on a long-running experiment at the IRRI research center in the Philippines, where they have been growing multiple crops of rice every year in the same field for decades.  It is amazing that they can coax consistent high yields from the same plot without rotating--common agronomic sense would have us believe that the soil would decrease in fertility and the plants be beset with insect and disease problems.  I guess not.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

An insightful obituary for Garcia Márquez

I recently ran across this really great obituary for García Márquez.  The author argues that, because he was from the "uncivilized" provinces and not Bogotá, part of the genius of García Márquez was to remind Bogotá that in fact Colombia was much more than just the sophisticated, conservative, Baroque highlands.  In tying Bogotá and the intellectual elite to the rest of the country, he also tied Colombia as a whole to the rest of the world.  No longer a mountain redoubt, an Andean Bhutan, a place by turns arrogant and unsure in its assertions of cultural superiority, Colombia was exposed to the rest of the world, and the world was exposed to Colombia.  As I wrote in a recent blog post, the developed world read in García Márquez profound depictions of humanity, from a land it would have otherwise dismissed as a savage jungle, and the developing world reaffirmed through García Márquez what it had already known, that it was indeed at times a savage jungle, but also a place of thought and tenderness and noble instincts and love and laughter, all those things that had heretofore been ascribed only to the more civilized climes of Europe and the US, and their attendant literature.  First the rest of Latin America, and soon all the Wretched of the Earth, found a voice in García Márquez.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Palm in Colombia

This is a good TV bit and accompanying article about palm oil cultivation in Colombia, from the Washington Post.  I have often discussed the violence associated with this crop in Colombia, the inherently poor economics of palm oil and large-scale plantation crops in general, and compared the economics of small-scale vs. large-scale farms.  Anyone who is interested in or aware of Colombia's conflict and its farm economy will be familiar with the themes touched on in the Washington Post coverage, but it is nice to see these issues explored in mainstream international media.  I just wanted to add a few comments, criticisms, and clarifications to the mix.

  • The Post describes the paramilitaries (Self-Defense Forces of Colombia) as being formed to fight the FARC and other leftist rebels.  While this is technically true, because the right-wing murder squads were indeed formed as a response to the guerrillas, it is misleading, because the paramilitaries quickly evolved (or devolved) into something very different from a simple "self-defense force", as their name would have us believe.  For most of their history they have been a ruthless engine of nefarious, extractive economic activities, from drug production to palm oil plantations to smuggling to mining.  The paramilitaries, and the criminal groups that have arisen from them since their formal dissolution, have a self-sustaining logic of expoliating other people's resources in order to profit from them, which is what has driven these groups to take over large swathes of territory and expel the inhabitants.  Their arrival in a town like Mapiripan was not driven by mere defensive objectives of controlling an adversary, but rather a mix of expansionist ambitions, both political, territorial, and economic.
  • Just as the Posts seems too benign in its description of the paramilitaries, it also is too timid when it claims that the palm oil sector benefited from war.  This is true, but I would go one step further, and say that the logic of palm oil plantations and other such large-scale extractive activities has been one of the very causes of the war.  Without cheap land, and landless people too terrified to demand decent working conditions (or the return of their former land, for that matter), a large-scale agroindustrial plantation is not viable in Colombia.  This said, I think it is somewhat beside the point to focus as the Post does on the culpability or not of the palm oil companies currently operating in places like Mapiripan.  Many of them did indeed arrive on the scene long after the major bout of violence and displacement occurred.  While they must have known that the land had been stolen a decade before, it's not as if a specific company like Poligrow arranged for the land to be "cleansed" in the 90s in order to buy it in the 2000s.  No, my argument is not necessarily the culpability of a specific company (though there are also plenty of cases in which companies were indeed tied to paramilitary groups from the beginning), but rather that the entire model of "modern" agroindustrial plantations inherently engenders violence, or at least needs violence and oppression in order to function.
This last point is a pretty major claim.  I don't mean to be radical or incendiary in saying that large-scale plantations aren't a good thing.  I'm just drawing the logical conclusion from my training as a systems agronomist.

Let's look at the numbers to bolster my case.  According to the Washington Post's article and video, the palm oil value chain employs some 100,000 people in Colombia.  It sounds like a lot on its own.  But when you compare that to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced in just the past few years (I've heard 400,000 in 2012 and "only" 200,000 in 2013 or 2014, when the conflict is simmering down), and you consider that many if not most of the displaced are from palm oil production areas (I'd estimate that almost 100% of the displaced are from areas with rapid expansion of some type of extractive activity, be it large-scale plantations, mining, logging, etc.), those 100,000 jobs "created" by the palm industry don't look so good.  Before being displaced, those families were either farming or otherwise employed in economic activity.  If the new activity imposed on an area, palm production and processing in this case, creates 100,000 jobs but destroys many times that number in existing livelihoods, then that activity represents a net shrinkage of the economy and the job market, not a growth factor.  In the case of Mapiripan, the article and video speak of 500 palm jobs created by Poligrow, vs. 10,000 people fleeing the area.

While we're on the subject of jobs, let's look at palm's job creation potential from another angle.    According to the company spokesman interviewed in the video, Poligrow is employing 500 people on 17000 acres (about 7500 hectares).  This means it takes 15 ha of palm plantation to create one job.  I would imagine that most of the diplaced farmers were farming a lot less than 15 ha apiece, and supporting multiple jobs on that farm (husband, wife, and older children all employed all or most of the year).  So if I'm correct in my assumptions here, we see that the economic productivity of each hectare, its capacity to support livelihoods, shrunk when the area went from family farms to palm plantations.

What about total wealth created on the palm plantation?  Maybe there are fewer jobs, but perhaps that's just because production processes are highly efficient and most of the benefits accrue not to employees but rather to company owners.  Such unequal distribution of the fruits of labor would in itself be perverse and sociopathic if it were true.  But it's not even true!  Palm oil just isn't that productive!  Again according to the article itself, each hectare (2.2 acres) can produce some $4500US worth of palm oil every year, with annual profit margins between 20 and 30 percent.  This means that the net wealth produced by the land (after subtracting out inputs) would be at most $1500US/ha.  This would amount to about $125US a month per hectare.  Whatever peasant production existed on the land before it was stolen and converted to palm must have been more productive than that, since otherwise it would have required 5 ha or more per family just for farmers to earn the equivalent of minimum wage.  Even in the Plains region, where landholdings tend to be larger than elsewhere in Colombia, I assume the average farm size was less than 5-10 ha per family, which would imply that, unless they were starving, farmers must have been making a more productive use of their land before the palm arrived.  My suspicions seem to be confirmed by the article's presentation of the family coop that jointly manages a 450-acre palm plantation.  According to the article, it takes 7 or 8 ha of plantation per family to assure a decent living, again far more than most peasants likely needed to make a living before the palm took over.  In the specific case of Mapiripan, the article tells us that many families were producing coca.  I assure my readers that coca production nets a hell of a lot more than $1500US/ha.

In the end, the only thing palm plantations and other such displacement-driven industries have to recommend them is a specious claim of "cleanliness", an idealized "formality".  Multiple times in the video the palm oil reps spoke disparagingly of the supposed informality that formerly prevailed in the zones where they now operate.  They say there were no stable or formal jobs, and used "informal" almost as a dirty word.  Sometimes they make a Freudian slip and even imply that there were no jobs period, which makes you wonder what the hell everyone was doing all day before the palm oil plantations arrived.  (Though at the same time, part of the palm oil companies' perceptions of widespread poverty and joblessness is probably based on the 2008 panorama, after Mapiripan had endured 10 years of brutal war and destruction, as opposed to the 1997 panorama, when there were 10,000 more people and presumably that many more jobs in the area).  The palm supporters contrast this with the formal, stable jobs they offer.  But I think that any sane economist or politician would take tens of thousands of independent livelihoods (farms, small businesses, etc.) over 500 jobs, formal or not.  And if we are so enamored of the admitted benefits formality can bring, then perhaps providing support to peasant farmers and small businesspeople in the form of social security safety nets, health insurance options, credit access, marketing promotion, public infrastructure, etc., would make more sense than driving out 90% of the population from an area and re-hiring the remaining 10% as agricultural peons on land they used to own.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A repentant fake science journalist

This is a very reflective, frank article from a science writer that was too eager to draw larger extrapolations of the import of certain research.  Specifically, it is from Peter Gwynne, who wrote in 1975 on the global cooling trend that was apparent at that time.  This article has often been trotted out by climate change deniers, either to show the supposed diversity of opinion within the scientific community regarding global warning, or to show how capricious and ever-changing scientists are.  The author correctly points out that such use of a 40-year-old article to prove a point today ignores all the advances in research that have occurred since then.  But he also acknowledges his overzealousness in the original article.  He points to a common trend in science writing that:  "a reticence on the part of scientists to fill in the big picture, and over-enthusiasm on the part of journalists to say what does it all mean, means that the journalists don’t get it quite right".  I have written before on the poor quality of much science journalism, and it basically amounts to this--either journalists (or the researchers themselves) trying to draw overambitious conclusions about the larger implications of their work, in their eagerness to demonstrate its relevance.