Friday, September 2, 2011

"The war on Africa's family farmers"

Here's an article from Joan Baxter on the mercantilized, foreign-run future that some large international development agencies and lots of corporations have in mind for Africa. Her writing is essentially a condemnation of the vision of the World Bank, AGRA, and the institutional and sovereign wealth fund investors that are increasingly interested in massive grabs for African land.

Baxter makes a point (though in language that could be misconstrued as overly romanticizing African peasant life, which is admittedly difficult and deprived of many material comforts) that I've often made--the autonomous family farming life is in almost all cases vastly superior for a farmer than the wage laborer's life. A farmer-landowner has control over his or her local resources, which include water, farmed food, gathered food, firewood, herbal medicines, etc. The economic value (not to mention the social safety net, cultural traditions, and ecology integrity) generated by a smallholder-owned hectare is usually much greater than that produced from a mechanized, industrially-farmed hectare.

If we take a hypothetical situation in which 1000 families are farming 1000 hectares, and a company buys or otherwise appropriates the land in order to establish a palm oil or rubber plantation, the total annual economic value generated by 1000 hectares of rubber can't compare to the value generated by 1000 small, diversified plots. On top of this, plantation agriculture is less intensive in labor than small family farms, so the new company will always employ fewer than the 1000 families that originally occupied the land. In this situation you'd be left with less total wealth generated from a given amount of land, less employment, and usually what little wealth that is generated by the plantation is spirited away to whatever far-off city the owner lives in (Lagos, Sao Paulo, Paris...)

Anyway, Baxter rightly points out, in her article and a comment afterwards, that many urban economists (and oligarchs, and whoever else wants to get people off of small farms) depict farming as hard, degrading work. It's certainly hard physically, though no more so than working in a factory, or hustling to shine shoes, or especially working as a laborer on an agricultural plantation. And farmwork is only degrading if the income generated by it is too low to carry on a dignified life. But in this case, the real solution would be to help farmers to do what they need to to increase their income, not to displace them from their land.

Many cynical interested parties, and even well-meaning intellectuals like Jeffrey Sachs in his book "The End of Poverty", pull this classic bait and switch. They present an image of backbreaking farm labor under a sweltering sun, which serves to justify some neoliberal agenda that would ostensibly get people away from this difficult work. However, they aren't presenting the image of a hard-luck farmer in order to genuinely improve life for him or her, but rather to disparage farming in general, and push another agenda. In Sachs's case the counterproposal is work in textile factories, which is certainly a different kind of work than farm labor. But in the case of land grabbers who would develop huge employee-staffed plantations, the bait and switch is obviously a cynical emotional manipulation. Their alternative, better life for the small farmer working hard in her field would be...working hard in the same field, but as a landless laborer!

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