Friday, February 23, 2007

new times for the agrarian question?

I was very pleased this morning to walk into my local Indigo! bookstore and see, on the shelves, half a dozen copies of Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform, edited by Peter Rosset, Raj Patel and Michael Courville. This book, along with Reclaiming the Land, edited by Sam Moyo and Paris Yeros, and my own volume, Land, Poverty and Livelihoods in an Era of Globalization, co-edited with Jun Borras and Cris Kay, indicate that within both activist and advocacy groups as well as within academic circles in international development studies, land reform is most definitely back.

It is back, though, in a vastly different context. In the heyday of state-led land reform, in the 1950s and 1960s, land reform was about trying to promote national development and poverty alleviation. Today, in the era of market-led land reform, globalization has meant that land reform is about promoting agricultural commodification and agro-exports, the integration of peasant farmers into buyer-driven global agro-commodity chains, and their effective reconfiguration as little more than sub-contracted piece workers that own or control a small piece of land but who do not own or control their own means of subsistence, tied as it is, through contract farming, to agro-food TNCs. It is in this context that the dispossession of farmers in the South has become such an important issue. Unlike previous episodes of land reform, which were about building markets, development and capitalism, the current conjuncture is one dominated by dispossession.

I have been struck recently as to how different people can arrive at the same conclusion, even if separated by time and space. In the late 1990s Farshad Araghi cogently argued that the current period was witnessing peasant displacement through dispossession as, prefiguring the powerful arguments of Mike Davis in Planet of Slums, the increasing capital intensity of agriculture in the South, as a consequence of 25 years of debt-induced structural adjustment programmes, have led to the expulsion of rural populations from the land and their enforced migration to the cities. This is the new reserve army of labour, increasing casualized, insecure, footloose, and often hungry. I have seen them, in Ho Chi Minh City, in Peshawar, in Suva, in Nairobi, and beyond. More recently, David Harvey, in The New Imperialism, has termed this 'accumulation by dispossesion', as corporate profitability is increasing predicated upon massive rural displacement to the slums of megacities in the South. In our own recent book, Jun, Cris and I termed this 'neo-liberal re-enclosure', as the admittedly limited gains from land reform over the period between 1945 to 1975--often gains ceded to preclude peasant revolutionary movements--are rolled back under the guise of neo-liberal structural adjustment policies. These policies made it increasingly harder for poor farmers to make a living, even as they made it easier for agro-food TNCs to seek to organize their activities on a global scale, in partnership, at times with peasant farmers, but also, at times, in partnership with capitalist farmers, feudal landlords, plantations, and comprador elites and states in the South. Different times indeed.

Dispossession is the dominant agrarian issue of our time, and it is this issue which has given rise to resistance in the South, in the form of the Via Campesina and its various constituent elements--most notably the MST, but a host of other movements as well. Via Campesina seeks food sovereignty, and here, in this call, lies the basis of a global alternative to industrialized agriculture and a buyer-driven agro-food commodity chain, for it is in this call that a possible alliance between producers in the South (and the North) and consumers in the North might be made. As I had to remind my (often pessimistic) students a month ago, similar alliances were witnessed within the US in the early 1970s. They can be built. However, it is up to us to build them.

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