» Archive for: February, 2015

In this blog, we will explore to what extent small-scale farmers can exercise their agency in the face of structural constraints. As writers on agency have noted, agency can take the form of outright resistance, the subtle reshaping of current discourse, or silent resilience. The social, economic, and legal structures at various levels, i.e. the power context, delimits the extent of agency to a large extent.  There are two societally relevant issues that we aim to highlight in this contribution to the CIRI blog. First, to what the extent are supposedly representative local bodies providing small scale farmers with avenues to effectively counter prevailaing power structures and assert their agency? And second, what is the role of the state in doing so?

The cases we are studying involve small-scale farming communities that specialise in (niche) products such as the açaí berry in the Brazilian Amazon, and local ‘terroir’ products in Morocco such as Argan oil. In such cases, as the production process becomes mechanized in small factories,  cooperatives set up to represent the interests of the farming communities involved in the harvesting of the natural resources may come to be dominated by other interests. In the case of the cooperative supposed to represent the açaí berry family farming community, most members are not actually producers but rather traders offloading (often excess) produce at the cooperative. In addition, as sales are largely controlled by local traders and regional buyers, processors and retailers, the commercial ‘bottom line’ of large scale operatives increasingly displace the goals of promoting small scale suppliers, inclusion and sustainability.

As for the role of the state, it is keen to promote this fledgling açaí berry production chain as it appears to offer a win-win win situation: It is a healthy product that can provide good income to the poor forest dwelling peasants while being produced in accordance with ecological sustainability – without cutting trees. State representatives have many ideas and schemes that help poor farmers consolidade açaí income, diversify production further, get help and information. However, they are also behind efforts to promote monoculture production. This will remove peasants completely from the picture (as is occuring in Para state) and thus also the other benefits for them and the environment. Yet, such a production mode helps capital overcome logistics and quality control problems for the local and international markets.

Similarly, from his study on the Argan oil industry in Morcco (http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/pPK2cTeJPHZJErXHZAG7/full#.VH4cE8k-ckQ), Bertram Turner concludes that Argan oil ‘cooperatives have been established in a top-down approach and thus cannot be regarded as an example of a self-organized, counter-hegemonic alternative development. They allow the technological upgrading of resource processing in line with the demands of the industry.’ Moreoever, industry operatives catering to a global market, aided by government policies, have managed to increasingly separate local suppliers from access rights and resource control.

More generally in Morocco, a key problem for so-called ‘produits de terroir’ is that the value-adding processes currently mostly takes place outside the country rather than inside, with little economic gains for the small-scale producers. Today, one liter of Argan oil is exported for one dollar but fetching 15-20 dollars when sold abroad. The same is true for many of the medicinal plants which are harvested locally but then further transformed into high-end products by French multinationals in France and elsewhere (see the remarks made by the well-known Moroccan economist Najib Akesbi in a radio broadcast on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bsL2wgRz-o0) .

If we look at the broader policy context in which this is happening, Morocco’s latest agricultural policy, the Morocco Green Plan (‘Plan Maroc Vert’ – PMV), is dedicating its second pillar to  so-called ‘solidarity agriculture’. However, there seems to be no agreement among the key stakeholders on what exactly this means. Currently, the main modus operandi is for the Ministry of Agriculture to pay consultants to set up a business on behalf of the local farmers, run it for three to four years, and then hand it over to the farmers. However, as the farmers do not participate much in the initial process, the businesses may not be sustainable.  Another potentially problematic aspect of the Plan is that it rests to a large extent on the success of contractually ‘associating’ (agrégation) small and medium farmers (and their lands!) to a large land-owning investor (‘l’agrégateur’, who in turn has a contract with the state) to achieve viable outputs destined for export. However, by incorporating small farmers into modern integrated value chains managed by the private sector and disregarding traditional systems of rights to land and water, the PMV may herald a new wave of rural dispossession through the manipulation and commodification of water and land resources in irrigated agriculture in Morocco.

A third case that is relevant here is the irrigation project in the Sao Francisco river in the interior of Pernambuco state, where grapes and mangoes are grown. The original idea of this irrigation project was to produce energy but also provide small famers with plots for self sufficiency and sale. It also included water provision, farming advice, schools and infrastructure . Now these small plots are informally aggregated by large agro-industrial interests and sold via certification to global markets, especially (50%) to The Netherlands.  As a result, small scale farmers cannot afford the better plots, are often cheated of good land and cannot afford to acquire certification. The state plays an ambiguous role in terms of labour rights and social security. Representative unions have been crushed by local entrepreneurs with the help of the state. Yet the state also mitigates some negative effects such as seasonality by setting up government schemes which give the farmers training and income subsidies out of season. On the other hand, federal moves to introduce a harvest contract removes their ability to ask for unemployment benefits out of season or overtime within season.

The larger issue in all these cases is that agricultural workers and their families are directly impacted by market intrusion (either demand for their products or import competition) and indirectly by neoliberalism and openness of markets in general. The impacts of state intervention are sometimes helpful to them, sometimes ambiguous, and often harmful. This is because the state is drawn into contradictory policies as it tries to both ameliorate social conditions and support the process of capital accumulation and efficiency.

From these brief description of the case studies, several more empirically grounded and societally relevant questions emerge. For example, when we read the label of a fairtrade product, it is suggested we are helping poor farmers. Should we believe this? More generally, what do states do to help poor farmers, whether they supply their products to local, regional or international markets?  It appears the state helps  with one hand and harms them with the other. Is this an inevitable contradiction?

International Institute of Social Studies

CIRI aims to scale up and identify synergies between existing research at ISS on civic agency and change agents, as drivers of societal change and development. This blog is a forum on which to share and discuss themes and issues which fall within the broad framework of the programme.

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