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Abstract

This paper criticizes the conventional conception of the agrarian question and argues that the way the "agrarian question" is traditionally understood should be revised. The role played by the agrarian movement, especially transnational agrarian movements such as the Vía Campesina, is underscored. Resumo Recontextualizando o desenvolvimento: movimentos camponeses globais e a nova questão agrária Neste artigo a concepção clássica de questão agrária é criticada e é defendido que o modo como a "questão agrária" é concebida tradicionalmente deve ser revisto. É destacado aqui o papel desempenhado pelos movimentos camponeses, especialmente aqueles com atuação internacional, tal como a Via Campesina. Palavras-chave: movimento camponês, desenvolvimento, soberania alimentar, questão agrária, neoliberalismo. Résumé Reformuler le développement: des mouvements paysans globales et la nouvelle question agraire L'auteur critique la conception classique de la question agraire et soutient qu'il faudrait revoir la manière dont on comprend généralement « la question agraire ». Il souligne le rôle des mouvements paysans, en particulier ceux d'envergure transnationale comme Vía Campesina. Mots clés : mouvement paysan, développement, souveranité alimentaire, question agraire, néolibéralisme.
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Reframing development: global peasant movements and the new
agrarian question
Philip McMichael
PhD in Sociology at Binghamton University (1979)
Professor of the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell University
236 Warren Hall - Cornell University – Ithaca, NY, 14853, USA
E-mail: pdm1@cornell.edu
Abstract
This paper criticizes the conventional conception of the agrarian question and argues that the
way the “agrarian question” is traditionally understood should be revised. The role played by
the agrarian movement, especially transnational agrarian movements such as the Vía
Campesina, is underscored.
Keywords: peasant movement, development, food sovereignty, agrarian question, neo-
liberalism.
Resumo
Recontextualizando o desenvolvimento: movimentos camponeses globais e a
nova questão agrária
Neste artigo a concepção clássica de questão agrária é criticada e é defendido que o modo
como a questão agrária” é concebida tradicionalmente deve ser revisto. É destacado aqui o
papel desempenhado pelos movimentos camponeses, especialmente aqueles com atuação
internacional, tal como a Via Campesina.
Palavras-chave: movimento camponês, desenvolvimento, soberania alimentar, questão
agrária, neoliberalismo.
Résumé
Reformuler le développement: des mouvements paysans globales et la
nouvelle question agraire
L’auteur critique la conception classique de la question agraire et soutient qu’il faudrait revoir
la manière dont on comprend généralement « la question agraire ». Il souligne le rôle des
mouvements paysans, en particulier ceux d’envergure transnationale comme Vía
Campesina.
Mots clés : mouvement paysan, développement, souveranité alimentaire, question agraire,
néolibéralisme.
Introduction
“Development,” as currently projected by the development establishment, and
articulated in the Millennium Development Goals (United Nations, 2000), has returned to
“poverty reduction” as its core initiative. We might say that in the course of
developmentalism, the world-historic fact of poverty appears, as Marx would say, “first time
as tragedy, and second time as farce.” In the first instance, the mid-20th-century
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development project exploited the tragedy of colonialism, whereby impoverished Third World
populations were cast as “the wretched of the earth,” legitimizing First World intervention in
context of Cold War containment politics. The tragedy of the colonial legacy was
compounded by imposing a singular mode of development on a diverse world, via an inter-
state system manipulated by power to ultimately deepen global inequality. The farce is that
this global project continues, and poverty continues to be represented as an originating
condition, rather than an outcome, of “development.”
At the dawn of developmentalism, political independence was viewed as a
precondition for overcoming inequality. Today political independence has been subordinated
to the more abstract and obfuscating trope of “governance.” Where once states were vested
with the powers of managing national modes of accumulation and redistribution, now states
are compelled, under the guise of governance, to embrace financial reforms to improve
global market access. In other words, poverty reduction is unambiguously linked to the
project of “market rule,”
1
which enlists the state in the privatization of public goods and the
individualization of the entrepreneurial, or consumer, citizen (Drainville 1995). In this scenario
of deepening market relations, the subject of development has shifted from collective to
individual self-determination, further de-politicizing the official development narrative. And the
terrain of development, including the ecological relationship between town and country, is
flattened to accommodate market rationality, including the erasure of peasant subjectivities.
Deborah Bryceson (2000, 315) remarks that
the neoliberalist perspective has crowded out debate about peasant
transformation. Peasantscum-smallholders-cum-farmers are like anyone
else, expected to meet the challenge of the market. If they fail in the
agricultural commodity market, they can resort to the wage labour market or
the informal sector and claw their way up the ladder of prosperity. Economic
success is up to the individual.
An unofficial, but no less significant, development narrative contests the millennial
project of poverty reduction in myriad counter-movements, most recently gaining political
voice in the Latin American revolt (e.g., Kohl and Farthing 2006). One key dimension of that
revolt is the global agrarian resistance, which reframes development in four senses. First, it
inverts the current development explanandum, focusing attention on poverty as an outcome
of, rather than a point of departure for, development (neoliberal style). Second, and related, it
challenges the development telos of de-peasantization, revalorizing rural cultural-ecology as
a global good. Third, it subverts the subjective focus of development on individual
responsibility by reasserting a political culture of solidarity. And fourth, it practises a multi-
perspectival politics, challenging the single-point perspective of the official development
narrative (see Ruggie 1993).
The Poverty of Development
Conventional wisdom on both left and right views poverty as the target of
development - as Frans Schuurman has noted: “The very essence of development studies is
a normative preoccupation with the poor, marginalized and exploited people in the South”
(quoted in Saul 2004, 230). Not only did poverty constitute the birthright of development (see
Escobar 1995), legitimizing the definition of the non-European world as “undeveloped,” but
also the reproduction of poverty has animated development’s re-packaging across the last
half century. The World Bank’s latest version of (neo-liberal) development appropriates the
This article was prior published in English by the Canadian Journal of Development Studies vol. XXVIII, 4,
2006.
Thanks are due to Gayatri Menon for constructive comments on an earlier version of this paper, as well as to Max
Eisenburger for research assistance.
1
This term comes from Arrighi (1982).
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normative preoccupation with the poor via the “civil society revolution,” basing development
on “inclusion and participation, bringing together civil society, local competition, NGOs, the
private sector and the poor themselves in order to foster trust and sustainability”
(Wolfensohn 2000).
Promoting market access as the key to elimination of poverty also entails disciplining
the poor. While in the mid-20th century the task of alleviating poverty fell to states, as
enshrined in the un Declaration of Human Rights (1948), it now falls on the poor themselves.
Cameron and Palan (2004, 148) note that
the poor are presented as inhabiting a series of local places across the
globe that, marked by the label “social exclusion,” lie outside of normal civil
society. Their route back into the amorphous space of inclusion that the rest
of us inhabit is through the willing and active transformation of themselves
to conform to the disciplines of the market, since it is that which they are
ultimately rejoining.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that the Panos Institute report on the Bank’s 1999
Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers initiative (refashioning unpopular structural adjustment
policies) should note that
most PRSPs [Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers], for all their emphasis on
“pro-poor” growth, do not include decisive measures to redistribute wealth
and promote equality. Land reform, for example, is studiously avoided in the
majority of plans, despite its importance for the reduction of rural inequality
and poverty. (Abrahamsen 2004, 185)
Instead of land reform and the like, the direction favoured by the new project of
“development governance” is to bring market disciplines, and possibilities, to the poor
through market-led reform. The Bank’s 2003 Deininger Report, Land Policies for Growth and
Poverty Reduction, advocates “private propertyas the solution to the “land question” (Moore
2004, 98), meaning land titling to facilitate a land market in turn to facilitate accumulation on
the land. Analogous to Hernando de Soto’s proposal to codify extra-legal property relations
among the urban and rural poor, the Bank views securing private property rights for “small
proprietors” as a complement to micro-credit schemes, designed to induct the poor into the
formal market economy, with assets to perform (2004, 98–99).Moore observes that “as the
Bank notes in rural Africa, over 90% of the land has no staterecognised (or formal) tenure, be
it ‘customary’ or capitalist, as well as in the ‘second-stage’ periurban areas in Africa and Asia
wherein between 40% and 50% of residents have only informal land rights” (2004, 99–100).
While many have noted that micro-credit induction of the poor is ineffectual as a
poverty reduction strategy, either because these assets are “dissipated” on daily livelihood
needs (e.g.,Menon 2001), or because securing property rights is a precondition for property
concentration, the World Bank report is quite explicit, noting that “mechanization and the
‘scope to collateral to overcome imperfections… inherent to the credit market will
favour farmers who own larger amounts of land’… [and] formalization of land tenure just
might lead to a 50 per cent increase in the supply of labour to the market, as in Peru” (Moore
2004, 100). And, indeed, Saturnino Borras’s (2003, 389, 385) careful analysis of the Bank’s
Market-Led Agrarian Reform in Brazil, Colombia, and South Africa observes that in context of
falling land prices resulting from exposure of Southern farming to global competition via
adjustment policies, Market-Led Agrarian Reform has served, significantly, to enrich
landlords who inflate sales prices, and disadvantage a structurally disempowered landless
poor, only 2.5 per cent of whom actually received target land under the South African variant
of this program in the second half of the 1990s.And where land transferred has often been
relatively marginal, in Brazil, for example, “the diversified commercial farming required in the
farm plans has not emerged and, instead, subsistence crop production has dominated the
actual farm projects” (Borras 380).Where re-peasantization does occur, extension packages
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are heavily weighted towards promoting agroexporting (Rosset 2001), the very model that is
symptomatic of the global farm crisis.
The corporatization of agriculture - sanctioned by WTO trade rules, prosecuted by the
development establishment via states requiring foreign exchange, and enabled by financial
liberalization, has been globally synchronized to the detriment of farming populations
everywhere. Rising agricultural productivity ratios across high-and low-input farming - from
10:1 in 1940 to 2000:1 in the early 21st century (Amin 2003, 2) - have underwritten and been
underwritten by withdrawal of public support for small farmers, trade liberalization, and
outright dumping of Northern food surpluses. This contributes to a radical decoupling of
urbanization from industrialization, such that 43% of the global South’s population dwells in
slums (Davis 2006, 13; Vidal 2003). The transnational peasant coalition, La Vía Campesina,
has noted that “the massive movement of food around the world is forcing the increasing
movement of people” (Vía Campesina 2000). Such a seemingly simple relationship goes to
the heart of the global restructuring of capitalism, linking the commodification of food, a
relentless assault on small/family/peasant farming, the “mass production of slums” (Davis
2006, 17), and the generation of a casualized, flexible labour force (McMichael 1999).
For Vía Campesina, then, the poverty associated with displacement is a palpable
outcome, rather than the target, of neoliberal development. At the World Summit on
Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, 2002,Vía Campesina observed,
The liberalization of trade and its economic policies of structural adjustment
have globalized poverty and hunger in the world and are destroying local
productive capacities and rural societies. It is unacceptable that the trade in
foodstuffs continues to be based on the economic exploitation of the most
vulnerable - the lowest earning producers and the further degradation of
the environment. Destruction of food production capacity in some regions is
coupled with surpluses in others. Structural adjustment programmes,
shifting domestic production to intensive production for exportation, are
accelerated under the terms of the WTO and are forcing millions of
peasants, small and medium-sized farmers and indigenous peoples into
bankruptcy.
Programmatically, Vía Campesina, in demanding the exit of the WTO from
agriculture, emphatically identifies the WTO not only with the intensification of corporate
agriculture, but also as one of the key vehicles of impoverishment of agrarians. The global
agrarian resistance, of which Vía Campesina is a significant element, is a direct expression
of the destabilization of almost half of the world’s population, and the ongoing generation of a
global proletariat (in all its diversity). It gives voice to those who experience immiseration. But
the voice carries a double message: commodification of food destabilizes peasant
agriculture, and equating peasant agriculture with lack of development is impoverishing. It is
impoverishing in reducing peasant farmers to individual market actors - considered
superfluous if unable to compete in the (corporate) global market. This is not to say that the
agrarian resistance does not recognize, or encounter, rural class inequalities. Rather, it
politicizes impoverishment processes, relating them to the privatization of states and
subordination of farming to the neoliberal model and its corporate beneficiaries (both foreign
and domestic)
2
.
One statement from a Vía Campesina chapter, the Thai Assembly of the Poor, notes,
The concept of neoliberalism aims at pressuring different countries in the
world to open their domestic markets for international free trade based on
the premise that free markets” will foster higher investment, export, import,
2
The Indian chapter of Vía Campesina, the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), for example, traditionally
dominated by rich farmers (whose populist rhetoric obscures social/class divisions), nevertheless espouses a
neo-Gandhian vision of modernity based in agro-ecology and village self-reliance, within the theme of delinking
from urban elites who represent the weak capitalism” (badakalu bandavala) by which the KRRS characterizes
India’s dependent political-economy (see Assadi 1994).
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and world trade. This in turn will supposedly lead to a solution to poverty
and to an increase of income for the world’s population During the years
1995 to 2003 many Thai farmers became heavily indebted and were unable
to repay their debts, a consequence of trade policies on food and
agricultural products. Major production resources such as land were lost by
the small farmers (over 1.5 million farming households either became
landless or did not have enough farmland). Their rights to use resources
related to production, such as water, forest, local genetic, and coastal
resources were also infringed on. The government should introduce policies
to restore the economic condition of small farmers by providing fair
allocation of these production resources to farmers, recognizing their rights
as producers of society, and recognizing community rights in managing
local resources (2005, 25, 31).
Aside from linking rural impoverishment to development outcomes of the neoliberal
model, this kind of statement underlines Vía Campesina’s view of “food sovereignty” as an
alternative model based in the restoration of farmers’ rights to be “producers of society.”The
most recent declaration of Vía Campesina concretizes this conception:
In the context of food sovereignty, agrarian reform benefits all of society,
providing healthy, accessible and culturally appropriate food, and social
justice.Agrarian reform can put an end to the massive and forced rural
exodus from the countryside to the city, which has made cities grow at
unsustainable rates and under inhuman conditions. (2006)
The attempt here is to transcend the reductionist discourse of development in
reducing peasant producers to individual market maximizers, in representing peasant
agriculture as the poverty baseline upon which the “development ladder” rests (Sachs
2005)
3
, in assuming the singular viability of agribusiness in a world in which almost half of its
population lives (precariously) by the land, and, finally in disregarding the link between agro-
industrialization and the explosion of urban slums.
The Agrarian Question and Development
Current academic debates over the contemporary agrarian question are framed by an
economic reductionism shared by neoliberal and orthodox Marxist perspectives on the
transience of the peasantry” (Araghi 1995). Arguably, this perspective is governed by the
lens of capital accumulation - essentially that capitalism follows a path-dependent resolution
of social forms into the capital-labour relation
4
, and/or that “peasants” are a historical
anachronism, as scale is necessary to survive in the market or to realize the potential of
“social labour.” But the contemporary agrarian resistance challenges this ontology,
confronting real material constraints, policy-driven assaults, and the ideologies that inform
and legitimize these constraints and policies. The confrontation takes the form of an
alternative politics and set of assumptions about what is possible on the land, and other
forces and relations of social development
5
. This epistemic challenge perhaps constitutes the
21st-century variant of the agrarian question.
The classical conception of the agrarian question was capital’s to resolve, through
particular class transformation processes and political alliances within each nation-state. This
3
For an elaboration of this point, see McMichael (2005c).
4
Lenin made this claim in his richly documented scholarly polemic with the Narodniks, in The Development of
Capitalism in Russia (see McMichael 1977). Note that this application of a theory of the development of
capitalism, by deepening a home market, was specific to the period of nation-building in modern capitalist history,
and that Lenin deployed Marx’s theory to frame a political interpretation of Russian conditions. This was not a
blueprint for other times and spaces.
5
For a comprehensive, historical representation of the late-20th-century agrarian question along these lines, see
Araghi, 2000.
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state-centric view discounted the role of imperialist relations during the era in which the
agrarian question emerged. Clearly, England’s agrarian question was resolved through its
ability to colonize Ireland and its overseas empire through farmer settlement patterns or
extraction of foodstuffs (Davis 2001; Denoon 1983), and resolution in Europe was
conditioned by significant competition from the state-supported family farming system on the
U.S. frontier transmitted by the competitive relations of a world wheat price (Friedmann
1978). Post-colonial states, with few exceptions (e.g., Tanzania, China) constructed in the
Western image, adapted the idealized national economic development model, founded in a
dynamic commercial relation between national industrial and agricultural sectors. Within this
framework, green revolution technology was transferred to the Third World to modernize its
farm sectors by constructing a capitalist farming class to provide urban classes with food.
Land reform was implemented, with varying degrees of success, to transfer land from export
to domestic staple crops, and to undercut rural rebellion. Complementing this development
was a transnationalization of production and consumption relations, presaging a global food
system institutionalized by the WTO’s Agreement on Agriculture (Friedmann and McMichael
1989). In sum, despite, and perhaps because of, the attempt to construct home markets
across the post-colonial state system, agriculture in the global South is subject to global
political economic forces, including price and policy relations. Those forces constitute the
“corporate food regime,” which juxtaposes new circuits of food and of labour in the
reproduction of global capitalism, dispossessing farmers as a condition for the consolidation
of corporate agriculture, appropriating local knowledge, and eliminating local marketing
systems with cheapened food imports and a “supermarket revolution” (McMichael 2005a).
Arguably, the corporate food regime catalyzes a new agrarian question, infused with,
but not limited/reducible to, class relations, and certainly not resolvable within the framework
of the national state (see also Araghi 2000). One key mechanism that disciplines states in
the new poverty reduction-based global development project is monetary relations. In an era
of financial deregulation (cf, sterling, or the Bretton Woods/dollar, monetary orders), states
have surrendered sovereign ability to regulate the value of their currency to the financial
markets, speculators, and credit-rating agencies alike, with the IMF performing the function
of restructuring states to reproduce money
6
, by exploitation of labour and land across the
world with decreasing regard for their sustainability. Here, not only is the “home market” an
economic and political atavism, but ecological limits also expose the destructive relations of
competition that have hitherto defined the capitalist state. For our purposes, the most
obvious contradiction is the proliferation of what Vía Campesina chapters term “globe trotting
food” (Vía Campesina (2006, 8 July) or “food from nowhere” (Bové and Dufour 2001),
deepening agro-exporting patterns initiated in the colonial era, and contributing to redundant
“food swapping” and destructive “food miles” that intensify the energy-intensive impact of
industrial agriculture. Thus Greenpeace’s recent report, “Eating up the Amazon,” notes that
“Europe buys half the soya exported from the Amazon state of Matto Grosso, where 90% of
rainforest soya is grown.Meat reared on rainforest soya finds its way onto supermarket
shelves and fast food counters across Europe” (Greenpeace 2006, 5). And within this agro-
export system, represented as the solution to food insecurity, transgenic agricultures are
promoted at the expense of systems of biodiversity managed for centuries by local farming
populations (see McMichael 2004).
Identifying the ecological dimension of the agrarian question, Candido Grzybowski,
director of IBASE (Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis) in Rio de Janeiro,
observed,
Probably in Brazil there exists no greater taboo than that centuries-old
question, the agrarian question. But there is no question that is more
current because it is not limited to the coun-tryside itself, to its population …
The modernity of the MST [Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem
6
This function is no longer uncontested, as, since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, following Malaysia’s example of
avoiding structural adjustment, some states have either ceased borrowing (e.g., Thailand, the Philippines, China,
and India) and some (Brazil and Argentina) have discounted their liabilities to the IMF.
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Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement)] consists in questioning us about this,
about the past of our agrarian origins and about the future in the use of our
natural resources, with the question of land at the center. Even directly
confronting the land owners… the landless, on occupying ranches, bring to
the surface a fundamental question about the possibility of sustainable
democratic development in Brazil.We are, of the large countries of the
world, the least demographically dense, the most privileged in terms of
natural resources - land, water, biodiversity - and at the same time, the
most unequal and tragically, the most predatory. For how long, in the name
of an even more narrow vision, will we be able to maintain the right to act on
this part of Planet Earth in a way that is so socially and ecologically
irresponsible? (2004)
Perhaps the Brazilian landless-workers movement, the largest of the Vía Campesina
chapters, did not set out originally to resolve the ecological crisis. Nevertheless, “scaling
down” is a condition for global environmental responsibility. While the MST is now
experimenting with agro-ecological methods, its social challenge to the agribusiness model
includes the possibility of reducing the unsustainable, centralizing extractive methods of
global agro-industrialization.
The social challenge is to reverse the patterns of social reproduction visited upon
rural (and urban) populations by the corporate food regime. In addition to the conversion of
producing regions to agro-exporting, and the undermining of local provisioning, farmers are
displaced en masse into new off-farm labour circuits (retailer-controlled plantations, new rural
industries, migration). Whether peasantries are being eliminated, semi-proletarianized, or
reproduced through “petty commodity production” is the subject of continuing debate (see
Moyo and Yeros 2005). In this debate, the agrarian question is posed either in its classical
form, where capitalism follows a pathdependent pattern (Brass 2000), resolving all social
forms into the capital-labour relation, or as an as yet unresolved “agrarian question of
labour,” reflecting a central contradiction of global capitalism, namely its failure to adequately
reproduce its labour force (Bernstein, 2004). Either way, the agrarian question is viewed
primarily through a lens that presents the capital/labour relation. Bernstein, in characterizing
the agrarian question as a one of social reproduction rather than simply capitalist transition,
acknowledges the global conjuncture whereby capital is centralizing by fragmenting labour
under conditions of massive development of the productive forces in (advanced) capitalist
agriculture” (2004, 202).Under these conditions, Bernstein claims, the “agrarian question of
labour” asserts itself, “manifested in struggles for land against ‘actually existing’ forms of
capitalist landed property” (2004, 202). If one asks why labour would struggle for land, rather
than adequate employment, the limits of this formulation become clear.
The problem with formulating the agrarian question as one to be resolved by capital
and/or labour is that it reproduces the reductionism in conventional conceptions of
development. In either case, peasants are ultimately redundant within the march of capitalist
modernity. Certainly, where peasants reproduce themselves with off-farm labour, they inhabit
capitalist relations, but this is a concrete, historical circumstance, not necessarily a historicist
trend.Where the abstracted condition of labour under 21st century capitalism is increasingly
casual, flexible, and mobile, the participation of peasant households in these circumstances
does not necessarily alter the concrete value peasants ascribe to retaining their relationship
to the land. Labour struggles to limit the working day revealed for Marx [that] the history of
capital is not a teleology independent of class struggle but is precisely the conjunctural
and concrete result of class struggle” (Beverley 2004, 265). Analogously, peasant resistance
to global capital occurs within its relations of subjection, but not necessarily within the terms
of those relations, in particular the ontology of capitalism and its accumulation imperatives
(Beverley 266). As suggested earlier, the modernity of the MST, and its agrarian allies, is not
limited to or by a modernity premised on the progressive “development of the forces of
production.” Vía Campesina movements question the singularity of that vision by practising
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an alternative form of modernity based on reversing, or denaturalizing
7
, the act of
dispossession, and limiting their subjection to capital. This, arguably, is the new agrarian
question.
Central to this new agrarian question is recognition that capital’s power depends on
the social discipline of the market, and its political instrument, the WTO, as the “collective
state” that concentrates the rationalizing force of capitalist modernity, producing the
autonomous liberal subject as the (abstract) embodiment of development. By reasserting the
politics of the peasant way,” in this conjuncture, the agrarians reformulate the political terms
of resistance (Patel 2006; Petras 1997). Neither labourers demanding a limit to the working
day, nor a revolutionary subject formed by capital, the agrarian resistance rejects the
temporality of capitalist modernity that regards peasants as pre-modern, and the spatiality
that removes and divides humans from nature. In fact, the modernity of the “peasant way” is
precisely to reassert concrete solidaristic subjectivities that reintegrate the human/ecological
divide through reconstituting spaces of resistance (McMichael 2006). Thus Vía Campesina
(2006)
8
states,
No agrarian reform is acceptable that is based only on land distribution. We
believe that the new agrarian reform must include a cosmic vision of the
territories of communities of peasants, the landless, indigenous peoples,
rural workers, fisherfolk, nomadic pastoralists, tribes, afro-descendents,
ethnic minorities, and displaced peoples, who base their work on the
production of food and who maintain a relationship of respect and harmony
with Mother Earth and the oceans.
In countering formal understandings of land reform, whether state-sponsored or
market-sponsored in the “willing seller, willing buyer” version promoted by the Bank, the
agrarians draw on substantive conceptions of rights, economies, and ecological relations
(see Otero 2003). Place, with its concrete value, is opposed to the abstractions of capitalist
modernity. Annette Desmarais, chronicler of the Vía Campesina, reports that this peasant
model
does not entail a rejection of modernity, technology and trade accompanied
by a romanticized return to an archaic past steeped in rustic traditions [but
is based on] ethics and values where culture and social justice count for
something and concrete mechanisms are put in place to ensure a future
without hunger. (2003, 110)
Rather, a privatized modernity that erases local knowledge is the modernity in
question, and the a Campesina is “engaged in building different concepts of modernity
from their own, alternative and deeply rooted, traditions” (Desmarais 110). The Vía
Campesina vision is for “the right of peoples, communities and countries to define their own
agricultural, labour, fishing, food and land policies which are ecologically, socially,
economically and culturally appropriate to their unique circumstances” (quoted in Ainger
2003, 11). In other words, while demanding that such rights be formally guaranteed, the
substantive content of rights remains to be determined by the communities and countries
themselves (see Patel and McMichael 2004, 249).
7
Gill Hart (2005) argues that dispossession is not necessarily a ‘natural’ precursor of industrial development,
based on the Taiwanese model of land reform subsidizing rural industrialization, reproduced in South African
experience by Taiwanese émigré industrial capitalists. While this is an interesting formulation for the specific case
of land distribution to those dispossessed by previous apartheid policies (beyond creating a black commercial
farming class), it maintains the industrial dimension of the development narrative, and is perhaps an example of
Bernstein’s “agrarian question of labour.”
8
Technically this is not a Via Campesina document and position alone. The document cited here and elsewhere
is by the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty, a coalition of more than 500 (highly
heterogeneous) rural organizations. Via Campesina is just one of these organizations, although quite influential
within.
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Ultimately, the preservation, or reclamation, of the peasant way is entwined with a
politics framed by dispossession (both material and ideational/spiritual) and its enabling
institutional politics. This is not an abstract ideal, rather a historically specific form of struggle.
Here Vía Campesina politics challenges the modern state: its authorship of WTO rules, its
complicity in the deepening of global circuits of food, its historic erasure of differential ethnic
histories through the citizenship relation, and its reduction of contemporary citizenship to a
relationship of individual consumption of market services under the auspices of
“governance.” But, as the MST experience shows, while the agrarians may challenge the
neoliberal dimensions of the modern state, they cannot ignore its jurisdictional authority.
Rather, they seek to transform that authority by a historic intervention
9
. The most recent Vía
Campesina declaration of March 2006 challenges states to respect food sovereignty, but, by
challenging the state system to enable this goal observes that the “state must play a strong
role in policies of agrarian reform and food production,” and to accomplish this,
states have the right and the obligation to sovereignty, to define, without
external conditions, their own agrarian, agricultural, fishing and food policies
in such a way as to guarantee the right to food and the other economic,
social and cultural rights of the entire population.
On the other hand, the obligation to sovereignty entails recognizing the “laws,
traditions, customs, tenure systems, and institutions, as well as the recognition of territorial
borders and the cultures of peoples” (2006). The appeal to territoriality represents a
substantive demand to affirm citizenship as a basic national and human right, but also as a
vehicle for the sovereign rights of minorities (see Petras and Veltmeyer 2003, 195), creating
pluri-national states as a precondition for protecting and sustaining peasant spaces to
overcome the crisis that is neoliberal development.
Reconstituting peasant spaces is both material and ideological and ranges from
land reform through land occupations to cross-border networks of farmer-knowledge (Holt-
Giménez 2006) and domestic fair trade schemes (Barkin 2002). Regional autonomy
movements, such as the Zapatista rebellion, combine territorial mobilization with “historical
memory, cultural practices and political norms as much as on legal norms” (Harvey 1999,
28). And national movements pursue political strategies geared to reconstituting the state.
Thus Mexico’s El Barzón debtor insurgency in the 1990s linked campesinos with other social
groups suffering from withdrawal of public subsidies (Williams 2001), and the MST redefines
the “rural” as an occupied civic base challenging Brazilian class and neoliberal politics. From
here the MST links “what it calls the struggle for the land with the struggle on the land”
(Flávio de Almeida and Sánchez 2000), developing co-operative forms of rural labour,
producing staple foods for the working poor, and building alliances with, and offering
livelihood security to, the urban unemployed (Wright and Wolford 2003).
Territorialism and “food sovereignty, ”while obtaining meaning, and implemented,
within states, directly implicate international political economic relations. Food sovereignty
counterpoints corporate relations of production and consumption of food, and its enabling
neoliberal infrastructure and discourse of “food security
10
. Realization of food sovereignty in
its multiple guises on local and national scales expresses an alternative and decentralized
implementation of food security, where material needs are not subordinated to the global
market, but embedded in agro-ecology and the ecology of co-operative labour and
knowledge systems
11
. The Vía Campesina maintains that “food sovereignty is not just a
9
Petras and Veltmeyer (2003) rightly situate peasant resistance in relation to the state, but I would develop this
by arguing that the agrarians are politicizing “the state” through attempts to transform its internal and external
relations, within this world-historical juncture. For elaboration, see McMichael (2005b).
10
For elaboration, see McMichael (2003).
11
See Rosset (2006) for an extended account of the environmental, and productivity, benefits of small-holding,
offering “a powerful argument that land reform to create a small farm economy is not only good for local economic
development, but is also more effective social policy” reducing pressure on cities.
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vision but is also a common platform of struggle that allows [us] to keep building unity in our
diversity Agrarian reform and food sovereignty commit us to a larger struggle to change
the dominant neoliberal model [and] we will carry these conclusions back to debate with
our social bases, and will use these ideas to confront the policies of international bodies like
the FAO, and our governments” (2006). Food sovereignty would subordinate trade relations,
re-politicizing access to credit, land, and viable prices to be set by rules of fair trade
negotiated in the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, rather than the
WTO, subject to farmer input (see Bové and Dufour 2001). These interventions amount to a
“political economy of representation,” focusing on counter-posing the “peasant way” to the
corporate food regime, uniting distinct and autonomous struggles anchored in a “practical
ethics of peasant movement solidarity” (Patel 2006, 71). Thus the agrarian question is
informed by a distinctive and strategic revaluing of (rural) diversity across the state system,
to be sanctioned by a democratic multilateralism based in a transformation of the
state/development project.
Conclusion
In this world-historical conjuncture, agrarian resistances hold a mirror to the dominant
narrative, both left and right, that views the future of the peasantry through the lens of capital
accumulation. The political economy of representation animating the agrarian counter-
movement problematizes this narrative and its telos regarding the transience of peasantries,
foreclosing campesino futures. In contesting the policies and effects of neoliberal capitalism,
the agrarians reorient the future by weaving an alternative, agrarian-centred narrative to the
capitalist narrative. Stalling the conventional scenario of the twilight of the peasantry (see
Hobsbawm 1994; critiqued by Bernstein 2000), by reasserting political identities combining
culturally informed themes with conjunctural politics, the agrarians offer alternatives to the
social and ecological catastrophes of neoliberal capitalism
12
.
This historic intervention is formed and informed by the failure of neoliberalism to
realize its ideologized promise of development, and its explicit betrayal of that promise
through schemes of poverty reduction that ruthlessly attack the poor under the guise of
empowerment and market access (Cammack 2002).At the same time,Vía Campesina has
always situated that failure in relation to a longer-term assault on indigenous peoples,
formerly known, in post-colonial language, as the wretched of the earth.” In 1996, at its
International Conference in Mexico, Vía Campesina declared,
Land, wealth and power in the hands of large land owners and trans-
national corporations unjustly denies peasants and farmers the possibility of
controlling their own destinies. The policies of dumping, endemic situations
of poverty and marginalization, increased in the third world by foreign debt,
are destroying the hope of millions. Serious social deficiencies and lack of
basic services together with the oppression of ethnic minorities and
indigenous populations aggravate situations of injustice and frustration. The
prevalent and increasing incidence of racism in the rural world is
unacceptable.
The 21st-century agrarian question, based in the multiple peasant forms of
resistance, combines class, ethnic, gender, and ecological perspectives in a solidary attempt
to reframe the discourse and material relations of “development.” In representing peasants”
and ecology as casualties of neoliberal development, and yet as foundations of a new
development trajectory, the agrarian countermovement problematizes development’s fixation
on accumulation and the construction of the rational, developed subject. The implication is
12
While the future does not depend solely on the agrarians, one might say that this counter-movement represents
the “canary in the mine” insofar as the colonization of the countryside, via the neo-liberal project, registers a
significant threshold of destabilization of social, demographic, and ecological relations.
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that the lens of capital is no substitute for Marx’s methodical demystification of the
accumulation imperative and its fetishisms. Once accomplished, such demystification
replaces historicist representations of capitalist modernity with an alternative paradigm based
in the multi-perspectival politics (Ruggie 1993) of globally networked movements such as Vía
Campesina. The tactical, single-point perspective to challenge corporate “food security” with
the unifying principle of “food sovereignty” complements and enables the realization of a
multiplicity of social and ecological relations that, together, seek to survive and transcend the
crisis of the neoliberal project. To reverse the modernist assumption that the agrarian
question is for capital to resolve is a significant step in that direction.
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Recebido em maio de 2007
Aprovado em maio de 2007
... 3. The capitalistic mode of production can hold responsible for loss of biodiversity, climate change, and alterations in ecosystem services (Bauhardt, 2014;McMichael, 2006). Challenges to capitalism are evolving, for instance, by positioning agro-ecology and food sovereignty as alternatives to the prevailing mode of production to counteract the negative effects of capitalism into the earth system. ...
Thesis
Agriculture in developing countries is especially vulnerable to social and political constraints, particularly, to armed conflict and violence. Intrastate conflict, which accounts for the majority of violent conflicts since the second half of the 20th century, occurs mainly in the rural areas of these countries. In 2018, 52 intrastate conflicts were active in 36 countries, most of them with the potentiality to spark large-scale violence. Around 79.5 million people fled from their homes, 100 civilians were killed a day, and 60% of the food-insecure people worldwide lived-in war-torn areas. Intrastate conflicts greatly affect rural areas and have deep agrarian roots. Civil war onset, for instance, is usually anchored in unfair land distribution patterns and land tenure regimes that originate peasant grievances that give place to large-scale violence. The rural scenario in which civil wars occur also offers a suitable environment for insurgent activities (e.g., complex geography far from the radar of the state), funding sources (e.g., looting of natural resources), and a source of combatants (e.g., aggrieved peasants). However, the nexus between violent conflict and rural areas in the developing world is not straightforward. Moreover, intrastate conflicts unevenly affect local contexts and subsequently, their effects on agriculture and the livelihoods of rural inhabitants are unequal at the sub-national level. This means that the processes through which armed conflict and agriculture dovetail in developing countries emerge under certain conditions and must be grasped at various scales, including the local level. In order to understand these processes, this cumulative dissertation aims at exploring the intersections between civil war and the agrarian settings in which they occur. The contribution of this thesis is twofold. First, different paths through which armed conflict influences agrarian societies and the livelihoods of people living in rural areas are discerned. Complementary, the theoretical implications of having rural areas as the main scenario of both civil war and peacebuilding processes are examined. A qualitative approach bearing on a case study was applied, by focusing on Colombia, where a protracted armed conflict has created around eight million victims and 260,000 casualties. Three main gaps found in the literature are tackled in each of the articles that compounds the thesis: first, how land is accumulated in wartime. Second, why the behavior of one rebel group varies across its territories of influence. Third, why collective action is possible post-war. Regarding the first question, land accumulation dynamics during civil wars are poorly understood because the land-violent conflict nexus has been constructed around linear causations that go from aggrieved peasants to violence. In focusing on the mechanisms of land dispossession in Colombia, defined as land usurpation by taking advantage of the context of widespread violence that civil war spawns, this paper aims to shed light on how land is accumulated during an armed conflict. Based on a literature review, more than 50 different methods for dispossessing land are identified. The methods show how actors develop complex strategies for profiting from the civil war setting -often depicted as irrational-; how violent conflict benefits more certain sectors of the agrarian elites than the peasantry that initiates it; and how rural inequality is reinforced in civil war with the support of state institutions and bureaucracy. Concerning the second question, wartime social order has shown that civil wars are not exclusively chaotic but are complex phenomena that unevenly affect local contexts. Important evidence for order in civil wars are the governance regimes established by insurgents to manage civilians’ affairs. However, even if this is a desirable outcome for rebel groups, not all of them are able to build such regimes, and even armed groups that succeed are often unable to do so across their entire territory of influence. Instead, rebels also negotiate agreements with civilians and local authorities, or simply deal with disorder. Why? This paper explores the factors influencing these various outcomes by focusing on three neighboring territories in southern Tolima, Colombia, where the former communist guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army – FARC-EP was present for more than 50 years. The results lessen the assumptions of current theories on determinants of rebel governance, identifying that the behavior of rebel groups varies according to its own strategies and resources, intersected with the strategies and resources of the actors they interact with (whether civilians, other armed actors, or incumbent governments) in specific territories. The active role of both civilians and the state, often neglected by the explanations on the determinants of both rebel governance and the diversity of behaviors deployed by the same armed actor, is underscored. Situational, organizational, ideational, and strategic factors shaped the possibility for rebel groups to establish order or, on the contrary, to engage in widespread violence in specific locales. Regarding the third question, civil wars hit rural areas intensely and Rural Producer Organizations (RPO) -as forms of long-term collective action or cooperation among small farmers- are considered essential for peacebuilding. However, the factors underpinning the formation and performance of RPO post-war are unclear. Based on a case study in the municipality of Planadas, Colombia, where the former communist guerrilla FARC-EP was formed and several associations flourished post-war, this article identifies 14 contextual factors facilitating the rise of RPO. Contrasting the findings with variables identified by collective action, commons theory, and literature on RPO, it was determined that four additional contextual variables play a critical role in RPO development post-war, namely, legacies of war, resilience strategies, institutional intermediaries, and discourses. Legacies of war refer to the vestiges left by the kind of relationship developed between the main armed actor and the civilians in wartime. Economic activity as a resilience strategy indicates civilians’ strategies to stay aside from the confrontation, reducing the probability of being harmed and preventing their involvement in the war or illegal economic activities. Intermediary institutions are third-party organizations that influence RPO. In the case considered, this role was developed by certification schemes known as Voluntary Sustainability Standards. Controverting critical literature on the effects of the standards, the results suggest that they can enhance self-organizing capacities post-conflict at the local level. Finally, discourses refer to additional incentives for RPO development regarding what participants consider valuable beyond economic benefits, in this case, environmental protection. Consequently, the article presents the foundations of an expanded framework to understand and foster RPO growth in post-war settings. To qualify our understanding of civil war is imperative in a world at the edge of new forms of violence. Knowledge that illuminates public policies attempting to strengthen food systems, alleviate poverty, decrease inequalities, and build a more peaceful world, is fundamental for the future of humankind. This dissertation is intended to be a contribution in this path.
... Among other aspects, these concepts frequently highlight the extra-economic nature of accumulation by forcefully dispossessing smallholders from their means of production. This solicitude over smallholders' dispossession in academic literature parallels the reporting on agrarian movements around the globe under the banner of the 'people of the land' against corporate agriculture (Desmarais 2007;McMichael 2006;Ploeg 2008). This focus often rests on the assumption that current smallholders in the peripheral world are simply a continuation of the 'middle peasantry' ('peasant family') from the past, only now with a new crop, and that all smallholders are in great danger of dispossession by corporation expansion (Bernstein 2015, 461). ...
Article
Recent global ‘land grabbing’ has evoked concerns about the dispossession of agricultural smallholders. This concern often assumes that the current smallholders are the continuation of the undifferentiated ‘middle peasantry’ (‘peasant family’), only with a new crop. Drawing from Sumatran oil palm farming in Indonesia, this paper shows that the majority of smallholders are petty landowners who must sell their labour to survive and are thus part of the labouring classes. On the other hand, a few smallholders are among the capitalist farmers, those who extract their neighbour’s labour for accumulation. Exposing capital�labour relations between smallholders implies that any resistance to dispossession can no longer take for granted that all smallholders are opponents of corporations and states.
... These intersections make it much more difficult to manage and ensure equal access to finite fisheries resources, which is especially problematic for small-scale fishers, whose political and economic power continue to be weakened alongside the strengthening of the capital-intensive industrial fisheries sector (Mansfield 2011;WFFP 2017). While there has been some important critical work done on analysing food and agrarian issues and movements (see for example Martinez-Torres and Rosset 2010;McMichael 2011;Edelman and Borras 2016), few similar explorations have emerged on fisheries, with notable exceptions including Sinha (2012), Sundar (2012) and Bavinck, Jentoft, and Scholtens (2018). ...
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This article explores the politics of transnational fishers' movements, setting out to understand why and how they contest and seek to influence the politics of global fisheries. It focuses on two movements representing small-scale fishers, the World Forum of Fisher Peoples and the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fish Workers, aiming to link the politics of such movements more directly with academic and political debates. The analysis is structured around three connected spheres: transnational movements engaging in the politics of global fisheries; contentious fisheries issues prioritized by the movements; and political spaces where movements participate.
... As "overseas arable land investment" continues to receive widespread attention, the disputes and value judgments of overseas arable land investment [31][32][33], the transnational agricultural movement [34,35], the driving force of overseas arable land investment [36][37][38], risks assessment of global land acquisition [39,40], financialization [41,42], and other aspects of research results have matured and made positive progress. At the same time, Africa, as the primary destination for an overseas arable land investment, has also been studied by many scholars. ...
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... Differentiation among the peasantry is also explored in other contexts (see Babin 2019, 115-117;Lenin 1915Lenin , 1907Olofsson 2019;Oya 2013a;Patnaik 1976). Discourse is ongoing on other aspects of the peasantry: debating 'peasant community' and solidarity (Bezner Kerr 2010;Isakson 2009); values and practices of peasant cooperation, reciprocity and localised identity' (Bernstein 2014(Bernstein , 1045; see also Altieri 2010); peasants in a context of global capitalism (see Bello and Baviera 2010, 69;Bernstein 2014Bernstein , 1036Bernstein -1039Handy and Fehr in Wittman, Desmarais, and Wiebe 2010;Friedman and McMichael 1989;Marx 1968Marx , 1976McMichael 2009;Patnaik 2018, 238); and peasant agency and resistance (see Borras, Edelman, and Kay 2008a;Lenin 1907;McMichael 2006;Mkodzongi 2018, 190;Ploeg, Ye, and Schneider 2012, 153-157;Schneider and Niederle 2010;Scott 1986;O'Brien and Li 2006). This corpus of literature does not pertain to peasants in times of COVID-19, but provides essential insights including the existence of peasants, their knowledge base and practices, social organisation, agency, social change, relations within and with other communities, and so forth. ...
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... Campesina rejected the neoliberal structures of agrochemical corporations and international trade agreements that disrupted their social fabrics, economies and ways of life and instead encapsulated a strategy that radically restored power and economic life into their hands (Wittman, 2011;McMichael, 2006;Martinez-Torres & Rosset, 2010). Food sovereignty--the "right of each nation to maintain and develop its own capacity to produce its basic foods respecting cultural and productive diversity…" (Via Campesina, 1996), basically the right of each people group to control its food production in its own territory--has been proposed by the coalition as a necessary precursor to achieving actual food security. ...
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