Footloose Farmers

The past few decades have witnessed changing agricultural labor dynamics in the Global South. Beginning in the 1980s, during an era of giddy faith in Reganomics, international lending agencies and western governments began pressuring and cajoling many African nations into structural adjustment programs. These programs, aimed to foster agricultural development and economic growth, were predicated on a certain model of agriculture, certain hallowed criteria: African agriculture must follow the path of the United States  and other developed nations; it must be rationalized, industrialized, and the state’s apron strings must be cut (shameless hypocrisy in the face of massive production and export subsidies for farmers in the U.S. and Europe).The result was the promotion of large-scale, market-oriented, chemical-dependent, and capital-intensive agriculture and the denigration of subsistence farming. In many areas this forced rural farming communities to adapt their livelihoods and become more ‘flexible’ with their labor.

Although the consequences of the first  Green Revolution  and structural adjustment have taken different forms in different parts of Africa, in general farmers and laborers have been uprooted and forced into labor mobility. No longer able to survive in one place, these people must migrate, traveling to cities during the off-season for additional income or hired temporarily by contractors to work on large farms just so that they can hold onto their own land, homes, and sense of place.

This phenomenon has been termed ‘footloose farming’ because, under the pressures mentioned above, farming—traditionally a livelihood intimately bound to a patch of earth, literally grounded in the soil—requires migration. For the most part it is men who migrate, unencumbered with child-care and ‘free’ to roam. It is a double-edged sword, for although migration can be relatively lucrative, it leaves whole villages without men and destabilizes rural communities. Furthermore, large, capitalist farming enterprises benefit from this situation as a migratory workforce faces greater obstacles in resisting exploitation; it lacks the time, social networks, and leadership required to muster the collective bargaining power to improve labor conditions.

One can argue that this socially destructive phenomenon of footloose farmers is not just an unfortunate side effect of western-imposed agricultural change in Africa (and indeed many other parts of the Global South), but a core piece of a dominant development ideology that devalues food sovereignty and community cohesion, tossing these aside for the sake of blind inequitable growth.

In several ways the approach of AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa) to agricultural growth is likely to exacerbate the phenomenon of ‘footloose farming.’ Why is this so? AGRA, as its name suggests, operates within the same paradigm of the original Green Revolution. Its focus is on high-tech (and thus capital-intensive and market oriented) farming. If the historical effects of this approach are anything to go by, AGRA’s efforts will only continue this deleterious trend of dispossession. Although the Alliance’s public rhetoric purports to encourage small-holder farming and empower women farmers, internal conversations reveal a hidden ideology. One of AGRA’s primary patrons, the Gates Foundation, subscribes to a ‘theory of change’ that admits to promoting a type of agricultural development that will push ‘inefficient’ farmers who are not market-oriented off their land, a process the Foundation euphemistically describes as ‘land mobility:’

‘In order to transition agriculture from the current situation of low investment, low productivity and low returns to a market-oriented, highly-productive system, it is essential that supply (productivity) and demand (market access) expand together… [this] involves market-oriented farmers operating profitable farms that generate enough income to sustain their rise out of poverty. Over time, this will require some degree of land mobility and a lower percentage of total employment involved in direct agricultural production (Gates Foundation 2008).’

The forces that lead to footloose farming and land mobility are threats to the larger question of food sovereignty. Defined by La Via Campesina, a global movement of peasant farmers, as ‘the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through sustainable methods and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems,’ food sovereignty stands in opposition to AGRA and other high-tech, foreign-imposed approaches to farming. It stands in opposition to a form of inequitable and short-sighted ‘growth’ that cleaves farmers from fields, people from place.


By Find Your Feet
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