Dependence and ecology in contemporary Latin America, Part 1: The colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian business

Though its influence may have waned in recent decades, dependency theory remains an indispensable prism through which to regard the bifurcated, or polarized, development of national economies within the capitalist world-system. This framework, in which the persistence of uneven development is attributable to the interrelation between the industrialised core and the underdeveloped periphery, admits both the geographic and historical scope to adequately tackle the hard problems of political economy and to accurately trace the chains of dependency which inhibit peripheral economies. Through two blog posts, I wish to explore how dependency theory can help us understand various ecologies of dependence in Latin America, including Brazilian agribusiness in Paraguayan soy (this blog post) and the role Chinese industrial demand plays in constraining Brazilian subimperial autonomy in soy cultivation (in the second blog post). In this post, the colonization of Paraguayan soy cultivation by Brazilian agribusiness is used to demonstrate that Sub-imperialist powers can achieve relative autonomy within the periphery by making dependent weaker states in their vicinity.

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Building up debt traps: Risk, climate adaptation and microfinance

How to adapt to a changing climate is one of the foremost questions of our era. In the last decade, microfinance has shot to prominence as a highly-promoted tool of adaptation to climate and environmental change. In an abridged version of a 2009 report commissioned by the Grameen Foundation and Oxfam US, Dowla argues that ‘within the populations that will be most affected by global warming, the plight of many individuals is linked to the ability of microfinance institutions to adapt to the consequences of climate change’.

With access to already-existing as well as newly-adapted financial products and ser­vices, the argument goes that people and communities will be better placed to reduce risk, diversify their livelihoods, and build assets. ‘Green microfinance’ would facilitate adaptation in two key ways: ‘by improving ex-post [after the event] risk recovery’ via coping capacity enhancement, and ‘by improving ex-ante [before the event] risk reduction’ via adaptive capacity enhancement. Recommended strategies include improving access to microcredit for climate change responses as well as promoting insurance schemes to reduce the burden of climate risk on society.

In contrast to these emerging discourses and practices that frame microfinance as a key tool of climate adaptation, our recent research with rice farmers in rural Cambodia finds that microfinance loans are leading to an over-indebtedness emergency that significantly undermines borrowers’ long-term coping and adaptive capacity in a changing climate. Such loans often push households to borrow more, work more, sacrifice food quality and quantity, quit farming, and erode and sell their assets, including land. The cost of financialised coping strategies can trap rural populaces in financial obligations which they struggle to service and which manifests ultimately as over-indebtedness. Microfinance ends up promoting a particular form of climate adaptation: one that is individualised, incremental, and geared towards the further integration of populations into processes of capital accumulation.

This form of adaptation is highly profitable. Indeed, as Dowla argues in that same paper, each new climate-linked shock ‘opens up opportunities for the microfinance institutions and their clients’. Yet the corollary to this profitability is that the costs of such an adaptation tend to be borne by the poor, who find themselves exposed not only to the rigours of the environment but now the global market too.

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Agrarian Change in the Lap of Neoliberal Growth: Field perspective from India

If I had to describe three central characteristics of the Indian economy—its three defining features in the neoliberal period—they’d be i) premature de-industrialization and expansion of the services sector, ii) growth in the absence of formal job-creation, and instead an explosion of informality, and iii) the declining share of agriculture in value added even as its share in employment remains sizeable. In June-July 2019, I did intensive fieldwork in Sangli, a village in Rewari district in southern Haryana, to make sense of the ways in which these processes interact with agrarian change and play out for agrarian households, i.e. the contemporary Agrarian Question [1]. 

Sangli is in Haryana, where Green Revolution techniques (high yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and agricultural machinery like tractors and threshers) were adopted early on. It also happens to be close to the industrial belt that extends from the national capital Delhi to its surrounding districts, where foreign capital has congregated in the neoliberal era. This makes it an interesting place to study processes of generation and re-investment of agrarian surpluses, and to peer into the relationship between “modernized” agriculture and neoliberal industrial and urban growth that has dwarfed the rural economy.

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Max Ajl in conversation with Habib Ayeb on Food Sovereignty and the Environment

Max Ajl interviews radical geographer and activist Habib Ayeb. Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE) and Max Ajl is a Postdoc at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, associate editor at Agrarian South and the author of A People’s Green New Deal.

Max:  Habib, you have made many films and written at length about food sovereignty in Tunisia and in Egypt. Can you start by telling us how you see the conversation around food sovereignty in this part of the world?

Habib: In recent years, the issue of food sovereignty has begun to appear in academic and non-academic debates, and in research as well – although more tentatively – in all the countries of the region. That said, the issue of food and thus agriculture has always been important, both in academic research and public debate, as well as the academy, political institutions, and elsewhere. During the 1970s and 1980s, in Tunisia and throughout what was called the Third World, we spoke mainly of food self-sufficiency. This was, in a way, and at that time, a watchword of the left – a left that was modernist, developmentalist and statist.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe that the concept of food self-sufficiency dates from the late 1940s with the wave of decolonization, which began after the Second World War, and probably also dates to the great famines which claimed millions of lives in India and other areas of the South. Furthermore, many states, particularly those governed by the state-socialist regimes that had acquired political independence during the 1950s and 1960s, had initiated Green Revolution policies.  These had the aim of achieving food self-sufficiency to strengthen political independence, in a Cold War context wherein food was already used as a weapon and a means of pressure in the context of the confrontation between the USSR and the Western bloc. It is in this context that the experiences of agrarian reforms and agricultural co-operatives in Tunisia (from 1962), in Egypt (from 1953) and in many other countries had proliferated. But almost all of these experiments ended in failure or were aborted by liberal counter-reforms, which were adopted everywhere beginning in the 1980s amidst the victory of liberalism, the USSR’s disappearance, and the development of a global food regime, and its corollary: the global market for agricultural products and particularly cereals.

It is at this point that the concept of food security, based on the idea of comparative advantage began to gradually dominate. It would appear for the first time in the official Tunisian texts in the sixth Five Year Plan of the early 1980s, in which the formula of food self-sufficiency would give way to that of food security. From then on, agricultural policies would favour agricultural export products with a high added value, whose revenues would then underwrite the import of basic food products.

Paradoxically, agricultural issues, food issues, and rural issues writ large would gradually disappear from academic agendas. There was a sharp reduction in funding for research on the rural world, and instead it went first, to the urban research profile, but also to examine civil society and political organizations. It was not until 2007/2008 and the great food crisis that agricultural and food issues, and furthermore the peasant question with its sociological dimension, would reappear in public debates focused on these matters. It was during the same period that the concept of food sovereignty, proposed by Via Campesina in 1996, would appear in Arab countries and to a much lesser extent in research. Even today, many use the food sovereignty frame to talk about food security, even while the two concepts are radically opposed, even incompatible.

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Debunking the “Eco-Fortress Nationalism” of the AOC/Markey Green New Deal

tractor, tiller, tilling, equipment, agriculture, karnataka, india, transportation, mode of transportation, land, land vehicle, field, one person, landscape, agricultural machinery, day, nature, rural scene, plant, environment, driving, farm, dirt, agricultural equipment, outdoors, farmer, 4K

Photo: Farming in Karnataka, India.

Max Ajl’s People’s Green New Deal is a brutal reminder for the American left that even the most celebrated and progressive developments in American politics are still simply American politics, in other words they are a politics for America, and America first. Ajl situates both the longer history of environmental destruction and the response to it within a planetary frame without losing sight of geographical unevenness. The book is divided into two parts. The first part is where Ajl systematically debunks the American-centrism of the Cortez/Markey Green New Deal (GND). The second part is an imagination-widening exposition of an alternative People’s Green New Deal that centers the livelihood of the majority of the world’s people by putting forth an anti-imperial and anti-capitalist framework for a just transition. 

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Beyond Green Restoration: An Eco-Socialist GND

Following the resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the term Green New Deal (GND) has become the gravitational center of climate action debates. On the one hand, conservatives, as well as some leftist circles, designate the AOC-Markey resolution as “socialist”. On the other hand, the term GND was first made public by Thomas Friedman in his NY Times column as a capitalistic and patriotic project which serves as “the basis of a new unifying political movement for the 21st century” (p.4). It comes as no surprise that so much political confusion accrues around the concept of a GND.

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal is the best leftist response I have read to the discussions whirling around this notion. It is clear-minded and well written. Politically, it constructs a consistent, uncompromising, anti-imperialist vision, well aware of the fact that tamed horizons are easily coopted and rearticulated by the ruling classes thanks to the elasticity of capital accumulation. Theoretically, its foundations are found in the “inherently polarizing” frameworks of dependency theory, world-system analysis, and (environmentally) unequal exchange (p.14).

Ajl evaluates GND proposals not only on the basis of targeted changes in physical production, but also in terms of their systemic implications. Some GNDs aim to preserve or strengthen capitalism, while others are designed to attack or abolish it (p.3). Correspondingly, the book is divided into two parts. The first one is concerned with what Ajl calls Capitalist Green Transitions (p.16) or “ruling class agendas” (p.20), while the second part sketches his vision of a People’s Green New Deal.

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 A People’s Green New Deal: A Symposium

Max Ajl’s A People’s Green New Deal intervenes in current debates regarding green planning, green future, green stimuli, and eco-socialism. It surveys a wide range of existing literature on the ecological and social crisis, ranging from ruling-class “great transitions,” to eco-modernist elixirs of the right and the left which bank on technological solutions to today’s social and ecological problems. It then considers and critiques an array of liberal, left-liberal, and social democratic proposals, some of them going under the eco-socialist moniker, and shows how they rest on continued exploitation and primitive accumulation of the periphery. 

A People’s Green New Deal contributions lie in, first, using frameworks of dependency theory, accumulation on a world scale, and ecologically uneven exchange to illuminate the costs and consequences of distinct approaches to the climate crisis, left and right. Second, the book’s emphasis on agriculture, land use, and agro-ecology makes it unique amongst books on the Green New Deal and parallel debates. Its emphasis on decolonization, national sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and climate debt repayments from the North to the South is a third contribution. A fourth is how it deals with technology. 

This review forum assesses the contribution of A People’s Green New DealSakshi situates APGND in terms of a counter-epistemology to Eurocentric and empire-blind resolutions, if not really solutions, to the social and ecological crises to which mainstream Green New Deals are addressed. Sheetal Chhabria assesses APGND’s contribution to thinking on a planetary scale about appropriate planning for a just transition, while criticizing the book’s uncritical embrace of certain Indian nationalist tropes. Güney Işıkara raises questions regarding political agency and organization, the role of national-level planning in any form of national-level green transition, and how to approach anti-imperialism on a world scale.  

Read the contributions:

What Happens to ‘Gender’ in Food and Agricultural Research? Mapping Four Broad Trends

By Merisa S. Thompson and Fiorella Picchioni

The Women and Development Study Group of the Development Studies Association (DSA) recently revisited Sally Brown and Anne Marie Goetz’s 1997 Feminist Review article ‘Who Needs (Sex) When You Can Have Gender? Conflicting Discourses on Gender at Beijing?’. The article examines challenges to the concept of ‘gender’ at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, including debates on its institutionalization and depoliticization, the tendency for it to be used as a synonym for ‘women’, and the conservative backlash against the very use of the concept itself. The retrospective value of doing this showed just how relevant these questions continue to be for Gender and Development policy, practice, research and teaching today.

For example, when teaching sex and gender, critical feminist theorising can sometimes lead students to feel that Gender and Development (GAD) approaches are too instrumentalized, too much like an industry and disconnected from reality. Moreover, the positionality of working as ‘the gender person’ in larger projects, where the gender component is often seen to stand alone with little connection to other intersectional dynamics, remains an ongoing challenge. The increasing and worrying trend of an anti-woke ‘backlash’ against feminist analysis and gender equality across the globe was also a recurring theme.

We also considered how ‘gender’ as a concept is mobilised and used in food and agricultural studies specifically. In this blog, therefore, we examine what happens to the concept in food research, policy and practice, mapping out four broad trends. Firstly, the centring of the connection between gender, nutrition and mothering remains pervasive. Secondly, ‘gender equality’ is often instrumentalized as a tool to increase marketized forms of agricultural productivity. Thirdly, while a focus on gender is obviously welcome, it can in fact obscure other important axes of oppression, such as race, class, sexuality, disability and nationality. Finally, it is consequently crucial to ground research, policy and practice in historical specificity and context in order to take into account multiple underlying oppressions and structural inequalities that influence the ability of a range of different actors in the food system to participate both socially and economically.

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