The labor of land

Contemporary land grabs and agricultural investments have generated huge attention. The transformations in land tenure, production and social reproduction in the aftermath of land rushes have generated a rich literature. A central question is about labor, and its implications for structural transformation and agrarian futures.

Extraversion, exports and the labor question

In Senegambia, the intersecting pressures of food, land, and capital were historically linked to the quest for new labor and cash crops (cotton, then groundnut, followed by fresh fruits and vegetables) in frontier markets for Europe. Some of these transformations have been widely documented by Egyptian economist Samir Amin, Senegalese historian Boubacar Barry and American historian Sven Beckert. In 1819, the Ndiaw Treaty between France and the leaders of the Waalo Kingdom (in northern Senegal) was signed, allowing France to set up three agricultural bases in northern Senegal for export. This agricultural colonization project failed mostly because of the resistance of the inhabitants of the Waalo Kingdom (the Waalo-Waalo) and the inability of  French colonial leaders to secure land concessions they thought were automatically and permanently transferred to them through the treaty. The Waalo leaders, who managed the land on behalf of their community, understood otherwise. This conflicting interpretation on how land is governed became a recurrent source of conflict.

Another problem was the shortage of labor—the Waalo-Waalo refused forced labor and preferred to cultivate their subsistence crops rather than those for export. This refusal led to the return of clandestine slave trade and related abuses. The insecurity created by Waalo’s neighbors and the resistance of merchant capital added to the failure. These are key to understanding how various historical dynamics have sedimented to make the Senegal River Valley Region (historical Waalo) the site of the land rush that began in 2007-2008, especially for the production of export fresh fruits and vegetables.

Revisiting this rich history offers us a better understanding of relations of exploitation and contemporary resistance to extractivism by a number of communities in this region. It is a reminder of the violence of primitive accumulation, a violence that is ongoing. Tanzanian historian Issa Shivji puts it well:

The early encounter of Africa with Europe was not commercial involving the exchange of commodities, but rather the unilateral looting of human resources. African slavery was neither a trade, nor a mode of production. It was simply a robbery of a people on a continental scale perpetrated over four centuries through force of arms.

Despite the subsequent attempt to develop new crops in 1826 in Saint-Louis, merchant capital eventually prevailed with the failure of agriculture. As a result, post-colonial leaders “inherited a country organized by and for merchant capital” after 1960 as Catherine Boone puts it. In the same vein, Koddenbrock, Kvangraven and Sylla note how merchant capital subsequently established colonial and post-colonial structures of extraction.

Beyond processes of land acquisition, it is important to pay attention to how land becomes capital and how agricultural workers are included, excluded, or rather adversely incorporated into these agri-food networks.For instance, in her 2011 essay on land grabbing in Southern Africa, Ruth Hall provides a useful typology of agricultural transformations from subsistence to capitalist imperatives. Besides models that are based on the displacement of primary producers and the establishment of large export-oriented agricultural estates, Hall emphasizes “commercialization in situ” and “outgrower” schemes whereby petty commodity producers and other land users are incorporated into commercial value chains. This is a further invite to go beyond eurocentrism and methodological nationalism in our analyses of the genealogy of capitalism and of processes of exploitation.

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Layers of compounding pressure: the gendered experiences of rural migrant youth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

“I have lived everything there is to be lived in this city. Now I need to leave because all that is left for me here is misery and I want a better life for my child.”

It is with these words that Tizita, a 21-year-old mother-of-one from Gojjam in northern Ethiopia, described her dismay at life in Addis Ababa when I interviewed her in 2022. After living in the Ethiopian capital for eight years, she had had enough. Tizita was set on moving to one of the Gulf States, a part of the world from where many of the women she met on the street had returned from and were planning to re-migrate to. Having previously worked as a domestic worker in Addis Ababa, and having learnt that sex work was the only way to make “real money” in the city, the young woman remained focused on meeting the fundamental purpose of her migration project: transforming her life.  

For Fikadu, a 27-year-old man from Wollega in western Ethiopia, the strain of life in the city is similar, yet different. Unlike for young women like Tizita, whose income-earning activities are overwhelmingly limited to domestic work, petty street work, commercial sex work and begging, the fractions of the informal economy available to migrant men are slightly wider. Nevertheless, this is not to say that times have not been hard. Having previously worked as a street vendor selling second-hand clothes, Fikadu has had to downscale his work and is struggling to meet the rising costs of food, rent, sending money to his family of origin, and realising his plans for the future:  

Our supplies disappeared and when they were back, the price went up by more than double. That was the end of it. Now I pay for my life here by selling socks, but I don’t let that dismay me. I remain focused on my plans of transforming my life here, and once things improve I will start saving for my own metalwork shop.” 

The testimonies of Tizita and Fikadu form part of a longitudinal qualitative research project that maps the livelihood strategies of a sample of migrant youth in Addis Ababa at two points in time between 2018 and 2022. Drawing on these findings, this blog outlines some of the ways in which rural-urban migrant youth between the ages of 15-27 experience and counteract pressure. Through an exploration of migrants’ everyday strategies of navigating the city, findings presented here show how dealing with the intricacies of urban life relates intimately to the lives rural youth left behind and the imaginary futures they aspire towards, the ways in which youth relate to the social and economic responsibilities they carry, and the manner in which subjective pressure experienced by women and men has a compounding effect that further exacerbates the challenges migrant youth face.

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Gendering the debt crisis: Feminists on Sri Lanka’s financial crisis

By Kanchana N. Ruwanpura, Bhumika Muchhala and Smriti Rao

Countless images of women carers flitted through April-July 2022 on Sri Lankan television screens, social media, and newspapers. Carers with young children, mothers with new-borns leaving them with equally young children while they stood in queue for gas or kerosene, children doing their homework on tuk-tuks while their parents got in line for petrol and diesel. Yet, Sri Lankan policy pronouncements rarely mention working-class women. In a country where women comprise 52% of the population, this is astounding. Especially so when the dominant three foreign exchange earners for the country – garments, tea exports and migrant workers to the Middle East – rest on the efforts of women workers. 

In the current response to Sri Lanka’s debt crisis, the voices and needs of working-class women are once again being ignored by policymakers, despite the evidence all-around of women intensifying their unpaid labour even as the conditions under which they perform paid labour deteriorate. 

As feminist economists, our argument is straightforward: debt justice is a feminist value and principle. And at the core of our understanding of debt justice is the principle that working class women cannot be made to pay for the ‘odious debt’ generated by the recklessness and corruption of (almost entirely male) Sri Lankan political elites.

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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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Dependency, gender, and race

In the classical works of dependency theory, such as the Dialectics of Dependency (Marini 2011 [1973]); Socialism or Fascism (Dos Santos 2018 [1978]); Dependency and Development in Latin America (Cardoso and Faletto 1979) and Latin American Dependent Capitalism (Bambirra 2012 [1978]), race and gender are absent. This absence is at odds with both the evident reality of racial and patriarchal oppression in Latin America and the concomitant rise of feminist and anti-colonial literature in the social sciences. In fact, in the exciting intellectual and political environment of the 1960s and 1970s, it would not be difficult to imagine productive dialogues between Ruy Mauro Marini and Margaret Benston, and Vânia Bambirra and Amilcar Cabral. Sadly, these dialogues never took place. Instead, the first generation of dependency scholarship privileged debates with white, male scholars engaged in modernisation sociology, structuralist economics and Marxist orthodoxy. With the sole exception of Vânia Bambirra’s forgotten writings about peripheral women’s liberation, gender and race remain to this day ignored by the dependency tradition.

Although the absence of race and gender does indeed represent a major blind spot in the work of dependency writers, the most seminal concepts coined by some of the early dependency writers such as Ruy Mauro Marini and Vânia Bambirra have ‘intersectional’ (Crenshaw 1989; 1991) potential. By that, I mean that they can be understood as referring to more than simply class-based dynamics of domination. Let us consider two examples: Marini’s concept of the ‘super-exploitation’ of labour and Bambirra’s definition of Latin American ruling classes as ‘dominated–dominant’.

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