Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Reflections on the New Rurality


Frequently hearalded as a triumph of the industrial revolution, the Global North has experienced a draining of the countryside as farming became less profitable and jobs in manufacturing and urban services became attractive.  In a sense this could be viewed as a natural process, with social value more regularly concentrated in growing urban centers, to the detriment of the social value embedded in the rural system.  Innovation, creativity, and social experimentation were the hallmarks of the city and resistance to change, dullness and backwardness became associated with rurality.
            Without too much thought, analysts of both right and left persuasion assumed that the same dynamic would soon drive the urbanization revolution of the Global South.  The peasant farmers of what was then called the Third World, would succumb to the lure of the city just as the French farmers could not be kept “down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paris.”  However, while urbanism has grown explosively in the Global South, it has not been driven by the same dynamic.  Rather than the “pull” of the city being the main driving force, the “push” out of the rural has been prominent, mainly due to three forces.  First, international agricultural commodity policy has created a system in which local farmers find it difficult if not impossible to compete in local markets.  The dumping of corn on Mexico since the implementation of NAFTA in 1994 is only the most recent example.  The world over one sees the same process.  Hightower’s analysis of the conversion of Africans to wheat (Hightower, 1973), the dumping of potatoes in Jamaica (Weis, 2004), black beans in Mexico (Lucier et al., 2011), and many other examples highlight how farms in the Global North take advantage of direct and indirect political support (popularly referred to as subsidies) to undercut the productive ability local farmers in the Global South.
Second, the original Green Revolution, while providing only modest gains in the productivity it continues to claim was both its vision and accomplishment, it did have a major effect in transforming farming in several regions of the Global South.  Farming in the Punjab region of India, for example, became extremely concentrated due to the economies of scale involved in the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers, irrigation and mechanization, the hallmarks of the Green Revolution (improved varieties were far less important than commonly believed).  That concentration created difficult economic times for farming at a smaller scale.  The patter repeated itself in many places in the Global South.
Third, partly a consequence of assuming that the same dynamic as seems to have occurred in the Global North would engulf the Global South, planning and investment focused on the cities, not the countryside.  The support network that might have been built for small-scale farming (paved roads, local markets, small villages) was absent.  The consequence was a stagnation of “development” activities aimed at the rural sectors.  Regardless of how committed a farming family was to their local property, when their kids need to go to school, if the only school is in the city, they are effectively forced to move.  If the only true health care is available only in the city,  that is where they are forced to move.
Given these three forces, progress toward the “goal” of moving people out of the rural areas and into the cities has been surprisingly slow.  The famous refusal of the “peasantry” to disappear in the Global South has been as much news as the latest giddy prediction of its eventual demise in the face of the undeterable rise of urban sophistication.  Yet one cannot deny that the forces pushing small-scale farming out of the picture remain strong.  The recent commitment of USAID to promote the fortunes of mainly US corporate interests in the rural areas of the Global South is only the latest move to push farmers off the land to make way for the corporate industrial farm sector to continue its expansion.
Popular movements for the support of and reinvigoration of the small-scale farming sector need to recognize the difference in the overall dynamic forces operative in the initial rural to urban transformation (in the Global North) versus those operative in the transformation currently underway (in the Global South).  While the first can be seen as mainly a “natural” consequence of the growth of industrial capitalism which provided a better material life in the city, the current is a consequence of the loss of what were opportunities in the countryside – the first was due to the pull of the urban, the second due to the push away from the rural.  The social, economic and political support for rural sectors that existed prior to WWII in most countries of the Global North were efficient.  Rural schooling was effectively available, even if the mythology of walking miles everyday to school was sometimes a reality.  Rural health care was common and hospitals were available in most small cities and towns.  Roads, railroads and canals, especially those needed to get products to local markets, were maintained by local and regional municipalities. 
Part of the movement toward more rational small-scaled agricultural production should be the move to support the growth and modernization of social services to rural areas, both in the Global North and the Global South, but especially in the latter.  All children must have access to schools,  all people to health care, and everyone to the social distractions that enrich as well as challenge (theatre, music, science).  As much as we need the techniques of agroecology to promote small-scale farming, we need to reinvent some of the supports, both tangible and intangible, that made rural life not only tolerable, but actually attractive in the first place.  Some of this is already happening, as Susanna Hecht has noted in christening the new situation as the “new rurality.”

Hecht, S. 2008. The new rurality: Globalization, peasants and the paradoxes of landscapes. Desenvolvimento e Meio Ambiente 17:141-160.
Hightower, j. 1973.  Hard Tomatoes, Hard Times.  Agribuisness Accountability Project, Washington DC.
Lucier, G, L. Glaser, and A. Jerardo. 2011.  Dry bean crop report – Record large black bean production. Bean commission news, 17:2-3.
Weis, T. 2004.  Resturcturing and redundancy: The imparts and illogic of neoliberal agricultural reforms in Jamaica.  J> of Agrarian Change 4:461-491.


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