Thursday, 14 June 2007

"Crisis and change in rural Europe"

Agricultural marginalization has often been described as a result of lack of capacity to innovate, attachment to inefficient traditional practices and overall: backwardness. Agricultural policies are founded on a set of assumptions about why certain regions have not undergone the same modernization of agriculture that others have. Black (1992) analyzed rural and agricultural marginalization from a “regional political ecology” perspective and assessed the validity of several assumptions on which agricultural policies are based, conducting a case-study in the Serra do Alvão.

1 - Small farm size and fragmentation of landholdings - frequently seen as a core cause of delayed agricultural development. Central to this view is that increased farm size allows for economies of scale to be achieved, through more rational use of machinery and lower management costs.
However, fragmentation may not be that important reducing productivity and advantages can even be derived from fragmented landholdings. Geographically spread plots allow ecological risks of production loss to be spread and increased adaptation of crops to ecological conditions in relation to farmers with single plots. Different ecological conditions in different plots also allow for the production of a higher diversity of crops. On different plots farm work may be due at different times, reducing the labour bottleneck.
Small farms in itself are not a barrier to high productivity and development. Regarding innovation, small farms only lag behind innovation in expensive machinery, but they readily adopt new seeds, fertilizers and other techniques.
Inheritance of land may not be the sole cause of fragmentation, as much land is traded (about 50% on the Alvão case study). It is not appropriate to blame landholding structure as the main cause of the agricultural crisis.

2 – Too large agricultural population - it was frequently assumed that reducing the agricultural population would allow the remaining farmers to have higher incomes (strangely, at the same time, the depopulation of rural areas was seen as problematic). However, depopulation can have devastating effects as "extraction of labour from rural areas can compromise land management practices and lead to land degradation".

3 – Small-farms are isolated from the market economy - instead farmers decide to participate in the market or not to do so when the conditions are unfavorable; farms in the Alvão region do not operate according to the logic of profit maximization. Northern Portuguese agriculture is basically non viable and operates primarily to meet subsistence needs. Whitllesey (1936) says commercial farmers produce to sell - capitalist mode - whereas subsistence farmers produce to meet their food requirements and sell what remains after the household requirements are met, therefore they are better off to resist fluctuations of the market. The viability of the minifundio system has often been analyzed in terms of either transformation along capitalist lines or oblivion.

However it is suggested (Cabral, 1986) that small farmers can withdraw from the market when the conditions are unfavorable and benefit from it when the terms of trade favor them. Thus they can protect themselves from higher market prices through self-supply. The commercialization of agriculture is a priority for the Portuguese government (in 1989). However, "integration of a rural economy into wider capitalist markets leads to marginalization of smaller producers, either through the effect of competition on their viability or as a result of the extraction of surplus value." (p.129).

4 - Poor farmers degrade natural resources and use them inefficiently - instead Black suggests "Poorer farmers may put in more work to stave off environmental marginalization, even if this involves their own self-exploitation, and increasing economic marginality. In contrast, the politically and economically powerful, in seeking market based solutions, may act in ways that are detrimental to environmental quality" (p. 167). Specialization in cash-crops undermines the continuation of the complex farming systems, where multiple benefits are derived from the association of products and production practices.

"If external, European wide factors, have contributed to a process which, however loosely, we might describe as marginalization of small farmers, there must be a role for European policy in seeking to address the crisis that is a consequence of that process." (p.181). The increased welfare of farmers, as an important agricultural policy aim, should focus on more equitable distribution of resources. Rather than subsidizing rich farmers on productive land, it should help the farmers living below the EC poverty line.

Black suggests that it is not the victims of agricultural marginalization to be blamed for low agricultural productivity and farm income. Rather, externally driven political and economic issues are at the core of marginalization and need to be addressed, but these causes have not been "seen" in Portugal at scientific or policy level (at least in 1992). However it should not be forgotten that the power relations between the local and the national are bi-directional; not only national policies influence the local, but also local power relationships can influence outcomes at higher levels, and their impacts on the local area (e.g. Lamas d'Olo managed to avoid the forestation of their common land in the 1940's).

Black, R (1992). Crisis and Change in Rural Europe. Athenaeum Press, Avebury
Obrigada, Mirjam, for directing my attention to this book!

No comments: