• Contact
  • Log in

The future of peasant agriculture confronted by the new pressures on land

Once marginalized by development strategies, the role of peasant agriculture in fighting hunger and the deterioration of ecosystems and climate change, is now widely recognized. But the fate of the small producers is threatened by the new pressures on land. The ‘harmonious cohabitation’ between agrobusiness and peasant agriculture, promoted by international institutions, has not changed the situation.

The food crisis of 2007-2008 showed up plainly the absurdities and paradoxes in the agricultural development model. In a context of strong pressures on land and natural resources, a sudden, though foreseeable surge in prices was enough to plunge nearly 124 million more people into extreme poverty and 75 million of them into a state of under-nourishment. They were “reduced to nothing” according to Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank, while referring to the seven ‘lost’ years in the fight against poverty (cf. Delcourt, 2008).

This crisis was by no means fortuitous, exacerbated as it was by the economic and financial debacle, which had also produced its quota of newly-made destitute people. At the time it was described, somewhat too hastily, as an ‘agricultural and food tsunami’, as if it were a natural and unpredictable catastrophe. In fact, it demonstrated the failure of poverty reduction strategies in the absence of any serious reform in the international system of the production, transformation, marketing and distribution of food products from agriculture. The figures are overwhelmingly damning for the advocates of ‘happy globalization’.

While the levels of food production have been recorded for years and can theoretically ensure the food requirements of the world’s population [1] , hunger currently affects more than one billion people, more than at any time since the 1970s. To this figure should be added some two billion people who suffer from food deficiencies. The most striking paradox is that nearly 70 per cent of the poor and the very poor who are in this situation are peasants, themselves producers and suppliers of food (50 per cent live off plots that are very small or of poor quality and 20 per cent are agricultural labourers or landless)! (Golay, 2009)

Ten years after the adoption of the Millennium Development Objectives and five years before the deadline of 2015 proposed for their implementation, there is little cause for optimism. In spite of the strong commitment of the United Nations to reducing by the number of people in extreme poverty by half, “there are all the conditions” believes Olivier De Schutter, “for a new food crisis within one or two years. The question is not to know whether it will happen, but when.” ( Le Monde, 16 November 2009)

Without a radical reform of the food and agricultural system, the situation can only worsen. All the more so because agricultural yields have decreased and there is an irreversible loss of large extensions of land because of global warming – in the regions that are most sensitive to climatic vagaries and water shortages. Added to these are the pressures exercised by urbanization and the increasing numbers of mining, hydro-electric, tourist and infrastructure projects, all of them avid for space. On top of this are the enormous stretches of land that will in future be devoted to the production of agrofuels, while we know that the global food production must double, if not triple to satisfy the food needs of nine billion people in 2050 (Mazoyer, 2009).

The urban riots at the end of 2007 and beginning of 2008, which affected 40 countries, symbolized this food crisis and its after effects but at least it had the positive result of getting the international institutions to reopen the question of the role of agriculture in development strategies. Thus agriculture regained its place on the agendas of the ‘donors’, after having left it for almost 30 years [2]. Since the crisis broke out, the United Nations and its Specialized Agencies have continually appealed for the refinancing of the agricultural sectors in the South. Scorned for three decades, public agricultural policies are now being vigorously discussed. Once the subject of public obloquy, the State is now being solicited to reinvest and promote the development of the rural world. And agrofuels, hailed at the beginning of the 21st century, are increasingly censured, while the virtues of family agriculture, which had been described as archaic and not very efficient, seem to have been gradually rediscovered.

Has this growing awareness of the place and role of agriculture in solving social and environmental problems thus opened up the way for a fundamental revision of the dominant agricultural model and the international food system? Are the remedies proposed at the international level able to meet the challenges of rural poverty and hunger? One may well doubt it. Crucial issues such as access to land, control over resources and the democratic and sovereign right of populations to define their own agricultural model do not figure among the concerns expressed at the international level. At a time when pressure on land and resources is increasingly strong, any rural development strategy that does not take these issues seriously into consideration will not avoid the mistakes of the past and will no doubt prove incapable of reversing the marginalization process of peasant agriculture, which is at the origin of the food crisis.

The marginalization of the small peasantry

In spite of the fact that there has been an increase in the cultivated land in the world, the countries of the South have experienced a ‘de-peasantization’ of the rural areas. This is evident from the recent demographic statistics that show the number of urban inhabitants is now greater than the rural dwellers. What is particularly striking, apart from regional differences, is the rapidity and extent of this transition. In 1970 the world population, estimated at 3.7 billion, still had a rural population of 2.4 billion, as against 1.3 billion town dwellers. This ratio began to reverse at the beginning of the 21st century, to the point that today 3.5 billion people live in urban communities as against 3.2 billion in rural areas (Borras, 2009).

This rapid ‘de-peasantization’ of the countryside, in which hundreds of thousands of peasants are leaving their land in the South, to the extent that the natural growth rate in the rural world (still very high) will soon not compensate for those who abandon it, is in no way a natural phenomenon, nor is it the result of the individual and spontaneous choice of people setting their heart on city life. It is mainly the consequence of deliberate economic policies and the adoption of development strategies that are little concerned with small family producers and even hostile to the peasant world.

‘Anti-rural’ modernization policies

The growth model that prevailed in the South and guided its development strategies was inspired by the linear theories of modernization based on the historical experience of the North, that of the transition, by successive stages, of a rural economy towards an industrial and urban economy. It was based on heavy industry and the State had a central role in guiding economic planning. Development was synonymous with growth and this growth could only be ensured through forced industrialization and its economic consequences (Histoire, … 2009) .

In fact, between 1950 and 1980, most of the governments in the South, whether they tried to integrate into the international economy or chose to follow autonomous import-substitution strategies, gave priority to the industrialization-urbanization processes at the expense of the rural world. At most, agriculture was considered as merely a cheap labour reserve and a way of promoting, particularly through the transfer of agricultural products, the modernization of the socio-economic fabric of the towns. Aid was above all given to the agro-exporting sectors, which brought in precious foreign currency, rather than the small family producers who, almost everywhere, represented the overwhelming majority of the active members of the population. Rather than guaranteeing decent incomes to the peasants, the concern was to maintain social peace in the towns through massive importation of food aid and cheap commodities. This strategy also had the advantage of providing providential tax income (Brunel).

Such development orientations, combined with the introduction of the ‘green revolution’ in numerous countries in Asia and Latin America, were motivated by the strategic need to guarantee food self-sufficiency as well as the desire to avoid embarking on an agrarian reform process. They contributed to the gradual impoverishment of a large section of the small peasantry while precipitating the rural exodus [3] .

Between a rock and a hard place: neoliberal modernization

This ‘de-peasantization’ movement of the rural world gathered strength in the 1980s, in the context of the debt crisis and the forced return to economic liberalism, whose sycophants made a hotchpotch of accusations against the immobility of the rural areas and the persistence of rural poverty, the incapacity of the developing countries, weighed down by debt, to promote a ‘virtuous circle of growth’. According to them, excessive intervention by the State through many forms of taxation (particularly on land and agricultural products) created too many distortions of the market.

The World Bank, in close collaboration with the IMF, became lender of last resort, chief project manager of the reforms and the guarantor of macro-economic equilibrium, promoting the massive reduction of public expenditure, the opening up of the economies and the liberalization of trade and prices. These were very attractive policies for foreign capital, as well as for the out and out deregulation that was supposed to liberate market forces. All these measures, negotiated in the framework of agreements on stabilization and structural adjustment, were applied in the agricultural sector through national programmes of agricultural sectorial adjustment (Mazoyer, 2008). Thus there was an enormous disengagement on the part of the State and the liberalization of the agricultural sector got under way, followed by the inclusion of agriculture in the last cycle of the negotiations in GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and the creation, in 1994/1995 of the WTO (World Trade Organization).

It is true that, as from the 1990s, a handful of countries actually achieved some growth, while urban consumers in the countries of the South benefited greatly – at least for a while – from the drop in prices of food products. But in a situation of extreme inequality between the different systems of agriculture the opening of the local markets to imported foods soon proved catastrophic for the small peasants (Houtart, 2009).

The invasion of cheap agricultural imports literally devastated the small producers. With the implementation of the free trade agreements, sometimes from one day to the next, they had to compete with the international agro-industrial heavyweights. The latter were extremely competitive, all the more so because they benefited – and still do – from policies of generous subsidies and/or the profits they could count on, in the agro-industrial sectors of the emerging countries, from the low wages and diminutive property taxes – if they existed at all – as well as huge extensions of agricultural land.

Driven to the brink, both by the competition from cheap imports and the elimination of public assistance and the dismantling of the structures to support producers, the peasants of the South were unable to ensure their own reproduction. They were caught in a spiral of impoverishment and indebtedness, were less assisted than in the past and had no option but to cede their land or their labour to the highest bidder (large landowners, agro-industrial enterprises, etc.), Or they could go into exile in the urban agglomerations where they expanded the slums that the surrounding countryside had increasing difficulties in feeding. And finally there were those whose debts led them to commit suicide, a phenomenon that has become dramatically frequent in South Asia.

As Sylvie Brunel observes, this tendency doubled the dimensions of the food problem: “by creating huge numbers of ‘urban plebs’ who relied on cheap imports to feed themselves and by depriving the rural areas of a peasantry that could have reduced the bill for those imported goods and created an internal market by raising the purchasing power of the peasant masses” (2008). In such a situation, a jump in international prices after they had been low for a long time, the towns, bursting at the seams with the arrival of great numbers of impoverished peasants, in turn paid the penalty.

All in all, what the last food crisis showed was that it was not a question of penury or the lack of available food, but that numerous poor countries were extremely vulnerable to fluctuations in international prices because of their increasing dependence on imports. When Africa attained independence it was self-sufficient and even a net exporter of food products (almost 1.3 million tonnes a year between 1966 and 1970). Now it imports nearly 25 per cent of its food! (Bello, 2008)

The expansion of monoculture crops and rise of agrobusiness

These measures for the liberation and adjustment of the rural economies not only had the effect of accentuating the commercial pressures on the small producers. Together with the globalization process that brought about a rapid transformation of the modes and techniques of production, marketing and consumption, and the emergence of a new international division of labour, they were at the origin of the deep upheaval in the agricultural landscape of the countries of the South.

This upheaval first took the form of an immense expansion of industrial crops for export and an increased specialization. To maximize their comparative advantages and accumulate foreign currency, the countries of the South, which were heavily indebted, were in fact invited to concentrate on the cultures with the greatest added value on the international markets. Thus Kenya and Peru launched into the production of flowers, whereas in Brazil soya culture replaced pastureland and land that had traditionally been given over to a more diversified culture. The rice lands in the Philippines were transformed into market gardening plantations and oranges cultivated on areas that used to produce beans – the staple diet of the population – in Haiti, which now imports nearly 60 per cent of its food!

But the priority given to the maximization of comparative advantages has had consequences other than a greater specialization and the reduction of national food supplies. This kind of cultivation is usually intensive in capital and expensive industrial inputs, as well as being mechanized and economic in labour. They exclude, right from the start, many small family farmers who are able to make such investments, while it has pushed out many agricultural labourers. Greedy for space and resources, they have accelerated the concentration of land, extended the frontiers of agriculture, forced subsistence agriculture on to the less fertile land and reinforced the movement of the private appropriation of natural resources. As for the ecological damage caused by such crops, it includes the reduction of biodiversity in favour of standardized production, deforestation and pollution as well as soil and sub-soil degradation through the intensification of production and the massive utilization of chemical inputs (fertilizers and pesticides).

Parallel to this process of specialization, concentration and change in cultivation, a vast movement of acquisition and merger operations got under way in the food processing sector, the results of which reduced the numbers involved in the production process. In other words, the opening and integration of the markets has enabled the large corporations in the food and agriculture industry (producers of fertilizers and seeds, trade intermediaries, food processing and the big distribution networks) to tighten their control over production, transformation and marketing.

For example, just two corporations (ADM and Cargill) are now responsible for three-quarters of the international trade in cereals. And Monsanto controls some 41 per cent of the market in maize seed and 21 per cent of the market in soya seed (Holt-Giménez, Patel, 2009). This almost monopoly situation not only gives them huge power over the market (possibility to orient production, influence prices, etc.) but it considerably reinforces the dependence of the small producers by reducing the number of channels and intermediaries.

Finally, it should be remembered that, in a context of the general impoverishment of the rural areas, these same enterprises have gained considerable profits from the food crisis because of their dominant position. Thus in the last half of 2007, when the food crisis was at its height, the profits of ADM, Monsanto and Cargill were respectively 42, 45 and 86 per cent, while Mozaic Fertilizer, a subsidiary of Cargill, recorded an increased turnover of more than 1,200 per cent! (ibid.) As for the profits of the two giants in the food processing industry, Nestlé and TISCO, they increased by 8 and 10 percent respectively during the first half of 2008 (Sorge, 2010).

The new stampede for land and resources

In July 2009, a few months before the FAO World Summit on Food Security (held in Rome, 16-18 November), the first international conference on investment in the agricultural sectors in the countries of the South took place in New York. It brought together the large agricultural producers, the landowners, the managers of investment, sovereign and speculative funds, as well as representatives of the agrobusiness sectors and experts from the academic world and the private sector, who came from all over the world (Brazil, Australia, the United States, the Gulf countries, India, etc.)

The idea of this first Global Agrinvesting Forum, organized by Soyatech, one of the lobbies of the soya and agrofuel producers, together with two consultancy firms (HighQuest Partners and the Investment Management Institute) was to present a general panorama of the new prospects for investment – and new opportunities for profit and growth – in sectors relating to land and agricultural production (Knaup, von Mittelstaedt, 2009).

The event, which drew little attention, showed the renewal of interest in land on the part of the economic and financial world. After the eruption of the financial crisis, landed property has become the new goose that lays the golden eggs for would-be investors lacking outlets. As Reza Vishkai, in charge of alternative investments at Insight Investment, remarked in 2008: “the best protection against recession in the coming ten to fifteen years is an investment in agricultural land” (cf. Grain, 2008).

In fact, in a sluggish economic climate, the high prices of food products have encouraged the large companies that have been traditionally active in the food processing sector to concentrate their efforts on land, which is showing itself to be all the more profitable because it can produce commodities for which there is an effective demand: agrofuels, forage crops, etc. They have been joined by new arrivals – companies from other sectors seeking new growth strategies and concerned to diversify their activities, financial services, commercial banks, pension funds looking for new profitable investment and the speculative funds that are abandoning the market of derivatives which have depreciated so considerably since the crisis (Houtart, 2010).

However, the convergence of the food, energy and climate crises has highlighted another phenomenon: the negotiated transfer, from state to state (or through their economic and financial partners), of large areas of arable land in the South. This movement to monopolize foreign land, together with the recent interest of international economic actors looking for new liquidity from land, the production of food commodities and of agrofuels, but also the exploitation of subsoil resources (oil, minerals, water, etc.), has recently added to the many pressures on land, peasant agriculture and the environment.

The land grabbers

This phenomenon of land grabbing is not of course new. What is new in this case is that it has been initiated and encouraged by the governments of countries described as ‘rich, financially, but poor in resources’, among which are numerous countries in the South [4]. Concerned to reduce their dependence on imports and to ensure their food and energy supplies, these countries are now seeking to ‘externalize’ their own production, trying to take over or to control, directly or indirectly (through their national companies) large areas of land by negotiating agreements with the government of countries called ‘rich in resources but poor financially’. Africa is particularly coveted. It has still great ‘reserves’ of under-exploited, non-exploited and supposedly virgin land, available at a cheap price [5] .

This land stampede has taken on alarming proportions in Africa after the spotlight shone on the cession of 1.3 million hectares in Madagascar to the South Koreans of Daewoo Logistics. The Gulf countries are buying or renting large areas of land in the countries of their Muslim brothers (Somalia, Sudan, Chad, etc.), while Congo-Brazzaville is offering the South Africans several hundred thousand hectares of threatened rainforest. China is increasing land agreements, called ‘cooperation’, with Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Nigeria, as well as with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in which it obtained 2.8 million hectares to plant the largest oil palm plantation in the world. A US investment fund is renting from 400,000 to one million hectares in South Sudan. Libya is fighting tooth and nail with Mali for the cession of land to externalize its food production. The Kenyan president is renting 40,000 hectares of ‘agro-pastoral’ land to Qatar so that the latter can use it to develop vegetable production. The Ethiopian government has ceded, in the greatest secrecy, thousands of fertile hectares destined for exportation to Indian companies, while Egypt has recently been negotiating with the Ugandan government a contract that will rent nearly 840,000 hectares (3.5 of the country’s territory!).

All together, nearly 20 million hectares have already changed hands – or are in the process of doing so – in Africa, out of the 30 to 40 million hectares in the world that are the object of such transactions. These statistics are difficult to check, given the silence that generally surrounds these contracts and the absence of verifiable figures (Baxter, 2010; FIAN, 2010; Grain, 2008).

This new form of agrarian colonialism has been strongly encouraged by the national governments and/or local authorities in the countries concerned, the agreements on land and the various details of the purchase, location, concession, etc. being potential sources of revenue for them. As for the ‘grabbing’ countries, they very rarely exercise direct control over the land they have grabbed as national legislation prohibits them from doing so. In most cases they only intervene as intermediaries or ‘facilitators’ in these transactions, leaving it to private enterprise to exploit the land and profit from it (Cotula, Vermeulen, Leonard and Keeley, 2009).

In other words, this ‘land-grab movement’ strictly speaking cob mines with that other great current trend: that of the private appropriation of land motivated almost exclusively by the search for profit, which is above all to be seen in the spectacular growth of private investment in land [6], food production, agrofuels, but also in mining and oil prospecting and huge infrastructure projects, which have multiplied these last years on the initiative of the governments of the emerging countries.

In this process, too, the governments of the countries of the South are playing an active role, starting up veritable seduction campaigns abroad and promoting ‘business-friendly’ climates: relaxing local legislation (workers rights and environmental laws) that could hinder investments, creating free trade zones and setting up agencies for the promotion of investments, etc.

New threats in the social and environmental fields

The agreements are presented by the private sector and the receiving states as beneficial for all parties: securing production and benefits offshore for some, new investments, creation of jobs, transfer of technology, development of infrastructure and access to international markets for others. They are indeed veritable development projects and encouraged as such by the World Bank, the Africa Governance Initiative launched by Tony Blair, the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). However, these negotiated transfers of land are nevertheless a dangerous threat for the future of rural societies, the small family units and the local ecosystems.

In the first place because they concern primarily the fertile land in the countries which, like Sudan, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Pakistan, include many inhabitants who are under-nourished and/or dependent on food aid. There is a serious risk of food insecurity in these countries becoming greatly exacerbated, all the more so in that the lands in question are not always given over to the production of food. In fact, according to some estimates, nearly 35 per cent of all the land ceded will be for the production of agrofuels, only just less than the production of food for people and animals (37 per cent) [7].

These lands are not void of inhabitants – contrary to the idea that the concept of ‘agricultural reserve’ implies that these lands are ‘available’. In many cases, they are the home of agro-pastoral communities and indigenous peoples or first nations who depend on these lands for their subsistence, using it for many different purposes. Also, these communities have complex social tissues, governed by custom and tradition, maintaining symbiotic relationships with different groups and groupings. These are all processes and social relations that cannot be seen through satellite imagery, which is increasingly used to identify these reserves. The transfer of land can irremediably affect social tissues, dismantle local communities and exacerbate tensions and conflicts, already on the increase concerning the ownership of land and the use of natural resources (land, water, etc.).

Finally, even if these transactions include clauses on the environment and obligations to the local populations, rural development is in no way the objective. The reality of ‘agricultural development’ is the development and extension of the agro-industrial and agro-exportation model that is known to be socially iniquitous and ecologically destructive.

Renewed discourse on agriculture:the ‘new’ approaches of the World Bank

The World Bank, widely criticized in the triggering and managing of the food crisis and implicitly recognizing the failure of past policies, recently proposed a New Deal for food and agriculture that is supposed to mobilize the whole international community (UN Specialized Agencies, states, private sectors, non-governmental organizations, civil societies, etc.) to carry out a common project of agricultural rehabilitation in development strategies. The outlines of this project are clear in the World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development (2007).

A priori, this Report – the first dedicated to agriculture for over a quarter of a century [8]. – constitutes an important turning point in the Bank’s approach to development indicates a change in perspective – at least in the discourse – insofar as it clearly shows, if not ‘rediscovers’, the potentially positive role of agriculture in reducing poverty, but also in preserving biodiversity and the fight against climate change. Seen as the key to success in the war on hunger, the modernization of agriculture seems now to be an end in itself in the development process, and not only as a means to promote growth and industrialization. And, for the first time the World Bank recognizes the heterogeneity of agricultures in the world, stressing the implementation of different strategies to promote agricultural development and the decisive importance of family agriculture in the fight against poverty.

This change of perspective is reflected in the way that the State and public policies are now called upon to play a key role in this project of re-vitalizing the rural economies of the South, as the authors of the report explicitly indicate: “Agriculture offers great promise for growth, poverty reduction and environmental services, but realizing this promise also requires the visible hand of the state – providing core public goods, improving the investment climate, regulating natural resource management and securing desirable social outcomes. (…) The state will need greater capacity to coordinate across sectors and to form partnerships with private and civil society actors”.

However, this new approach does not really break with the development strategies that were drawn up in the past. Even though it recognizes different policies according to the place occupied by agriculture in each country, the Bank does not depart from its traditional linear vision of rural development. It does not envisage structural transformation except as a transition from an economy based on agriculture towards an economy based on industry and services (Haroon Akram-Lodhi, 2009). Even more symptomatic, the strategies envisaged to resolve the problem of hunger and rural poverty [9] never question, in spite of a few changes of emphasis, the neoclassical economic foundations upon which the international financial institutions have been constructing their ideal development model since the end of the 1970s. Nor is there a challenge to the solutions envisaged, based on orthodox premises and are not the result of empirical and contextualized analysis of the structural causes for rural poverty.

These solutions proposed by the World Bank to solve the agriculture and food crisis have been taken up by the large institutional actors specialized in the fight against hunger and agricultural development like the World Food Programme, CGIAR (Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute), USAID, EuropAid, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). They are based fundamentally on three approaches that are fundamentally open to criticism: the techno-productivist approach, the free trade approach and the ‘win-win’ approach.

The techno-productivist approach

The so-called hunger riots of 2007-2008 greatly reactivated the Malthusian spectre of a generalized penury of food products – this at a time when the sharp rise of food prices as much more due to an ensemble of coinciding factors, each aggravating the other and creating the illusion of a lack, rather than of a structural deficit at the level of production (Delcourt, 2008). It is true that an increase in agricultural productivity will be necessary to meet the demand for food that will continually increase until 2050. But believing that the increase in production is made possible by the massive injection of investment and increased mechanization or that the introduction of biotechnologies alone would enable regulation of the food question results from a wrong analysis of the causes and conditions producing poverty and hunger (Patel, Holt-Giménez and Shattuck, 2009).

But it is along these lines that the international institutions and their specialized agencies view the problem of hunger and rural poverty: for them it is essentially a problem of production, under-investment or a deficit in mastering technology and science in the agricultural field, a perspective that is the guiding light of the philanthropic mega-project initiated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) [10]..

From the World Bank to FAO, including all the big multilateral and bilateral donors, they are all emphasizing the vital need to increase production and productive investment in the agricultural sectors of the countries of the South. They are all aiming at those countries identified as ‘based on agriculture’ and/or disposing of large areas of land with high productive potential, but considered as under-exploited or non-exploited. These countries not having the financial capacities to achieve this agricultural potential, it is therefore up to the bilateral and multilateral donors and above all to the agro-business actors and international investors to re-vitalize their agriculture. Private capital is all the easier to attract because of the positive politico-institutional climate. Hence the ambiguous recommendation of the World Bank to reduce fiscal obstacles, even if it means cutting a little more into State budgets.

Obsessed by improving yields and productivity, the Bank still openly supports, like AGRA, the massive introduction into Africa of high-yielding varieties (hybrid and genetically- modified seeds) and production techniques like those of agro-business. This productivist vision also underlies the solutions that the Bank envisages for the small family producers whom it encourages, to improve productivity, to integrate into the global value chains.

Inspired as they are by the green revolution, the promoters of these techno-productivist solutions have not drawn all the conclusions from the evidence. For, while it is true that the Green Revolution brought about a remarkable rise in production and productivity, it did not make it possible – far from it – to resolve the problem of hunger. In many countries it had only a limited impact, even counter-productive in terms of poverty reduction, as for example, in the case of India, where the number of people who have fallen into extreme poverty has increased as much as productivity (Holt-Giménez, Patel, 2009), not to mention the disastrous consequences of the ‘revolution’ for the environment.

This should be enough to recall what can be considered the evidence: to ensure the food needs of populations it is not enough just to adjust offer to the ‘theoretical’ demand at the world, regional and local levels. This demand has to be ‘effective’ (i.e. people have to have the necessary money) ! Those who are generally suffering from hunger do so not because the food is lacking but because they do not have access to it, through lack of means. They are hungry because they are too poor to buy food [11]. In sum, hunger is first of all a problem of redistribution and social structures and not one of production. It is a problem of public policy and political orientation much more than a technical one. Many scientific studies also show that, far from resolving hunger, these technical and productivist solutions, on the contrary, only “reinforce the countries and companies already dominating the world agricultural market, without remedying food inequalities or ecological damage.” (Benhammou, 2009)

The free-trade approach

A constant refrain in international rhetoric for several decades has been the belief in the potentialities and creative virtues of the market. The renewed discourse of international institutions concerned with agriculture does not escape this bias. In spite of the incapacity of liberal globalization to respond to the problem of hunger and poverty, free trade remains the basic theoretical reference and liberalization, ‘the’ keystone of successful development. The liberalized market is the framework within which public policies absolutely have to be considered and conceived and integration into the market is the ultimate horizon that imparts the solutions envisaged for the small peasantry (Oya, 2009).

Thus, in order to ensure their survival and to make up for their lack of competitiveness, the small producers are pushed into participating fully into market transactions, towards commercial production and/or integrating themselves into the global value chains. Agrarian reform is seen only as a reform of the market in land. And it is again the market that is called upon in the last resort to resolve the problem of supply and food security. In brief, the health of the rural economy sectors, from family agriculture to agro-industry and therefore, that of the rural populations remains a function of their participation and capacity of adaptation to the market, the best engine for rural development. On this basis, the large international institutions, headed by the World Bank, WTO and FAO repeatedly insist on the conclusion, as quickly as possible, of the Doha liberalization cycle and are prompt to denounce categorically all forms of protection.

True, the World Bank seems to be a little less dogmatic to the extent that it now recognizes the importance of public intervention to correct the shortcomings of the market and the need for ‘alternative measures’ to help the small producers. However it seems less than inclined to use its own analyses and projections on which to base its affirmations. Thus, according to its own data, the liberalization of the markets will bring about only a modest decline of poverty in Brazil (-1.9 per cent) and a small increase of poverty (+0.9 per cent) in Mexico. For the latter country, it is shown in black and white that liberalization has brought about a reduction in wages for unskilled labourers and of agricultural profits during the 1990s.

These not very encouraging facts are not however enough to shake the faith of the authors of the report in the benefits of liberalization. There is a huge gap between the politically correct discourse that integrates a new viewpoint on agriculture and the proposed solutions (Oya, 2009). “The authors,” comments Laurence Roudart, “are rather prudent in the way that they spell out the results of these models, particularly the fact that liberalization could cause an increase in growth and agricultural exportations in the developing countries as a whole. … On the other hand, and logically this is paradoxical, the recommendations for liberalization are very affirmative while the denunciation of the inefficiency of protection policies is radical.” (Rapport …, 2008)

But the World Bank is not above inconsistency. So, while the authors of the Report encourage the countries of the South to open up more, as liberalization can bring about more well-being and an increase in the price of agricultural products on the international markets, Robert Zoellick, the Bank’s President, has no hesitation in saying that the liberalization of agricultural trade will inevitably bring about reduced agricultural prices in the markets! (ibid.)

The win-win approach

The World Bank realizes very well the risks that the new rivalries for land will create for the survival of the peasantry and food security. But it believes that these risks can be attenuated or avoided. Better still, they can be converted into real opportunities for all the actors in the rural world, from small family units to the agro-industrial sectors, as well as for the agricultural labourers and landless peasants. These new agricultural investments can, according to the Bank, lead to a win-win situation, given a few adaptations and adjustments, in the form of a series of techno-administrative measures and ‘good practices’ that should guarantee an equitable redistribution of the benefits.

Thus the formalization of property rights should make it possible to clarify the state of the land market, which is considered indispensable to attract investments, as well as supporting the rights of peasants to land and to avoid expelling them. Contractual agreements between the actors of agrobusiness and the small producers should ensure a reliable source of supply for the former and guaranteed prices for the latter, as well as access to market channels, agricultural inputs and new techniques of production, etc. The growth of investment in rural areas is considered as potentially creating many jobs in the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors, which could absorb the excess labour, including the small producers who cannot adapt to the new market conditions or convert their farms into commercial ones. And compensatory measures could also make possible to ensure decent living conditions – provisionally at least – for those who have no work [12].

Along the same lines, the phenomenon of land grabbing, that had first been considered as a threat to food security, is now seen in terms of its potential for rural development. As long as they are managed, these transactions can also lead to a win-win scenario. For these agreements can be profitable for all, investors, States, local authorities and populations, as long as they involve partnerships and are negotiated transparently. All the parties concerned by such land transfer must be duly informed and invited to participate in the negotiations, which should contain clauses that guarantee that the rights of the populations are respected. And the World Bank, which is obstinately against all forms of regulation, promotes ‘voluntary codes of good conduct’ but without guarantees for the population concerned, as a response to the land-grabbing phenomenon.
These win-win approaches are still based on a superficial analysis of the conditions for development and the causes of rural poverty and exclusion. By abusing concepts like participation, contractual relationships and partnership, the World Bank assumes calm and balanced relationships between actors who share the same capacities for action, negotiation and adaptation. By promoting the idea of ‘contract’ it is silent about the very real pressures on the small producers exercised by the global value chains, from the traders to the processing multinationals as well as the large distributions chains. By encouraging the rural producers to seek work on the large landholdings, it ignores the working conditions of the cane cutters in Brazil, the cotton pickers of Senegal and the agricultural labourers on the oil palm plantations in Indonesia. It makes little reference to the fate reserved for women, as the great majority of these wage contracts are usually given only to men.

In sum, this idealized model of harmonious cohabitation between agricultural peasants and agrobusiness tends to conceal the conflicts of interest, power struggles and unequal and conflictual relationships at play in the rural areas of the countries in the South, which have their share in violence, pressures, expulsions and intimidations (Oya, 2009). The Bank’s discourse can only sound hollow in countries where the basic rights of the population are trampled upon and where the authorities have become masters in the art of arbitrariness. And its approach splendidly ignores the alternative models that could be imagined and carried out by the local population, in favour of a one and only model based on the primacy of agrobusiness and crops for export with high added value.

The scenario proposed by the World Bank is somehow an attempt to integrate a new concern for the rural world into a basically pro-capitalist and market orientation. According to Haroon Akram-Lodhi, it is no less than an effort to ‘modernize the subordination’ to which the small producers are already subject, by making them submit to the imperative of serving the food and agricultural industrial complex (2009).

Conclusion: liberate the social, economic and environmental potentialities of peasant agriculture

In 2008, a few months after this World Bank Report had come out, an International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) was published. It had been commissioned by FAO and by the World Bank itself and was the result of a study that had involved over 400 scientists all over the world over a period of four years. Its findings were in complete opposition to those of the Bank’s Report. It showed, based on concrete experiences, that not only is peasant agriculture not less productive than industrial agriculture, but that it could produce greater value added because of its many social, cultural and ecological functions.

The authors even went further by showing that the main factors that limit production, equitable distribution and sustainable agriculture are intrinsically social rather than technical. At the same time they were extremely critical of free trade and biotechnology policies, etc.

Predictably, the IAASTD Report was scorned by representatives of agrobusiness as soon as it was published. But it was an important event for the defenders of peasant agriculture. Perhaps for the first time an international report with strong international legitimacy and supported by a broad scientific consensus, like the reports of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) backed up the arguments and supported the claims of the peasant and indigenous social movements and the unions of producers struggling for the recognition of their rights and for food sovereignty. For the first time, the superiority of peasant agriculture over agrobusiness and their enormous potentiality in the social, cultural and environmental fields, as well as their decisive importance in the war against hunger, were recognized.

However, the liberation of this potential requires a lot more than the adoption of a catalogue of good intentions and empty financial promises, the establishment of food alert mechanisms and the setting up of international groups of reflection whose decisions in any case would not be binding. In complete opposition to the model of harmonious cohabitation between agrobusiness and family agriculture based on the market, it requires a radical reform of the international agriculture and food system based on priority for the reinforcement of peasant agriculture and the recognition of the central role played by peasants in the struggle against hunger.

The necessary protections

While the attention of the media and the international actors was mainly concentrated on the urban riots during the sudden rise in prices, we should not forget that, out of the three billion people who have not enough to eat because of lack of income, most are small family producers who cannot compete with international competition. This is why it is above all important to guarantee high, stable and remunerative prices to these small producers, giving them greater protection from cheap foreign imports, especially through tariff policies. We should remember that European farmers had profited from such protection after the Second World War, which in fact enabled Europe, first to become self-sufficient in food and then, from the 1960s and 1970s to produce large marketable surpluses.

Such an approach does not mean a rejection of trade, as the defenders of ultraliberalism maintain. For countries whose productive potential is very weak, trade remains an indispensable source of supply and all the more indispensable in that climatic change risks considerably reducing productive land. But it is important to avoid competition between rivals that are too unequal. “In order to do this” say Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart, “great regional agricultural markets could be established on an international scale, grouping countries with similar levels of agricultural productivity and protecting their common markets against all cheap agricultural imports through variable custom duties. Also, the negotiation, product by product, of international agreements fixing the price of purchase and an exportable quantity for each country, could be considered.” (2009).

Durable access to land and productive resources

Apart from forms of protection from outside, it is then important to organize and guarantee durable access to land and the usage plus its usufruct to the small producers, the rural workers and the extraordinary number of landless peasants. For, while the liberalization of the markets has exacerbated the situation of the peasants, it is not the main cause of the endemic under-nourishment in the rural areas. The small size of the great majority of the farming units and the incapacity of most of the small producers in the South to obtain sufficient revenue from their land has played a far greater role in the impoverishment process of the peasants, who nevertheless continue to supply the essential of the local food needs (Mazoyer, 2008).

Some statistics are illuminating. Although Africa is importing more and more cereals, 90 per cent of the continent’s agricultural production is still provided by small units of less than two hectares, which represent 80 per cent of all these units (more or less 33 million family producers). In Asia, most of the rice production comes from some 200 million small units of less than two hectares (Holt-Giménez and Patel, 2009). And, according to the last Brazilian agrarian census, family agriculture (84 per cent of the farming units) supplies 74.4 per cent of the jobs in rural areas and produces more than half of the basic food items consumed locally (87 per cent of manioc, 70 per cent of beans, 46 per cent of maize, 58 per cent of milk, etc.), although it only occupies 24 per cent of the cultivated land (Ministério do Desenvolvimento Agrária, 2009).

At the same time, an increasing proportion of cultivated land – which totals 1.5 billion hectares – are dedicated to export crops, which are mostly exploited by agro-industrial enterprises (Holt-Giménez and Patel, 2009). The large commercial crops already occupy 114 million hectares, 13 per cent of the areas that are cultivated for cereals (Benhammou, 2009).

In other words, it is necessary to de-concentrate the ownership of the land and in order to do this, to implement huge agrarian reform programmes and the establishment of democratic control arrangements over natural resources, on a collective or community basis. This is indispensable if the living conditions of peasants, indigenous communities and first nations are to be improved: through the reinforcement of food access and diversity at the local level, the fight against climate change and the degradation of natural resources, for which industrial agriculture is so largely responsible [13].

Appropriate and effective public policies

Such reforms could not however yield results (gains in terms of productivity and production, agricultural diversification) unless they are associated with public assistance policies to small producers that are effective and appropriate to the different local contexts: access to credit and productive equipment, aid for purchasing inputs, investments in infrastructure in the rural areas, national measures for stabilizing agricultural prices, taxation of producers in function of the quantity and quality of productive land, technical and scientific follow-up, etc. (Mazoyer and Roudart, 2009). These measures are equally indispensable for stimulating a double green revolution that promotes biological agriculture and a durable management of natural resources (increase of assistance and subsidies to agro-ecological units, measures facilitating access to production techniques appropriate for the functioning of eco-systems, drastic environmental legislation and measures that favour the diversity of production systems, etc.).

State intervention must also be addressed to urban consumers, for whom social policies (safety networks, aid for employment, support measures for purchasing power, etc.) are more than ever necessary to prevent them being penalized by mounting prices. Policies implemented by the Brazilian government, combining aid to family agriculture and basic income for the poorest, have proved to be effective. Between 2003 and 2010 nearly 30 million people have emerged from extreme poverty to the extent that Brazil will certainly be one of the few countries to attain the Millennium Development Objectives.

A rights-based approach

It is important to link up trade agreements, reforms of local agricultural systems and social and environmental issues, the aim being to prevent current forms of exploitation. This in fact means implementing, at the international, regional and national level, economic agricultural policies that are more viable, ecologically sustainable and socially acceptable. The right to food, as well as the food sovereignty demanded by the peasant movements, thus constitute an essential basis in the search for alternative solutions to present policies.

It now remains for all the progressist actors in the agricultural world and civil society to mobilize in order to develop, at international, national and local levels, the political will which alone can make these rights prevail over trade agreements. They must be turned into obligations vis-à-vis the peasants, the indigenous communities and above all women who are particularly vulnerable to the new pressures on land and jumps in food prices.15 The introduction of the right to food into the Brazilian constitution, which is linked to concrete policies, the judgements of the Indian courts obliging governments (national and local) to respect this right, the recent discussions in the United Nations on the rights of peasants and the doubts that are increasingly troubling the negotiators of trade agreements, international, bi-regional and bilateral, concerning the benefits of the liberalization of the agricultural sectors: all these move in the right direction. Only by policies that include the economic, ecological, social and cultural aspects of peasant agriculture, and pay attention to their relationships with the towns, will it be possible to reverse the present trend of things.


[1For the last 30 years food production has increased more rapidly than population: 2.5 per cent a year on average, as against 1.8 per cent. At the time of the ‘food crisis’, production was 50 per cent greater than the quantities needed to feed the world’s people (Dufumier, 2004, Mazoyer, 2008).

[2Between 1980 and 2002 development assistance for agriculture in the South diminished from 6.2 billion to 2.3 billion dollars, counting both bilateral and multilateral aid (Rapport….2008).

[3This typical ‘anti-rural’ model could not be applied in all places. Everywhere in the South there existed more or less effective programmes to support the peasants. Also, in contrast to the dominant development strategies, several countries governed by national/popular and/or socialist policies usually chose to give first priority to the peasants. They initiated ambitious public policies of aid to the small producers and in certain countries their governments started an important agrarian reform process (Bolivia, Kerala in India, Ethiopia, Algeria, etc.). However, these agrarian reforms were too hasty and poorly organized and rarely attained their objectives, even before structural adjustments and liberalization measures undermined their foundations (Rosset, Patel, Courville, 2006).

[4According to the World Investment Report (UNCTAD, 2009), almost 40 per cent of all the acquisitions in agricultural production (some 3.5 billion dollars) during the year 2008 were South-South transactions.

[5Apart from Africa, the countries most affected by this land grabbing include Pakistan, Ukraine, Myanmar/Burma, Georgia, Indonesia, Philippines, Laos, Kazakhstan, Cambodia, Turkey and Argentina.

[6Direct foreign investment in agriculture has risen from 600 million dollars a year during the 1990s to an average of 3 billion dollars in 2005-2007 (UNCTAD, 2009).

[7Unpublished data from the World Bank.

[8The last World Development Report on agriculture dates back to 1982

[9According to the place of the agricultural sector in each country, region and sub-region, the World Bank proposes three distinct strategic objectives. For the countries that depend essentially on agriculture, these objectives are ensuring growth and food security, and reducing poverty, through a better management of land and water and greater access of producers to the markets and networks, encouraging production and trade. For the countries in transition, the strategic objective aims at decreasing the inequalities between rural and urban revenues and reducing rural poverty, while avoiding falling into the trap of subsidies and protection. To do this, it proposes promoting various ways of exiting from poverty: passing to greater added value, the decentralization of non-agricultural economic activities in the rural areas and supplying assistance to help people out of agriculture. It also proposes investing in the training of the future generations. In the urbanized countries, the central objective is linking the small producers to the modern food markets and supplying good jobs (Rapport … 2008).

[10This project was launched in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, with close ties to the large agro-technology corporations such as Monsanto. AGRA aims at re-launching, under the cover of the war on hunger and poverty, the idea of the green revolution in Africa. It has a colossal budget, more than 30 billion dollars and is already established in many African countries, with which it has drawn up strategic partnerships. It is promoting access to hybrid and genetically-modified seeds, as well as chemical fertilizers, spreading new knowledge about productive techniques through the training of experts in the field, improving infrastructures, reinforcing at the local level the networks of the large suppliers and distributors, encouraging the implementation of micro-credit procedures and fostering market reforms (Holt-Giménez, Patel, 2009)

[11In his book that has become a classic (Poverty and Hunger, 1981), Amartya Sen has brilliantly demonstrated that famines are not primarily determined by problems of the availability of food or poor harvests at the national or regional level, but rather because of the shortcomings in the ‘capability to access food’ (cf. Devereux, 2005).

[12Even though the Report insists on the need for a security net for the rural dwellers, specific and concrete recommendations on this subject are almost inexistent. For Tania Murray Li (2009) this is also due to the fiscal conservatism of the Bank and its mistrust of social expenditure. Thus it prefers to leave it, as in the case of Asia, to the mutual aid systems that are supposed to be ensured by the villages, which the Bank seems to perceive as mythical communities.

[13The World Bank itself indicated in its 2008 World Development Report that agriculture was one of “the main causes for the drying up of groundwater, agro-chemical pollution, the impoverishment of soils and climatic change at the world level, as up to 30 per cent of greenhouse gases can be attributed to it.” (2007). This does not however prevent the Bank from continuing to promote an agro-productivist model.


Baxter J. (2010), « Ruée sur les terres africaines », Le Monde diplomatique, January, p. 18.

Bello W. (2008), How the World Bank, IMF and WTO destroyed African agriculture, 20 July, www.worldhunger.org/articles/08/editorials/bello_afag.htm

Benhammou F. (2009), « Nourrir l’humanité : une géopolitique de l’alimentation et de l’environnement », Ecologie et Politique, n°38, June, pp. 17-32.

Borras S. Jr (2009), « Agrarian change and peasant studies: changes, continuities and challenges – an introduction », JPS (Journal of Peasant Studies), 36:1, pp. 5-31.

Brunel S. (2008), « Les ‘émeutes de la faim’, une opportunité historique pour les paysans ? », Le Mensuel de l’université, 1 May, www.lemensuel.net

Cotula L., Vermeulen S., Leonard R. and Keeley J. (2009), Land grab or development opportunity ? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa, IIED, FAO, IFAD.

De Schutter O. (2009), « Toutes les conditions pour une nouvelle crise alimentaire sont réunies » (interview), Le Monde, 16 november.

Delcourt L. (2008), « Mobilisations dans le Sud face à la crise alimentaire » (editorial), Etat des résistances dans le Sud 2009 - Face à la crise alimentaire, Syllepse-CETRI.

Devereux S. (2005), « Pourquoi existe-t-il encore des famines ? », in Mazoyer M. and Roudart L. (eds), La fracture agricole et alimentaire mondiale. Nourrir l’humanité aujourd’hui et demain, Encyclopaedia Universalis, Paris, pp. 61-76.

Dufumier M. (2004), Agricultures et paysanneries des Tiers mondes, Karthala, Paris.

Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) (2010), Land Grabbing in Kenya and Mozambique. Report on two research missions and a human rights analytsis of land grabbing. FIAN, www.fian.org

Golay Ch. (2009), « Les droits des paysans », Cahiers du Cetim, september, http://cetim.ch/fr/publications_cahiers.php

Grain (2008), The 2008 Land Grab for Food and Financial Security, October. www.grain.org

Harron Akram-Lodhi A. (2009), « Modernising subordination ? A South Asian perspective on the World Development Report 2008 : Agriculture for Development », JPS , 36:3, pp. 611-619.

Hetherington K. (2009), « The strategic incohenrence of development: marketing expertise in the World Development Report », JPS, 36:3, pp. 653-661.

« Histoire. Agriculture et développement. Entretien avec Alain de Janvry » (2009), Courrier de la planète (« Sécurité alimentaire. Au-delà de l’urgence »), 91, October-December.

Holt-Giménez E. and Patel R. (2009), Food Rebellions ! Crisis and the Hunger for Justice, Pambazuka Press, Food First Books, Grassroots International.

Holt-Giménez E., Patel R. and Shattuck A. (2009), « Eradiquer la faim en Afrique », Pambazuka News, n°123, www.pambazuka.org.

Houtart F. (2010), Agrofuels. Big Profits, Ruined Lives and Ecological Destruction, PlutoPress/TNI, London/NewYork.

IAASTD (2008), Agriculture at a Crossroads. Global Report, www.agassessment.org.

Knaup H. and von Mittelstaedt J. (2009), « The New Colonialism. Foreign Investors Snap Up African Farmland », Der Spiegel Online, 30 June, http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,druck-639224,00.html

Mazoyer M. (2008), Interview: L’origine de la crise alimentaire, www.cite-sciences.fr.

Mazoyer M. and Roudart L. (eds) (2009), « La fracture agricole et alimentaire mondiale : état des lieux, causes, perspectives et propositions d’action », Revue politique et parlementaire (« Crise alimentaire mondiale : quelles réponses ? »), n° 1051, April/May/June.

Ministério do Desenvolvimento Agrario (2009), Agricultura familiar no Brasil e o censo agropecuario, MDA-Governo Federal.

Murray Li T. (2009), « Exit from agriculture : a step backward for the rural poor ? », JPS, 36:3, pp. 629-636.

Oya C. (2009), « The World Development Report 2008: inconsistencies, silences, and the myth of ‘win-win’ scenarios », JPS, 36:3, 593-601.

Rosset R., Patel R. and Courville M. (eds), (2006), Promised Land. Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform, Food First/Land Research Network.

« Rapport sur le développement dans le monde 2008, Banque mondiale. L’agriculture au service du développement. Résumé et commentaires » (2008), Mondes en développement, 3, n° 143, pp. 117-136. 

Sorge P. (2010), « The Forgotten Crisis. As Banks Are Rescued, Will the World’s Hungry Be Overlooked ? », Der Spiegel Online, 16 October.

UNCTAD (2009), The World Investment Report 2009, Transnational Corporations, Agricultural Production and Development, United Nations, New York/ Geneva

World Bank (2007), World Development Report 2008 : Agriculture for Development. Overview, WB, Washington.

The opinions expressed and the arguments employed in this document are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily express the views of the CETRI.