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Raj Patel © 2003


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This article was first published in "Debate: Voices from the South African Left' no. 9, Sep 2003, where it looks MUCH MUCH prettier. You, dear reader, can email Caroline for subscription details or with your own offerings for consideration by the editorial collective - political/cultural/reports/theory/commentary/reviews/poems all welcome.

Beneath the neurotic jargon of business management literature, there occasionally lurks a good idea. "Synergy", also known as "The 2+2=5 effect", is one of them. Borrowed from evolutionary biology, the big idea is not merely that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts", but that two parts in particular can be very well suited to each other, each amplifying the strengths of the other. For those working in a more progressive vein than management consulting, this can be useful. Consider:

The activists who work on land reform and the activists who work on stopping "free" trade know that they’re on the same team. But the very different histories, locations, classes, races and gendered traditions of the two struggles have often kept these activists apart. They have much in common, and it’s clear that each would be stronger for engaging with the other; for neither the struggle for land nor the struggle for trade justice can succeed alone.

To prove the point, here are a couple of thought experiments. First, imagine a world in which the World Trade Organization were finally crushed. Not only that, but the rash of U.S. bilateral trade agreements, like the one it currently being mooted between the Southern African Customs Union and the U.S., were somehow halted. Trade activists have left their last protest happy. The rules of the global economy are, for the first time in history, under democratic control.

This would be a shallow victory.

For the rural poor, it would make little difference that, say, communities were free to decide who grows what, if they didn’t have land to till.

This is a flippant example, but the point is far from trivial. There is a danger, in the urbanized world of trade activism, of thinking the basic material conditions under which the poorest people on earth currently labour, might be solved through the magic bullet of a perfect international treaty.

Inequality cannot be solved by corollary. In South Africa at least, a monomaniac obsession with trade would be desperately out of joint with the reality of the people in whose name ‘anti-globalisation’ activism is often carried out. Measures for poverty rates, depth and gap are significantly higher for rural areas than urban (while half of South Africans fall below the poverty line, 72% are in rural areas). Predictably, the statistics are desperately worse for landless rural people than the already low rural average [1]. And, equally predictably, at the heart of this poverty, women are oppressed far more than men – their exploitation for reproductive labour fuels Southern Africa’s neoliberal passion. The capitalist market only works because it depends on women’s unpaid labour. Talk of ‘incorporating women into the market’, is errant liberalism. The market demands that reproductive labour remain outside it, if it is to function properly. This is why women have title to only 1 percent of the world's land, while producing more than half of the world's food - in countries of food scarcity the percentage is even higher. Women produce more than 60-80 percent of the basic foodstuffs for Sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, perform over 50 percent of the labor in rice cultivation in Asia. Agriculture accounts for more than 70 percent of recorded women's labor in Asia and their home gardens represent some of the most complex agricultural systems in Southeast Asia and the Pacific and Latin America. Without women’s effective control of land, the agrarian economy will continue to be piped by corporate capital.

Thus, for the South African landless, worrying about the World Trade Organization might seem like a wistful luxury.

Let’s come at the thought experiment the other way. Imagine that every landless South African receives a tract of decent land. If both the international trading regime and domestic policies favourable to export agriculture persist, land reform may make slim difference. If the context for South African farming demands that farmers produce exotic fruit for the rest of the world, if land must be mortgaged instantly to the concerns of transnational agricultural trade, then the command of land title remains command in name alone. Reorganising tenure of land can make little difference to the lives of the peasantry if the power structures which exploit them remain intact. Consider that while Northern farmers enjoy $1 billion in subsidies every day, the majority of farmers in the third world are taxed. This colonial hangover serves elite coalitions in the third world well. Potentially troublesome urban workers remain well fed, while their rural comrades are made to bear the cost. And even within rural areas, these power asymmetries matter. Rural elites do well by this arrangement. In his seminal and readable study, Rehman Sohban notes that in no land reform that has worked in the long term interests of the majority of the rural poor have the power structures in rural areas been left intact [2].

Already, the points of convergence between the trade and land reform agendas are becoming clearer. When we say ‘trade reform’ what we really mean is a systematic overhaul of the international economy, together with a redistribution of the means to participate fully in the economy at all. And by ‘land reform’, we don’t just mean having access to a chit that promises access to land – we mean a systematic overhaul of the rural structures of power that keep rural populations consistently poorer than urban ones the world over.

There are rich rewards to be reaped from seeing these two struggles as linked. For instance, it’s possible to counter the neoliberal propaganda that promotes both ‘free trade’ and ‘market based land reform’, of the kind experienced, to little effect, in South Africa [3]. (In South Africa, “only a few thousand cases have been settled, mainly through financial compensation rather than actual land restitution, a far cry from the 63,455 claims received.” [4])

Market-based land reform has worked against the poorest, and it’s no surprise why. [5] The argument put forward by the World Bank and its apologists is that the market is an efficient way to redistribute land, to a willing buyer from a willing seller. That works fine when there are many of both, and both are wealthy enough to be able to engage in the transaction. Of course, this clearly isn’t the case in any context where land reform is urgent. In fact, market-based land reform cowers behind an argument of efficiency in order to avoid redressing systemic imbalances of power. In South Africa, those imbalances are still fresh as blood. Under the ‘black spot removal policy’, 475,000 blacks were relocated between 1960 and 1983, to clear land and to create labour for white farming. Is it likely that buyer and seller met each other on even terms in this market? Clearly not. Do they now? No. The situation for the rural poor has deteriorated.

Yet, in microcosm, this is precisely the same interaction, the same ‘level playing field’ as we see in the international economy. When the World Trade Organization talks of merely providing a framework for orderly transactions between nations they, just as the World Bank does with land reform, blot out an entire history of colonialism, making believe that the present, with all its unpleasant inequalities, dropped fully formed from the sky.

The sky has a history; new colonialisms continue to scar the disenfranchised across the third world. Struggles for land and economic justice fight the same rhetoric because they fight the same battle.

This is a recognition that lives large in the work of Vía Campesina (Peasant Life). Vía Campesina is the international farmer federation, founded in 1992 from a rich tradition of Sandinista radicalism, during the second congress of the Nicaraguan National Union of Farmers and Ranchers. To date, there is only full African member - União Nacional de Camponeses (UNAC), based in Mozambique, though they have far many more members throughout the rest of the world, including the formidable  Movimento dos Trabalhadores sem Terra (Landless Peasant Movement) in Brazil, and the twenty million strong Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (Karnataka State Farmer’s Association). For land and trade activists, Via Campesina point to a synergy between land and global justice struggles that deserves attention.

Key to Vía Campesina’s political demands is "food sovereignty". It is an urgent idea, and one upon which a great deal of scorn has been poured by neoliberal economists. Conventional economics equates ‘food sovereignty’ to autarky, a situation in which every state has the ability to produce enough to feed its own. This, reason neoliberals, is silly. If all that mattered were that food be extant, this logic would be sound. To put it differently, if Country A were able to produce food, and Country B television sets, each more efficiently than the other, and if Countries A and B decide that they’d like more televisions and food than they currently have, then trade would solve their problems. They would trade food for TVs and both would have more than if each produced their own. This is why neoliberal economists don’t like food sovereignty. For them, it is inefficient.

One person’s inefficiency is, however, another person's democracy. In the process of deciding how and who is producing what to eat, the lives of people in rural communities are played with. Via Campesina define food sovereignty as “the right of countries and peoples to define their own agricultural and food policies which are ecologically, socially, economically and culturally appropriate for them.” [i] The difference between the approach of the World Bank, USAID and allied organizations, and that of the farmer-led Via Campesina, is the issue of who controls access to food, seed, land and the market. In moving towards a neoliberal economy, control is sapped away from the majority of rural people. This is a fundamental issue of justice, dignity and democracy. The current world trading system militates against all three.

This is why Vía Campesina advocate both land reform, radical change in the international trading system, and end to agricultural dumping (the US agribusiness industry’s preferred method of income in Africa), and end to GM food, increased state support of farmers’ rights to farm, consumers' rights to choose, and women farmers’ rights. [6] Central to this idea is that individuals, communities and countries need to be effectively, and not merely nominally, in control of what they eat. Families in the slums of Los Angeles and Johannesburg, farmers in the urban gardens of London and the farms of Northern South Africa are equally violated, according to this standard – they cannot choose what to grow, how far short of a decent wage they will fall when prices crash, or what they can afford. These are all decisions that are currently decided, and profited from, in the market. These are no-one’s decisions to make. From Article 25 of the Universal declaration of Human Rights we learn that "Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [sic] and of his [sic] family, including food". Even in this most liberal of documents, the right to food is non-negotiable. To allow the market to decide is to tread on the basic preconditions for social, political and economic participation in life. In the powerful introduction to his work on land reform in Tanzania, activist lawyer and academic Issa Shivji puts this well. In dedicating the book to his daughters, he argues that the issue of control over the material conditions of their lives is central to their rights as citizens. In the absence of justice for land, the political situation, echoing Amilcar Cabral, is ‘Not Yet Democracy’. Putting it another way, Yash Tandon over twenty years ago argued "[d]emocracy is a material question. It concerns the lives of people in their daily struggles for material existence [7]". It is this conception of democracy that unites the radical passions of economic and land justice movements. Soon may we prevail.

This article springs from research currently being carried out at Food First/ The Institute for Food and Development Policy, scheduled to be completed August 2003. The views here represent those of the author alone, however, and should not be attributed to Food First.

[1] Julian May, Thildé Stevens, Annareth Stols , 2002, "Monitoring the Impact of Land Reform on Quality of Life: A South African Case Study", Social Indicators Research, pp. 293-312 , June 2002, Volume 58, Issue 1-3.

[2] Sobhan, Rehman.1993. Agrarian Reform and Social Transformation: Preconditions for Development, London: Zed.

[3] Wellington Didibhuku Thwala, 2003, Land and Agrarian Reform in South Africa.

[4] Caroline Lambert and Tom Nevin, "No time to waste:  South African land reform", African Business, June 2000

[5] See, esp, Jeffery Frank, 2002, Two Models of Land Reform and Development.

[6] To find out more, see Vía Campesina's What is Food Sovereignty?

[7] Tandon, Yash (1979), In Defence of Democracy. Dar es Salaam: Dar es Salaam University Press.




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