Campesino Agriculture: Illusion or Challenge

(Translated by Buddy Bell, Volunteer CSN Translator)
Author: François Houtart in

Worldwide there are movements of campesino resistance against the domination of capitalist logic in agriculture, which also protest against deforestation, dams, mining or industrial activities, against the monopoly of the production of seeds, against genetic manipulations monopolized by transnational agribusiness, and against the privatization of forests.

What is campesino agriculture?
The term campesino agriculture has been debated. Some prefer to talk of family farming or small-scale agriculture. You can debate the definition, but the essence is the contrast between the agriculture organized in the “industrial” way according to the logic of capital, and agriculture guided by independent farmers with a holistic view of agricultural production (including respect for nature, organic food, and protection of the landscape). In other words, campesino agriculture is an agriculture oriented in the land’s continued use value versus one based on the land’s short-term profit value. Indian agriculture also corresponds to these criteria.

The industrial model, as a new frontier for capital
The introduction of capital in agriculture is not a new problem. European industrialization meant brought a profound transformation of the agriculture sector as early as the nineteenth century. The industrial workforce that largely formed the new working class were recruited in the field. New agricultural technologies were developed to feed the cities. Deep crises affected the agricultural sector, as in Ireland. Early on, a large part of the process of accumulation in mercantile capitalism was built on the product of sugar plantations.

However, in the last fifty years, and in an accelerated way since the seventies, we have witnessed a worldwide increase in the concentration of the entire agricultural chain, from production to marketing. Monocultures spread over huge areas. Thus, in Paraguay, for the harvest of 2013-2014, ​​3.3 million hectares were used only for soybeans when the land area destined to be used for campesino agriculture was merely 1,243,475 hectares (Vera, 2014 June: 17 ).

Moreover, “the number of operators was reduced downstream and upstream of the production processes. In other words, the opening and integration of markets has allowed large firms in the food complex (fertilizer producers, market intermediaries, agribusiness, large retail chains, etc.) to increase their control over the chain of production, processing and marketing” (Delcourt, 2010: 15). Companies such as ADM, Cargill, Monsanto, and Nestle are cited, among others.

The result was twofold: on the one hand a sharp decline in agricultural production; and, on the other, farmer dependence on large enterprises under various forms: inputs (especially seeds), market access, subcontracts and others. In Europe, between 2002 and 2010, three million farms closed (La Via Campesina, 2011), and in the southern continents, the process has accelerated since the nineties.

The logic of capital does not include “externalities” in its perspective; that is to say, it disregards environmental and social damage. Only economic achievements are calculated: productivity, price fluctuations, the possibility of speculation; only what contributes to profit and accumulation. The other costs are not paid by capital.  They are paid by nature, communities, populations, and individuals. These expenses come into consideration only when they affect the profit rate. It is for this reason that, seeing the effects of environmental degradation, the concept of the “Green Economy” was born almost 10 years ago.

Socially, the agribusiness model kills employment and is the cause of the great migrations to the cities. The number of displaced persons counts into the millions, especially in the southern continents, where the urban environment cannot offer employment opportunities, housing or decent living conditions for human life. The pressure of the Green (genetically-modified agriculture) Revolution of the eighties in Asia caused the impoverishment of millions of campesinos; the suicide of hundreds of thousands of small producers in India, and 3-4 per day in South Korea; in the northern continents, a suicide every two days in France.

From an ecological perspective, the results are also deeply negative. Deforestation is growing: in Brazil, 240 000 square kilometers were deforested between 2000 and 2010. The pollution of soil and water multiplies. Biodiversity is destroyed. According to a FAO statement on the occasion of World Day of the Jungle in March 2014, monocultures, combined with oil drilling and mining, legal and illegal logging, hydroelectric dams, are all contributing to the projected disappearance of the Amazon rainforest in forty years. Already in Indonesia and Malaysia 80% of the original forest has been destroyed by monoculture palm and eucalyptus. In addition, the land becomes a commodity, introduced in this way by the logic of finance capital: in Brazil, 73 million hectares now belong to foreign multinationals.

Monoculture production has also given rise to massive use of chemicals and the introduction of genetically modified organisms. All this has been associated with a “productivist” model of agriculture, which is legitimized by growing hunger despite the fact that it ignores long-term effects and the subsequent rise of a profit-based economy. Private investment increased dramatically: from USD 600 million in the nineties, it rose to nearly 3 billion during the years 2005-2007 (UNCTAD, 2009).

In recent years land grabbing, a result of the transformation of agriculture into a source for capital accumulation, came to be a new frontier in times of crisis. That meant the outright expropriation – both legally and illegally –  of 30 to 40 million hectares, 20 million of those in Africa (Delcourt, 2011). The liberalization of trade provoked an explosion of maritime transport (22,000 high-tonnage ships cross the oceans each day) and air transport, large-scale consumption of raw material and toxic gas emissions. The microeconomic rationality of capital has transformed into a global macroeconomic irrationality.

The conception of this type of development is found in a philosophical foundation: a linear conception of endless progress through science and technology on a planet with infinite resources. This, applied to agriculture, is called the Green Revolution. In this vision of modernity campesino agriculture had particularly low prestige, appearing backward, archaic and relatively unproductive. For this reason we have witnessed during the past 40 years an acceleration of destruction, in which many factors have intervened. The use of land for agriculture has shrunk at the arrival of rapid urbanization and industrialization. The process is accelerated in the south, but remains important in the north. According to Eurostat, the statistical bureau of the European Union, between 2002 and 2010 in Europe, about 3 million – or 20% – of all agricultural units have disappeared (Via Campesina, 2011).

The adoption of monoculture has caused an enormous concentration of land (UNCTAD, 2009), a true agrarian counter-reform. This has been seen more and more in recent years through the renewed phenomenon of land grabbing, estimated at 30 to 40 million hectares in the southern hemisphere, with 20 million in Africa alone (Baxter, 2010: 18).

The second cause is the logic of the economic principles of capitalism. In this view, capital is the motor for the economy, and development means the accumulation of capital. Following that logic, the profit rate has the central role and subsequently leads to financial speculation. Thus, finance capital has played a key role in the food crisis of 2007 and 2008. The concentration of capital in the field of agriculture means monopolies. Agriculture is actually converted into a new frontier of capitalism, especially with the drop in profits of other forms of productive capital in the years following the financial crisis. This trend was also the result of decades-old joint policies between international financial institutions and neoliberal governments promoting the expansion of monoculture into the export economy.

Evidently, there are worldwide campesino resistance movements against the domination of the capitalist logic in agriculture. They also address issues other than the defense of the land. Campesinos protest against deforestation; against dams that flood thousands of hectares of forest and farmland; against pollution of water by mining or industrial activities; against the monopoly of the production of seeds; against genetically modified crops monopolized by transnational agribusiness; against privatization of forests. Their struggles are all the more profound because they are dealing with basic survival. Academic centers in agronomy and social sciences show an increasing awareness of these problem and are proposing alternative solutions.

Why promote family farming?
It is not a romantic return to the past; nor is it an effort to transform campesinos and indigenous into small capitalists. The goal is to rebuild rural society. In terms of efficacy, the promotion of campesino agriculture is central, a fact that is now becoming internationally recognized. This type of farming has many functions: from subsistence to feeding the urban population, the conservation of biodiversity, and soil care. However, we must create conditions for effectiveness by organizing access to land and irrigation, supporting the biological integrity of crops, improving techniques and opening access to buyers, and improving rural roads along with several aspects of both the social and cultural environment. These are the tasks of any integral and popular agrarian reform.

The state’s role is central. In particular it must ensure security of campesinos’ land tenure against hoarding and concentration of ownership. The state also bears the responsibility of organizing the basic irrigation infrastructure, setting up the electrical grid, regulating the market, enabling the extension of credit to the production of small farmers, developing the collective infrastructure (health, education, libraries, training centers, etc.), developing transport and communications, and safeguarding conditions of cultural life, especially for indigenous peoples.

It is clearly not possible to continue policies designed to disappear the campesinos. Even the World Bank published a report in 2008 recognizing the importance of the campesinos to protect nature and combat climate change. This report argues for the modernization of campesino agriculture through mechanization, biotechnology, the use of genetically modified organisms, etc. It also suggests collaboration between the private sector, civil society and farmers’ organizations. But all this remains within the same philosophy centered around the reproduction of capital (Delcourt, 2010). This line of thinking eventually became the proposal of the “Green Economy” (Rio + 20, in 2012).

It is clear that campesino agriculture must evolve in its production methods, use of water, and ability to access the market. That is all possible, but it requires investment. It is the great challenge of the southern nations: whether to choose productivist agriculture, increasing the average size of farms, or to improve family and organic farming. Countless experiences of agroecology, land redistribution, and cooperatives prove the possibility of the latter.

We can conclude that the promotion of campesino agriculture, far from being a romantic dream or a nostalgic return to the past, is a viable solution for the future. First, it is an alternative model for a global food system which will not only accompany the medium and long-term demographic trends, but also transform the human diet, abandoning “McDonaldization”.

Secondly, campesino agriculture can contribute to the preservation of our Mother Earth, reconstructing her regeneration capacity. And thirdly, it will contribute to social and cultural equilibrium of rural societies. Karl Marx had said that one of the characteristics of capitalism was the rupture of symbiotic commodity exchange between man and nature, because the rate of reconstitution of capital is different from the rate of reproduction of nature and that only socialism could restore this balance. That is the theoretical basis of what is today called “eco-socialism,” and it must be a central aim of any policy in search of a new post-capitalist paradigm. Promoting the resurgence of family, campesino and indigenous agriculture constitutes an essential part of this task of global scale.

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