Day 7: Farmers do not come from Mars

Dr. Julio A. Berdegué

Blog post by Dr. Julio A. Berdegué

Principal Researcher at Rimisp (Latin American Center for Rural Development)
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If poor farmers had more freedom to innovate and adequate access to public and private investments, they would likely disappoint us by getting out of farming altogether. But even if only one or two in five remained, they would change the world for the better, literally.

By Julio A. Berdegué, Principal Researcher, Latin American Centre for Rural Development (RIMISP)

Resource-poor farmers are not Martians. Like you and me they make decisions that are largely informed by their culture, their capabilities, and the set of incentives (positive and negative) they face. The question that Oxfam asked me to answer invites us to think about a world in which the capabilities of the farmers have been greatly expanded and the incentives they face have been redefined in ways favourable to them. 

Amartya Sen would say this is what development is all about, attaining “the freedoms of people to lead the kind of lives they have reason to value.” 

What would resource-poor famers do with that freedom to innovate? Probably we would see about 500 million different answers, one for every smallholder on the planet. We need to recognize that that is just fine, because very often those of us who look at poor farmers from afar, tend to have strong preconceptions of who we would like resource-poor farmers to be in a better world that we have built in our minds. 

“What would resource-poor farmers do with the freedom to innovate? We would see about 500 million different answers, one for every smallholder on the planet.”

If these farmers had more freedom to innovate, many of them very likely would disappoint us, leading lives that they have reason to value and that are probably quite different from those that we, external observers, would like to see them valuing.

To begin with, many of them would move to cities. If they really had a lot of freedom, some would even move to other countries. However, if before deciding to move they had adequate access to public and private sector investments in support of their innovations, if they moved for sure it would be because they would value that option, and not because poverty, hunger and social exclusion expel them from their birthplace. 

Others would remain where they’ve always lived, or nearby, but would gradually become only part-time farmers, or even get out of farming. They, or their children, would become traders, shopkeepers, artisans, professional singers... or doctors and engineers and, God save us, MBAs or politicians. With such diversity they would enrich the social, cultural and economic fabric of their villages and of the nearby towns and small cities. Richer, better rural societies would be the result.

Finally, some would continue to be farmers. I believe that they would be a minority of the 500 million that we started with. And that is also perfectly fine. If they were capable of bringing their ideas to fruition because they have adequate access to public and private investments, even if only 100 or 200 million remained in farming, they would change the world for the better, literally. 

Think about it: As farmers, what would they seek to achieve through their innovations? Probably they would seek to produce more, and to do it in ways that allow them to become the preferred choice of the buyers of their products and, ultimately, of the consumers. I think that they would value innovations that put more cash in their pockets, so they can buy the goods and services that are part of the lives they have reason to value and that they cannot produce themselves or exchange with their neighbours. 

“Farmers would value innovations that put more cash in their pockets.”

They also would probably like to work less, or better said, to ease the huge physical exertion that is today associated with the life of the resource-poor farmer; that would allow them to live fuller, more humane lives. And, finally, I believe they would also like to be far less dependent on the political masters that today use their control of varied resources to condition farmers’ choices as citizens. 

I am quite sure that almost all farmers would seek these four outcomes of innovation, because, after all, farmers are not Martians. 

Yes, you must be asking, what about natural resources? Well, I am not as certain that most resource-poor farmers would chose to use less water, or fewer pesticides, or adopt soil-conserving technologies, under the “What if...” conditions of almost unlimited freedom from constraints that is implied in Oxfam’s question. 

I would hope that many would, but I am not sure. You see, several of the four outcomes of innovation that I believe most farmers would seek if they had a chance and that I listed in the previous paragraph, in many circumstances are contradictory to conserving nature. Would they sacrifice income, or production, or less physical exertion, if it were necessary to avoid a negative impact on the environment?  I am not sure they all would.

“Would farmers sacrifice income, or production, or less physical exertion, if it were necessary to avoid a negative impact on the environment?”

How, then, could society incentivize resource conservation so it is aligned with farmers’ probable preferences? We return to the start of this note: I believe that smallholders’ decisions are largely informed by their culture, their capabilities, and the set of incentives (positive and negative) they face. Those are the three possible entry points for policies and programs that seek to incentivize and support resource-conserving livelihoods. 

But let me insist that smallholders make their living by using natural resources, and for them to use those resources in ways that are better for nature, they must be able to see the benefit of such a course of action; simple coercion does not work in the long run and, to start with, smallholders are already coerced enough by so many forces that they really do not need any more of that.

A fundamental starting point is that society should secure the effective exercise of the most basic rights of smallholders as human beings, such as the right to food and to lead a healthy life, or the rights of women in smallholder households to make informed decisions by themselves and act upon them. This can only lead to a better relationship between smallholder communities and nature around them, because the expansion of such rights can remove or ease many of the reasons why smallholders may use natural resources in unsustainable ways.

In second place, society can also improve the ways in which smallholders use natural resources by making available some goods and services that many of us take for granted but that many farmers lack in full or in part: roads and better access to cities, fairer and more transparent markets, enforcement of labour laws and regulations (many smallholder households depend in part on wage labour which in rural areas often happens under appalling conditions), access to credit, and so on. Such “public goods” dramatically expand the range of options that smallholders have, and often reduce the relative attractiveness of activities that deteriorate the environment.

One “public good” that is often forgotten is political rights. Smallholders need to be able to exercise such rights if they are going to have the voice and power to control the access and use of natural resources that belong to them by law or by custom. If rural communities do not have a say in crafting and enforcing the rules that determine who uses those resources and how they are used, the end result most often will be misuse by those who may not have the right, but have the power. 

“Smallholders deserve to be seen and treated as persons with equal rights, but also with duties and obligations.”

In addition, collective action through community- or resource-based or economic organizations is a particularly powerful tool because it can open ways of using resources that are completely blocked for individual and isolated smallholders.

Access to an expanded range of forms of knowledge and to resource-conserving technologies can also be quite effective, as long as those technologies also make sense to smallholders from a cultural and economic point of view.

However, I don’t believe that the above types of actions are enough, because smallholders do have an incentive to use resources in ways that maximize their short-term, private interests. Like you and me, smallholders love birds and trees and beautiful flowing rivers, but as you well know, when it comes to human beings such love is not enough to prevent us from hunting the bird, cutting the tree, or diverting the river if we can derive a benefit and we can get away with it. 

This brings us to my final message. Well-enforced laws and regulations that constrain certain innovations or that limit the use that can be made of resources are necessary. Smallholders deserve to be seen and treated as persons with equal rights, but also with duties and obligations. In the world of Oxfam’s “What ifs...”, smallholders are citizens, pure and simple. That is development.

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