Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Rural communities and politics: not voiceless or docile

AdebayoPolitics and agriculture are not strange bedfellows, said Adebayo Olukoshi (International IDEA) in his opening keynote speech at the Political Economy of Agricultural Policy in Africa conference yesterday. The recent history of politics and land includes some dark moments, as well as some more positive ones: this year is the centenary of the 1913 Land Act in South Africa, but it is also 10 years since the Maputo declaration, which saw African governments come together to commit to greater agricultural development.

Many major changes are shaping the politics of African agriculture. Large scale land deals; food price volatility; large-scale land deals by external countries and companies; a growing urban population; and demographic changes are all having an impact. Despite the challenges, according to Olukoshi, many on the continent see a positive future. If Afro-pessimism was the mood 10 or 20 years ago, could Afro-optimism – or even Afro-enthusiasm – be a better description of the prevailing mood?

In a note of caution, Olukoshi warned that this enthusiasm may mask the challenges ahead. But it would be equally dangerous to think of smallholder farmers as being passive recipients or victims. Agricultural politics is not just for high-level discussions: change often comes from below.

Olukoshi criticised some analyses which, in his view, appeared to explain everything that goes on – or to pathologise agricultural politics. Instead, he urged the conference to look at the complex ways that actors negotiate interests to reach an equilibrium sufficient for the time.

Despite the enthusiasm in some quarters, farmers are set against a structure of incentives loaded against small-scale agriculture, inherited from colonial times and consolidated during the post-colonial period. But, said Olukoshi, it is a mistake to think that rural communities are voiceless or docile.