The Coming Plantations

In the last two years the Pakistani government has announced that it will allot hundreds of thousands of acres of land to foreign countries and private corporations. Proponents of the plan argue that corporate agriculture will attract investment in the rural sector and it will introduce large-scale agricultural production that will generate greater rural employment. However, there is little evidence that this plan will offer any major benefits to the rural poor. Colonial planters, like advocates for corporate farming, saw themselves as investors and innovators of commercial agriculture. The history of plantations in South America, Caribbean and Asia tells us that this kind of intensive transnational agriculture doesn’t eradicate poverty but rather that it accelerates dependency while weakening food sovereignty among poorer nations. It is ironic that the popularly elected government is now actively planning to do way with land ownership ceilings that were put in place as part of the land reform acts under Ayub Khan and Zulfiqar Bhutto’s regime.

In the coming year we will see government ministers present this plan as a generous investment, or even a favor by our regional Muslim allies. Giving large chunks of land is going to be transferred to sovereign funds owned by Saudi Arabia and Gulf Emirates, that want to secure food availability for their population goes against the logic of sustainable development and it will do little to improve the lot of the rural poor. In fact, the Corporate Agriculture Plan will worsen the precarious food security situation in Pakistan and hurt average person who is finding it increasingly difficult to afford basic food staples. Given the history of exploitive work conditions in Saudi Arabia and Emirati states it is very likely that the new corporate farms will function like colonial plantations.

Turning back to contemporary Pakistan, there has been radical neglect of important livelihood issues in the last decade as Pakistan became embroiled in a series of crises starting with the war in Afghanistan, lawyers movement, Musharraf martial law, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the insurgency in Waziristan. The ensuing crises pushed aside all substantive discussions of economic inequality and access to livelihood opportunities. The lack of planning and regulation is all too evident in the series of food shortages that have followed surplus bumper crops. A lot more ink has been spilled to explain the proliferation of religious and sectarian violence than to understand the effects economic factors that might be feeding these movements. Missing in these analyses is a discussion of residual forms of violence that lie in extreme disparities of wealth, diminishing protections for vulnerable populations like peasant farmers, the mass movement of rural poor to urban slums and the increasingly precarious access to food that feeds anti-state sentiments. In return the state has resorted to militarized response to poor peoples struggle for subsistence. In fact the extra-judicial terrorism courts provide the government an alibi to go after and arrest peasant leaders and fisherfolk who defied the imposition of corporate farming type contract and leases.

Here I am drawing on my experience in Okara military farms where the tenant farmers have been struggling to retain their access to the land they have been tiling for almost a century. Since 2000 the tenant farmers have been defying the military’s edict to impose a new tenancy system of contract farming. The tenants have refused to sign onto a cash tenancy system because it didn’t guarantee secure longterm access to the land. In fact the cash contract system will make them more vulnerable for evictions. During the course of the struggle the tenant farmers have discovered that the military farmlands are actually owned by the Punjab Government and the military’s official lease expired long before the creation of Pakistan. The food crisis in the last two years has proven the mazarin point about the significance of secure access to land for the poor. I recall talking to Nazeer Bola, a tenant farmer, in 2004 about what gave the tenant farmers the will to defy the military in 2003: He simply answered:

We knew that as soon as we accept this contract system we will be thrown out of these lands. We can accept death but we don’t accept this contract system” (interview). Losing rights over this land meant eviction and destitution to the tenant farmers.

Nazeer gave example of the indigent poor in Karachi to illustrate what life would be like for the mazareen if they lost their rights over these lands. He argued that in contrast to the extreme poverty in the cities, even the poorest group in the village (like the laborer caste kammi’s) had a marla (a small plot) where they could grow enough food to survive, whereas being destitute in the city meant having no place to sleep and no land to grow one’s food. The tenant farmers saw the new contract system as a threat to their subsistence and food security. As we have seen in the past few years the growing shortage of food available in the markets is not due to the lack of food production but to the growing speculation and de-regulation in agriculture.

So far the government hasn’t offered much information about how the lands will be allotted, are they going to allot rakhs (government owned commons that are cultivated by peasants, are they going to displace small peasant or are they going to buy land at market rate)? However, large-scale allotment of land will certainly involve the displacement of existing population of peasants, or pastoralists who reside on the land. Recently, Madagascar struck a similar accord with Daewoo to give almost 50% of its arable land to the Korean corporate giant for 99 years. According to an article in Financial Times, Daewoo will not have to pay anything in exchange for investing and making the land optimally cultivable. A representative from Daewoo was quoted by Financial Times (Nov 19, 2008) justified the transfer: “It is totally undeveloped land which has been left untouched. And we will provide jobs for them by farming it, which is good for Madagascar”. This language is eerily similar to the current government. However, the FT also raised doubts about the benefits to Madagascar by quoting a European Diplomat in South Afrcia who stated “We suspect there will be very limited direct benefits [for Madagascar]. Extractive projects have very little spill-over to a broader industrialisation.” Like SEZ phenomenon in many developing economies large scale allotment of lands will not help improve the economic capacity and development of the country. There needs to be some serious efforts to provide greater support for smaller farmers, greater availability to arable land to rural poor and a network of cooperatives for farmers to hold distributors accountable in price gouging.

In fact the history of agricultural development in USA, Japan, Korea shows that early development of agriculture infrastructure happened with a very controlled trade and regulation of agriculture in a way that supported small farmers.



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