Even at the best of times, farming can be an uncertain business. At the worst of times it can be perilous. This came home to me when I started my first job back in 1968, teaching crop production at the University College in Swaziland. The rainy season is preceded by a period of intense heat and humidity before the rains break. One afternoon, in the valley where I was working, I saw the sky turn black and for a period of a few minutes the ground was pelted with hail, like bullets of ice. Mature pineapples and bananas were shredded into pulp.
Having never worked professionally in the UK, only in what are pejoratively termed ‘developing countries’ (mainly in Africa and Asia), it is only recently – and perhaps with our leaving the EU – that I have begun to realise how utterly dependent farming in the UK and the wider EU is upon government policy and subsidies. I cannot think of an overseas country in which I have worked where subsidies are paid to farmers.
In 1933, recognising the vital importance of British farmers in feeding the country and the inherent insecurity of farming, the UK government established several marketing boards to act as a buyer of last resort for essential commodities (including milk, potatoes, eggs and wool). Their job was to underwrite the market and set basic prices – with the annual price review being a vital day in the farming calendar. At the end of World War II, recognising that the key workers who had helped the country through the war were (as now with the coronavirus) generally the lowest paid and with the least security, the National Health Service and the Welfare State were established. Government underwriting of health, welfare and food provided a strong element of security to both the population at large and to farmers. In the 1950s, the monthly milk cheque provided a vital flow of cash to farmers. The milk market was deregulated in 1994, resulting in the emergence of a plethora of small milk marketing companies, which were gradually consolidated. Over a period of 25 years, we moved from having a single buyer of last resort, that provided some reassurance, to a small group of companies who compete with each other to push the price down to secure market share – whilst the taxpayer supports farmers in other ways.
Given the general marginalisation of agriculture and the endemic poverty in the rural areas of most African and many Asian countries, the lack of access to land and infrastructure and to credit and accessible markets, the priority of most rural people is simply that of surviving. They are coping with uncertain rainfall, most recently locusts and now COVID-19. It is hard for us in the UK – with a national health service free at the point of need, a welfare state, farming supported by the taxpayer and a Government that is currently spending billions to protect the economy and its citizens – to appreciate how precarious life is for most people in the developing world and the terrifying impact of lockdown. Globally, the International Labour Organisation estimates that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy will face ‘massive damage’ to their livelihoods – mostly in countries that lack the resources to support businesses and protect jobs as global trade declines. In the first month of the crisis it estimates the income of informal workers fell 60% globally and more than 80% in Africa and Latin America.
The way that rural communities are structured varies across Africa and Asia. In some countries, such as Lesotho and Swaziland, homesteads are spread out across the landscape. In rural Swaziland, you will see a cluster of huts belonging to one family, including the ‘kraal’ where the cattle are housed overnight, surrounded by their cultivated fields – which border those of their neighbour’s homestead. In theory, at least, social distancing should be easier.
In contrast, in Malawi and Ghana people tend to live closer together in villages of tens or hundreds of people (making social distancing more difficult). The village at the centre of the community, with farmland surrounding it, is also common in rural Bihar in India (the country’s poorest and most densely populated state). Those families who are fortunate enough to own land, walk out to it each day.
So how is COVID-19 likely to affect rural and peri-urban communities in Africa and Asia? Even where there is a system of social security and healthcare free at the point of delivery, as in UK, it is likely to hit the poorest hardest. How much more so in countries which lack such support systems. Over the years I have kept in touch with my former colleagues in Africa and Asia, including my former drivers (a local driver was obligatory in those days). These are people whose income one week provides the next week’s food. It is not hard to imagine the impact of lockdown – which is generally more severely imposed than in the UK, because of the difficulty of local health services to cope with a rush of cases.
To get an idea of the effect of lockdown in India, where Prime Minister Modi imposed it with just four hours’ notice, then read this article by Arundhati Roy. Literally millions of poor people in urban areas, with no public transport, were forced to walk to their rural homes up to 900 miles away – often being turned back as individual states closed their borders. As commented in the IPS News Service, ‘the nationwide lockdown has confined a record 1.3 billion Indians to their homes since March 24, and one of the hardest hit communities has been that of Indian farmers. Heart-breaking images of them standing amidst swathes of rotting vegetables, fruits and grain have been flooding newspapers and TV screens lately. Crashing prices and transport bottlenecks due to the 40-day coronavirus lockdown, have driven some to set their unsold produce ablaze’.
Pandemics, like armed conflict, can have unexpected effects. The pre-independence civil war in Zimbabwe disrupted the routine dipping of cattle, resulting in many of the animals dying from Trypanosomiasis (sleeping sickness), leaving small farmers with no means of cultivating the land. During the Ebola epidemic in West Africa (2013-2016), more people died in Guinea as a result of clinics and other health facilities being closed, than did from the deadly Ebola virus – but Ebola had to be controlled because it is so infectious. With COVID-19, of increasing concern is the effect that it will have on the incidence of malaria – particularly in the rural areas – through the prevention of spraying, bed-net distribution and the provision of anti-malarial drugs. The latest World Malaria Report suggests that in 2018 the mosquito-borne parasite infected 228 million people and killed 405,000 globally. The WHO estimates that coronavirus disruption could double the number of deaths from malaria in Africa this year.
In spite of growing urbanisation, many people in Africa and Asia have strong links to rural areas – to where they were born or where their parents still live. Largely dependent upon dryland farming, with the seasons increasingly uncertain as the climate warms up, poverty is widespread. Around 25 years ago the concept of ‘sustainable livelihoods’ emerged – seeking to look at the totality of rural life through a recognition of the five forms of capital (financial, physical, social, human, natural).
We tend to be most aware of financial capital. Thanks to Professor Dieter Helm, whose pithy comments are always worth a read, we are increasingly aware of natural capital (around which the emerging ELM scheme is largely built) – but less so of human, social and physical capital. For many in these rural areas, the amount of each type of capital can be very low – making them vulnerable to crises caused by conflict, drought or pests. In order to survive a crisis, the poorest people will tend to sell the very assets – such as livestock – that would help them to sustain themselves under normal circumstances. When the crisis is over, they are no longer able to generate any income. One approach to addressing this is social protection, which provides a modest level of income each month to the poorest members of a community. Often selected by the community itself, this small regular income allows them to build a buffer that can sustain them through a crisis. The significance of this came home to me when learning about a social protection scheme in the dry part of northern Kenya, where a regular payment of as little as £10 per month helped the poorest to survive a crisis.
Until recently much of the focus on agricultural development in Africa and Asia has been around the concept of the Green Revolution, built around the use of hybrid varieties, synthetic fertilisers (and other chemicals), irrigation and credit. Whilst very successful in the short term, there are significant long-term flaws. In contrast, this clip shows a resourceful young Indian farmer generating resilience through ‘multilayer farming’.
There are other encouraging instances in Africa. In Ghana you will find the Ghana Permaculture Institute and the Centre for No-Till. In Swaziland the Guba Permaculture Centre is keeping the produce flowing during the current crisis. In Sierra Leone the Single Leg Amputee Sports Association is establishing a 10 acre permaculture garden, supported by Lush.
Resilience is the ability to be able to bend with the storm – like bamboo – and not to break. For rural people in much of Africa and Asia, life is precarious – and COVID-19 has made it much more so. But these encouraging examples from India, Ghana, Swaziland and Sierra Leone demonstrate that where farming is concerned there are the beginnings of a move away from the crutches of imported technology and chemicals – building a resilient and mutually beneficial relationship with nature.
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