75th Anniversary: 58) Research at the Rural Sociology Group: Agrarian Movements and Transitions in the Global South

Lisette Nikol, PhD candidate at the Rural Sociology Group

How do small farmers in the Global South secure their livelihoods? How do capitalist dynamics and agrarian movements striving for alternatives shape these livelihoods? How can agrarian transition pathways address possible tensions between the needs of rural development, sustainable agrarian futures and a growing world population? What role do and should farmers play in imagining and realising these transition pathways and agrarian futures? How do we analyse and explain agrarian transitions in general and the farming systems realised by agrarian movements in particular?

These abstract questions summarise my research interests. My interests are motivated by a concern for an agrarian future that is socially just and environmentally sustainable, in which our farming populations and natural environment can thrive rather than be exploited.  

In my PhD research, I investigate diverse facets of an ongoing agrarian struggle in the wake of agricultural modernisation and the development of agrarian capitalism, paying particular attention to the concept of peasant autonomy. Peasant autonomy locates core critiques of modern agriculture with the commodity nature of production relations (Jansen et al. 2021). While the critiques alone are relevant, I find that research into agrarian movements is more interesting and useful if it examines how different agricultural systems promote distinct production relations and transition pathways that entail different dependencies on wider production relations, agro-ecosystems, social relations and agrarian movements. As a sociologist concerned with theory, I find it relevant to inquire into how various conceptual ideas of peasant autonomy, varying dependencies on diverse production relations and socio-material relations of farming systems can help us both explain ongoing transitions and imagine and realise future transitions .

Specifically, I am investigating an organic agriculture movement in the Philippines that is responding to the challenges posed by decades of Green Revolution-oriented agricultural policies. Providing alternatives to the agricultural modernisation programmes of the state, this farmer network facilitates a farmer-led rice breeding programme, trainings on organic cultivation and complementary livelihood-related aspects, and a Participatory Guarantee System to market organic produce locally.

I locate my work within a contemporary body of agrarian political economy that critically reflects on the broader effects of the capitalist dynamics in agriculture and the countryside (see e.g. Guthman 2004, Kloppenburg 2004, Bernstein 2010, Jansen 2015). Another body of theoretical work that informs my research agenda is an anthropology of technology development that looks at technological change in the context of agrarian development and transformation as contingent, society-technology relations (e.g. Bray 1986, Almekinders 2011, Jansen & Vellema 2011). Combining these two approaches allows for an interesting set of questions capable of addressing both social and material aspects that are vital to an overall understanding of agrarian movements and transitions.

An important part of my research looks at peasant autonomy and food sovereignty questions as concerning farmers’ relations to their means of production. Agrarian movements seemingly aim to reverse the separation of farmers from their means of production, such as seeds and the wider agro-ecosystem, as achieved by agricultural modernisation and development following a capitalist, industrial model. But how do efforts to mend this situation play out in particular empirical settings? In this question, I centralise the material dimension of farming and agro-ecosystems in interaction with social relations and farmers’ practices. I address two important sets of production relations.

First, I analyse the sorts of relations around seed that emerge in situations where seed activist initiatives are realised. It is important to understand how these relations are caught between agrarian capitalism and seed activism. Second, I focus on soil fertility management – a core of organic approaches often presented as key to realising an autonomous agro-ecosystem – as a site of tension and performance. How does a view on farming as ‘performance’ (cf. Richards 1993) or simply ‘making do’ to survive relate to views on farming as performing political farming narratives?

Another aspect of agrarian movements I find intriguing is their functioning as organisations, themselves firmly embedded in relations with and among farmers. When the work of agrarian movements gains importance for the livelihoods of rural and agrarian peoples, how should we understand the relation between movements and members, or the movement’s practical work in the context of agrarian livelihood strategies? Additionally, movements take on emancipatory roles, organising farmers politically and advocating on their behalf at various levels of government (Nikol and Jansen 2020). How do their narratives of agrarian futures and rural development relate to the narratives of its differentiated constituency, as well as those of the government?

A last avenue of my inquiry looks into the dynamics shaping and participation of farmers in national organic sectors. Participatory Guarantee Systems (PGS) are promoted on a global scale as a cost-efficient and trustworthy alternative to third-party certification. Interestingly, the development of organic agriculture is caught in a tug-of-war between capitalist dynamics prompting its ‘conventionalisation’ and committed pioneers promoting values that critique the industrialised agricultural model (Nikol and Jansen 2021). I further investigate dynamics in the development of organic agriculture, specifically how PGSs seem a tool modelled after and complying with demands from conventional agriculture, as well as a tool to organise farmer participation, reclaim the narrative of organic agriculture and reorganise the relations that compose this sector.

How to explain ongoing agrarian transitions, and how to imagine and realise agrarian transitions in the future? In researching seed systems and plant-breeding, soil fertility management and integrated farming systems, the organisational and advocacy work of social movements and tensions between capitalist dynamics and ‘pioneer’ approaches in organic agriculture development, I aim to contribute relevant insights grounded in lessons from an agrarian movement in the Global South.  These questions and the experiences of the Philippine organic movement, will no doubt continue to engage me in the future and inspire future contributions to the literature. 

Almekinders, C. (2011). The Joint Development of JM-12.7: A technographic description of the making of a bean variety, NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 57(3): 207-216.

Bernstein, H. (2010). Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing.

Bray, F. (1986) (1986). The Rice Economies: Technology and Development in Asian Societies. Oxford [etc.]: Blackwell.

Guthman, J. (2004). Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California. Oakland: University of California Press.

Jansen, K. (2015). The Debate on Food Sovereignty Theory: Agrarian capitalism, dispossession and agroecology, Journal of Peasant Studies, 42(1): 213-232.

Jansen, K. and S. Vellema (2011). What is Technography? NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 57(3): 169-177.

Jansen, K., M. Vicol and L.J. Nikol (2021). Autonomy and Repeasantization: Conceptual, analytical, and methodological problems, Journal of Agrarian Change (special issue on Autonomy in Agrarian Studies, Politics and Movements).

Kloppenburg, J.R. (2004). First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Nikol, L.J. and K. Jansen (2020). The Politics of Counter-Expertise on Aerial Spraying: Social movements denouncing pesticide risk governance in the Philippines, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 50(1): 99-124.

Nikol, L.J. and K. Jansen (2021). Rethinking Conventionalisation: A view from organic agriculture in the Global South, Journal of Rural Studies, 86: 420-429.

Richards, P. (1993). Cultivation: Knowledge or performance? In M. Hobart (Ed.), An Anthropological Critique of Development: The Growth of Ignorance,pp. 61-78. London:Routledge.