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Paul de Graaf
Examining urban agriculture projects in Rotterdam between 2008 and 2018, my research looks at the practice of urban food planning, its strategies, the actors involved and their roles and relations. Central to the research is the observation that in Western European society today, the increased participation of civic initiatives confronts planning with challenges related to governance, decision-making and representation. Sustainable urban food planning can be seen as a laboratory for planning concepts that deal with these challenges.
The purpose of my research is to investigate which conceptualisations of planning are relevant when 1) planning in and for a pluralistic, participative society and 2) planning for sustainable goals related to an unknown future. As there is no consensus in the planning field on what planning is or what it should do, conceptualisations of planning can range widely, from systems planning to advocacy planning and from collaborative to complexity planning. I work with a primary hypothesis that these concepts of planning are complementary rather than mutually exclusive and that in a complex, pluralistic society, different concepts of planning can be relevant in different circumstances.
The main research questions are as follows: What concepts of planning are effective in spatial planning for a common sustainable future when including multiple actors and stakeholders with a variety of frames and perspectives on sustainable food systems? How are different actors, their respective roles and action perspectives included in the decision-making process? What is the role of the planning practitioner in this, and what is the role of governmental planning at different levels?
The research is informed by my own position as a practitioner. Undertaking a professional PhD as an external researcher at RSO allows me to reflect upon and put in perspective my personal experiences in the field of spatial planning and design. Fifteen years of experience with promoting, researching, designing, planning and practicing urban food production in Rotterdam left me (and colleagues from the field) with many ideas and hypotheses on what municipal planners and urban food initiatives should and should not do when planning urban food production. Can municipal planning include the initiatives of societal actors (like myself and fellow urban farmers and activists) in their planning agenda? Would it be possible to do this in a way that respects the diverse world views of these actors? And can societal actors themselves operate in a way that aligns them with governmental planning agendas without losing sight of their own goals?
Civic urban food initiatives represent a diversity of approaches to what a sustainable food system should be and how planning can contribute, but planners at different government levels struggle to facilitate and include these initiatives and their diverse approaches in their planning efforts. This has become apparent in Rotterdam but is also exemplary of a more general gap between bottom-up societal initiatives and top-down governmental planning in the Netherlands. Through a study of the Rotterdam urban agriculture movement – and taking the role of participant-observer – I examine this gap and address the questions above.
The case study of Rotterdam considers projects in which urban food production has been realised and focuses on the people involved in the planning process and their agendas and strategies, with a special emphasis on spatial planning. To avoid any bias due to my personal involvement in the object of study, I use a range of sources, including grey literature and interviews with different planners and societal actors. In terms of method, I combine this sociological approach with plan analyses (of the projects) derived from the discipline of urban planning. In combining different sources and methods from different disciplines, I try to incorporate the views of different actors and gain a more complete picture of what has happened during these past years and what lessons can be learnt for planners and urban food initiatives..
While the PhD is designed as a retrospective, transdisciplinary case study, it inevitably involves and interacts with my own practice as a designer/planner and, more recently, urban food forester. Interviewing planners about their ideas and influences and writing down their accounts of events has already provided insights that are informing my current work in urban agriculture and food forestry (including advocacy, design and realisation). Although this can sometimes be problematic, the meeting of practical experience with academic and applied research is developing a relevant knowledge base. A professional PhD makes knowledge from practice available to academic research and offers a place of reflection to practitioners.
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.
Claudia Oviedo, PhD candidate at the Rural Sociology Group
Mexican coffee policies of recent decades have been highly criticised. Farmers, coffee organizations, academics, and development organizations have claimed that programmes implemented to promote coffee production in Mexico have been limited to assuring mere survival of farmers rather than promoting the necessary transformation of their livelihoods. One of the main criticisms of such programmes is that while the state provided plants, fertilizer, and sprayers through farmers’ organizations, due to clientelism many farmers did not receive the inputs they had been promised. Other criticisms include that such programmes have failed to involve effective commercialization strategies and have not provided adequate technical assistance, particularly with respect to disease management.
In December of 2018, “leftist” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office. Criticising previous neoliberal administrations’ lack of attention to rural areas, he promised his administration would benefit small farmers and that he would end corruption. To achieve this, his administration implemented the rural programme Sowing Life (Sembrando Vida) through the Ministry of Well-Being, providing approximately €250 monthly to farmers to plant deforested areas with fruit trees and annual crops using agroecological practices. The Ministry of Agriculture also launched the programme Production for Well-Being (Producción para el Bienestar), which also promotes sustainable coffee production, although with a much lower amount.
This PhD research analyses coffee policies implemented in 2019—he first year of AMLO´s administration, addressing the state’s conceptualization of farmers—essentially based on the size of their landholding—as well as its strategy for incorporating them principally into the organic market. Based on a Value Chain approach as well as Political Economy concepts, I found that those that farmers the state considers to be “small-scale” vary with respect to their level of control over the means of production. Furthermore, I conclude that selling to the organic market does not necessarily benefit all farmers and suggest the need to re-conceptualise the approach of public policy to “incorporating” coffee farmers into the market.
This study also addressed the political configuration of coffee programmes by unpacking the relationship among farmers, the state, and the coffee processing industry—namely Nestlé, as well as the interests of each of these actors and their strategies for obtaining their objectives. Two coffee trajectories were identified: one involving production of high-quality organic coffee and a high level of participation by the state and farmers´ organizations in policy development. The other trajectory is that of instant coffee, involving sale of lower-quality coffee to Nestlé. While several farmers’ organizations reject the latter trajectory, many farmers perceive benefits from cultivating coffee for this industry. Therefore, I urge policymakers and development agencies to allow for a variety of productive options rather than pre-determining a single production system.
Finally, this study addressed AMLO´s policy to reduce involvement of intermediaries by providing subsidies directly to farmers rather than through farmers´ organizations. Given that during previous administrations many representatives of these organizations retained a large part of the subsidies, many farmers welcomed this policy. However, its implementation has been characterised by operative problems and tensions between organizations and state personnel. Some farmers´ organizations assured that not all such organizations are clientelistic; rather, they hold that they provide an essential mechanism for farmers to access more profitable marketing options. Meanwhile, the reactions of personnel from Sowing Life and Production for Well-Being contrasted significantly: as Sowing Life is extensively promoted by AMLO, and it does not stem from previous programmes, most personnel supported the reduction of intermediary policy. However, some staff of Production for Well-Being defended the work they had developed with farmers’ organisations and highly objected to the changes.
I was born in the 1980s, in the bucolic countryside of west Limerick where I enjoyed an idyllic and happy childhood, completely distant from the conflict which wracked the north of Ireland during the so called “Troubles”. Nevertheless, as an admittedly very precocious child, through overheard snippets of adult conversations, impertinent questions, partially understood news headlines, the occasional drama of IRA arms dumps found in the local area and the half-earnest choruses of “Up the Ra” that permeated the Irish social life of my childhood, I recognised the presence of an unspoken something. A something which did not interfere in any way with my childhood priorities of playing hurling and avoiding the hard jobs on our family farm, but as I grew up and read more about Irish politics and what had been happening on the island, it remained a something that engendered a curiosity in me. How was it possible that an armed Republican group, the Irish National Liberation Army carried out Ireland’s biggest ever robbery (21 million euro in today’s terms) in 1978, at the other side of my small parish? Within my childhood cycling radius, where in my experience literally nothing ever happened. Even now the Mullaghareirk Mountains of my home, are a disorientating maze of narrow roads, high hedgerows, bog, woods and scrubland, in 1978 they would have been completely unknowable to an armed unit of Socialist Republicans from the North. Without local knowledge and assistance, would such an ambitious robbery have ever succeeded? Were the people of my childhood, someway complicit in supporting the violence, incessantly critiqued by the political mainstream in Ireland? Why would people like me and mine, safely ensconced in the rhythms our rural lives get unnecessarily involved in a violent campaign that resulted in hundreds and thousands of deaths? Was it ideology, a sense of obligation or guilt, hatred, fear, ignorance or mere happenstance? This unresolved, half-forgotten line of questioning lay dormant through my formative years.
Half-forgotten that is, until I began university in 2003, at the hysteric heights of the “War on Terror”, where terrorism and support for terrorism saturated all political debate and infiltrated our university discussions and seminars. This reawakened my latent interest on what support for political violence comprises. It led me to take every available course and seminar on civil wars and political violence, to do a Masters on Middle East politics and eventually brought me to Italy to a PhD on the relationship between the PKK and its supporters at the European University Institute in Florence. Under the guidance of Professor Donatella della Porta, one of the world’s leading social movement scholars, I found myself immersed in a vibrant conceptual and theoretical universe. One shaped by the ongoing debate centred on the ground-breaking Dynamics of Contention (2003) by Doug McAdam, Sydney Tarrow and Charles Tilly which argued for a broad approach to the study of a spectrum of contentious politics according to its constituent mechanisms. A spectrum which ranged from episodes such as riots to full blown insurgencies.
This debate had stimulated a parallel blossoming of social movement research on violence, expanding beyond its foundational pillars of political opportunity structures, resource mobilization and framing to incorporate a relational focus emphasising the dynamic and contingent elements of violent social change. One which argued it was less the inherent characteristics of movements that determined their success or failures, but rather how movements interacted with political institutions, political adversaries and allies that provided a better explanation of political outcomes. This new wave of research also addressed the criticism that social movement studies had been the empirical preserve of western liberal societies by also incorporating research on global violent and non-violent movements. And since then, I have found myself drawing from this rich theoretical spring of contentious politics and social movements to better understand why civilians support armed movements. An intellectual reservoir which has emboldened me to take a critical stance on much of the rationalist and structuralist approaches which have dominated the study of conflict. After a few twists and post-doctoral turns through Italy, Denmark and Germany, and extremely satisfying diversions to work and publish on lone actor radicalisation, anti-austerity protest, referendums and pro-independence movements, I arrived at the RSO with a new project, that addresses the spatial dynamics of armed groups’ interactions with their supportive constituencies.
The Spatial Dimension of Insurgent-Civilian Relations: Routinised Insurgent Space
In mid-2021, my book Understanding Insurgency: Popular Support for the PKK in Turkey (Cambridge University Press) based on the findings of my PhD research was published. During the many years it took to finally publish the book, and in light of the increasingly hostile research environment in Turkey, I decided to attempt developing a comparative research agenda, to see if the PKK’s determination to maintain the active support and approval of its constituency was an outlier and if other groups were similarly minded. Through a series of chance encounters, I came into contact with the M-19, an armed group which was active in Colombia from the 1970s until 1990. I set about learning Spanish and in 2018 conducted fieldwork with former supporters and veteran members of the M-19 in Bogota.
Reflecting upon the interviews I conducted with both the PKK and the M-19, it became clear that the relationship between the insurgents and supporters was not simply a relational dynamic, but one which took place in specific spaces. Encounters between insurgents and civilians were rarely random, they occurred in specific places at specific times. Armed M-19 operatives boarded buses packed with workers to engage in revolutionary propaganda before disembarking and disappearing into early morning rush hour. In the 1990s the PKK organised revolutionary picnics on the outskirts of Istanbul to recruit youngsters. The PKK transformed funerals from instances of private grief and loss, to occasions of revolutionary defiance. The M-19 actually built neighbourhoods for the rural displaced on the margins of Colombia’s rapidly expanding cities. Interviewed insurgents were explicit in how they strategically tailored their encounters to create favourable interactions which reflected positively on the movement. In certain neighbourhoods (or spaces in a conceptual sense) they promoted Kurdish or Colombian nationalism, in others they emphasised traditional socialist objectives. What do revolutionary courts in Kurdistan, the distribution of wellington boots and milk, the ritualised burying of the dead and the organisation of daily life in prison have in common? I argue that they are all forms of Routinised Insurgent Space (RIS).
RIS can be understood as the way insurgent movements deliberately engineer or appropriate existing social spaces to facilitate interactions with supportive constituencies. RIS contains functional and symbolic logics: it embeds armed groups in their immediate spatial environments allowing them access to local resources, but it is also a means of consolidating political legitimacy. From the perspective of the constituency, RIS renders interactions with armed actors safer and more predictable and can potentially lead to a form of joint habitus regarding political identity and behavioural norms. Although the types of RIS implemented are expressions of insurgent movements’ strategy, they are reciprocally constituted and shaped by local civilian agency which can resist or alter them. My project focuses initially on four distinct forms of RIS: Insurgent Policing & Courts, Insurgent Service Provision, Insurgent Prison Mobilisation and Insurgent Funerals. A rigorous literature analysis and suggested that these four forms are not ideologically specific and recur across almost all types of insurgent mobilisation to greater or lesser extents.
As a comparative project, it of course strives to identify similarities and differences between the cases, but it also focuses on within-case variation. How do forms of RIS vary from urban to rural areas and even across wealthier and poorer neighbourhoods? In contrast to the flourishing rebel governance approach, it also attempts to track how these forms of incipient governance evolve over time rather than focusing on insurgent institutions once they are already established. It tracks efforts to create forms of RIS from their earliest incarnations, analysing why their success varies. In terms of data, the project will make use of interview data with former insurgents and their constituency. A key milestone in the project will be the hosting of a workshop at the RSO in September 2022 titled: The Margins of Insurgent Control: Spaces of Governance. It is specifically designed to merge the relevant literatures from contentious politics and social movements, social geography anthropology and rebel governance with an explicit focus on the nature of the data used to study armed movements.
O’Connor, Francis. 2021. Understanding Insurgency: Popular Support for the PKK in Turkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
 “Up the Ra” is short for Up the IRA. In Irish, one would express support for somebody or something by shouting for example Gailimh Abú meaning “come on Galway”. In Hiberno-English, abú has been directly translated as up, leading to the use of ”up something or other” as a common phrase. Up the Ra is a phrase which has to a certain extent escaped its original political connotations and has found its way into sports chants, drunken tomfoolery between non politicised groups of friends and into popular songs. However, its connotations are contextually dependent and can take on a greater or lesser air of menace according to who is in earshot.
Overall, my main interest has been on how people come together, and, in collective action, (attempt to) make a difference – how they overcome the constraints they encounter in their everyday life, how in their practice they not only deviate from what is taken for granted or imposed but (try to) make what is considered impossible possible and how they can create meaningful differences and opportunities. Meaningful to themselves, but also as meaningfully novel, promising practices, opportunities in the light of all the challenges that humanity faces in making our earthly life more healthy, sustainable, equitable and inclusive – a better place for all. This points to agency as an intermediary between actors and structures and particularly to transformative agency.
Change is not inherently good – it can also be quite ugly. We are subject to all kinds of dynamically interacting processes that impact on our everyday life, human and non-human initiated and operating on different scales. We need to time and again scrutinise, evaluate and critically reflect on the impact that all these processes have on humans and non-humans, on all that matters. This is core to what rural and rural and agrarian sociology is about for me.
In this respect, the PhD thesis on two diverging styles of farming (Stijlen van Landbouwbeoefening: uiteenlopende ontwikkelingspatronen) by Van der Ploeg and Bolhuis (1985) was an eyeopener to me as a novice in the field. It demonstrated that farmers are indeed subject to all kind of ordering processes in which farming is situated, thus limiting the space for farming and even imposing or enforcing a particular mode of farming – but also that farming and farm development is not fully determined by these hegemonic processes.
Within the Technical Administrative Task Environment (TATE), as Bruno Benvenuti (1982) conceptualised the prescriptive structuring principles, there is space for resistance, deviation and divergence, a certain autonomy, although to what extent is not only an empirical question but also heavily debated. Farmers can indeed make a difference, by structuring their (family) farm labour in meaningful ways following a particular rationale based on more widely shared opinions, values and norms about how to best farm that are internalised and externalised in interaction as evolving patterns of ‘rules in use’ (Ostrom 1992).
Styles of farming can be seen as institutionalised ways of doing, thinking and feeling (Berger & Luckman 1967). This explains how diverging styles of farming, as different modes of ordering (Law 1994), emerge within (apparently) homogeneous settings. Farmers, as individuals but more often in collectives, both resist the structuring (political, economic and bio-physical) forces they are subject to in their everyday life and also build the individual and collective capacity to bypass these forces by creating relatively autonomous protected spaces or niches that provide them with the room for manoeuvre to differ, deviate and differentiate according to their rationale. This is how I became engaged in rural and agrarian sociology. The institutional imperative (Zijderveld 2000) has guided me since in understanding how continuity and change are inherent to action and how heterogeneity is reproduced in interactions between humans and non-humans, between society and living and dead matter with technology as an intermediate (Roep 2000).
In my (1989) MSc-thesis, ‘Stap voor Stap of in een Sprong’ (Step by Step or in one Leap), I explored differential growth patterns and family farm income strategies among farmers producing milk for the famous Parmigiano Reggiano, extending the PhD-research by Van der Ploeg, which was further elaborated in Van der Ploeg, Saccomandi and Roep (1990). This became the launching pad for a series of studies on farming styles – ‘bedrijfsstijlen’ in Dutch, following Hofstee – starting in the Netherlands with Van der Ploeg and Roep (1989). Not only were different farm development and family income strategies based on different rationales revealed by this work but also the differentiated impacts they had, such as on the environment through significant variations in nutrient losses. It was also revealed that farmers, within their institutional embedding, built different capacities when following different farm development paths. Farming styles did make a difference, and this made them politically relevant considering the challenges agriculture was, and it still is, facing and the search for more sustainable and even regenerative farming practices.
The farming styles research also showed that farmers on their own, in supporting networks and in collectives were pioneering alternative farming practices to escape the pressing income squeeze in ways other than by increasing production volume. During the 1990s, the Rural Sociology research team at Wageningen became engaged with various farmer-driven initiatives developing alternative farm development strategies and pathways for agrarian and rural development. These were subsequently mapped, first in the Netherlands and then later across Europe (van der Ploeg & Banks 2002). The broadening, deepening and regrounding of farm practices were identified as alternative income strategies to counter further marginalisation, and an alternative rural development paradigm emerged to the dominant productivist paradigm promoting scale enlargement, intensification and specialisation as the only viable strategy (van der Ploeg & Roep 2003).
Within the framing of this alternative paradigm, local grassroots initiatives developed the necessary but previously lacking capacity to develop and operate in experimental spaces or niches, supported by newly created alliances and networks. I became engaged with a group of pioneering farmers in the western peatland area that, inspired by renowned high added value products with a denomination of origin like the Parmigiano Reggiano and Comte, aimed to upgrade farm-made cheese, Boerenkaas, a speciality product with excellent but underdeveloped potential. Having turned completely towards bulk production, the Netherlands lacked both the capacity to produce and market high-quality speciality food products with a denomination of origin and the proper institutional setting to support this.
Based on this case, I argued in my PhD-thesis, ‘Innovative work: tracks and traces of capacity and incapacity’ (Roep 2000), that the narrowly focused productivist paradigm which had dominated agriculture and rural development since the 1950s and transformed Dutch agriculture and rural areas profoundly through its comprehensive capacity had, at the same time, resulted in an institutionalised incapacity. Diversity was long seen as an aberration, not as a rich source to explore alternative, promising pathways.
Thus, there developed a research agenda on the transformative potential of a wide range of novel practices in farming and food provisioning – or, the Seeds of Transition (Wiskerke & Van der Ploeg 2004). I have been involved in some of the research projects and publications exploring promising sustainability pathways and the new capacities being forged. We have identified and elaborated on various niches supported by alliances in new networks and the accompanying, co-evolving institutional reform (Roep & Wiskerke 2004, 2006, 2012).
The transformative capacity of grassroots initiatives and promising practices, the ability to make a difference and specifically the struggle with allies for and the creation of a favourable institutional embedding to counter unsustainabilities, degeneration, exclusion and inequalities make up the connecting thread throughout my research (Horlings, Roep & Wellbrock 2018; van den Berg et al. 2018). This was complemented by a relational approach, inspired by actor-network theory (ANT) (Law & Hassard 1999) and what Law and Mol (1995) dubbed ‘relational materialism’, and then by Massey (1994) and others with regard to place-shaping practices. This was foundational to the Marie Curie ITN project ‘SUSPLACE: Exploring the Transformative Capacity of Place-Shaping Practices’ (Horlings et al. 2020). Thence, the focus of my work has shifted from sustainable farming practices to sustainable food provisioning practices and sustainable place-shaping practices – and, more recently, from sustainability to regeneration as a future guide.
In line with the above, my current interest is in grassroots or citizens initiatives that aim to
- Restore and regenerate agro-ecosystems, particularly pioneers in regenerative agriculture and regenerative modes of food provisioning;
- New commons and commoning, particularly diverse forms of community farming.
And, not least, support and report once again on those initiatives engaged in making a difference.
- Benvenuti, B. (1982) De Technologisch-Administratieve Taakomgeving (TATE) van landbouwbedrijven. Marquetalia, 5, p.111-136.
- Berger, P.L., and Luckman, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality; A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Penguin Press.
- Hermans, F., Klerkx L., Roep, D. (2016). Scale Dynamics of Grassroots Innovations Through Parallel Pathways of Transformative Change. Ecological Economics, 130: 285-295.
- Horlings, L.G., Roep, D. and Wellbrock, W. (2018). The Role of Leadership in Place-Based Development and Building Institutional Arrangements, Local Economy, 33(3): 245-268.
- Horlings, L.G., Roep, D., Mathijs, E., Marsden T. (2020). Exploring the Transformative Capacity of Place-Shaping Practices, Sustainability Science, 15: 353-362.
- Law, J. (1994). Organizing Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Law, J., and Mol, A. (1995). Notes on Materiality and Sociality, The Sociological Review, 43: 274-294.
- Law, J., and Hassard, J. (Eds.) (1999). Actor Network Theory and After. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Methorst, R.G., Roep, D., Verstegen, F.J.H.M., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2017). Three-Fold Embedding: Farm development in relation to its socio-material context. Sustainability, 9: 1677.
- Massey, D. (1994). Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge (UK): Polity Press.
- Moschitz, H., Roep, D., Brunori, G., and Tisenkopfs, T. (2015). Learning and Innovation Networks for Sustainable Agriculture: Processes of co-evolution, joint reflection and facilitation, The Journal of Agricultural Education and Extension, 21(1): 1-11.
- Ostrom, E. (1992). Crafting Institutions for Self-governing Irrigation Systems. San Francisco: ICS Press.
- Roep, D. (1988). Stap voor Stap of met een Sprong: Bedrijfsstrategieën in het landbouwstelsel van de Parmigiano Reggiano. Doctoraalscriptie Agrarische Ontwikkelingssociologie. Wageningen: Wageningen University. (Dutch)
- Roep,, D. (2000). Innovative Work: Tracks of capacity and incapacity. PhD thesis. Wageningen: Wageningen University. (Dutch)
- Roep, D., van der Ploeg, J.D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2003). Managing Technical Institutional Design Processes: Some strategic lessons from environmental co-operatives in the Netherlands, NJAS Journal for Life Sciences, 51(1-2): 195-217.
- Roep, D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2004). Epilogue: Reflecting on novelty production and niche management in agriculture, in J.S.C. Wiskerke and J.D. van der Ploeg (eds.), Seeds of Transition: Essays on Novelty Production, Niches and Regimes in Agriculture, pp. 341-356. Assen: Van Gorcum.
- Roep, D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (Eds.). (2006). Nourishing Networks; Fourteen Lessons About Creating Sustainable Food Supply Chains. Rural Sociology Group. Wageningen/ Doetinchem: Wageningen University and Reed Business Information.
- Roep, D., and Wiskerke, J.S.C. (2012). On Governance, Embedding and Marketing: Reflections on the construction of alternative sustainable food networks, Journal of Agriculture and Environmental Ethics, 25: 205-221.
- van den Berg, L., Roep, D., Hecink, P., and Mancini Teixeira, H. (2018). Reassembling Nature and Culture: Resourceful farming in Araponga, Brazil, Journal of Rural Studies, 61: 314-322.
- van der Ploeg, J.D., and Bolhuis, E.E. (1985). Boerenarbeid en Stijlen van Landbouwbeoefening; En socio-economisch onderzoek naar de effecten van incorporatie en institutionalisering op agrarische ontwikkelingspatronen in Italië en Peru, Leiden Development Studies, 8: 511.
- van der Ploeg, J.D., Saccomandi, V., and Roep, D. (1990). Differentiële Groeipatronen in de Landbouw: Het verband tussen zingeving en structurering. Tijdschrift voor Sociaal wetenschappelijk onderzoek van de Landbouw, 5: 108-132.
- van der Ploeg, J.D., and Roep, D. (1990). Bedrijfsstijlen in de Zuidhollandse Veenweidegebieden: Nieuwe perspektieven voor beleid en belangenbehartiging; Koninklijke Land– en Tuinbouwbond en Vakgroep Agrarische Ontwikkelingssociologie Wageningen University.
- van der Ploeg, J.D., Long, A., and Banks, J. (2002). Living Countrysides. Rurale development processes in Europe: The state of the art. Doetinchem: Elsevier bedrijfsinformatie.
- van der Ploeg, J.D., and Roep, D. (2003). Multifunctionality and Rural Development: The actual situation in Europe, in G. van Huylenbroeck and G. Durand (Eds), Multifunctional Agriculture: A New Paradigm for European Agriculture and Rural Development, pp. 37-53. Farnham (UK): Ashgate Publishers.
- Wiskerke, J.S.C., and van der Ploeg, J.D. (Eds.). Seeds of Transition: Essays on Novelty Production, Niches and Regimes in Agriculture. Assen: Van Gorcum.
- Zijderveld, A.C. (2000) The Institutional Imperative: The value of institutions in contemporary society. Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam.
What has been the role of poor rural people in the periphery in changing the world? How can the world change so that poor rural people are no longer poor? How does putting the social inclusion or exclusion of poor rural people front-and-center change how we understand politics, planning, methodology, and epistemology? And what happens to these questions when we place them in the broader framework of ecology and the ecological crisis? These questions have been central to development theories over the last decades or even the last century, and have inflected discussion of the agrarian question, in its political, social, ecological, and national aspects. Yet there has remained a nagging gap between (1) work on decolonization, including contemporary epistemological inquiries; (2) work dealing with macro-economic planning; (3) work on agro-ecology, food sovereignty, pastoralism, and sustainable livelihoods.
Over the last decade, I have tried to address these questions in a variety of ways. Spatially, I have worked outwards from Tunisia to North Africa, the Arab region as a whole, and world ecological crisis. In terms of disciplines, I have worked outwards from rural sociology into historical ecology, the intellectual and social history of planning, and the intellectual history of heterodox post-colonial theories of development.
My dissertation research (Ajl 2019a) started with a puzzle: why and how did Tunisia come to be a poor country, and specifically how did state policies reproduce rural poverty? It tried to understand this through the phenomenon of state price engineering. Yet prices reflected social and political power balances, and the origins of those balances were unclear to me: why and how had poor rural Tunisians been excluded from development? This led to work on the political-historical sociology of anti-colonial revolt, decolonization, and post-colonial political management, especially focused on how the political mobilization of the peasantry/pastoralist population of Tunisia was sheared and blocked from becoming inclusion in Tunisian developmentalism.
In parallel, I worked on other cases in the Arab region, including Syria (Ajl 2019b; Ajl et al. 2020), Yemen (Ajl 2018a), and the Arab region more broadly (Ajl 2021a) tracing how different constellations of social forces, domestically and internationally, led to different agrarian trajectories: partially rural-incorporating as in Syria and Egypt, for example. Or, how the Green Revolution manifested in the Arab region (Ajl 2017; Ajl and Sharma Forthcoming). These studies showed the agrarian question was central to world geopolitics, with more rural-incorporating governments understood as antagonistic to the established order because of their partial endogenization of productive forces. In this way, they showed that national agrarian question were local expressions of a global process (McMichael 1997), wherein political shifts in some Arab nation-states changed the parameters of agrarian/developmental politics in others. In this way I was able to think about how to break from methodological nationalism not only at the level of capitalist accumulation (Wolf 1969) but also resistance to it.
Examining the politics of national liberation and post-colonial planning led me into critiques of those processes from heterodox planners, agronomists, and economists in the Arab region, extending to West Africa and especially Senegal, the home of Samir Amin. In a series of essays (Ajl 2021b, 2019c, 2018b, 2022) I have examined notions of self-reliant or auto-centered development. This idea is based on the diagnosis that countries’ insertion into global capitalism pushes them to pursue policies inimical to the well-being of their poorest sectors. It would follow that more auto-centered policies, focusing on fulfilling the basic needs of the poorest, would lead to superior development outcomes. I examined this idea theoretically through the work of Amin and at the level of intellectual history, as it emerged in planning proposals from Chinese-influenced Egyptian and Tunisian planners.
A third ‘track’ has been my concern with climate change, in particular how to connect the problems of Northern planning and social and ecological crisis with southern aspirations for national popular and ecological development planning. This has resulted in a book (Ajl, 2021c) and a series of articles and chapters (Ajl 2021d, Forthcoming; Ajl and Wallace 2021; Tilley and Ajl 2022) focusing on various aspects of this question: critiques of green modernization, green demographic management, intervention in pastoralist livelihoods, and above all a program for national development planning North and South: bringing what I have learned into Tunisia about popular planning, developmental needs, and appropriate technologies into the northern planning conversation, to think about how to make a world big enough for everyone, North and South.
- Ajl, M., 2022. Food Sovereignty, the National Question, and Post-colonial Development in Africa, in: Ben Gadha, M., Kaboub, F., Koddenbrock, K., Mahmoud, I., Samba Sylla, N. (Eds.), Economic and Monetary Sovereignty in 21st Century Africa. Pluto, London, pp. 238–258.
- Ajl, M., 2021a. Does the Arab region have an agrarian question? The Journal of Peasant Studies 48, 955–983. https://doi.org/10.1080/03066150.2020.1753706
- Ajl, M., 2021b. Delinking’s Ecological Turn: The hidden legacy of Samir Amin. Review of African Political Economy.
- Ajl, M., 2021c. A People’s Green New Deal. Pluto Press, London.
- Ajl, M., 2021d. A People’s Green New Deal: Obstacles and prospects. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 10, 371–390. https://doi.org/10.1177/22779760211030864
- Ajl, M., 2019a. Farmers, Fellaga, and Frenchmen (PhD). Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.
- Ajl, M., 2019b. The Political Economy of Thermidor in Syria: National and international dimensions, in: Syria: From National Independence to Proxy War. Springer, pp. 209–245.
- Ajl, M., 2019c. Auto-Centered Development and Indigenous Technics: Slaheddine el-Amami and Tunisian delinking. Journal of Peasant Studies 46, 1240–1263.
- Ajl, M., 2018a. Yemen’s Agricultural World: Crisis and prospects, in: Crisis and Conflict in Agriculture. CABI.
- Ajl, M., 2018b. Delinking, Food Sovereignty, and Populist Agronomy: Notes on an intellectual history of the peasant path in the global South. Review of African Political Economy 45, 64–84.
- Ajl, M., 2017. Field Notes on Tunisia’s Green Revolution. Viewpoint Magazine.
- Ajl, M., Forthcoming. Everything Changes While Everything Stays the Same. Development and Change.
- Ajl, M., Haddad, B., Abul-Magd, Z., 2020. State, Market, and Class: Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia, in: A Critical Political Economy of the Middle East and North Africa, !!046316523!School for Advanced Research Advanced Seminar Series. Stanford University Press, pp. 46–67.
- Ajl, M., Sharma, D., Forthcoming. Transversal Countermovements: The afterlives of the Green Revolution in Tunisia and India. Canadian Journal of Development Studies/Revue canadienne d’études du développement.
- Ajl, M., Wallace, R., 2021. Red Vegans against Green Peasants [WWW Document]. New Socialist. URL http://newsocialist.org.uk/red-vegans-against-green-peasants/ (accessed 11.1.21).
- McMichael, P., 1997. Rethinking Globalization: the agrarian question revisited. Review of International PoIiticaI Economy 4, 630–662.
- Tilley, L., Ajl, M., 2022. Eco-socialism Will be Anti-eugenic or it Will Be Nothing: Towards equal exchange and the end of population. Politics 02633957221075323. https://doi.org/10.1177/02633957221075323
- Wolf, E.R., 1969. Peasant Wars of the Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press.
In the 1990s, during the peak of the war between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Turkish army forcefully evacuated thousands of rural settlements in the Kurdish region of Turkey and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish villagers to the cities (Jongerden 2007). The influx of these displaced villagers dramatically increased the population of the Kurdish cities, which were already suffering from poverty, unemployment, and the lack of urban infrastructures, and brought scores of socioeconomic challenges with itself. The newly settled rural migrants found themselves as the “other” in the cities, and they were regarded as undesired subjects and an “inconvenience” for the cities (Jongerden 2022). Children of these families became youth in impoverished neighborhoods where they had resettled, and their subjectivity was shaped by both a history of violence that their displaced families had been through (Neyzi and Darici 2015) as well as their everyday struggle to survive in cities that were increasingly alien to them. Within such an environment they became politicized, but their presence particularly became visible after the 2015-2016 urban armed clashes. Starting in August 2015 and after the violent termination of peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK, many neighborhoods and districts of cities in the Kurdish region of Turkey declared autonomy. The Kurdish youth, mostly from displaced rural migrant families, took up arms and built barricades in their neighborhoods. The Turkish state’s response against this move that was later called the “self-government resistance” was brutal and devastating. A massive wave of state violence caused destruction of cities in the Kurdish region, death of hundreds, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people (OHCHR 2017).
I have a sustained interest in Kurdistan and the Kurdish self-determination movement. As a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University, I have been excited to develop a postdoctoral project that builds on the insights of my doctoral dissertation. My postdoctoral research investigates the politics of youth in the Kurdish struggle for self-determination in Turkey by looking at dynamics of mobilization that include or may exclude young people in the spheres of civil society and legal political activism. My research explores how the terrain of civil society has been developed in the Kurdish region under the influence of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, and what the main actors in shaping this terrain are. In the last two decades, the Kurdish self-determination movement in Turkey has undergone a social and political transformation that shifted the geography of the struggle from rural areas to cities. This shift brought the struggle to urban spheres of civil society, municipal governance, and legal parliamentary politics (Akkaya and Jongerden 2012). I examine dynamics and contradictions in the Kurdish movement in the areas of legal and civic activism under the strong influence of the European Union’s reform politics in Turkey (Olson 2007). I focus on the ways in which the process of ‘NGOization’ (Choudry and Kapoor 2013) in the politics of civic engagement has created a certain culture of activism in Turkey and Kurdistan that is class-based, professionalized, and funded, and which relies on institutional politics against popular mobilization. As Rucht (1999) notes, the shift from radical challenger groups to pragmatically oriented pressure organizations can lead to re-radicalization at the fringes. The Kurdish youth from marginalized neighborhoods in the cities of Kurdistan and Turkey found themselves on the other side of the shift to civil society, municipal, and legal politics that had not prioritized their needs and problems. Similar to other parts of the wider Middle East region, it was in these urban enclaves of marginalization and poverty that collective identities among youth were forged (Bayat 2017).
Building on the anthropological scholarship of youth, politics, and violence, this project will contribute to social studies of youth activism especially in marginalized urban enclaves by showing how specific civil society politics and practices can include or exclude young people from social and political participation. Exploring the dynamics of youth activism, my research will have broader policy implications to better understand youth at-risk and their experiences in environment of war and violence, particularly in the aftermath of forced migration from rural areas to urban centers. This project will make a significant addition to the growing literature on Kurdish studies especially around the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. I intend to broaden the focus of this project in my future research endeavors to explore the dynamics of youth activism in other contexts where indigenous communities and/or ethnic minorities struggle for sovereignty and self-determination.
*Sardar Saadi is a Postdoc at the Rural Sociology Group
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- Rucht, Dieter. (1999). The Transnationalization of Social Movements: Trends, Causes, Problems. In Social Movements in a Globalizing World. Edited by Donatella della Porta, Hanspeter Kriesi, and Dieter Rucht. 206-222. London: Palgrave Macmillan.