By Noémi Gonda, Frédéric Huybrechs, René Rodríguez-Fabilena, Gert Van Hecken, and other political ecologists from Nicaragua whose names are not displayed for security reasons
For over 3 months, Nicaragua has been facing its worst political crisis in recent decades. The simmering discontent erupted as a full-blown crisis on 18 April 2018, when promulgated reforms of the social security system were met by peaceful protests, which were quelled by brutal government violence. An increasingly large part of Nicaraguan society no longer tolerates the government’s authoritarianism. That the protests of April were also sparked initially as a response to the government’s slow and secretive handling of heavy forest fires in the Indio Maíz Biosphere Reserve is not a coincidence. It shows how the current social resistance is partly rooted in environmental conflicts illustrated in recent years by continued peasant resistance against large-scale mining concessions and a 100-year concession given in 2014 to a Chinese millionaire to build a transoceanic canal. There is indeed a glaring contradiction between the official governmental discourse (respect for ‘madre tierra’ and ‘buen vivír’) and its practice, which is in fact largely a continuation of neoliberal and unsustainable development models introduced by earlier governments. In this sense, part of the Nicaraguan population is both disgruntled with the emergence of an autocratic and repressive government and heavily opposed to a development model based on the further depletion of natural resources (e.g. the development of large scale agro-industrial production systems for sugar cane, palm oil and tobacco, leading to the further encroachment on increasingly scarce forest areas) with the involvement of a government that hides its intentions behind a ‘post-neoliberal’ narrative.
In just a few days, the protests were met with the large-scale killing of mostly unarmed civilians by police and government-supported para-police forces. These state-supported violations of human rights and disproportionate violence resulted -at last count- in more than 440 confirmed deaths, over 2800 injured, and 718 disappeared. The victims are mainly unarmed university and high-school students from working class neighbourhoods, and farmers. Many more (supposed) protesters and dissidents are being threatened and live in constant fear. Those who can afford it try to leave the country. The aspiration of ending oppression, ensuring justice for the victims, establishing democracy and the rule of law, and reflecting on how to reconstruct ‘life in common’ –all of which resonates with preoccupations of many engaged political ecologists– has become an urgent and concrete political project and a gigantic challenge. In this, the Nicaraguan students and farmers who are currently heading the protests, bear a particular responsibility. Perhaps the most important challenge will be whether overcoming the crisis will go hand in hand with the transformation of the institutional foundations underlying the current development model towards more equity and justice for all social groups (including marginalized groups, such as indigenous people, small-scale farmers and women) within the principles of environmental justice.
We, the authors of this blog post who love Nicaragua and its people, are emotionally traumatised by the suffering experienced by our families, friends, and colleagues, as a result of the politics of fear and polarization that have been installed increasingly and perniciously by the Nicaraguan government over the last 11 years. Indeed, current President Daniel Ortega and his wife –and vice-president- Rosario Murillo’s populist measures and narrative have contributed to solidifying a system of extreme social control, nepotism and clientelism. This system of control and polarization has pervaded all levels of society; in the current crisis, the best illustration is perhaps that doctors working in public hospitals have been refusing, under orders of their superiors, to provide care for injured protesters.
The gravity of the situation has led the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit the country and release a scathing report; the Organisation of American States to condemn the governmental killings; and many countries to issue statements condemning the actions of the Nicaraguan government, which continues to criminalize social protests in its official discourse, depicting protesters as criminals, vandals, terrorists and even Satanists. Under a new Terrorism Act, important leaders of the Nicaraguan peasant resistance have been imprisoned in July 2018, while national peace dialogues, mediated by the Catholic Church between the government and the protesters to negotiate the exit of the President and his wife have been stopped as they refuse to step down.
Despite the growing condemnation of the government’s actions at the international level, global public opinion remains largely polarized and split between supporting either the protesters or the Nicaraguan government. The Ortega-Murillo government is self-proclaimed Sandinista (pretending to continue the historical revolutionary movement which ousted the US-sponsored Somoza dictatorship in 1979), post-neoliberal and promoting buen vivír. The opposition against its authoritarian and dictatorial tendencies and practices has gathered a variety of groups. These include genuine critical historical Sandinista revolutionaries, defeated ultra-conservative political groupings supported by the US, farmers who have felt abandoned and marginalized by all successive governments since Somoza, as well as a younger generation of students and activists born after the 1979 revolution and averse of traditional political structures (political parties, trade unions, etc.). It is therefore an oversimplification and a pity to buy into the governmental discourse qualifying the protests as exclusively neoliberal, right-wing (derechista), supported by the US, and anti-revolutionary; which is what many international Left-wing movements and political parties seem to believe. Therefore, they avoid publicly condemning the Nicaraguan government’s repressive actions for fear of betraying what they think is international Left-wing solidarity. This is factually wrong, and for us ethically unacceptable.
The Nicaraguan crisis also gives new meanings and embodiments to concepts dear to political ecologists, such as ‘resistance’, ‘transformation’, ‘belonging’ and ‘care’. As political ecologists, we are interested in explaining how resistance can lead to transformations; and in supporting radical social and environmental transformation towards equity and justice. Therefore, we see our task as twofold: first, we need to inform the world on what is happening in Nicaragua. Second, we should put our insights and academic and activist energy at the disposal of the Nicaraguans who face the gigantic task of envisioning and constructing a new, democratic, just and equitable future.
Tanglewest Douglas, an undergraduate ecology student at Lancaster University, reflects on a film showing organised by the Lancaster University node and the Landworkers’ Alliance, and what both the film and the debate that followed tell us about current questions around the future of food and farming.
Cut the CAP
The Lancaster POLLEN node recently organised a viewing of ‘In Our Hands: Seeding Change’, a film about small scale farms and land working operations in the UK, and the challenges they face in their establishment and running. Many of these seem obvious, though they often go unstated or unconsidered. But, once they had been highlighted at a recent film showing, the possible causes and solutions sparked much debate amongst the audience members as we will discuss. This was particularly evident during a following Skype interview with a representative member of a land worker’s union: The Landworker’s Alliance (the LWA). The LWA is a union that was not only involved in the production of the film, but also took the starring role, as they provided the small farmers, belonging to the Alliance, that were the subjects.
The key point in the narrative of the film was that it can be very hard for these often organic, unindustrialized farms to turn a profit. This may be due to competition with supermarkets, providing cheap, readily available food; difficulty moving produce; or simply due to a limited season of production. Though these farms are often incredibly productive relative to their land area, getting the capital necessary to employ farm workers, buy machinery and even maintain infrastructure can be very challenging. Many smaller farms rely on the help of volunteers, keen to gain experience or even just hoping for a temporary escape from the drudgery of a 9 to 5 life by working the land (LWA, 2017).
The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) also contributes significantly to these problems. It is designed to reward beneficiaries merely for owning land that is used for agriculture, but many of the smaller farms are disadvantaged by this, as they don’t have enough land to qualify for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). The BSP is the system through which a large majority of the money available as subsidies is paid out. A farm needs to consist of at least 5 hectares of land to qualify for CAP payments and due to the nature of the LWA many of their members’ farms do not meet this requirement (Rural Payments Agency, 2018). Some farms of the LWA even consist of less than one hectare of land, though these are the smallest of small farms. While small hold farmers may be eligible for other funding through the rural development scheme (RDS), this receives a much smaller proportion of the EU budget and a wider range of rural businesses and projects, including tourism projects, for funding through the RDS (Rural Payments Agency, 2017). At the same time, the focus of subsidies is changing, moving more towards reducing environmental degradation on agricultural land. ‘Green payments’ have been introduced to incentivise farmers to improve the quality of their land through their agricultural practices, and farmers can now fail to qualify for CAP payments if they do not meet certain standards of animal welfare and low environmental impact. Though these are criteria in which small farms often excel, still the farmers of these small plots are not often rewarded by the government for their beneficial impact on the land they occupy.
Despite most of the food in the world being produced on small farms and for local communities, this is not how most food is supplied in the UK (FAO, 2017). Half of our food is sourced internationally, as the UK lacks the climate to grow the fruits and vegetables we consume daily, other than potatoes – though we do grow an abundance of potatoes grown on very large farms. Meanwhile, we also import considerable amounts of other agricultural products, for example, the 3 million tons a year of soy we use for feeding livestock (DEFRA, 2017). This leads to very high carbon emissions from transport, and to food being sourced from huge industrial farms from around the world. But even within the UK, agriculture is dominated by a system of fewer larger farms, rather than many small ones. Due to the inherent size of small farms, they often receive no subsidies at all. Because of this lack of governmental support, and as it is dished out to the larger industrial farms, many farmers must also work outside of their farms to supplement their income with other work. They often earn more than 50% of their income this way, to be able to financially maintain their farms and lifestyles (LWA, 2017).
There are numerous obvious problems with the industrialized, monoculture farms that dominate the food markets of the UK, such as:
The food security risks that stem from the lack of genetic diversity on monoculture farms.
Considerable soil degradation from the use of heavy machinery and choice of crops
The misuse of fertilizers causing hyper-eutrophication in surrounding systems.
The removal of hedgerows and other important bridges and spaces for local wildlife to make way for the farms.
The uses of pesticides and herbicides – particularly in relation to GM crops – further damaging local wildlife and creating resistant strains of weed and pest species’.
All of these are raised as serious concerns in much of the publicity that the LWA puts out, and the list could go on. However, we must still face the fact that despite all these seemingly blatant problems, avoided by the small, organic farms that were the subject of the film, huge farms are still the dominant source of food in Western markets.
Because the cost of production on small farms is higher, their produce often comes at a premium. This means such farms are very dependent on a local community that is willing to pay more for their food. This dependency could be considered an advantage, as it can help build stronger links with the community that they operate in, but it is also a vulnerability. Though there are examples of food being produced at a competitive price, often this is not a plausible way to make enough money to keep the farm running. If the farm cannot find a niche where it can be competitive in the market, it is likely to fail. Small farms employ many more workers per acre of land than industrialized farms, which are predominantly designed around efficiency, and labour is expensive. To make a profit, the money made from produce must be maximised, and though for small farms this can be done through models such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) schemes, most often this is done through selling goods at prices above what you would expect in a supermarket (LWA, 2017).
The money we spend on food has changed dramatically over the past 100 years. The proportion of a household’s weekly budget being spent on food has gone down enormously. While this may reflect increases in rent and the cost of utilities, this change is facilitated by the unethically and consistently low prices of food in supermarkets made possible in many instances by the CAP. Major reforms to the CAP in 2005 were aimed at reducing the overproduction caused by insuring the price of agricultural products for farmers against the market, a problem that also had large ramifications outside of the EU. But the current system still has drawbacks. The BPS could be considered a subsidy for farmers that allows the prices of agricultural products drop, but this price cannot be matched by those who do not receive such funding. As the financial cost of food has gone down, the environmental cost of food has gone up, a change that is greatly implicated in the struggle that these small farmers now face. But, this is not something that we can change overnight.
This brings us to one of the biggest objections levelled at the narrative the film presented of small farms: that their produce is inaccessible for many people. The story of ground-roots operations bringing healthy, green food to the people around them did not resonate with the experiences of many audience members. These farms cater to what was considered to be a very middle class and privileged section of society, people with the money and time to favour what seemed to be viewed as the more moral, but exclusive choice for food. Not only were the prices deemed as exclusionary, but it was suggested that the kind of products that were being displayed in the film, outside of simply fruit and vegetables, were aimed squarely at wealthy, middle-class consumers, for example breads made from heritage wheat grains sold at twice the price of the equivalent bread from Sainsbury’s. The members of the LWA identify as staunchly working class, on the basis that they have manual labour jobs, and they refuted what they seemed to take as an accusation of elitism. In fact, as members of La Via Campesina they identify as a part of the peasantry.
This disconnect between how the members of the LWA perceive themselves, and how the audience viewed them, was quite striking. But, no matter the disjunction in perception of class, the point still stands: with a rising dependency for even those who are employed on food banks and food clubs, ever increasing childhood obesity linked to food prices and poverty, and the inaccessibility of food produced on small farms in large cities, their produce cannot be the immediate answer for everyone. While the highest earning households spend approximately 10% of their budget on food, the lowest income households spend 23% of their budget on food meaning that increased food prices will have a disproportionately higher exclusionary effect on the poorest members of society (Levell, 2017).
There are obvious steps that could be taken to start to mitigate and change this situation. Some of the many suggestions by the audience members to end the plight of small farms included changing government regulations to help small businesses, like farms, by providing subsidies without a minimum land requirement, and not encouraging accumulation of land, as well as helping entrants through education in farming and practical skills to make it a more viable lifestyle for workers. Many in the LWA are viewing Brexit as an opportunity to renegotiate these systems of payment. But whether we are capable of this is another question entirely. Our society is built on capitalist principles. These farms operate as businesses and are trying to turn a profit, despite the lack of certain protections. And competition is immense.
It was also suggested that the contention between these small farms and supermarkets, viewing them almost as the opposition, may be one of the reasons that they become so inaccessible to many people. If the farmers in the LWA viewed supermarkets as an opportunity rather than as their adversaries in a highly competitive market and could strike deals to supply supermarkets for a ‘local produce’ section, for example, this could be beneficial for all. Not only could this lead to much greater job security and stability for farmers with less land, or farmers producing seasonally, it could also make prices more competitive and local organic food more accessible for people, particularly in large cities. Some of the operations presented in the film were limited simply by the distance they could drive from their farms, an issue that could easily be overcome working with larger supermarkets. This seems unlikely to happen, however, due to the differences in ethos of the LWA and most supermarket chains.
The absolute nature of the LWA’s opinions was particularly apparent in their attitudes towards GM crops. This is largely irrelevant in Europe, due to the very limited market for GM crops, but some audience members seemed concerned by the statements of the LWA’s representative regarding genetic modification, when she said that they were not used by any members and that the LWA were totally against their use. This opposition was not directed only at the worst case of corporations selling sterile seeds, or at selling them to unprotected farmers at very inflated prices. They seemed opposed to the actual scientific process behind their creation. GM was compared the process of plant breeding, a process that can be considered a slower version of genetic modification, which has of course been used for as long as humans have had agriculture, as an objection to this stance.
Despite there being some questioning of the narrative presented in the film, in general the audience all seemed in favour of more organic and locally grown food. This may have been influenced by the fact that this event was organised by a university Geography department, and so the majority of the audience were students, a notoriously liberal subsection of society. The disadvantages faced by the small farms were acknowledged, and condemnation was levelled at the government, especially the Tories. Eventually the discussion reached its conclusion, as it always seems to do: everyone present agreed ‘Capitalism is bad’, at least in its current form. Unfortunately, no one in the group has yet found a solution.
Laughton, R (2017). A Matter of Scale. The Landworker’s Alliance, The Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University.
Rural Payments Agency (2018). Basic Payment Scheme: rules for 2018.
Rural Payments Agency (2017). Rural Development Programme for England
FAO (2017). The future of food and Agriculture- Trends and Challenges. Rome.
DEFRA (2017). Food Statistics in your pocket 2017.
Levell, P. et al. (2017) The exposure of households’ food spending to tariff changes and exchange rate movements. The Institute for Fiscal Studies.
We’re happy to share with you this beautiful essay, the first in what we hope will be a series of essays about political ecology in practice. If you would like to contribute an essay, please get in touch!
El silencio del viento contrario
By Massimo Paolini
The nocturnal wanders through Zurich of a man who plants seeds, with silent perseverance, have tight bonds with the silent resistance to the commodification of the city of a growing number of people throughout the planet. Seeding new ideas in the hostile environment of the neoliberal city as well as the search for a fair relation between humankind and nature are acts of resistance capable of undermining the illusory certainties of the neoliberal economy. This silent wind, that blows in a direction opposite the wind of progress that keeps open the wings of the benjaminian Angel of History, allows him to rest by the ruins of our epoch and ‘make whole what has been smashed’ to begin a new time.
En Zúrich un hombre recorre la ciudad de noche con las manos cerradas. En silencio sigue los pasos marcados en un mapa. En las manos lleva semillas. No se trata de unas semillas cualesquiera, sino de plantas pioneras: plantas capaces de crecer en terrenos hostiles, en lugares inhóspitos para el desarrollo de la vida, plantas cuya característica es la abundante producción de semillas y de minerales que abonan el terreno para que puedan crecer otras plantas con más necesidades.
La ciudad contemporánea se ha vuelto un lugar inhóspito para el desarrollo de la vida: la lucha constante por la supervivencia de la casi inexistente naturaleza en un ambiente en el que la superficie de suelo sellado avanza inexorablemente guarda estrecha relación con la lucha contra la mercantilización de la ciudad.
La naturaleza, cuando presente, se convierte en el monumento a su ausencia, en el símbolo de la relación superficial, cautiva de la economía neoliberal, entre seres humanos y mundo natural que caracteriza nuestra época: mercantilizada (entradas para visitar parques y jardines botánicos, especulación sobre los llamados productos ecológicos, venta de costosos kits para aprender a cosechar en la ciudad, etc.) o bien violada (poda de árboles que se asemejan a amputaciones, plantas a pocos centímetros de los automóviles, hormigón y asfalto en parques y patios, etc.). La capa de asfalto, omnipresente, interrumpe material y simbólicamente nuestra relación con la tierra.
Las semillas de plantas pioneras que el hombre siembra en el silencio de la noche zuriquesa, en completa soledad y con la apasionada determinación de quienes no quieren ser espectadores pasivos de los eventos, crecen en las grietas del asfalto, en las hendiduras de la ciudad neoliberal, oponiéndose a la mercantilización de la naturaleza, actuando como aliadas de quienes abogan por un cambio radical en la organización de la ciudad y la vida social.
Este cambio puede realizarse a través de la recuperación de la relación entre seres humanos y naturaleza, restableciendo los vínculos profundos que siempre la han caracterizado, un acto de resistencia a la economía neoliberal. Para poder recuperar estos vínculos, al ser el ambiente inhóspito, son necesarias semillas de plantas pioneras que darán paso a la creación de un ambiente fértil para la futura vegetación. Trasladado a las ideas, las plantas pioneras son la metáfora de las ideas que, antes de alcanzar su momento de legibilidad, son consideradas radicales por el ambiente cultural inhóspito y contribuyen a la creación de un ambiente cultural fértil para la futura liberación.
Penetrar la ciudad de noche, cuando el silencio nos hace ver la destrucción operada por la economía neoliberal, es la metáfora de un paseo por las ideas que conciben la vida no como una competición para eliminar al adversario y alcanzar el poder y el éxito personal, sino como un tiempo abierto a la convivencialidad, al conocimiento de lo imprevisible, de lo poético.
Maurice, el hombre que siembra semillas e ideas en Zúrich, es uno de los protagonistas de la película Wild Plants, de Nicolas Humbert, recientemente estrenada en Praga, un viaje poético en busca de la energía de reacción a la destrucción de la naturaleza a la que estamos asistiendo. Una energía positiva que se condensa en personas que habitan distintas partes del planeta, desde Detroit hasta Ginebra y Zúrich, y tienen un elemento en común, que no conoce fronteras: el hecho de ser semillas de resistencia que engendran la esperanza de un posible, concreto cambio en nuestra época.
Actos individuales —como en el caso de Maurice Maggi— o colectivos —el activista nativo norteamericano Milo Yellow Hair, una pareja que decide dedicarse a cultivar la tierra en Detroit, una cooperativa de jóvenes en Ginebra que decide cultivar hortalizas y venderlas directamente a quienes viven en la zona— que ocurren a miles de kilómetros de distancia comparten la misma visión del mundo.
Cambio climático, deforestación, agricultura intensiva, apoderamiento de tierras por los poderosos, guerras: ante la destrucción debida a la tempestad del progreso, aceptado por la mayoría de las personas como si fuera un fenómeno inevitable (el mismo viento que empuja al ángel de la historia benjaminiano impidiéndole cerrar las alas), un viento sopla silenciosamente en dirección contraria por todo el planeta. Se trata de la reacción de personas que desmitifican el progreso técnico y su mercantilización rechazando su carácter ‘natural’ e inevitable y aplicando los ‘frenos de emergencia’ a la economía neoliberal, sintonizándose con el ritmo lento de las plantas.
Personas que a pesar de la distancia hablan el mismo lenguaje: el acto de sembrar en la ciudad, la cosecha y la venta de hortalizas a personas a las que conocemos personalmente, la decisión de (re)descubrir nuestra relación profunda con la naturaleza, el asombro ante los saltos de los animales libres junto con el rechazo a querer poseerlos y cautivarlos, son todos actos que se pueden definir políticos, lejos de las instituciones, cerca de la vida. Este viento contrario que contrarresta la economía neoliberal permite al ángel de la historia cerrar sus alas, detenerse ante las ruinas de la historia que ‘se acumulan hasta el cielo’ para empezar una época nueva.
El silencio de la poesía de las imágenes en el ruido de imágenes fútiles, las palabras densas y lentas en una aceleración de palabras huecas, son otros elementos de resistencia.