Today’s blog comes from Dr Jessica Hope, Vice-Chancellor’s Research Fellow at the University of Bristol and Chair of the Developing Areas Research Group (DARG) of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). Her research spans human geography, development studies and political ecology and addresses questions of socio-environmental change in response to climate change. Her current project, funded by an RGS Environment & Sustainability Grant, investigates reiterations of sustainable development in Bolivia, as promoted by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). At the upcoming Development Studies Association (#DSA2019) conference, Jessica will present on the early-career plenary panel. You can follow her on Twitter.
As an early career academic, it’s been a challenge to research sustainable development and the SDGs. The SDGs may be a new set of development goals but the concept of sustainable development is old….and already much critiqued. In my recent research on the early take-up and implementation of the SDGs in Bolivia, I have tried to use this as a starting point for my work. In terms of theory, this has meant asking what can help us think about sustainable development differently? And in terms of my empirical focus, this has meant questioning how the mainstreaming of the SDGs, as a global (and globalizing) response to climate change, effect more radical environmental agendas – those that have emerged since the mainstreaming of sustainable development in the 1980s (and sometimes in critique of the concept). Somewhat conversely, these efforts to think differently have actually helped me to better understand why things are staying the same and how, in Bolivia, powerful, extractivist development logics are being maintained and reworked.
Bolivia is an insightful case through which to investigate reiterations of sustainable development. With the election of President Evo Morales in 2005, himself an indigenous social movement leader, Bolivia was looked to as one of the most radical countries in Latin America’s move left. New development and environmental ideas and policies were enacted by the state, which have mostly promoted indigenous knowledges, rights and anti-colonial agendas. Particularly relevant to the environmental remit of the SDGs are those that re-conceptualised development as Vivir Bien/‘Good Living’ (replacing targets for economic growth with targets for social and environmental well-being), granted legal rights to nature and pledged significantly enhanced territorial rights to indigenous and campesino groups. Yet, since 2009, intensifying commitments to extractivism have come to dominate Bolivian politics and debates, as well override progressiveagendas. In 2015, the Morales administration set out commitments for Bolivia to be the ‘energy heart of Latin America’ – expanding hydrocarbon infrastructure and exports to include fracking, hydropower megaprojects and solar farms. It is in the context of this contested politics that the SDGs are being implemented.
In terms of thinking differently, I have found assemblage theory useful to researching and analyzing the SDGs in Bolivia. Assemblage theory foregrounds the ways realities come into being through particular (and changing) relationships and connections between, for example, objects, places, institutions, discourses and policies. Drawing on how Deleuze and Guatarri’s theories of assemblage (agencement) have been used in social science, primarily by Tania Murray Li, I have used assemblage thinking to analyse how powerful common-senses are being made, maintained and reworked. In Bolivia, adopting this approach has firstly foregrounded how the take-up of the SDGs emerges in relation to existing development agendas, actors and networks. The SDGs are primarily being operationalized by the state, by international NGOs and by their national partners. Secondly, the goals were brought into existing initiatives, rather than causing a wholesale reappraisal of development work. Thirdly, I found that, crucially, the SDGs assemblage is disciplined – with NGOs, for example, being clear that their work could not address disputes between the state and civil society. This meant the contentious politics of extractivism is excluded from sustainable development projects and discourse. A fourth finding about is that through its emergence, disciplining and holding together, progressive discourses are being “deployed to new ends”. The central government has aligned its commitments to the SDGs with their interpretations of Vivir Bien, which fall within the parameters of an extractive-led development model. So rather than providing support to those contesting extractive-led development, the SDGs are helping to consolidate its hegemony. This interpretation and deployment of Vivir Bien is contradictory to how Vivir Bien has been conceptualized and advocated by activists and scholars. In their critical reading, Vivir Bien/ Buen Vivir provides an alternative to sustainable development, as it decentres growth and instead moves toward a more holistic measure of wellbeing (including how communities live with and treat nature). In summary, assemblage thinking reveals that the SDGs are acting as a form of anti-politics – rendering neutral and technical the contested environment/development politics of Bolivia.
Finally, and in answer to my second question, I have used assemblage thinking to identify a counter-assemblage that is emerging and consolidating in relation to the exclusions outlined above. This means identifying the organisations, discourses, politics, landscapes and histories that are coming together in exclusion from mainstream development agendas in Bolivia and in opposition to extractivism. What I find exciting is that assemblage thinking enables the inclusion of material components too – trees, riverways, habitats, wildlife, canoes, speedboats and roads. Following the work of urban geographers, for example Ash Amin, this opens-up interesting lines of enquiry into the sociality and liveliness of particular territories, as place, and how they are generative of reworked and progressive environment/development politics. In this new work, I am researching the generative liveliness of the hybrid spaces that partly emerge from policies for conservation, territory, collectivity and extractivism. Despite calls for academics to make a pragmatic step to get behind the SDGs, the Bolivian case has made me question this step and, instead, I plan to examine the stifled, excluded, contentious and more transformative politics of the counter-assemblage.
Plenty of virtual ink has been spilled predicting the advent of commercial deep-sea mining (DSM). Successful extraction of zinc, gold and copper has already taken place in Japan in late 2017. Several other countries who have identified deep-sea mineral deposits in their territorial waters are considering whether or not to adopt the new industry into their future economic strategies. Yet, despite the widespread interest in the activity, to date there has only been one commercial contract for deep-sea mineral extraction awarded globally. Moreover, this project – a copper and gold mine named Solwara 1 in the Bismarck Sea of Papua New Guinea – has struggled to overcome the funding requirements needed to become commercially viable. Its contractor, Nautilus Minerals – a Canadian mining firm – has struggled to convince investors of its ability to manage both the economic and ecological uncertainty fostered by deep-sea mining’s untested nature.
At the same time, the International Seabed Authority, the key regulator for minerals found on the seabed in the area beyond national jurisdiction, has issued 29 exploration contracts to both private and state-run companies from all over the world. Deep-sea mining thus stands at a threshold: waiting in the waters yet confronted with an array of questions. However, for all the pointed arguments expressed by those on both sides of a debate, which has focused on evaluations of environmental and economic sustainability, analyses that have sought to understand deep-sea mining’s very specific politics have been rarely heard. Put another way, it is necessary to think about deep-sea mining as a contentious political problem, in which the politics of knowledge and justice are never far from the surface and in which a variety of actors – both human and more-than-human – will shape the future prospects for the controversial industry.
Deep-sea mining has proved to be a divisive topic. For its apologists, it heralds a sustainable answer to dwindling supplies of high-quality, terrestrial deposits of conventional deposits such as copper. The deep-sea deposits being earmarked for future extraction are said to be of higher quality and concentrated into a reduced footprint. The proposed Solwara 1 copper deposit in Papua New Guinea is just 0.1km², a fraction of the 7.5km² dedicated to the world’s biggest copper mine, Bingham Canyon in Utah, USA. Other champions of the nascent industry point to its potential to furnish the green energy infrastructures of the future with the rare earth elements required for their expansion. Electric vehicles, wind turbines and photovoltaics are all cited by the industry as placing a demand on society for materials that can only be met by an expansion of the mining frontier into the ocean.
On the other hand, DSM has attracted plenty of criticism from those who point to the uncertainty surrounding the ecological consequences to the ecosystems of the deep ocean. Although scientific studies of deep-sea oceanography remain limited, most stress the need for care, advocating a precautionary principle that states ‘where potential adverse effects are not fully understood, activities should not proceed’ (UN WCN 1982). Such concerns have been raised by a number of international NGOs ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Deep Sea Mining Campaign, who additionally highlight the lack of consent from local communities and are calling for further research on the social and ecological impacts of DSM.
Those making the case for deep-sea mining, point to the notion that it has ‘no human impact’. This continues a longstanding tradition in Western thought that the deep sea has a negligible relation to the rest of the social world. Yet this is disingenuous, as the case of Solwara 1 makes clear. Certainly, for communities closest to the proposed deep-sea mine site in Papua New Guinea, the fears of spiritual, ecological and economic disruption are very real indeed. Although the targeted metals lie some 1600m beneath the surface of the ocean, research conducted over the last three years showed that proximate populations were most concerned about the potential impact upon spirits – so-called masalai – that reside in and protect the deep-ocean and its resources. For these people, the deep-sea is not a world separated from humanity. As a prominent leader representing the 20,000 inhabitants of the Duke of York Islands, a small archipelago situated around 30km from the proposed mine site, makes clear:
‘The sea is not another world. It is part of graun [earth]. You see people, fish, masalai [spirits], volcanoes, what you call land, the sea – it is all connected. We understand that we are at one with the sea. But we are also are at one with the spirits. If you disturb this world, you are in trouble…this is why this seabed mining company will be in trouble – it does not understand how us people connect to something deeper’
For many communities near the Solwara 1 site, the spiritual world is foundational to their identity. As has been noted elsewhere in the context of terrestrial mining in Melanesia, for these people the arrival of deep-sea mining ‘means not just social and economic disruption; it rends the very fabric of the world and a vivid, direct, sacred link with the land is irrecoverably lost’ (Macgregor 2017). Perspectives such as these and those highlighted in a short film produced as part of the project—Into the Abyss: the politics of deep sea mining in Papua New Guinea—serve to force a reconsideration of the ways in which the deep-sea’s ‘hidden’ nature comes to matter politically.
It is only in recent years that the ocean has been taken seriously as an object of social scientific enquiry (e.g. Steinberg 2001; Deloughrey 2017). Despite a glut of work emanating from marine science, the ‘social’ ocean has largely ‘remained outside of history’ (Hannigan 2016: 3). Moreover, this oversight becomes even more acute as depth is introduced to the analysis. Simply put, thinking about the ways that the ocean’s depth and the physical characteristics of the seabed might matter politically have been almost totally absent (Squire 2017). Yet matter they do.
The extreme location of the deposits, several kilometres below the surface of the water in some cases, is far beyond the capacity of human beings to experience it directly. This creates political space for imagined geographies (what people imagine the deep-sea to be) to come into conflict with corporate attempts to communicate science and legitimise their practices. For example, Nautilus Minerals highlights the dynamic and volcanic nature of the seabed close to the proposed mine site in Papua New Guinea. By pointing to the regularity and violence of eruptions in the immediate surrounding area, it is able to simultaneously stress the resilience of nearby associated bacteria and fauna. The argument goes that if these organisms can withstand a volcanic event, then they can comfortably survive any disruption caused by mining. It is an effective means to counter critique from those that are concerned by DSM’s environmental impacts.
Another example of this kind of material politics relates to the geologic speed at which deep-sea mineral deposits are formed. At Solwara 1, ‘black smokers’—underwater chimneys made by minerals that are precipitated from rapidly cooling jets of fluids—can grow several feet in a matter of weeks. This is incredibly dynamic in geologic terms. Compare this to polymetallic nodules – another type of targeted deep-sea mineral deposit – that form at the rate of about one inch every million years, and the ethical implications of seafloor disturbance emerge quite differently.
A final dimension, which demands attention in considering DSM as political, is time (Childs 2018). Many accounts of deep-sea mining frame it as an industry ‘of the future’. This has conceptual purchase, offering the allure of untapped wealth, and positioning the activity as a key part of a ‘blue economy’, the extension of a capitalist spatial fix into earth’s watery volumes. Yet just as the ‘future’ facing aspects of DSM are about the appeals made to global finance with their attendant promises of ‘resource potential’, so too must any ‘waste’ from the extractive process be included in predictions of environmental impact.
Moreover, the ‘time’ of deep-sea mining operates on a range of different registers and speeds, each with their own political implication. This might be about the acquisition and control of monitoring, generating and transmitting data on seabed resources or the time of their geologic formation. Whether it’s about the anticipation of DSM’s potential before extraction even begins or the time, as yet unknowable, when its environmental impacts are realised, time will be crucial to defining its politics.
These aspects addressed above collectively lead us to confront some uncomfortable political questions that have yet to be fully addressed. This is not just the case in Papua New Guinea. More globally, as the ambitions for deep-sea mining expand, how is the extraordinary diversity of different knowledge systems that relate to the ocean going to be reconciled? Is the mining of the deep seabed a price worth paying in order to build the green energy systems of the future? If not, where are we going to get the materials needed?
In 1917 Lenin published his book Imperialism as the highest stage of capitalism (Lenin 1999), and immediately after he started a revolution in Russia that no Marxist theorist could have foreseen. This conclusion seemed logical on the light of the events he had witnessed in the previous decades. In 1873, Germany and the United States finally entered the gold standard and immediately after the Long Depression began. The costs that the gold standard imposed to nations in crisis, that had to suffer the ills of unemployment and deflation before going back to the economic equilibrium, were unbearable for societies, and societies logically responded (Block 2001, p. 14). This response consisted of a mixture of industrial and agrarian tariffs on the one side and of social legislation to protect the workers on the other. These policies, which aimed to make trade flows, and therefore nations, less sensitive to price changes and also to protect businessman and workers from the effects of the gold standard, were adopted in all major countries, starting from Germany. There, Bismarck popularised the “all round protectionism” concept (Polanyi and MacIver 1944, p. 210). The introduction of these tariffs provoked the need for the different states of continuously expanding their colonies to ensure markets and raw materials for the national companies, and thus transformed colonialism, a formerly decried idea, into a necessity. (Block 2001, p. 15). This expansion filled the world with imperialist rivalries, that were first confined into some colonial wars but later escalated and provoked the First World War. Thus, Lenin´s conclusion seemed logical given that the tensions created by the Gold Standard had mainly expressed themselves in the form of imperialist rivalries, where countries sought to alleviate the tensions in their societies by externalizing them to other regions of the world (Polanyi and MacIver 1944, p. 211), but this was not the only way in which the strain manifested. The other possible outcome was best exemplified by William Jennings Bryan, the candidate of the Democratic Party in the 1896 election. Following a period of economic struggle in the US after 1893, Bryan won the nomination by defending that “you shall not press down upon the brow of labour this crown of thorns; you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” (quoted in Kazin 2007) and thus advocating the exit of the US of the Gold Standard. In his speech, Bryan showed how the strain in the north American society would be alleviated in the internal politics by defending the interests of the farmers, the workers and the people in general against the interests of the bankers of the East Coast, and if he would have won and implemented this vision we would have seen the end of the dream of a self-regulating market. His speech got him also the support of the People’s Party, a populist party of the US, and showed that populism is the other possible final outcome of liberalism. To further argument this thesis, that is, that populism is the other possible outcome of liberalism, we will start by reviewing the modern origin of this concept, and to do so, we have to go back again to Marxism and the October Revolution. Orthodox Marxists theory predicted that the revolution would occur in the most developed countries based upon several quotes of Marx. One example of such a quote was the one indicating that the essence of the bourgeoisie class made them push involuntarily for the advance of industry and therefore for the substitution of individualized workers through an organised working class, that ultimately would be their grave-diggers (Marx and Engels 1967, p. 8). Another example would be the one pointing that “no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed” (Marx 2010). This didn’t finally occur, and the revolution was made in one of the least developed European countries, Russia. This contradiction led Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party, to question himself why that did happened, and one of the results of this and other questions was his theory of hegemony. There Gramsci suggested that the bourgeois class was the dominant class not only due to their ability to maintain the grip of society through coercion, but also due to their ability to obtain consent for their actions thanks to the transformation of their ideas in the common sense of society and their ability to co-opt and integrate other classes in a subaltern position (Katz 2010). If a class achieved such a dominant position then it would be hegemonic, and the challenge for the subaltern classes such as the working class would be to create their own working class culture that would allow them to liberate themselves from the dominance of the bourgeois class and to wage the fight for hegemony (Katz 2010). Also, it is important to point out that while developing his theory of hegemony, Gramsci was thinking that the social groups fighting for it were the bourgeois and the working class (Katz 2010), thus following Marxism in that point. That assumption was challenged later by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau, a couple of populist theorists who realised, in different ways, that “there are different forms of subordination that might give rise to a variety of antagonisms, and that all these struggles cannot be viewed simply as the expression of capitalist exploitation” (quoted in John B. Judis 2016). Therefore, they though that, given that the political antagonism was not predefined by some objective theory, that is, that the political conflict in the society need not be between two classes objectively defined by their position with respect to the ownership of the means of production, then the political antagonism had to be defined in the political fight. For Laclau, that meant that this political antagonism is defined by a sort of political discourse, populism, that tries to establish a conflict between an underdog group and the elites (John B. Judis 2016). This underdog group bases its challenge against the established power among a set of demands that establish a political frontier between both groups. This challenge may then succeed and create a new hegemony if a plurality of unsatisfied demands in the society coexist with an increasing inability of the institutional system to absorb them (John B. Judis 2016). In conclusion, populism as a political theory tries to describe how the change from the hegemony of a particular group to the hegemony of another group happens. Populism explains how those changes of hegemonies happen, but it does not explain how the fundamental condition for the populist ruptures appears. Therefore, we will now try to explain the way in which different unsatisfied demands and an inability of the existing institutional system to absorb them coexist in the long run when implementing a market economy. Such a system of self-regulating markets requires markets for all products to be efficient. Also, it needs that all products are commodities, that is, “objects produced for sale on the market” (Polanyi and MacIver 1944). That all means that the production of all commodities should be subject to the law of supply and demand, that will determine the prices of those commodities and therefore the income of their suppliers (Polanyi and MacIver 1944). That may not be a problem when selling nails, a very homogenous product particularly suited to be produced to be sold in a competitive market, but it is a problem when we talk about what Polanyi called “fictitious commodities”. These commodities, such as labour, money and land, are not originally produced to be sold in the market and their inclusion can threaten the substance of society. For example, “labour is simply the activity of human beings” (Block 2001) and our way of surviving, and leaving its organization to the market would mean that the supply of labour may have to adjust to the demand for it at a given price. In situations of unemployment this adjustment would be made through the disappearance of the owners of that labour power from the market, that is, through their death. Also, leaving the organization of land, which is only subdivided nature (Block 2001), to the market may produce externalities such as a declining quality of the soil, insufficient food security or climate change that threaten the substance of society. Finally, leaving the organization of the monetary system to the market alone may impose unbearable costs to societies in several ways. One way in which it occurs is through the deflationary pressures and the periods of unemployment when the currencies are fixed between each other, as happened with the gold standard. The other way in which it happens is through accelerated devaluations that increase the price of imports, inflation and the costs of paying external debt, as it occurs in countries with floating currencies and as it is happening in Turkey and Argentina. Naturally, if a society feels any of these threats, it will try to protect itself from them. Therefore, when liberals introduce their reforms to organize these three “fictitious commodities” according to the logic of the self-regulating market, there will be an immediate reaction of society seeking to protect itself and therefore a set of demands will be generated. Then society would have two possible options to alleviate the strain. As described at the beginning of this essay, the first one would be externalizing the strain by imposing the costs of these policies on other societies. Practically, for labour that would mean alleviating unemployment by shifting it to the colonies or any other weak country, either through emigration or through increased exports from the powerful country. An example of the second type of policy can be found now in the trade war the US is waging against its trade partners to reduce its trade deficit and increase employment at home. For nature, that would mean shifting the overexploitation of it from the powerful country to the powerless, for example by decreasing mining at home and increasing it abroad. A current example of this can be found in the Global South, which has to cope with most of the environmental degradation produced by the consumption of the Global North. Finally, in the case of money, displacing the strain would mean shifting the deficit in the current account from the powerful country to the powerless, for example by forcing the weaker country to have a superavit in its budget and to transfer it to the strong country. An actual example of this can be found in Greece. On the other hand, if the affected society is not powerful enough to impose the costs on other societies, then there will be a political fight in the country in order to decide how the costs will be allocated between the different groups of that society. The hegemonic group will try to impose the costs on the subaltern classes, and by doing so it will create a set of unsatisfied demands that the existing institutional system will not be able to absorb, thus creating the conditions for a populist rupture. In that moment, there will be a window of opportunity for a populist party that, making use of a populist discourse and possibly counting with a strong unifying leader (John B. Judis 2016), tries to represent all those unsatisfied demands and to replace the old hegemonic group by a new one. When that happens, there will be several possibilities. The first one is that the underdog coalition succeeds, transforms its ideology in the common sense of society and either implements its program by itself or forces the old elites to do it. The second one is that the hegemonic group sees off the challenge to their hegemony, but in that case, the strain in society will stay and therefore the populist rupture will be merely postponed. In any case, populism will have been the final outcome of liberalism. All of the facts exposed in the previous paragraphs are relevant for the times we are living. After the Second World War, Keynesianism had sent the utopia of the self-regulating market into the exile. Social democratic parties succeeded in making big parts of their programs hegemonic, as can be seen in the example of Great Britain, where, for example, in 13 years of government the Conservatives could not make significant attacks to the Welfare State created by the Labour Party due to its popularity (Bochel 2010). During that time, also called the “Thirty Glorious Years”, unemployment was the result of insufficient aggregate demand, and the solutions for it were active fiscal and monetary policies that would restore it (Palley 2005). But during the seventies, the utopia of the self-regulating market came back from its exile. After the victory of Thatcher and Reagan, unemployment was the result of the lack of flexibility in the labour market, and the solution for it was the effective dismantling of the institutions that were distorting the labour market, such as the trade unions or the minimum wage (Palley 2005). After the air traffic controllers of the US and the coal miners of the UK were defeated, workers lost a lot of the elements protecting them from the action of the self-regulating market. The result of that loss of power were stagnating incomes for workers (Joseph A. McCartin 2011), and the stagnation of wages led to an increase in inequality and household debt (Wisman 2013). Increasing debt worked then as a substitute for increasing income for a lot of families seeking to maintain their status and their way of life (Wisman 2013). That worked for some time, and during that time economists such as Robert E.Lucas congratulated their profession for having solved the central problem of depression prevention (Lucas Jr 2003). The problem was and is that bubbles always burst, and when the housing bubble finally burst it was clear that the strain caused by stagnating wages had only been deferred but it had not disappeared. This strain came then back augmented thanks to the implementation of the self-regulating market logic in the financial sector, and again society had to decide how to allocate the costs of the economic adjustment between the different groups present in it. The neoliberals were back then the hegemonic group, and they decided that the middle class and the working class would pay the costs of the crisis and banks would be saved. This decision naturally created some unsatisfied demands in society. Additionally, the Eurozone had to face another challenge while dealing with the crisis because of its monetary system. Back in 1992, the countries of the Eurozone had entered a monetary union without including in its design some of the necessary elements to make it work properly in the event of a crisis, such as a banking union or a set of European automatic stabilizers as, for example, a European unemployment insurance program (Stiglitz 2016). Therefore, its functioning during the crisis has resembled the behaviour of a system of fixed currencies such as the gold standard. Ultimately, that has meant that countries that used to have a current account deficit before the crisis have had to go through a process equal to the one the gold standard would have imposed in such a situation, that is, a process of adjustment consisting of deflation and high unemployment that makes them recover their competitiveness and re-establish the equilibrium. That has caused the appearance of an even greater set of unsatisfied demands in those countries that their institutional system has not been able to absorb. All of these facts together explain the situation that we are living in Europe right now, because the implementation of liberal policies has again lead to a populist moment, which will either be solved through a left wing populism that pitches the losers of the crisis against the powerful and that seeks to protect society from the action of the self-regulating market while reinforcing democracy or through a right wing populism that pitches the losers of the crisis against immigrants. The lesson of the thirties with this respect cannot be clearer, as Gramsci said, when “the old world is dying, and the new world is slow to appear, in that chiaroscuro surge monsters” (quoted in Meneses 2013). For us, but also for the members of the current hegemonic group that want to hinder a takeover by right wing populists, that means that this time we should learn from Polanyi, Mouffe, and Laclau; and use their knowledge to make the new world appear a little faster.
Recent years have shown an increase in the, often heated, debate on trophy hunting, with some important developments taking place in southern Africa. To name just some that have accelerated the debate: In 2012, pictures of King Juan Carlos of Spain emerged in which he posed in front of his trophies, an elephant and two African buffaloes. As a result of the public outcry that followed, the King was dismissed as the honorary president of WWF Spain, which is ironic when realising that various WWF offices in southern Africa support trophy hunting in the name of conservation and development. Other important developments have been a ban on trophy hunting in Botswana in 2013, a very controversial hunt of a black rhino in Namibia for US$350,000 in 2015 and the infamous illegal hunt of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe in 2015. Royal connections of this hobby for the wealthy have a long history and continue today. The Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, for example, currently speaks out against the trophy hunting ban in Botswana.
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.
Picture 1: painting by Hessier Garcia, representing the violence of police and para-police forces against unarmed civilians, many of them young university and high-school students (Picture from: https://sosnicaraguareporte.com/galeria [retrieved July 30, 2018])).
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.
Picture 3: Artwork by Charlie Blandón including important symbols of Nicaragua, pictures of the victims of the repression, and the slogan of the current popular insurrection: “Patria Libre y Vivir” (“Freedom and life to our Homeland”) (Picture from: https://sosnicaraguareporte.com/galeria [retrieved July 30, 2018]).
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.