Introduction to the Special Issue: Agribusiness, (Neo)Extractivism and Food Sovereignty: Latin America at a Crossroads?

By Ana Estefanía Carballo, María Eugenia Giraudo, Diego Silva and Johannes Waldmueller

Photo credit: Carol Von Canon

Photo credit: Carol Von Canon

In Latin America’s history, the agricultural sector has played a pivotal role for each period’s form of economic, social and political development (Bretón Solo de Zaldivar and Martínez Sastre 2017). This is evident from the colonial global division of labour that assigned many Latin American colonies the role of agricultural producers, entrenching some of the most unequal patterns of land distribution in the world (Florescano 1997, Bulmer-Thomas 2003), to the current expansion of the ‘Soybean Republic’ in the Southern Cone (Turzi 2011) and the constitutional or legal enshrinement of food sovereignty in Venezuela (1999), Ecuador (2008) and Bolivia (2009) (Altieri and Toledo 2011; McKay, Nehring, and Walsh-Dilley 2014). The role of the agricultural sector in the definition of the region’s developmental path - in collaboration with or rejection of either neoliberalism or the so-called postneoliberal state, respectively - cannot be underestimated.

In the past few decades, there has been increasing tension between large scale agricultural producers and international agribusiness holdings, on the one hand, and local peasant and rural organisations, on the other. Tensions have led to what Maristella Svampa (2013) has characterised as an “eco-territorial turn” in social and peasant (including indigenous) struggles. This has partly been analysed within the “ethnic turn” in social studies and “new rurality” literature, focusing on local-international intersections of food and agrarian politics. While indigenous, Afro-American and gender studies have gained traction, the number of regional and international publications with an explicit focus on peasant studies as well as those calling for the redistribution of (and access to) land have effectively diminished since the 1980s (Bretón Solo de Zaldivar and Martínez Sastre 2017). 

Despite these trends, the study of the ‘everyday’ of agricultural policy-making, production, commercialisation and consumption have recently garnered attention in Latin America, as a result of the rapid industrial agricultural expansion, and the consequent resistance by local communities that have attempted to reclaim their agricultural sovereignty. More than ever, the fields of Latin America have become conceptual and direct battlefields, where ideological, economic, political and cultural positions clash. The expansion of the agroindustrial frontier, fuelled by technological advances in genetically modified crops and the large-scale use of pesticides and fertilisers, is one aspect of the intensification of extractivist activities that have dominated the region’s recent political economic model, further increasing tensions surrounding environmental issues and land use (e.g. Gudynas 2013, North and Grinspun 2016, Svampa and Viale 2014, Svampa 2015). Counterbalancing the advances of industrial agriculture, some rural communities and environmentalist groups have sought to promote and strengthen alternative agricultural models through practices as diverse as polycropping, seed saving, agroecology schools and judicial resistance.

This special issue remains to some extent inscribed in this recent tradition, reflecting the increasing importance of these topics in disciplines such as human geography, anthropology, gender/women studies, etc. It is the intricacy of these issues, across both topographic, epistemological, semantic and political scales, which calls for pan-regional discussions aimed at unearthing the mechanisms underlying these transformations. This special issue stands at this juncture. The papers in this special issue explore some of the tensions, changes and conflicts arising from the expansion of agribusiness as the dominant mode of accumulation and food production in the region. This issue presents evidence – based on original research – on the multiplicity of mechanisms through which agribusiness has transformed the social, political, economic and environmental landscape of the region. Not only do these contributions cover a wide range of topics that demonstrate the extent the agribusiness mode of production’s advancement – including educational programmes, the role of science and international initiatives, and seed sovereignty struggles – but the diverse disciplinary backgrounds and methodological approaches of the authors also offers a very rich analytical focus.

We open this special issue with an article by Jaskiran Kaur that provides an introduction to the agricultural struggles tackled by other articles in the issue, as it offers a conceptualisation of the different production regimes that oppose each other through these struggles. The following articles will be published every two weeks until the end of 2017. In her article, Jaskiran compares the main characteristics of two opposing agricultural regimes. The first regime includes industrial agriculture based on monocropping, high yielding plant varieties, and the use of agrichemical products. The second regime is characterized by agroecological alternatives that encourage polycropping and that are based on a more ecosystemic approach. Jaskiran provides an interesting demonstration of the increasing importance of agroecology schools in Latin America through the case of the IALA María Cano agroecology school in Colombia. This school emerged in a historically decisive context for Colombian agriculture. The end of the conflict with the FARC has created the possibility of rethinking the rural world. As a consequence, diverse groups are organising to make this world more suitable to their epistemologies and interests. In particular, they are working towards educating a new generation of rural inhabitants to be more critical of industrial agriculture. In this sense, agroecology schools represent not only an alternative to the dominant agricultural model that follows the framework of the Green Revolution, but also an epistemological challenge that takes into consideration local ecosystems and knowledges. 

The second article enters into dialogue with the first by providing an account of the seed conflicts that arise when the agroindustrial and the agroecological regimes clash. Laura Gutierrez’ article takes us to Riosucio, in the North West of Colombia, where the Embera-Chami indigenous people of the region have organised to promote and protect their agricultural sovereignty. Laura examines the intricacies of the seed conflicts that take place in this country, where the government and industrial agriculture associations have promoted the use of certified seeds, while Embera-Chami communities have challenged this system through the development of their own networks of seed saving, multiplication, and reproduction. These conflicts constitute struggles over seed sovereignty, that is, over the way seeds are produced, owned, circulated, saved, and endowed with meanings and spirituality. However, these struggles reveal a larger battle over autonomy and place-based ways of inhabiting and sustaining territory. These conflicts are the manifestation of the coloniality of power that continues to promote Euro-American models and knowledges as superior, and Latin American agricultural and botanical knowledges as inferior. The seed, as a living organism that interacts with humans, and as a recipient of cultural, symbolic, and economic values, is at the core of the struggle between colonialism and local resistance, and thus serves as a lens through which these conflicts can be analysed.

These issues are also evident in Argentina, where the expansion of the production of soybeans has been the cornerstone of the country’s agribusiness model (Turzi, 2011). The paper by Ingrid Feeney, offers an ethnographic account of the severe consequences that have accompanied the expansion of this model. Two decades after the approval of the use of GMO seeds in Argentina, the devastating consequences of the use of agro-chemicals linked to genetically modified seeds are becoming painfully clear. Rural populations are increasingly becoming aware of the dreadful environmental and health impacts of the use of the ‘technological package’ that has fuelled the expansion of Argentina’s agribusiness. Importantly, Ingrid provides an insight into how this growing awareness has become translated into greater community organisation across the country, with the aim of not only questioning the implementation of the current agribusiness model, but also the different ways in which these practices are legitimised. Her analysis of the movement for a Ciencia Digna (‘a dignified science’) demonstrates the epistemological battles that are fought in the everyday resistance organised by these communities. 

In dialogue with Feeney’s article, Diego Silva´s article focuses on the Colombian debate on the use of glyphosate, the world’s most widely used herbicide. On 20 March 2015, the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released a controversial report stating that glyphosate is likely carcinogenic for humans. While the discussion in Europe around this report has revolved around the agricultural use of glyphosate to protect the health of citizens, in Colombia the debate has been about the herbicide’s used for the destruction of illegal crops to damage the finances of insurgent groups. The article analyses the arguments of the Colombian State functionaries that justify suspending glyphosate fumigations against illegal crops in the context of the Habana peace agreements, while allowing the private use of the product for agricultural uses. In this way, the article considers the links between issues of safety (the protection of humans and the environment from herbicides) and security (the protection of the national population from groups labelled as enemies of society), based on different understandings of the “bodies” under protection (the human body, the political body, the social body).

The role of science and developmental programmes supported international organisations is also addressed by Jonas Köppel’s article, through the analysis of the implementation of the UNCTAD initiative, BioTrade, in the Peruvian Amazon. By studying the promotion of production of Sacha Inchi, an indigenous peanut variety, Jonas unpacks how a seemingly positive programme that promotes biodiversity and sustainable development can be underpinned by, and further enhance, a neo-extractivist agenda. The BioTrade initiative, which aims to ensure biodiversity by promoting trade of protected goods, smallholders in the lowlands of San Martin were increasingly discouraged from planting coca and corn and pushed towards the cultivation of Sacha Inchi. However, the increasing production of the product without a developed demand for it quickly saturated the market, driving many farmers into bankruptcy. The author concludes from this analysis that neo-extractivism must be understood as linked to colonial relationships of power and rules that are reproduced through initiatives such as BioTrade. Smallholder farmers are thus pushed into the ‘neoliberal rationality’ of entrepreneurial and ‘modernising’ activities supported by international organisations, which, as Jonas points out, reproduce centuries-old colonial power structures.

The contribution by Alexander Liebman and Henry Anton Peller grapples with historically unequal land distribution and political economy in Colombia. By drawing on the case of the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), established in the 1970s with World Bank's support, the authors retrace how initially well-intended research in aid of smallholder peasants bypassed the question of access to land and therefore contributed to cementing the unequal distribution still present today. In addition, their paper addresses the active epistemological role of economistic and technical science in this process, which seeks to promote capitalist development over other forms of conviviality and production, precisely by continuously ‘black boxing’ the question of land reform, which is of great importance. Overall, this discussion leads the authors to formulate highly relevant questions with regard to, for instance, research on genetic materials and the supposed homogeneity of concerned researchers. One of the main questions raised in this article is related to the possibility of transforming agronomic research into a “science for the people”.

Gisselle Vila Benites brings to our attention the ways in which the advancement of the agribusiness production model affects institutional settings and access to natural resources, such as water. By understanding the application of water management policies in Bajo Naranjillo in the Peruvian Amazon as a case of ‘institutional bricolage’, Gisselle explores the mechanisms through which the principles of agribusiness efficiency and capital intensive production are imposed by the state upon local populations. Irrigation being a key aspect of agricultural production, this article shows us the extent to which the consolidation of this model has transformed institutions, local rules and the capacity of indigenous populations to control natural resources.  

The paper by Alke Jenss explores the deep transformation of the Altillanura region in Colombia, where the expansion of the agricultural frontier has brought to light the dynamics of the ‘economies of dispossession and land appropriation’ (Jenss, 2017, this issue) that underpin the extractive model dominating Colombian development. Alke offers an overview of the principal mechanisms through which these dynamics are expressed, particularly the expansion of new ‘Economic Zones’ of production and the growth of large-scale plantations which are institutionalised through the pervasive development plans and legislation. The tensions around traditional forms of land tenure and the necessity to offer ‘clear’ property rights to encourage investments in the Altillanura region clearly demonstrate the key tensions in the region, where small farmers and indigenous communities’ clash with large transnational corporations over the expansion of the agricultural frontier.

While these articles address different issues, they provide an insightful overview of the complexity the agribusiness mode of production and its implications for Latin America. From the development of genetically modified seeds and agro-chemicals, to spaces of production and the expansion of the agricultural frontier, to trade patterns and the use of natural resources, these contributions highlight the increasingly transnational and capital-intensive nature of agriculture, and the environmental, social, economic, and political impact it creates on nature and the lives of people across the region. The incredibly rich empirical research presented here should also remind us that more and more areas and populations are being subjected to this capitalist agricultural model. The struggles addressed in this issue, then, remain at the forefront of the opposition to the intensification of extractivist agriculture as the key pillar of Latin America’s future.  



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