Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The farmer wants a life

Bumpkin, plouc, mofiz, hick – are all languages derogatory about people who make their living off the land? It seems so. Easily my favourite stupid question to ask people as I swan around the world being a researcher is: ‘so do you want your children to farm when they grow up?’

‘No’ has to date been the universal answer. People everywhere want their kids to have a great job like mine: regular salary, computer, nice office (they haven’t been to IDS, but the point is valid). Ask young folks how they feel about farming, and they look at you like you fell out of a tree: they want what all young people want: good clothes, a smartphone, somewhere to hang out with their mates after work. Factory beats farm, if no office job is available. Anything beats farm, come to that.

Back in the nice offices, there appears to be some collective delusion rooted in faith in the corrective powers of markets that this should all be changing. Food prices are higher than 10, 20 years ago, so the calculus should shift: farming will be more attractive, more lucrative, than in past generations. But our research on aspirations with respect to farming suggests otherwise.

As part of our sociology of how life is changing with food price rises we explored the ‘opportunity structures’ that shape the futures young people can imagine for themselves. We heard sober, realistic assessments of life chances on a small farm. In very different settings, people take full account of climate change, global market integration, inputs, changing land rights and uses. A successful dairy farmer in Pirhuas in Bolivia explained that his (college-going) children
don’t want to be farmers, they see how one works so hard. Nobody can be a farmer, because the producer produces blindly, at times they lose; the children see this, and for this we make them study … Now, this little rain is damaging, it is out of time … At times [people] eat well and at times no, when you grow old it is worse; for this, we don’t wish that our children become farmers.
The clever farmer invests in his or her children’s education, with the aim of exit. I wonder if that is what those who trialled the new African Farmer simulation game at IDS a couple of weeks ago found? Our researchers found the forces in play are multiple and complex, but trend in roughly the same direction: towards less local, small farmer control over the means of food production.

Screen shot of the African Farmer
It doesn’t matter how clever or how hardworking you are. It takes capital, these days, to hedge against the risks of bad harvests; in a time when climates are changing, you need to invest in fertilizer and seed and fuel; your land has probably been mortgaged to pay school fees or finance labour migration.

It is surprising that higher food prices do not generally make farming more attractive: the returns may be higher, but so are the risks and the costs of living. There are exceptions: in Indonesia and in rural communities in Ethiopia and Kenya people spoke hopefully about public investments in agricultural technology that would raise productivity and attract young blood. But the bigger picture was of smaller farmers being gradually pushed off the land by the impossibility of getting ahead while staying on the farm.

Naomi Hossain is a Research Fellow in the Governance team at IDS and a researcher on the Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility project. Who Wants to Farm? is an output from Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility which is funded by UK Aid and Irish Aid and led by a partnership between Oxfam GB and IDS. Who Wants to Farm? is co-authored by Jennifer Leavy at the University of East Anglia ( and was supported by the Future Agricultures Consortium.

Previous blogs on Food Price Volatility:

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Mexico must strengthen its weak governance structures to contain both self-defence groups and drug cartels

It is now a truism to state that violence in Latin America is due to drug trafficking and an international drug control regime in dire need of reform. However, what is said less often is that drug trafficking-related violence is also driven by profound structural causes and institutional weaknesses.

A clear example of this can be found in Mexico’s case. According to the National Institute for Statistics and Geography (INEGI), there was a 98.2% impunity rate for the 27,200 murders in 2012. One major challenge is the country’s opaque and inefficient justice system. Although subject to a profound reform some years ago, as of 2013 only three out of Mexico’s 32 states had fully implemented the transition from a written adversarial system to an oral and accusatory one.

The disheartening picture with regard to judicial prosecution is mirrored in crime prevention. Out of the 2,439 municipalities that comprise the country, only 2,022 have their own police force. The members of these highly fragmented forces tend to be badly trained, poorly equipped, underpaid and corrupt. Considering that the certainty of detection acts as a stronger deterrent than the severity of the penalty, it is not surprising that violence escalated to the point it did in Mexico. In light of this, the current administration has put a lot of emphasis on states developing stronger police forces as well as complementing this with a new federal force, the National Gendarmerie, scheduled to become operational this year.

However, the implicit signal behind these weaknesses is not only that crime goes unpunished (and pays), but that there is an institutional vacuum that needs to be filled. This is an opportunity that both drug trafficking organizations, such as the Knights Templar, and (increasing rise in) self-defence groups, such as those fanning out across the state of Michoacán to counteract them, will not hesitate to take. They are two sides of the same coin. In light of this, the emergence and growth of self-defence groups (see our earlier blog) can be more accurately described as a time bomb rather than a ‘black swan’.

This could add another dimension to the ongoing violence in Mexico. Government authorities will need to keep vigilantes in check, whilst pushing forward judicial reform and the strengthening of law enforcement institutions. There is no denying that the government is becoming increasingly effective in fighting drug cartels, but if it fails to underpin its approach by strengthening governance structures, already high levels of violence are likely to persist or even increase.

Jerónimo Mohar is an analyst on foreign affairs. He is a former Mexican government official and previously worked at the Mexican think tank Grupo COPPAN.

Benoît Gomis is an analyst on international security, drugs and counter-terrorism and a Visiting Scholar at the Canadian Network for Research on Terrorism, Security and Society (TSAS) at the University of British Columbia (UBC).

They wrote earlier this year on the Rise of Self-Defense groups in Mexico for World Politics Review.

Previous blogs in Governance and Development on crime and the state: