Back to the old ways

It was to be about small farmers and organic agriculture, and building communities, and peace. So, at the conference held by Dr Shahid Zia’s Lok Sanjh Foundation, one of the few pioneering NGOs focusing on organic farming and smallholders, one expected to hear more from them, their experiences, and how they coped with climate change; erratic weather, late rains and drought.
The proceedings were unfortunately hogged by government spokespersons that recently discredited themselves over the forced attempt to bulldoze genetically-modified crops into Pakistan. Unable to showcase any major local successes, the key speaker and head of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC), Dr. Ifthikar, went on and on waxing eloquence about all the marvelous things the Brazilians were doing without specifying what these were, even though it was a farmers audience and they would have understood the specifics. Our agricultural representatives had recently returned from Brazil, but they didn’t even take some hands-on small farmers with them to observe for themselves instead of relying on second-hand information. An articulate speaker representing smallholders was lacking as counterpoint.
What Dr. Iftikhar did NOT mention about Brazil were the accompanying measures the Brazilian government took to make their initiatives successful for the poorest peasants. Brazil’s constitution recognizes the right to property. It however no longer tolerates the predatory capitalism of the previous era. Everyone has a right to make profits from farming, but if private land does not serve its due social purpose, it can be taken away and given to those who will put it to better use. Idle state land has been made accessible to peasants. Idle private land has been made productive. And thousands of satisfying livelihoods continue to be created while feeding people and the economy. Would our government similarly further the same?
That seems unlikely since officialdom speakers retained the same elitist top-down attitude, asserting that only methods developed by their own kind could make Pakistan’s agriculture successful — whether peasants like it or not and irrespective of the higher and needless cost of ‘modern’ technologies.
Individual researchers at NARC and PARC and other agricultural institutions indeed provide excellent information, such as many featured at the conference, including the presentation by Dr. Ashiq of NARC who revealed the alarming consequences of pesticides on our food, water and environment. Unfortunately, research tends to remain academic and doesn’t get disseminated adequately for practical application at the grassroots level. And although Dr. Farzana Shahid raised women’s indispensable role in farming, male apathy implied they remain second-class citizens. Also not stated was that Brazil finally banned all GMO crops earlier this year.
Most surprising of all was the non-mention of the UN’s FAO having declared 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. Or that it’s the small farmers of the world who produce all or most food for domestic consumption – agro-businesses only produce for industries and exports. Or that women continue to perform over 60 percent of backbreaking farming tasks. Or that organic farming is the only effective solution to climate change and regeneration of the soil and environment – just as it always has been through history.
Why didn’t our own government announce it? — the media would have picked it up. It would have provided moral support and incentive to smallholders to press for their dues as citizens. Maybe that’s why.
It would have therefore been fitting to have a hands-on expert from Cuba to speak about the Cuban experience that first demonstrated to the world that small-scale organic farming can not only feed the world, it can do it better. But the Americans would not have been pleased, not only because Cuba’s organic success makes chemical and GM agriculture look particularly bad, but also because of America’s treatment of the small country that defied it.
Cuba, in the Soviet years, once practiced oil-dependent chemical agriculture, until the USSR fell apart and could no longer support it with cheap imported agricultural inputs. Everyone expected Cuba to be brought to its knees, especially after the US imposed an economic blockade on it. But Castro refused to buckle.
Land was redistributed. In this small country, 100,000 landless people received over 60 acres each. It abolished absentee landlordism and introduced urban farming – some 50,000 acres – the various plots varying from a few square meters to several acres. Farmland is totally rent-free. Smallholders work in co-operatives. Today, over 50,000 hands-on agricultural professionals and technicians work fulltime in urban agriculture. Hunger isn’t possible. — Each and every citizen is ensured a certain amount of staples and the state delivers food supplies to every hospital patient, student, and child in child-care centers. Today, Cuba conducts organic courses to learners from all over the world, and even extends free scholarships to poor Americans!
In 1999, the Swedish Parliament extended its Alternate Nobel Prize to Cuba, known as the “Right Livelihood Award”, for its organic farming that quickly raised a once crushed nation to its feet, with food security, livelihoods and proud self-reliance, followed by becoming the world’s master trainer in organics. An incensed American officialdom ensured that the news was ‘killed’. With the corporate media being obliging partners, the news ended up listed amongst the top-censored stories in the US that year.
But long before this, organic agriculture had already proved itself in our own sub-continent. The late botanist, Albert Howard, had been sent to colonial India to ‘improve’ Indian farming. He ended up discarding what he’d been taught, instead adopting everything he learned from the highly observant and innovative South Asian peasants. The greatest favour he did for posterity was writing up all the knowledge he derived from them, along with his own experiments and refinements.
Howard spent 25 years in the subcontinent, including in Poona, Indore, Bengal, and Quetta — which makes it surprising that Pakistanis have not picked up on the wealth of practical information in his repeatedly reprinted classic ‘An Agricultural Testament”, a store of organic knowledge, complete in itself.
Howard acknowledged openly: “There is nothing to be taught to peasants; there is more to be learned from them.” All our agricultural institutions sorely need to read it.
The end of the World Wars had led to the conversion of millions of pounds of leftover chemicals from arms production to agricultural use. Clever advertising and disinformation did not mention the toxic effects of chemicals on land, soil microorganisms and water-bodies. It was total abuse of a trusting public taught to put blind faith in science.
It was as if Howard foresaw the worst that was coming. His reaction: “Agricultural research has been misused to make the farmer, not a better producer of food, but a more expert bandit. He has been taught to profiteer at the expense of posterity.”
Howard may well have spoken of what’s going on today in Pakistan and around the world. – Yet people can bring change – provided peasants are allowed to put their own wisdom to work instead of being strong-armed by wasteful, expensive, dependency-creating technologies from corporations with government backing- because that’s what’s stopping them.

The writer is a former journalist and currently director of The Green Economic Initiative at Shirkat Gah, a rights and advocacy group.

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