Food First Part 10




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 11. Why Can’t People Feed Themselves? (Cont.)


A second approach was direct takeover of the land either by the colonizing government or by private foreign interests. Previously self-provisioning farmers were forced to cultivate the plantation fields through either enslavement or economic coercion.

After the conquest of the Kandayan Kingdom (in present day Sri Lanka), in 1815, the British designated all the vast central part of the island as crown land. When it was determined that coffee, a profitable export crop, could be grown there, the Kandyan lands were sold off to British investors and planters at a mere five shillings per acre, the government even defraying the cost of surveying and road building.

Java is also a prime example of a colonial government seizing territory and then putting it into private foreign hands. In 1870, the Dutch declared all uncultivated land – called waste land – property of the state for lease to Dutch plantation enterprises. In addition, the Agrarian Land Law of 1870 authorized companies to lease village-owned land. The peasants, in chronic need of ready cash for taxes and foreign consumer goods, were only too willing to lease their land to the foreign companies for very modest sums and under terms dictated by the firms. Where land was still held communally, the village headman was tempted by high cash commissions offered by plantation companies. He would lease the village land even more cheaply than would the individual peasant or, as was frequently the case, sell out the entire village to the company.

The introduction of the plantation meant the divorce of agriculture from nourishment, as the notion of food value was lost to the overriding claim of “market value” in international trade. Crops such as sugar, tobacco, and coffee were selected, not on the basis of how well they feed people, but for their high price value relative to their weight and bulk so that profit margins could be maintained even after the costs of shipping to Europe.

Suppressing peasant farming

The stagnation and impoverishment of the peasant food-producing sector was not the mere by-product of benign neglect, that is, the unintended consequence of an overemphasis on export production. Plantations – just like modern “agroindustrial complexes” – needed an abundant and readily available supply of low-wage agricultural workers. Colonial administrations thus devised a variety of tactics, all to undercut self-provisioning agriculture and thus make rural populations dependent on plantation wages. Government services and even the most minimal infrastructure (access to water, roads, seeds, credit, pest and disease control information, and so on) were systematically denied. Plantations usurped most of the good land, either making much of the rural population landless or pushing them onto marginal soils. (Yet the plantations have often held much of their land idle simply to prevent the peasants from using it – even to this day. Del Monte owns 57,000 acres of Guatemala but plants only 9000. The rest lies idle except for a few thousand head of grazing cattle.)

In some cases a colonial administration would go even further to guarantee itself a labor supply. In at least twelve countries in the eastern and southern parts of Africa the exploitation of mineral wealth (gold, diamonds, and copper) and the establishment of cash-crop plantations demanded a continuous supply of low-cost labor. To assure this labor supply, colonial administrations simply expropriated the land of the African communities by violence and drove the people into small reserves. With neither adequate land for their traditional slash-and-burn methods nor access to the means – tools, water, and fertilizer – to make continuous farming of such limited areas viable, the indigenous population could scarcely meet subsistence needs, much less produce surplus to sell in order to cover the colonial taxes. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forced to become the cheap labor source so “needed” by the colonial plantations. Only by laboring on plantations and in the mines could they hope to pay the colonial taxes.

  • The tax scheme to produce reserves of cheap plantation and mining labor was particularly effective when the Great Depression hit and the bottom dropped out of cash crop economies.
  • In 1929 the cotton market collapsed, leaving peasant cotton producers, such as those in Upper Volta, unable to pay their colonial taxes.
  • More and more young people, in some years as many as 80,000, were thus forced to migrate to the Gold Coast to compete with each other for low-wage jobs on cocoa plantations.
  • The forced migration of Africa’s most able-bodied workers – stripping village food farming of needed hands – was a recurring feature of colonialism.
  • As late as 1973 the Portuguese “exported” 400,000 Mozambican peasants to work in South Africa in exchange for gold deposited in the Lisbon treasury.
  • The story of how, in the mid-nineteenth century, sugar plantation owners in British Guiana coped with the double blow of the emancipation of slaves and the crash in the world sugar market is graphically told by Alan Adamson in Sugar without Slaves.
  • The planter-dominated government devised several schemes for thwarting food self-sufficiency.
  • The price of crown land was kept artificially high, and the purchase of land in parcels smaller than 100 acres was outlawed.
  • Although many planters held part of their land out of sugar production due to the depressed world price, they would not allow any alternative production on them.
  • They feared that once the ex-slaves started growing food it would be difficult to return them to sugar production when world market prices began to recover.
  • The government taxed peasant production, using the funds to subsidize the immigration of laborers from India and Malaysia to replace freed slaves, making sugar production profitable for the planters.
  • The government neglected the infrastructure for subsistence agriculture and denied credit for small farmers.
  • The most insidious tactic was a policy of keeping imported food low through the removal of tariffs and subsidies.
  • First, peasants were told they need not grow food because they could buy it cheaply with plantation wages.
  • Second, cheap food imports destroyed the market for domestic food and thereby impoverished local food producers.

Adamson relates how both the Governor of British Guiana and the Secretary for the Colonies Earl Grey favored low duties on imports in order to erode local food production and thereby release labor for the plantations. In 1851 the governor rushed through a reduction of the duty on cereals in order to “divert” labor to the sugar estates. As Adamson comments, “Without realizing it, he (the governor) had put his finger on the most mordant feature of monoculture: its convulsive need to destroy any other sector of the economy which might compete for ‘its’ labor.”

Suppressing Peasant Competition

We have talked about the techniques by which indigenous populations were forced to cultivate cash crops. In some countries with large plantations, however, colonial governments found it necessary to prevent peasants from independently growing cash crops not out of concern for their welfare, but so that they would not compete with colonial interests growing the same crop. For peasant farmers, given a modicum of opportunity, proved themselves capable of outproducing the large plantations not only in terms of output per unit of land but, more important, in terms of capital cost per unit produced.

In the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia and Dutch New Guinea) colonial policy in the middle of the 19th century forbade sugar refineries to buy sugar cane from indigenous growers and imposed a discriminatory tax on rubber produced by native smallholders. A recent unpublished United Nations study of agricultural development in Africa concluded that large-scale agricultural operations owned and controlled by foreign commercial interests (such as the rubber plantations of Liberia, the sisal estates of Tanganyika (Tanzania), and the coffee estates of Angola) only survived the competition of peasant producers because “the authorities actively supported them by suppressing indigenous rural development.”

The answer to the question, then, “Why can’t people feed themselves?” must begin with an understanding of how colonialism actively prevented people from doing just that. Colonialism

v  Forced peasants to replace food crops with cash crops that were then expropriated at very low rates;

v  Took over the best agricultural land for export crop plantations and then forced the most able-bodied workers to leave the village fields to work as slaves or for very low wages on plantations;

v  Encouraged a dependence on imported food;

v  Blocked native peasant cash crop production from competing with cash crops produced by settlers or foreign firms.

These are concrete examples of the development of underdevelopment that we should have perceived as such even as we read our history schoolbooks. Why didn’t we? Somehow our schoolbooks always seemed to make the flow of history appear to have its own logic – as if it could not have been any other way. I, Frances, recall, in particular, a grade-school, social studies pamphlet on the idyllic life of Pedro, a nine-year-old boy on a coffee plantation in South America. The drawings of lush vegetation and “exotic” huts made his life seem romantic indeed. Wasn’t it natural and proper that South America should have plantations to supply my mother and father with coffee? Isn’t that the way it was meant to be?

Chapter 12: Isn’t Colonialism Dead?


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