Food First Part 11




HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON                          1977


Chapter 12: Isn’t Colonialism Dead?

Question: It may be true that colonialism impaired people’s ability to feed themselves. But most of the underdeveloped countries have been independent for ten to twenty years, or even longer. If colonialism is dead, why can’t people now feed themselves?

Our Response: Colonialism may be dead. But it left an indelible imprint on every society it touched. The effects of colonialism could not be wiped clean simply by a proclamation of independence.

The colonial enforcement of export agriculture handicapped future development by orienting indigenous production and trade patterns to serve narrow export interests. Internal trade that might have served as the means for autonomous development was disrupted or even destroyed in the wake of all-encompassing colonial cash crop systems geared to the needs of foreign interests. Thriving industries serving indigenous markets were destroyed. The onslaught of low-priced textiles from the mills of the colonizing countries ruined skilled village spinners and weavers in India and Africa.

Whole countries became synonymous with only one city – the capital – or, if it was inland, the capital and its port. Internal communications and trade never developed.

  • Colonialism stunted indigenous agriculture by directing agricultural research only to export crops. Slavery severely limited the impetus for improved agricultural techniques.

The most ignored but perhaps pervasive effect of colonial plantation culture are these: A narrowing of the experience of agriculture to plantation work, especially with tree crops, has over generations robbed entire populations of basic peasant farming skills. Moreover, it is more difficult today for people to return to growing the food they need, because farming has come to be associated in their minds with misery and degradation.

From 1650 to 1850, when the populations of other continents increased many times, greatly stimulating development, the slave trade caused Africa’s population to stagnate. Moreover, the slave trade depleted Africa of its most able-bodied workers.

  • The transfer of people of one race and culture to work plantations in a foreign land was a basic strategy of colonialism in all parts of the world.
  • Racial differences and antagonisms among laborers were ways for colonizers to control the labor force.
  • By the forced migration of people, the pitting of race against race for the crumbs from the colonial table, colonialism undermined development based on mutual cooperation.

Colonialism also undercut the moral substratum of traditional societies. First, the traditional rulers lost much of their authority in the eyes of the peasants when they proved unable to defend their country against the colonial invader. With the introduction of a commercialized production system, traditional obligations were replaced by money-based ties. The belief that the ruler and the ruled were responsible for each other was replaced by the notion that a growing GNP would provide for all. Most important, while colonialism undermined the traditional respect for the elite class, it invested that class with greater real power. In 18th century Bengal, India, for example, the British made the traditional elites – previously responsible only for fiscal and administrative duties – into landed proprietors, now responsible for collecting revenue from the tenant-cultivators for the crown. These Zamindars, as they were called, used their power to acquire vast holdings of land for themselves.

  • Before the British ruled, debt was commonplace but the moneylender was not powerful. Without private ownership it was impossible to lose land through indebtedness.
  • Once the British had established private ownership to facilitate tax collection, the position of the smallholders, as most were, became precarious.
  • Rain or drought, good harvest or bad – the taxes had to be paid in cash.
  • With private ownership, land became the collateral for loans with which to pay one’s taxes in bad times. If hard times continues, cultivators lost their land as the colonial legal system put its weight behind foreclosures.
  • When colonial policy tried to stem this transfer of land to nonagriculturalist moneylenders, many moneylenders simply became landlords themselves. Also larger landholders took on the role of money lending.
  • Here we find some of the origins of present-day India’s mushrooming landless laborer class.
  • Colonialism, in its need to extract wealth from the colony, introduced a money economy and put its power behind the already well-placed.
  • Colonialism thus promoted the increasing concentration of landholding by the few and the increasing landlessness of the many.

But colonialism did more than simply reinforce the emergence of one class over another. Colonialism exacerbated regional inequalities. And, as colonial policy focused on the rapid development of the most potentially profitable regions, the less obviously well endowed were left behind. These imbalances still plague development efforts.

We have seen how colonialism stifled and distorted traditional agriculture to extract wealth in the form of luxury cash crops; how colonialism enslaved or forced the migration of the agriculturally productive population in search of wage labor to pay colonial taxes; how colonialism laid the foundation for racial and social strife as disparate cultures were thrown together in competition for survival; and how colonialism exacerbated inequalities in the countryside, ending land-tenure security, a security that is now recognized as the first prerequisite of agricultural progress.

Our knowledge of the past is fundamental to our understanding of the present. The history of the colonial period should be familiar to any of us, its outcome predictable by any of us: declining food production and greater vulnerability to the constant fluctuations in the international market, and internally uneven growth.

But it has not been so familiar. In the 1960s as college students we read the latest textbooks on “international development” that described these economies as “dualistic” – meaning that one sector, the commercial export sector – had potential for dynamic growth as part of an expanding international economy while the other sector, the traditional sector, was hopelessly mired in the past. According to this analysis, the task of development was to give the subsistence sector a big shove into the modern world, into the international market economy.

But dualism describes a condition while ignoring a process. If, however, we describe underdevelopment as a process and understand its colonial roots, we know that the traditional and the modern sectors do not stand side by side by mere chance. This history of underdevelopment shows that the economic decline of the backward sector was the direct product of the formation of the other, commercial sector, tied into the international economy. Once colonialism has raked over a country, there is no such thing as a “traditional” culture left for economic planners to push into the present.

The irony is that development “experts” see the answer to underdevelopment in thrusting Third World economies wholesale into the very international market that was initially structured to keep them in submission (see Part VI).










Chapter 44: What Does Food Self-Reliance Mean?

Question: throughout this book you have mentioned food self-reliance. What does food self-reliance mean and how can it be achieved?

Our Response:

Leave a Comment