April 20, 2015, the opening day of the BRICS Initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS) Conference, held at the University of the Western Cape, was as enriching as promised by the programme. The opening acts – or ‘big potatoes’ as they were jokingly referred to – gave us an overarching idea of the state of the field of critical agrarian studies. Ben Cousins emphasised the importance of intersecting with other relevant study areas like gender studies, rural development, economics and geopolitics, to name a few. The relevance of a comparative programme that looks at these issues not only from a national or state-centric perspective, but that can draw lessons from other contexts in emerging economies, was richly outlined by Sergio Sauer from the University of Brasilia and then Ruth Hall from the University of the Western Cape provided a deep analysis of the explicitly South African and then the broader African story.
The keynotes thereby set up the following plenary session that delved more deeply into specific questions with regional emphasis. Andries du Toit (University of the Western Cape) used Yako’s poem of the land being folded up like a blanket to emphasise the need to confront the reality of the land situation in South Africa where a return to a pre-colonial past is not feasible, but the reality of the injustices suffered by the dispossessed need to be tackled. Ye Jingzhong (China Agriculture University) gave an overview of the agrarian situation in China, which is often portrayed as increasingly industrialised, but he emphasised that land, labour and agriculture were too important for the Chinese to leave solely in the hands of the market. He remarked on the economic importance of ‘peasant’ labour that worked in the cities, but still retained some land in the rural areas. However, he cautioned that the gender and age inequalities of those left behind on the farm has had an impact on peasant farming and rural societies in general. This echoes the South African experience under Apartheid, which continues today, when young men migrate to the cities or mines to find a job to provide for their families, leaving the farming to women, the very young and the very old. It is crucial to understand the sociological implications of this kind of lifestyle.
The next two speakers, Ward Anseeuw (University of Pretoria) and Moises Balestra (University of Brasilia), brought a new angle to the discussions through their insights on the financialisation of agriculture. The transnational power dynamics of who owns and controls what aspects of agricultural production is becoming increasingly more convoluted as finance mechanisms repackage agriculture, land and its associated benefits into asset classes. The jury is still out on the impact of this on ordinary citizens, and especially those that rely directly on the land for their wellbeing, but it highlighted an important area of research that needs to be tackled within the agrarian studies community.
A key highlight for me was definitely the diversity in the room – from the multiple nationalities to the variety of attendees, not only academics, but many from NGOs, government and civil society organisations who were all engaging in lively debate around such important issues as land reform, assetisation of agriculture, food security, indigenous knowledge, capital accumulation and more. My panel was particularly diverse in that it consisted of Brazilian researchers who were bravely sharing their experiences in English for all of us to learn from. As the only South African on the panel, it was a wonderful experience to be able to hear first-hand from my fellow speakers about the situation in Brazil regarding indigenous knowledge, agro-biodiversity and its importance in rural livelihoods and cultures. The parallels with the situation in southern Africa were striking and I hope to be able to continue to engage with these colleagues as we try to create a shared understanding of the challenges and opportunities in our two countries. I think this is a key aspect of a conference like BICAS – not only the sharing of ideas and research, but the forming of important bonds between researchers and practitioners from different backgrounds and contexts, but who all share a common purpose in trying to improve the situation for the most marginalised in society.
Given the abundance of knowledge and growing research in the area of critical agrarian studies, I was left with a lingering question of what now? With the huge increase in understanding of processes of disenfranchisement, marginalisation, accumulation by dispossession, how can this knowledge be used to help shift the capitalist system that underpins many of the grand challenges faced by society. I believe that often the type of research showcased at BICAS is itself marginalised and not engaged with as fully as mainstream politics and economics. What pathways are available for us to strengthen the legitimacy of this work in global academic circles, whilst not selling out to the powerful forces that often shape the research agenda? Buoyed up by the profound accumulation of knowledge at BICAS — and the vital importance of these studies for social justice and the long-term sustainability and wellbeing of our planet, I was left with lingering questions.
What can we, as academics, do to change the situation? To make these voices heard? To effect change in the system rather than just to study it?