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« Protecting food from Wall Street speculators | Main | Follow-up on cheap food policy »

March 05, 2010

Chinese peasant farmers: making an impact globally, struggling locally

Mindi Schneider is blogging from China. She is a native Midwesterner currently living in China and working on her PhD in Development Sociology at Cornell.

In the last post, I outlined a few sustainable practices on the Ge family farm in their village in Hebei Province. Now I want to return to the idea of kunnan, the Chinese word for difficulties and problems, and think about farmers' challenges while living sustainable, low-carbon lifestyles.

As excited as I was to see these hallmarks of sustainability in action, I was equally overwhelmed by the farmers’ struggles. Mrs. Ge told me that when she was a child there was ample rainfall in the village. In recent years, however, rainfall has become much spottier. The creek beds are completely dry, water for crops is extremely limited and water conservation at home and in the fields and orchards is a must. This is one kunnan. In the early spring, villagers have to buy much of the food for their households since the fields and orchards are not yet productive, and stored foods are running low. I accompanied Mrs. Ge to the market one day to stock up on vegetables and eggs. We walked through the mountains 1½ hours to get to the market in another village, found the vegetables to be priced higher than usual because of Spring Festival, bought them anyway, loaded them into a feed sack, and walked 1½ hours back home. She makes this trip nearly every week to supplement the family’s production. This is another kunnan. At the market, we spent about 120 RMB (about $17.70 USD) for a week’s worth of veggies and eggs. This is over half of the family’s weekly income. Bills for electricity, coal, fuel for cooking and for the farm three-wheeler, telephone service and tuition for their 18-year-old daughter’s high school education take up the rest (their 21-year-old daughter is away in Beijing working). These are other kunnan. 

The list could go on and on, but I think it's better to try to understand the difficulties peasant farmers suffer in context. I asked a young newlywed woman whose husband was off laboring as a migrant worker, but whose parents were in the village farming, why she thought peasants’ lives were so difficult. She said the main reason was that rural areas were too far away from the cities. Their location was not at all “convenient.” I asked if she meant that they were too remote for farmers to access urban markets to sell their produce, since this is an argument commonly employed by development economists. She said no—rural areas were just inconvenient in general (bu fangbian).

One thing I hear this young woman saying is that rural areas have been left behind. Amid the great Chinese economic miracle, rural areas, rural people and rural agriculture—the so-called three rural problems, or sannong wenti—haven’t been invited to the party. The party, however, could not go on without them. Rural areas supply the migrant labor force that toils in the cities to literally build China’s economic miracle. Rural agriculture feeds rural and urban populations. And rural people struggle while urban middle and upper classes grow. The palpable feeling of being left behind, even in a village less than 150 kilometers from Beijing, is an issue that must be heard, understood and dealt with in thoughtful and equitable ways. There is much work to be done in this area.

I’d like to close with some questions that I think are particularly important to consider. First, what does it really mean to be “left behind” in the wake of post-1978 economic reforms and de-collectivization? Many propose full articulation of peasant agriculture and rural areas with ongoing waves of marketization as the ultimate solution to sannong wenti (i.e., land privatization; expanding rural markets for farm inputs, foodstuffs, consumer products, etc.; linking rural agricultural producers with international markets). Would this increase peasants’ kunnan? What do peasant families want for their own future? Has anyone bothered to ask?

Next, some would argue that promoting small-scale agriculture is nothing more than perpetuating poverty, as these farming practices that we hold as models of sustainability are really just the result of resource-poor communities struggling to get by. Can this be changed so that rural livelihoods improve, but ecological sustainability and local and culturally appropriate farming is preserved? Would this help create a countryside where people would want to live?

Finally, how do we reconcile this contradiction between the advantages of low-carbon, ecologically sustainable agricultural production and lifestyles, and the struggles and difficulties encountered by the people living them? In other words, if small-scale farms really are indeed a planetary asset, and if our future hinges in part on them not transitioning to large-scale, input-intensive, corporately controlled monocrop agriculture, then how can we expect the billions of peasant farmers living that low-carbon lifestyle to continue to struggle? What role does policy—both agricultural policy and developmental policy—play in this reconciliation?

These are some of the themes I’ll be working on and writing about in the coming year. My focus, however, will soon return to pigs!

Mindi Schneider

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