When talking about the BRICS countries and their role in development, there is a lot of hot air surrounding debates on ‘South-South cooperation’ and plenty of warm words offered about ‘mutual learning’ and ‘solidarity’. But it was refreshing to be at a conference last week at PLAAS in Cape Town on the engagement of Brazil, China and South Africa in patterns of agrarian change to start from a different perspective: the influence on development pathways by the BRICS as new hubs of capital. The proposition of the BICAS group – similar but with different emphases to the CBAA project (also affiliated to the Future Agricultures Consortium) – is that we have to understand the origins, political and economic driving forces and limitations of the new hubs of capital, in order to get to grips with new dynamics of agrarian change across the world. There was a huge amount discussed at the conference, and the details are only now sinking in, but let me offer a few first thoughts on the emerging debates and their implications.
Despite the hyperbole often associated with ‘rising powers’, one thing that struck me from across the presentations was the limits to accumulation and the extension and penetration of new forms of capital. There has been much debate about ‘land grabbing’, alongside much misinformation and confusion about its extent, but many of the big investment deals that were profiled soon after the 2007-08 crisis have not materialised, and even very high profile programmes – such as Prosavana in Mozambique, the subject of much debate and a panel at the conference – have not really materialised on the ground.
Capitalist accumulation of course takes many forms, and not always those of violent displacement and dispossession. Instead, a much longer, quieter pattern of accumulation may be happening, driven by a new global configuration of capital. This is what Jun Borras called for southeast Asia, the ‘thousand pin pricks’ of small scale transfers of land and extension of (often) Chinese capital in the region. In Africa too, while land grabs still continue, Ruth Hall emphasised the extension into processing, input supply, agricultural technology including seeds, transport and retail. The multiple ‘value webs’ created are crucial in understanding the impacts of the extension of capital from the new hubs. Compared to dramatic grabs, the slow, cumulative ‘dull compulsion of economic relations’ may have as big an effect in the end. But, participants argued, this requires a different lens to understand its dynamics.
Of course since the financial crisis, the possibilities of accumulation have changed. Africa with its vast land area, and apparent emptiness, was seen as a new frontier. But since then commodity prices have collapsed, and the urgency of seeking new markets via Africa – to Europe and beyond, possibly assisted by aid-funded preferential access and state support from African governments eager for investment – has receded. Africa in particular has proven a tough place to extend business ventures. Red tape, local politics, harsh environments, poor infrastructure plague new capital, just as they have old capital.
Domestic political contexts and economic imperatives in China, Brazil and South Africa have changed too. Talk in China is of the ‘new normal’ where consumption demand stabilises, and growth rates decline from the supercharged levels of a few years ago. As China turns to rebalancing and making the economy more sustainable, the massive commodity demand has tailed off. This of course has a direct impact on Brazil, where the decline in commodity prices, particularly in agriculture, has major consequences. This has combined with the domestic political crisis dominated by corruption scandals and a backlash by the middle classes. Concerns again are more inward looking. South Africa has its own economic and political crises, reflecting its failure to deal with the legacies of apartheid, as discussed on this blog last week. This at one level pushes capital to seek alternatives elsewhere, but also highlights the rather fragile claim to be a ‘rising power’, when perhaps Nigeria will prove its economic might in the region if conflicts in the north can be addressed.
Another theme running through the conference, and now more thoroughly understood thanks to some great new work, is the influence of financialisation. This is transforming land and agrarian change, as new players – be they equity funds, sovereign wealth investments, or banks of different sorts – see land and agriculture as new asset classes and investment opportunities. As Moises Balestro commented, the old landowning rentier class of Brazil has a new ally in financialisation. This transforms the way capital operates – no longer necessarily driven by companies associated with nation states (whether BRICS or not), but often truly globalised flows of finance that upset the notion that new political blocs centred on states rule the roost. Such finance has no particular national character, nor any form of political accountability, yet has enormous power and influence.
The mirror effect
Alongside these changing dynamics of capital and accumulation trajectories, another theme of the conference was how the political economy of the new hubs of capital establish the nature and direction of new investments abroad. This is a strong theme of the CBAA project that argues that the histories of domestic political economies in China and Brazil, and the associated imaginaries and narratives of agriculture and development, strongly influence what forms of agricultural development cooperation arrives in Africa – and so the meanings of agriculture, farming and development, and with this the pathways that emerge through these encounters.
In Brazil the long-running tension and political accommodation of both agribusiness and ‘family farming’ with agrarian reform, that Sergio Sauer and Sergio Schneider both talked of, is exported in various projects and technical assistance programmes. Models appropriate to Brazilian contexts – and reflecting this on-going very Brazilian political struggle – arrive in Africa, resulting in frequent confusion, as various cases under the CBAA project describe.
From China, the tension between ‘filling the rice bowl’ and the need to keep a stable, rural peasantry and the narrative of agricultural modernisation was discussed by Ye Jingzhong. This is also reflected in its ‘going out’ policy, as elaborated in CBAA work by Chinese Agricultural University colleagues led by Li Xiaoyun. Thus in different Chinese Agricultural Technology Centres, emerging from different provinces in China, very different visions of agriculture and development are reflected. There is no one China, and variegated forms of capital, reflected in the range of emphases of Chinese State Owned Enterprises that generally run these centres in Africa.
South African capital as it extends into Africa reflects a more unified vision, with its projection of large-scale commercial farming and vertically integrated value chains. This of course mirrors the historical evolution of South Africa’s agrarian sector, from the apartheid era to today, linked closely to what Ben Fine calls the minerals-energy complex that has historically defined South Africa’s political economy. With the power of large agribusiness even more entrenched by the processes of post-apartheid liberalisation, and now reinforced by financialisation, the extension of South African capital, perhaps especially in retail, processing, transport and logistics, but also technology and input supply is, as Ruth Hall and Ward Anseeuw, described, pushes a very particular logic and vision.
There is thus a striking mirroring of domestic struggles, tensions, accommodations and political-economic dynamics as capital extends from the new hubs. This imposes particular directions for accumulation and investment, and smooths certain paths for capital, and so the nature of investments. For this reason, in order to understand agrarian change, the scope must be cast wider, as much activity is focused on roads, mines and infrastructure development. Across the world, aid and state backed investments in ‘corridors’ and ‘investment zones’ are providing conducive conditions for capital accumulation. New agribusinesses follow on behind, often as the second or third wave of investment. This is a long game, where the quick wins of the speculative post-crash boom have gone, but state-capital alliances are forging longer term patterns, setting in train investments and visions of development framed in very different contexts, as Chinese, Brazilian and South African hubs (as well as Indian, Turkish, Indonesian, Vietnamese and other new hubs) extend their reach.
Beyond the rhetoric of South-South cooperation
To my mind, this is the context in which the high-sounding rhetoric around ‘South South cooperation’ must be set. For Zimbabwe, ‘Looking East’ to China – or to south of the Limpopo to South Africa or across the Atlantic to Brazil – must be seen in this light. While ‘conditionalities’ are not as imposed by the west or the old International Finance Institutions of the World Bank or IMF, there are consequences of engagement. Transfers are not just cash or technology, but much more. They include visions and trajectories of development that were constructed elsewhere, and so carry with them different politics and economic relations.
Talking about the emergence of a class of new entrepreneurial farmer, linked to urban markets, in Tanzania (very similar in many ways to what we see in Zimbabwe today), Marc Wegerif, only half jokingly, commented that being low on the World Bank’s index for doing business may be a good thing, providing some level of protection for smaller, domestic economic players. No-one denies Zimbabwe needs investment, but this conference reemphasised that understanding the wider system of finance and capital accumulation in a regional and global context is essential, so this can be responded to strategically.