Tag Archives: The Economist

“The path to prosperity starts with land reform”, says the Economist

It’s not often that the Economist magazine sings the praises of radical land reform. But on October 12th, the Banyan column on Asia proclaimed: “the path to prosperity starts with land reform”. The article caught my attention, and I read on. Vital reading for all those contemplating the new post Mugabe Zimbabwe. 

The piece starts with some stats on economic growth in Asia, and the contrast with Africa and Latin America. It outlines the standard (for the Economist at least) explanations: market-friendly policies, capital accumulation, training and skill development, the importance of institutions and so on. But goes on to argue that the restructuring of agriculture through land reform is an underplayed explanation (of course not a new argument – see Michael Lipton, and many others, on land reform experiences).

“Radical action may be necessary in countries with big, impoverished, rural populations”, the article argues. Wow, this doesn’t sound like the Economist, I thought! It goes on to give the example of China.

“By the 1920s, a tenth of the population owned over seven-tenths of the arable land. Three-quarters of farming families had less than a hectare. Mao Zedong’s Communists reallocated land in every new territory they seized. After the defeat of the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, they rolled out land reform nationwide….The effect was immediate. Grain output leapt by perhaps 70% in the decade after the war. When farmers can capture most of the value of their land, they have a powerful incentive to produce. And while smallholder agriculture is hugely labour-intensive, that makes sense when labour is abundant”.

China’s experience encouraged Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to follow. Agriculture boomed. Landed elites of course resisted, compensation was inadequate, and sometimes violence ensued, although not on the scale meted out in China, and in Russia before. In the East Asian countries outside China, land reform was supported by the US (yes, the US was a great advocate back then; how times change!).

The article goes on to explain how Taiwan shows the clearest benefits from land reform:

“[Land reform] started with rent controls and reforms to tenancy. Sales of formerly Japanese-owned land followed. Then, in 1953, came appropriation. The share of land tilled by the owner rose from just over 30% in 1945 to 64% in 1960. Yields on sugar and rice leapt. New markets sprang up for exotic fruits and vegetables. Household farmers dominated early exports. Crucially, income inequality shrank thanks to the new farmer-capitalists. Less spent on imports of food, more money in Taiwanese pockets, a new entrepreneurialism: farming was the start of Taiwan’s economic miracle”.

What happened elsewhere? “Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand could have followed Taiwan’s example, but didn’t. Their economies have done far worse”, the article states. In these countries because of extensive rural, agricultural populations, land distribution matters. Yet “the state favours agribusiness and plantations over small farmers. There is a yawning gap in income between countryside and city”.

Inequality in land has political consequences too: “In South Korea and Taiwan inclusive agricultural growth prefigured the inclusive politics of today’s thriving democracies”. Again by contrast in Southeast Asia, “cronyism and inertia are consequences of an economy that is unfair to those at the bottom”. This has costs in terms of “insurgencies and rural unrest”. If done well, the article concludes, land reform starts to look cheap.

The Economist seems to have joined the ranks of the radical agrarianistas. What has happened? Well, actually not a lot. The economic arguments about agrarian transition have long been made, and the need for equality before growth is well established. Incentives to invest, and the labour-intensive features of smallholder agriculture have long been understood. The experience of Zimbabwe’s land reform offers some pointers, especially from the smallholder A1 farms. The problem is that in the current narrative of agricultural development, big is beautiful, multinational agribusiness investment and finance is essential, and global markets are all – as with Africa’s agricultural growth corridors discussed a few weeks ago.

This narrative is seemingly endlessly promoted by donors (DFID and USAID seem obsessed currently), alongside national governments and political elites, all keen to attract land investment deals. Sometimes there are ‘pro-poor’ tweaks to the narratives; more often it’s old-fashioned external investment, growth and trickle down. This all has somehow drowned out the long-established conventional wisdom and lessons from history that radical, redistributive land reform makes economic (and political and social) sense in many settings.

Of course Asia is different to Africa, and the 1940s different to today, but the basic arguments made many, many times before of course are worth repeating, and the lessons of history worth learning. In none of the positive cases of land reform from Asia did success spring up overnight, but they emerged from intensive, thoughtful state support, and backed (in some cases) by external donors (of course interested more in geopolitics than poor people’s livelihoods, but…).

In Zimbabwe, these conditions have not applied over the last 17 years, and the continued decline in economic conditions and state capacity of any sort, is a tragedy. This now may all change. With the euphoria of change, and in the presence of no doubt much international interest in Zimbabwe, we should not forget the basic argument that land reform can bring prosperity, and the failure to undertake radical land reform can bring many costs, in both the short and long-term. Zimbabwe now has the opportunity to make the most of its land reform. 

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

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Are livestock destroying the planet?

Livestock are essential to rural economies and livelihoods across Africa. On Zimbabweland there have been many blogs on this theme focusing on Zimbabwe’s livestock and marketing systems. But are these animals contributing to planetary destruction through greenhouse gas emissions?

A special issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on livestock and global change late last year offered some new data, and generated a minor storm of controversy thanks in large part to the Economist weighing into the debate. The Economists’ summary of a paper by Mario Herrero from CSIRO in Australia and colleagues from IIASA and ILRI suggested that the solution to the high climate change impacts of traditional livestock rearing was to abandon free range pastoralism and shift to a form of intensive factory farming. The answer The Economist believes is “intensive livestock farming, which is more efficient and environmentally friendlier than small-scale, traditional pastoralism of the sort beloved by many greens”. Why is this position adopted? The Economist explains:

… More acres are given over to feeding animals than to any other single use. Meat accounts for a sixth of humanity’s calorific intake but uses roughly a third of its crop land, water and grain. Producing a kilogram of grain takes 1,500 litres of water; a kilo of beef takes 15,000 litres. A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….livestock farming produces 8-18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. It is the main contributor to the build-up of nitrogen and phosphorus in the world’s soils, producing too much ammonia (which is caustic), nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas) and dead zones in oceans (the result of excess phosphorus). A fifth of the world’s pasture has been spoilt by overgrazing….

Extensive livestock production it seems is bad news. This was in part the argument of the FAO’s controversial book from 2006, Livestock’s Long Shadow. And it has been picked up by many since, including another FAO publication published recently that provided a rather more rounded perspective than its predecessor. So should Zimbabwe and other countries in Africa be abandoning livestock production to save the planet? Are intensive systems of ‘factory farming’ the answer?

The debate is actually hopelessly confused, and confusing. The data in the PNAS article is clear. Inefficient feed systems result in more greenhouse gases being produced during production than more intensive systems (essentially more belching and farting). And white meat (pigs and poultry) are better than red meat and milk in this regard.

But the assessment does not account for the costs of the other inputs of industrial farming, including fossil fuels used in feed production, housing, transport and so on. Traditional livestock systems are often very ‘low input’, with little fossil fuel dependency, and linked into markets not reliant on massively long supply chains.

Such systems make efficient use of marginal land and resources; as Tara Garnett puts it a ‘livestock on leftovers’ approach focused on adapting existing systems rather than the simple focus on efficiencies. The trouble with studies such as the PNAS one is that the results and conclusions depend crucially on what ‘the system’ is, and what is being compared with what. These choices are crucial and can inject fatal biases, or encourage wayward misinterpretations.

Simon Fairlie produced a brilliant book a few years back, Meat: a Benign Extravagance. It even got George Monbiot to change his views on meat eating. The book argues – with masses of data and careful argument – that meat production if done in an ecologically sensitive and humane manner is fine on a whole range of counts, and should not be discounted as a form of production and source of livelihood. It just depends on who produces it and how. The same applies in the great climate and environmental impact debate, a theme that is picked up in the book, and in a recent paper that questions many of the data assumptions used in FAO’s livestock climate assessments.

In the exchange of comments following the Economist article Mario Herrero distances himself from the claims made by the Economist, arguing that they never claimed that “we should get rid of pastoralism” (they didn’t!). Instead he argues that small-scale intensive systems are the best way forward, as part of a diversity of approaches.

This is all well and good, but how then can the extensive savannah grasslands of Africa be best used? This is not where intensive small-scale systems are likely to emerge. Should they be turned over for carbon sequestration as some argue, or wildlife, with people and their environmentally destructive animals forced off the range? What then happens to the many livelihoods of often very poor people who are dependent on livestock? And if livestock are not consuming the grass, fires or termites might result in less production and perhaps even larger emissions.

The problem with studies of this sort – and perhaps especially the media and policy commentary that follows – is the way that complex systems are simplified. First is the way the accounting is done, with often limited data and missing out key aspects. What is included in the model and how it is bounded makes a huge difference. In this case focusing only on food conversion efficiency gives a distorted picture of climate impacts of different livestock based production-marketing systems.

Second is the interpretation that focuses on the accounted for measure – in this case greenhouse gases – and excludes the complexity of the wider system. Any assessment of costs and benefits must look at the whole picture, including the array of opportunity costs and trade-offs, and so crucially must involve the people concerned who know these best.

Third is the way uncertainties are dealt with, often put to one side (or in very long appendices of supplementary data). In the case of aggregate global pictures across all livestock systems, uncertainties can be massive. Inadequate data plagues agricultural policymaking, and particularly for extensive livestock. Add to that the uncertainties associated with climate change predictions and the data problems are compounded.

And fourth is the way alternatives are defined as part of policy narratives that are developed through such modelling efforts. By defining (narrowly) a problem, a solution (again narrow) is defined. Too often dramatic alternatives to the status quo are recommended, without thinking about the consequences.

Pastoralism is a way of life adapted to dry non-equiibrium rangelands, and is a massive contributor to livelihoods and economies, as well as providing a route to land management. Our book, Pastoralism and Development in Africa, highlighted through many case studies the way pastoralism contributes to development in the Greater Horn of Africa. A similar case could be made for the livestock dependent areas of Zimbabwe, as I and many others have long argued.

Surely the most appropriate response is to seek out more climate-compatible forms of livestock development, based on existing systems, and working with people and their animals, rather than seeking a dramatic transformation that would result in increased poverty and growing inequality in already poor areas of the world. The models may help think through the options, but they are no replacement for engaging with the realities on the ground.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

 

 

 

 

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