Technology and Land Grabs: Redefining Peasantry in Africa

Published on 19th May 2009

I came across the word "peasant" as a small boy in 1979. That was my second year of learning the English language when government Census officials came knocking on our door in Western Kenya armed with two big English words I had never heard before; "Occupation" and "Peasant!"

 "What is your occupation?" the official asked my dad. "I am a farmer" he replied. "How many acres do you own?" he asked. "Half an acre...you saw it when you came in didn't you?" my father replied. It is when I heard one official say, "Occupation...Peasant!" 

Peasants in Africa comprise the active voting population in comparison to their urban counterparts, majority of who criticize politicians, rarely vote but simply retire to watch election updates on television. Who else other than the voting peasant knows why his/her region is poor because they voted the wrong party and/or presidential candidate?

To confront such a population with technology that has "exclusive" ownership of seed presents nightmarish scenarios for the future. The international community may not appreciate the causes of the African version of fear of technology. Whereas in the North, it is mostly on the basis of health, in Africa the fear is driven by both the perceived health hazards and the reality that patented seeds can be turned into political tools of control.

Recall, the voter-peasant is currently battling it out with political elites that have taken upon themselves to facilitate the greatest land grab in peace time. It is reported that Saudi Arabian investors have paid $100 million for an Ethiopian farm; Uganda has sold 2 million acres to Egypt; Kenya is leasing out 40,000 acres to Qatar; China owns vast tracts of land in Zimbabwe and Algeria; and Madagascar's disposed president was in the process of leasing out 1 million acres to South Korea.

The surge in land leases evokes memories of Tanzania's Kinjeketile Bokero Ngwale; a self proclaimed mystic that led the famous Maji Maji rebellion against forced labor on German cotton plantations. Uprooted from their indigenous farm practice to work on plantations, Tanzanian peasants could take it no more and they found in Kinjeketile's promise of "holy water" hope of liberation. According to Kinjeketile, African ancestral spirits had revealed to him how a certain concoction of fluids would vaporize German bullets. German occupying forces in 1904 found themselves fighting with peasants whose "secret" weapon was shouts of Maji! Maji! (water! Water!). The interests of the peasants were never taken into account by the Germans leading to mowing down of hundreds of Matumbi resistance fighters.

The province of agriculture world wide is confronted by ethical questions at two fronts, technology and "land grab." In Africa, an estimated 75% of the population is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Technological advances in the seed industry have been cited as one of the keys that will unlock potential from these populations. For example, between 2000 - 2008, South African farmers made an additional income of $ 267 million from biotech maize; and Burkina Faso farmers are making $106 million per year, a 20% increase in yield using biotech cotton among others. One of the ethical questions being raised is; will patented and re-engineered seed enslave the peasantry to big players in agribusiness? The alternative under the prevailing circumstances seem to be to maintain status quo. 

Then of course, the   land grab that has seen African governments lease and sell an estimated 17 million acres of land to feed-not-Africans but populations in China, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and Qatar among others. Is it right to perpetuate peasantry in Africa in order to feed countries that take care of political elites' short term interests on the continent?

The peasants are a battered lot; they face artificial famine due to archaic land and agricultural policies that deny them the opportunity to feed Africans. Political elites find it strategic to maintain the status quo of dishing out food hand outs and a little money to win votes from rural populations. With a flawed democratic process in Africa, coupled with fresh memories of colonial oppression; peasants have every reason to be very afraid.

Society invested in developing the Highway Code to ensure safe and smooth flow of traffic; we should develop a clear code on use of technology that will turn African peasants into food suppliers. The surge in land grabs is a clear indication that land has become Africa's competitive advantage – to lease out the same is to loose the opportunity to be a global player in the agricultural sector.

The peasantry class ought to be given an opportunity to feed the world through access to land and judicious use of technology. This ought to be done in the framework of transparent regulatory system that ought to protect both the interests of the innovator and consumer. Grabbing land, and denying peasants a chance to access technology will surely enslave people in poor countries and breed political instability! Kenya's next Census is set for August 2009, how great it would be if my dad's occupation this year graduated to ‘farmer’!

By James Shikwati

James Shikwati james@irenkenya.org is Director of  Inter Region Economic Network


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