By Najma Sadeque
Published in The News – Page -1 – You Magazine, July 30 2002
Forgetting that the purpose of government is to serve the needs of the citizenry, the way has been paved for foreign investors and agro-multinational corporations to take over unlimited farmland in Pakistan for export production along with the best facilities and tax-free-perks. In other words, agriculture will become a set of monopolies for the super-rich, not a source of sustenance for two-thirds of the people as it once was. Guess what will happen to women?
Long unwieldy words of over a dozen alphabets that are not in everyday use (such as corporatisation) do not tend to make people sit up in horror or outrage. So when the government recently announced that they had passed the corporatisation of agriculture — without so much as a by-your-leave let alone public debate and consensus it went over the heads of most urbanites. That was something for the specialists and of little concern to them, they felt, although they too increasingly have to watch and budget for their daily food and other locally processed agricultural products.
Local big landlords will not have to feel the pinch because they only have to become sub-contractors to the foreign investor and thereby profit more than before. In effect, the government has backed off from its promise to bring about genuine land reform, and to re-distribute land to those to whom it rightfully belongs the people who till the land. The peasants, who have been exploited in the most inhumane way since the colonisers came and for over half a century since independence, have reason to feel betrayed and to revolt as they already have in parts of the Punjab.
While there has been strong protest from the more knowledgeable agricultural experts, most of the public does not know what has hit them and the dire consequences they face in the near future and for all time if this is allowed to go through. Women realise the least that they are going to be affected the most. To help reverse this ill-advised and self-defeating policy, women have to get into the act. In our brutal feudal and patriarchal set up, the peasant woman cannot act for herself for the most part it will have to be the urban woman to act on her behalf.
It just needs be kept in mind that from a mere 500 square yards of reasonably good soil (or which can be manured and composted into a fruitful condition), the woman peasant can produce enough vegetables and herbs for her entire family; but the hari does not even have access to that. With twice as much land, she could produce a little surplus for sale and add a few fruit trees for home use. With an acre of land she can be comfortably off, whereas with a couple of acres the future of her children can be a well-off one. No matter what government scientific experts may say to the contrary. This of course assumes that local toughs and feudals do not harass her, and that the local government keeps developing local infrastructure and basic services.
It was not male labour alone, but mostly womens labour, that made the colonisers industrial revolution possible. It can still save our own agriculture and our own people. But first a dangerous myth has to be broken. The worldwide myth has been consistently sold to the Southern countries, by the World Bank and bilateral donors as much as foreign investors, is that we cannot provide enough to feed our people without modern, western industrial methods. Governments and big landowners alike have swallowed the legend, despite the destruction to the worlds farmlands, because it helps takes away the power of the tiller (by virtue of his knowledge and industry) and put it increasingly into the landowners and corporate hands. This, by substituting the free inputs of nature for artificial ones that are obtainable only through purchase with capital that he has or can borrow, which the poor tiller cannot. The profits are huge, but only for the owners and stockholders. The workers needed become fewer in number while the displaced peasants are abandoned to their own devices or to starve.
The myth was easy to sell also because local education that included local agricultural know-how and needs was either abandoned or not formalised, giving prestige instead to a sterile western-style education that excluded and undermined indigenous methods which alone could employ and sustain entire populations. Since women were the keepers of such knowledge, they were the first demonstration that territorial political independence is no guarantee for economic or even social empowerment because women were made dispensable in agriculture except as silent underpaid and exploited workers. In the bargain, much agricultural knowledge, along with biodiversity, has been lost.
Todays industrial technologies are meant to be more than just labour-saving to take out monotony and the most back-breaking and onerous of activities which were the original purpose; they are geared to dispense with human labour as far as possible. Technologies such as these therefore do not serve the human right to employment and minimum resources.
Furthermore, when government policies become indifferent to the public interest such as of mass employment and a sustainable, regenerating agricultural environment, the factory and corporate systems feel even less compulsion to be responsible towards people, forgetting that consumers have to earn first before they can be part of the market.
The purpose of industrial technologies is only to mass-produce as cheaply as possible and maximum profit for owners and shareholders take first priority or the only priority over workers. This illogicality that fails to nurture the market from which industry wishes to make profits, is what is leading to worldwide economic collapse today.
Unsung women who fed the world
For millions of years, nature kept almost the entire world — except for icy and sandy expanses a virtual jungle. Lush growth or vast forests was the norm; nature was at its best when man was not around. For at least 10,000 years, humans have been farming the land to grow food and other crops. Nor did farming knowledge acquired over time originate from any one place. On every continent, perhaps in every region wherever large concentrations of people evolved, so did agricultural knowledge grow independently, in keeping with the local climate, soil, vegetation, water, and insect and animal life.
They had one thing in common though. They learnt by observing nature which plants grew best in what kind of setting and in what combination with other plants. Combinations were necessary anyway because humans liked variety even within the same vegetable or fruit. Plants were not merely staples; they included herbs that gave food different flavours and aromas, medicinal plants, fodder, and materials for fashioning utility and decorative articles. The most important lesson the peasant learnt was never to grow single specie over large areas because when disease or pests struck, the entire lot tended to be wiped out. They imitated nature as far as possible, which had dozens or even hundreds of varieties of vegetation jammed within the area of a few hundred square yards without leaving a single square inch of ground exposed and made erosion impossible. By adapting people natural agriculture, people always had a highly varied and delicious diet in plenty.
While farming was physical work, it was not back-breaking. It was very unlike modern-day mono-cropping with fixed cycles and an overwhelming amount of day and night work during planting and harvesting and more idle periods at other times. Multi-cropping was the norm then so that work was spread out over the year — the various crops had different planting and harvesting times, some maturing earlier than others; others even later. Ploughing was minimal nature did not use ploughs, why would people have to? The need only occurred when empty, exposed ground between rows of crops of a single variety was baked hard by the sun and needed to be broken up. But until monoculture single-crop plantations was imposed on the Old World by the colonial invaders, people practiced multi-cropping mixed crops numbering anywhere between half a dozen and several dozen.
The highly complex farming knowledge derived was possible only through observation and practice so that the formal classroom was not an essential for the peasant although scholars who understood the necessity of documenting information did so. Nature at work in different seasons was a year-round and life-long classroom from the time a child was made aware of the continuous processes around him and mans harnessing of them that provided him all the needs and comforts of life.
Along with the learning was initiated a sense of wonder; nature, after all, did all the work of being fruitful and regenerating. People merely did some re-arranging to suit themselves, which necessitated respecting natures needs and limits if it was to keep providing for them. This included knowing when to leave nature alone as it healed or renewed itself. It was observation too that led to the discovery of the role of insects in plant growth and their harnessing for better harvests with minimum loss. For example, they identified insects or birds that acted as predators of pests of specific crops, and they would even plant the supplementary plants that would attract those predators.
While in forest societies men and women shared work more or less equally, most farming tasks in settled agriculture were carried out by women who consequently carried the greater knowledge. Just as they still do today, women then selected and preserved the seed, cast it, collected manure and prepared compost, harvested and carried the crop, winnowed, cleaned and stored, and even built the storage bins. Men did the ploughing when necessary, and helped in harvesting.
Women in fact were the real scientists, who initiated their children into working with nature and to recognise and name hundreds of plants that were specific to their region and handed down their specialised knowledge from generation to generation. For, many species were unique to their own micro-environment so that only the locals could build up detailed information about their peculiarities and requirements through the seasons. They knew that plants did not grow by themselves but took the help of minute creatures under the soil, especially earthworms, to recycle organic material and break up and mix soil into the required consistency so that plants could derive the nutrients they needed. In other words, they knew when nature had to be left alone to do its own highly complex and sophisticated job that man simply could not duplicate.
It required and developed strong memories and by constant association and direct involvement, it was routine for children to be able to recognise around a hundred species before they entered their teens. It is quite possible, although not absolutely so, that if things had been the other way round with men carrying out most of the tasks, they would have made a greater effort to make documentation something routine at the farmers level.
Not that life was as good or bad for women as it was for men. The more societies hardened into hide-bound hierarchies of the dominant who monopolised power and possessions, and the weaker who acquiesced, women then as now were overworked, oppressed and downtrodden. But by and large, they were better-fed and healthier downtrodden women. This was in no small part due to the non-existence of canning and freezing and preservation techniques were used to serve family and community needs, not those of an unlimited market. Markets have always existed, but their scales were limited.
For the last several decades, ever since government policy brainwashed by American agricultural experts and was accompanied by excessively generous incentives including easy credit, encouraged big landlords to give up the free inputs of nature such as manure, for artificial factory-manufactured ones and hybrid seeds that had to be bought, the quality of our soils and our food has been going consistently downhill.
Farms are not factories – the monocultural mistake
When the colonisers came marauding to the natural resource-rich lands of Asia and South America, all they saw was wealth to be plundered. The British wanted certain items in huge bulk such as cotton, indigo and grains and set about appropriating vast plantations growing single crops to fuel their industrial revolution. As conquerors and exploiters, they were all unconcerned about the consequences to the growers, but they were also ignorant enough not to realise that it was the growers knowledge that kept agriculture sustainable, and monoculture was not.
The devising of large-scale production and the factory system made the colonisers arrogant to the point that they believed they had nothing left to learn about nature, but that they could apply the same principles and parallel technologies to it. Not without devastating consequences. Because the coloniser undermined local knowledge, the local political leaders began to undermine it too. Apart from monoculture, chemical fertilisers was afterwards introduced quite unnecessarily while soil replenishment and other practices were abandoned.
The western scientist failed to recognise a key difference between the factory and the farm. Factories work with inanimate materials. They put in the same ingredients in the same fixed amounts to produce identical products. Agriculture is not exact in that sense. The plants and other components of nature are not inanimate but are living and growing things. The separate cells of a plant are living as much as the plant as a whole. Unlike manufactured goods, they are in a constant state of flux as they self-reproduce and keep changing their character as they grow and mature until they are harvested and their seeds and waste start a new cycle of birth and growth all over again. Even within the same species, no two are identical nor are they meant to be. Like individual human beings, individual plants too are unique. And as with human beings, there is infinite variety. The health of plants and all of nature, in fact depend on their bio-diversity.
Unlikely inanimate materials that have to be isolated in a factory and manufactured in uniform conditions, plants do not take shape by with the mechanical putting together of identical components such as chemicals fertilisers to be assembled into identical products. To take advantage of natures output, the maximum that humans can do is to optimise external conditions in keeping with the natural capacity of the plants, and without substituting the nutrients that each plant depend on.
In agriculture, plant and animal waste is the source of nutrition as fertiliser for new produce. Nothing is ever wasted and nothing ever has to be isolated or left standing. Every last bit is recycled by millions of earthworms and billions of beneficial fungi, yeast and other micro-organisms into the form that can be assimilated by plants. It is so complex that no human invention has been able to replicate it. In manufacture on the other hand, chemical wastes are toxic and poison the water, the soil and the air.
Western scientists had concluded that they could improve on nature by introducing industrial methods. They proceeded to substitute manure and compost for chemical fertilisers. It was a very simplistic and disastrous step indeed. Artificial fertilisers provided only three main elements nitrogen, phosphorous and potash but completely ignored the dozens of other elements needed by different plants in varying combination in trace amounts which were impossible to replicate but essential nevertheless. Up to 60 elements are known to be needed, of which 34 are minimum requirements.
Providing nitrogen fertiliser to the soil was also a wasteful practice, indeed a case of carrying coals to Newcastle, because plants obtain 95% of their nitrogen needs from the atmosphere. Everything else that plants needed came better from natural, organic residues recycled by the soils underground workers into the exact form that could be absorbed by the plants roots and cells.
Applied season after season, chemicals are persistent and toxic, and ultimately kill off all the necessary fauna and micro-organisms required to keep natures processes of nature going. As their numbers go down, more and more chemical fertilisers are applied to compensate. But ultimately a point when all the micro-organisms are rendered extinct and the soil is left completely devoid of organic matter so that it is simply inert dust and once flourishing farmlands become desert.
That is not the only way in which farming completely differs from manufacture. Agricultural occupations through natural methods are complete in themselves. The peasant is the one who holds the knowledge of indigenous crop performance in his or her own micro-environment and knows best how to assist the process for his own benefit from start to finish. Because he will be (or should be) the sole or main beneficiary of his harvest in a life-long career, he puts his whole heart and mind into it with the full force of his acquired and evolving knowledge. Factory workers are unable to. They are cogs in a vast machine and more often than not, no nothing beyond their own specialisation or limited job-description, never seeing the complete process a whole, so that in the event of technology change and job loss, they risk redundancy and having to start life all over again.