By Najma Sadeque
Published in DAWN – October 11, 2008
THE Sindh government’s recent advertisement spread over two full pages in daily newspapers was impressive. It plans to distribute farmland amongst the ‘poorest of the poor’ haris, preferably women. It has even lifted a ban on the grant of state land to landless peasants.
Services denied to peasants throughout Pakistan’s history, such as credit and access to water, are now pushed as ‘incentives’ rather than fundamental rights. The assistance of agriculturally oriented NGOs has been enlisted under rural support programmes. Some 13,300 families, or over 100,000 persons covering 160 union councils, will initially benefit from 213,000 acres of state land. It doesn’t sound like much, but if the land is indeed allotted to women it can make a huge difference.
Coming in times of hunger, the plan seems heartening. But the nitty-gritty exposes the scheme as not having been thoroughly thought through, making its announcement premature. In its present imprecise form, it is designed to fail. Yet when governments change, ‘uncooperative’ elements can be blamed, so that the party can still claim kudos for ‘trying’.
Questions arise over criteria, the implementation procedure, funding sources for infrastructure development, and a discredited farming system being imposed from above. The identified plots are certainly all state land. But land records, historically never made transparent, exhibit a different reality on the ground. Most are already legally or illegally occupied.
The obvious first steps are to investigate current occupation and the legal measures necessary to evict illegal occupants — and whether that would even be possible given that a parallel law prevails in the interior of Sindh where bureaucrats and the police don’t call the shots. Rights-based NGOs can help illiterate haris apply for plots but they cannot guarantee justice. Would sufficient credit ensure that peasants do not fall into the traditional compound-interest debt trap handed down generation after generation? For an impoverished peasant, credit doesn’t just buy inputs but also meets food requirements and social obligations such as celebrations of birth and marriage. If credit is restricted to inputs, the scheme won’t work — unless the peasant becomes a sharecropper or rents out the land, coming to the same old dead end.
How will the government extend preference to peasant women when many don’t meet the eligibility criterion of national identity cards? Will it first facilitate NICs for all haris? Or will they automatically become ineligible — enabling non-peasants or the non-poor to replace them in the list of beneficiaries?
The proposed policy to provide commercial seeds, pesticides and skill training through a rehashed procedure betrays a lack of familiarity with the traditional farming system. Instead of reverting to non-toxic cheap inputs such as manure and organic farm-made pesticides and free saved seeds, oil dependency and rising costs of production will continue.
The planners appear to be oblivious of the worldwide corrective move against industrial agriculture, and conscious only of what corporate interests bring to their doorstep. Elsewhere, consumers have forced governments in most industrialised countries to take note of the unacceptable degree to which chemical agriculture contributed to cancer, lowered nutrition levels in food crops, raised subsidy-dependant production costs, and led to irreversible environmental damage and global warming.
Our government, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to keep abreast of negative impacts on public health, and know whether damaged soil can continue to produce. It seems unaware that even the UN has finally called for food security, safe food and safe environments, and high employment by returning to small-scale organic farming.
For decades the Soil Association (UK), Transnational Institute (Holland), Food First and Rodale institutes (US), and countless other agriculturally based organisations and scientists have been advocating a departure from chemical agriculture. But with their money, media outreach and power to ‘persuade’ governments, the companies pushing synthetic inputs and ‘technologies’ consolidated their control over global food production, leading to the marginalisation of a billion peasants and today’s mass hunger.
If government ‘incentives’ are prescriptive in nature and not forthcoming for organic farming, the hari is headed for a debt trap. A support system for large-scale industrial monoculture is completely different from a support system for eco-friendly, labour-intensive, small-scale cultivation. The former ultimately kills the land it over-exploits and saturates with chemicals; the latter renews and enriches the soil every year and ultimately out-produces chemical agriculture by anywhere up to 10 times.
The question then arises, how much land should each peasant get? Bureaucrats and industrial-agriculture ‘experts’ maintain that anything less than five to 25 acres is not worthwhile — a dead giveaway of the entrenched ‘chemical mindset’ that ignores alternatives. Our education system has failed to promote the subcontinent’s 10,000-year-old organic agricultural system which ultimately attracted colonial greed. Or highlight the fact that Cuba — when blockaded by the US and its allies — proved that self-sufficiency was possible through organic farming. More countries are following suit. Some even pay farmers to return to organic cultivation.
In a country where males generally resent women owning property, how does the government ensure ownership and operation by women? Plots of under five acres are indeed not worthwhile under wasteful chemical methods but small holdings are fundamental to organic farming: every square inch intensively cultivated and a diverse range of indigenous crops combined with trees (known as agro-forestry) simultaneously planted. The larger the plot, the greater the temptation would be for wayward male relatives to circumvent women’s control. This would be less likely with smaller plots.
In fact, it would be impossible for a woman — or a man — to pursue organics on large holdings without considerable help and credit, since it is necessarily labour-intensive. Approximately one-eighth of an acre of fertile soil fulfils the food needs (excluding rice or wheat) of a family of six adults. Our soil doesn’t quite make the grade, so twice as much (a quarter-acre) is needed for family needs alone. For a modest surplus for sale, at least half an acre; for a thriving micro business, an acre would be ideal.
In three years organic farms can reach their peak, as the soil comes to be naturally detoxified and recovers lost micro-organisms. In seven or fewer years, depending on the type of trees planted, orchards would no longer require much care, providing both food and surplus for sale. The scheme is desirable, and success possible, provided that organic farming is made a prerequisite for distribution. But women would need the security of usufruct rights, as well as functional literacy to be able to constantly learn and document their location-specific knowledge. It could enable millions of damaged, abandoned acres to be regenerated and significantly raise employment levels in rural areas.
The government would be well advised to enlist the expertise of the few organic farming experts we have, and those from India where knowledge of organic practices is highly advanced. Learning from our neighbours could turn the run-up into a head start.