Small-scale agriculture in crisis due to COVID-19 pandemic

Written by Jeltsje Kemerink - Seyoum & Irene Leonardelli, on 30 June 2020

While most people in the Netherlands feel relieved because the measures against the pandemic are gently being relaxed and they can enjoy drinking beer together again, the majority of the world’s population faces a very different reality.

COVID 19 has made global inequality even more visible than before. In Europe and the US, reports show that the victims of the virus and its economic consequences have mostly been people who have been historically disadvantaged based on their gender, race or ethnicity. Until recently, it was hoped that less economically developed countries, with their often warmer climates and relatively young population, would be less affected by the crisis. However, the first reports from field research in some of these countries have dashed those hopes.

Due to their limited medical facilities, most governments of less economically developed countries enacted a lockdown in a relatively early stage. On our televisions we could see the footage of the huge migrations this has caused in India and other places, or images of the armored vehicles patrolling various cities in Morocco to make sure everybody stays inside. Perhaps the decision to embrace a strict lockdown is prudent, especially considering the crisis’ current development in Europe and the United States. 

But what does the economic standstill mean for the population living in these countries? The UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) predicts that these economies will suffer severely. People in these countries heavily depend on day labour for their income, and they lack the security provided by leave of absence or savings accounts. The impact on their financial means will be immediate, and this can seriously threaten many people’s ability to survive. 

To understand these consequences, we (see disclaimer, end of this article) are investigating the effects of the crisis for households that depend on small-scale agriculture in Algeria, India, Morocco, and Zimbabwe. With this research, we hope to steer development policies to match the short and long term needs of these families. 

Livelihood in times of crisis

It has already become clear that the income of these smallholder farmers has significantly declined, even for those that can still work on their land and harvest their crops. It became more difficult for these farmers to sell their harvest, because most farmers’ markets are closed and transport between villages and cities is limited.  In times of financial challenges, eating your own crops sounds perhaps like a good plan, but unfortunately many of these smallholder farmers do not produce food any longer.

Under pressure of decades of neoliberal policy in the agricultural sector, most fields are filled with flowers, cotton, and fodder. These products are grown mainly for the international market. Those farmers that do grow edible crops only provide limited food security. This is due to monoculture and the limited processing possibilities on site: even with an entire village, it will be tough to eat an entire harvest of water melons or cabbage. That is why parts of the harvests are rotting in the fields or sold at extremely low prices.

Planning for the future 

Planning for the coming cropping season is complicated by the lasting uncertainty about the duration of the lockdown, and the question of how the virus will spread or whether there will be a second outbreak of the virus. Should farmers invest in planting their crop, taking on an additional financial burden? Or should they wait and see what happens, spending another season without income from harvest? In a village in India, where we are doing research, farmers have at least partly reverted from cultivating flowers to growing crops for their own consumption, including millet, peanuts, beans, and onions. That is to say, those farmers that own their own farmland and can afford to purchase the needed seeds and fertilizers.

If their harvest succeeds, they might be able to sell some crops, but profits will be low compared to a good flower growing season. This means they could face financial difficulties in the longer term to purchase water for irrigation and other farming inputs. Smallholder farmers in Morocco and Zimbabwe face a similar problem. Already now some farmers cannot afford gas for their water pumps to access groundwater. This means they cannot irrigate and will depend on sporadic rainfall for their harvest to be successful. And unfortunately 2020 is shaping up to be an exceptionally dry year.  The impacts of the crisis most likely will therefore affect these families in the years to come.

A gendered crisis 

It is tragic to hear that single women in the rural areas are especially vulnerable to the consequences of COVID 19. Patriarchal relations often deny single women direct access to land and water. Therefore these women often work as day laborers for other farmers, in exchange for daily wages. This is now in most cases not possible due to the lockdown and because there is less work available.

Additionally, because schools are closed, single mothers also have to take care of their children. This extra responsibility makes it almost impossible for them to pursue other economic activities. To make it worse, bureaucratic obstacles often prevent single women from qualifying for government support during this crisis. They might not have the correct papers to receive food aid, or depend on their male relatives for subsidized seeds and fertilizer. Economically married women in these villages might be a little better off, but it seems that the lockdown is also here paired with increased domestic violence.

Lifting the lockdown

The (first) peak of the total number of corona cases in Morocco and Algeria seems to be over. The governments are slowly dismantling the lockdown. Hopefully, this new freedom of movement will be in time to support existent cooperative relations. Over the past years, NGOs have invested a lot in cooperatives to improve economic activity and cooperation in the countryside. For example, they have founded cooperatives to increase the social and financial independence of women by collectively baking bread or breeding rabbits. A lack of funds now puts these initiatives at peril.

The number of cases in India is still rapidly increasing. Nonetheless, the government has decided to relax the lockdown, because keeping the entire population at home is economically impossible. The situation in Zimbabwe is equally worrying. The number of people who have to choose between going hungry and becoming sick is increasing every day. A grandmother taking care of her five orphaned grandchildren told us that she is afraid to work on her land because she is afraid to contract COVID 19. This means her grandchildren will have even less food this year. 

Solidarity initiatives

Thankfully, our research also shows how inventive many farmers’ communities are, and that they have a strong social fabric. Countless initiatives have arisen to provide mutual aid, and the families that have been hit the hardest can often count on some kind of safety net. Villages in Algeria have started a system to prevent the hoarding of grain and flour, and volunteers ensure that all families have access to these provisions. In Morocco, young farm laborers organize themselves online. They are mainly specialized in growing watermelons and with their knowledge and workforce they try to support farmers who need help. Moreover, in the villages that we work people are collecting money for food aid to support the most affected families.

In India, an entire network of social organizations and volunteers has sprung into action to support – primarily female – farm laborers and smallholder farmers during this crisis. This network mostly aims to provide information, personal protective equipment, and food aid. They also provide shelter for farm laborers who are stranded in regional cities while traveling to their home villages. Together with farmers, they are currently researching how to best utilize the coming growing season.

Questioning resilience

These inspiring initiatives are very important, but also raise questions. Who is ultimately responsible for all this distress? Under the motto of “improving the resilience” of local communities, both risks and responsibilities are increasingly diverted to the communities’ poorest members. Much development cooperation is aimed at helping them improve the way they deal with setbacks. However, British research, among others, reveals that this emphasis on resilience is an essential component of neoliberal policy.

This tragic COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for scientists to show the consequences of this chosen policy direction to a larger audience. Hopefully people will realize that these kinds of disasters are not unavoidable, but are closely related to exploitation of nature and society on which neoliberal policies thrive. The farmers who feature in this story do not need to become more resilient, but need governments – not only their own but all governments – to take responsibility for the crisis and redress its root causes.

You can read Jeltsje’s original blog in Dutch here.

Disclaimer: this blog is based on research conducted by a collective of scientists in different countries: Sneha Bhat (SOPPECOM), Seema Kulkarni (SOPPECOM), Irene Leonardelli (IHE Delft), Isha Thorat (Independent Researcher), Amine Saidani (ECA), Farah Hamamouche (ECA), Lisa Bossenbroek (TARGA-Aide), Hind Ftouhi (TARGA-Aide), Zakaria Kadiri (TARGA-Aide), Tavengwa Chitata (Sheffield University), Margreet Zwarteveen (IHE Delft), and Jeltsje Kemerink-Seyoum (IHE Delft). This research is partially funded by NWO and DGIS.

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