The tension over land

The other day, I visited a couple of organic farmers near where I live. I found them doing some admirable work, drenched in sweat.

Sep 23, 2016

By Anil Netto
The other day, I visited a couple of organic farmers near where I live. I found them doing some admirable work, drenched in sweat. They were growing bayam, kai lan, brinjal, maize, papaya and lemon grass. The crops looked healthy, alive and even happy!

For fertiliser, they use goat dung obtained from a livestock rearer nearby. When I asked one of them what they use instead of chemical pesticide, she looked at me blankly. “The ladybugs just eat the aphid (plant lice),” she said.

The farmers had managed to secure the land at low rental from the agriculture department. But they face an uncertain future. Their two-year tenancy agreements for the land may not be renewed.

Instead, rumours are swirling among the farmers that this beautiful oasis of green surrounded by a concrete jungle could be taken away for property development. Indeed, developers have long been eyeing this large patch of green space.

For economist and thinker EF Schumacher, there is a constant tension between agriculture and industry just as there is a tension between life and death. One without the other would not be meaningful.

And yet, agriculture is more significant than industry. We could survive without industry but it would be almost impossible to survive without agriculture. It all boils down to how we see land. In Genesis chapter 1, after God had created human beings, 28 “God blessed them, saying to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. Be masters of the fish of the sea, the birds of heaven and all the living creatures that move on earth.’

Some translations use words to say human beings have been given ‘dominion over’ creation instead of the word ‘masters’.

For Schumacher, having dominion is not a licence “to tyrannise, to ruin and exterminate”. The dignity of the human being means we have a “noblesse oblige”, he says: this entitlement of dominion over the earth comes with social responsibilities towards creation.

For Schumacher, the management of land ought to be directed towards three goals: health, beauty and permanence. It is only when we have the first three that we can reap a fourth goal – productivity (an abundant harvest) almost as a by-product.

He says agriculture has three primary purposes:

1. to keep the human beings in touch with living nature, of which we are significant participants
2. to humanise and ennoble the human being’s wider habitat, and
3. to bring forth food and other material for a more fulfilled life.

Unfortunately, in the relentless quest for “progress” which later took the shape of industrialisation and property development, the significance of land (as a resource second only to the human being) and agriculture has been reduced.

Agriculture has been reduced by materialists to just the production of food. And in economics, land is regarded as merely one of the factors of production, along with labour and capital.

In the process, the face of agriculture itself has changed. Now, the principles of industry are being applied to agriculture as the overriding goal is productivity. So we see attempts to reduce the number of farmers and farm-workers and to increase efficiency by applying economies of scale. The connection with the land and the majesty of nature in all its diversity is lost.

As Schumacher observed, there is a tension. Natural agriculture is all about sustaining life from the organisms the soil produces, to the life in the plants, to a harvest of natural food which supplies essential nutrients to sustain life for living creatures.

Industry, on the other hand, deals with lifeless inputs, to produce lifeless products, to supply the consumption needs of the people, often creating toxic waste. It tries to minimise labour and maximise output. To apply the principles of industry to agriculture would result in a major shift in approach.

And so it has. Now, with the agro-business cultivation of cash crops, we have seen the transformation of independent farmers into contract workers, the use of harmful agrochemical fertilisers and pesticides, and the gobbling up of smaller farms into large monoculture estates.

The number of people involved in agriculture has fallen sharply. In the eyes of the public, agriculture is no longer seen as desirable work. Even in education, we saw how Universiti Pertanian was changed to Universiti Putra, the name change reflecting something of this shift.

The consequences have been dire. We now have to import billions of ringgit in food from abroad. Factories, plantations growing monoculture cash crops and luxury condominium blocks have gobbled up land that was once used by independent farmers and native shifting cultivators, who had a deep connection to the land. The disregard with which we have for land also has major environmental implications as hills are cut, rivers polluted and forests flattened.

In the wake of all this, rural Malaysians have migrated to the cities but instead find spiritual isolation and alienation and anonymity there. Essential services are overstretched as congestion presents new difficulties. Many of the middle-class have fled the city centres to live in the suburbs and commute to the city for work, observes Schumacher.

For Schumacher, before our policies regarding land can be changed, there will have to be a great deal of philosophical and religious change in the way we view land. “If we could return to a generous recognition of meta-economic values, our landscapes would become healthy and beautiful again and our people would regain (their) dignity...”

So we need to look at land in terms of health, beauty and permanence as well as food production and productivity. Most of all, we need to maintain our connection with the land and recognise the interconnections between the human being and economic activities within the larger God-given ecosystem we are privileged to live in.

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