Smallholders are increasingly losing ground. They are being pushed aside by large-scale companies, nature conservation initiatives and urban expansion, says Annelies Zoomers, professor of International Development Studies at Utrecht University. Here she talks with Koen Kusters about the future of smallholders in tropical forested landscapes, and the need to turn away from investment-driven development.
Which narratives about the role of smallholders do you encounter in your work?
There are many. On the one hand, there is the narrative of smallholders as a very poor and vulnerable group without secure land rights, which limits their possibilities to have decent lives. This view is prominent in debates about land grabbing and community rights, where smallholders are mainly seen as victims. Local people are forced to leave their land, or become enclosed by large scale plantations. In this debate, the focus is very much on supporting communities to protect their land, with less attention on individual households, and it is less about agriculture.
On the other hand, there is the counter narrative of smallholders in inclusive businesses. This emphasizes the positive contribution that individual smallholders can make in high end value chains of commodities such as cacao, coffee and palm oil. Inclusive businesses are expected to contribute to poverty reduction, economic growth, employment generation, gender equality and improved wellbeing. Within this narrative there is a tendency to look at the direct benefits, with little attention on indirect or unintended consequences such as implications on local food prices and for others outside the project area.
It is important to acknowledge that there are different types of smallholders that cannot be lumped together. In Indonesia for example, smallholders play increasingly prominent roles in oil palm cultivation, with negative implications for peatland areas. Many of these smallholders are newcomers with interests and priorities that are very different from other groups of smallholders such as small scale rice producers and indigenous peoples.
Has the debate on climate change influenced the narratives?
I think so. More priority is being given to the role of Indigenous smallholders in nature conservation and reducing deforestation, such as through community forest management. However, the opportunities to benefit economically have so far been limited. There are also dilemmas. Efforts to increase economic returns from forest management will attract newcomers who are looking for new opportunities, and further monetarization of the economy will induce changes in production and consumption with direct and indirect environmental consequences. Moreover, the climate change debate is simultaneously resulting in the expansion of biofuel crops which may cause deforestation.
Your research group looks at smallholders from the perspective of land acquisition and land governance. Have you developed your own narrative based on that research?
The narrative is more about changes in landscapes that push smallholders aside. First, large scale investments decrease smallholders’ access to natural resources. Investments in food and biofuels are leading to the rapid expansion of monoculture plantations of soybean, oil palm, sugarcane and eucalyptus, but also of cacao, coffee and banana. Second, investments in nature conservation, ecotourism and through REDD+ are leading to green enclosures and no-go areas. Third, investments in mining, hydrocarbon extraction and dams are causing environmental destruction. Finally, investments in urban infrastructure, industrial parks and new city developments are pushing the urban frontier. On top of this, we see a rapid expansion of unused land — idle land with no people left. This may be due to land speculation, or due to failed projects. Smallholders are often not even informed or consulted about large scale investments, which makes it very difficult for them to defend their space, or benefit from new opportunities that are coming from the outside.
So smallholders are losing out?
Yes, smallholder farming is under pressure and smallholders are losing ground. But that is not the whole story. Increasing numbers of the rural poor have been diversifying their income strategies and now have multiple income sources. They do some farming, but earn most of their cash income from construction or domestic work. Many are no longer rooted in one place, and though they maintain relations with their home communities, they are also attached to other places and function in larger networks. The idea of a small scale and full time farmer is increasingly outdated. We always talk about local people and local communities, but in reality, people do not stay in one place. They go in and out. People are looking for opportunities to improve their lives, and sticking to farming is not always the best strategy.
What does this mean for an organization like Tropenbos International, with its focus on smallholder agroforestry and community forestry?
Focusing on smallholder agroforestry and community forestry can help to counterbalance the trends that I just mentioned. It can help to reduce deforestation, restore biodiversity and prevent displacement. However, it is important to acknowledge the diversity of smallholders. Local communities are not homogeneous, and people do not live in containers. Smallholder agroforestry and community forestry might help to build climate-smart landscapes, but who are the ones that decide? How to share benefits? How to make sure that economic benefits are good enough to meet smallholder and community expectations? These are questions that we need to think about.
Tropenbos members work with stakeholders in forest frontier landscapes. What can they do?
They can facilitate processes of bottom-up planning. This is key to move away from investment-driven and commodity-based development in the direction of people-driven and nature-based development.
Has your research group looked at the perspectives of young people?
To escape poverty, young people often go to cities, in search of education and urban employment, and often pushed by their parents or other family members. Young people’s interest to stay in the countryside will very much depend on whether there are opportunities to live a good and dynamic life. Rather than living in isolated places, they want to have access to urban services, such as electricity and good education.
In some parts of the world, you increasingly see youth initiatives that focus on sustainable and organic farming, especially for local and regional markets.
Indeed, there are various examples, not only within Europe, but also in the Amazon region. These are often young people, who after finalizing their studies, return to their areas of origin to start a new business. However, for the moment, organic farming remains mostly a niche market in the west. I do not expect such markets to develop locally.
You know the frontier areas in the Amazon well. How do you hope they will develop?
I hope that we can find feasible ways to conserve biodiversity while putting smallholders and communities centre stage in defining future landscapes. We should turn away from investment-driven development. Currently most developments start with a business plan. If lucky, these are followed by an environmental and social impact assessment, and a process to obtain the free and prior informed consent of local people. This is not the best way. Instead, we should start locally, putting smallholders and forest communities first in making plans for climate-smart landscapes, based on their vision of the future. As soon as such plans are available, investors could be selectively invited to come in. Planning should always be bottom-up and people-based.
Annelies Zoomers is professor of International Development Studies at Utrecht University, and chair of WOTRO Science for Global Development. She is the co- founder of the Netherlands Land academy (LANDac), which focuses on the impacts of large scale land investments that are currently taking place in Africa. She has published extensively on sustainable livelihoods and poverty alleviation, land grabbing, and international migration.