Recent reports about the Pakistan government’s plan to allot thousands of acres of land to foreign countries and private corporations are alarming to say the least. The proponents of the plan argue that this agricultural outsourcing will attract foreign investment, helping the country to reduce its debts while generating greater productivity and rural employment. However, there is little evidence that this plan will offer any major advantages to the rural poor. Far from benefiting the poor, in fact, one is concerned that peasants may be displaced from their lands to ensure access to foreigners. Moreover, if the land that will be given away is indeed lying “idle” as some reports have claimed, why not distribute it amongst landless farmers to ensure their food security instead of privileging the needs of foreign countries? Giving large chunks of land to other states that want to secure food availability for their population goes against the very logic of sustainable local and national development, especially in times of severe food crises that Pakistan is currently facing.
Given the history of exploitative work conditions in Saudi Arabia and Gulf states, it is very likely that the new corporate farms will function like colonial plantations. According to wikipedia, “a plantation is a large farm or estate, usually in a tropical or subtropical country, where crops are grown for sale in distant markets, rather than for local consumption.” Colonial planters, like today’s advocates for corporate farming, saw themselves as investors and innovators of commercial agriculture. The history of plantations in South America, Asia and the Caribbean tells us that far from eradicating poverty, this kind of intensive transnational agriculture accelerates dependency while weakening food sovereignty among the poorer nations.
In Pakistan, there has already been a radical neglect of important livelihood issues as the country has increasingly became embroiled in a series of security crises. A lot more ink has been spilled on explaining the proliferation of religious and sectarian violence, than on the effects of economic factors in feeding these movements. Missing in these analyses is a discussion of enduring forms of structural violence that lie in extreme disparities of wealth, diminishing protections for vulnerable populations like peasant farmers, the mass movement of rural workers to urban slums, and the increasingly precarious access to food. Far from serving the poor, the state has often resorted to a militarized response in order to suppress poor peoples’ struggles for land and sustenance. This is all the more reason for us to suspect the government’s claims of “rural investment” as a justification for its proposal to lease land to foreign investors.
At the military farms in Okara, for example, tenant farmers have been struggling to retain access to the land that they have been tilling for almost a century. Since 2000, the farmers have been defying the military’s edict to impose a new tenancy system of contract farming. They have refused to sign onto a cash tenancy system because it does not guarantee secure, long-term access to the land. In fact, the contract system will make them more vulnerable to evictions. During the course of their struggle, the mazarin (landless peasants) have discovered that the military farmlands are actually owned by the Punjab Government, as the military’s official lease expired long before the creation of Pakistan.
The tenant farmers see the new contract system as a threat to their subsistence and food security. I recall talking to Nazeer Bola, a tenant farmer, about what gave the tenant farmers the will to defy the military in 2003. He simply answered, “We knew that as soon as we accept this contract system, we will be thrown out of these lands. We can accept death but we don’t accept this contract system.” Nazeer gave the example of the slum-dwellers of Karachi to illustrate what life would be like for the mazareen if they lost their rights over their lands. He argued that in contrast with the extreme poverty in the cities, even the poorest group in the village (like the lower caste kammis) had a marla (a small plot) where they could grow enough food to survive, whereas being destitute in the city meant having no place to sleep and no land to grow one’s food.
Instead of giving away land to serve other people’s food needs, the government needs to provide greater support for farmers like Nazeer Bola by ensuring their access to land, as well as by facilitating policies such as farmer cooperatives that can hold distributors accountable and collectively promote the interests of rural families.