Monday, October 25, 2010

Learning About Globalization from Mozambique: A Keyword Reconsidered

It doesn't happen very often, but the developing world, where I live, came up in my American Studies reading the other day. "Neoliberal policies" imposed by "international banking and financial institutions," this scholar warned, threatened developing countries. Land, previously used for subsistence agriculture was being handed over to large-scale agriculture for export crops. "Millions of people…[have been left] without their traditional means of livelihood." I admire this scholar's work greatly, so I hope she will forgive me if I use her words to quarrel more broadly with the field. In many ways her declaration reiterated a highly conventional critique in American Studies of neoliberal globalization--or of the spread of global markets with limited regulation of the flow of labor, capital, and goods.

However much I sympathize with this critique of globalization, these statements gave me pause. I spent early October in rural Mozambique, traveling across the country from the Indian Ocean up to Lake Niassa on the Malawi border. I visited villages reliant on subsistence agriculture. And I passed signs of corporate tobacco and tree farms.

Subsistence agriculture should not be romanticized. Too often scholars sketch out a story of land displacement, export agriculture, and foreign demands for open markets that have lurking within them an idealization of traditional ways of living. In all honesty, I find myself angered by such simplified schema. They seem to imply that we should just let poor people continue living on subsistence agriculture, as if they are happy with back-breaking manual labor on poor soils, remoteness of education and health facilities, and lack of access to cash to buy commodities like mattresses, pots and pans, and other consumer goods.

In the village I visited, residents walk several hours a day to reach their fields, have a school in which the teachers have changed five times in the last two years, and have until recently had to walk three or four hours to the nearest health clinic. Infant mortality is high. Girls marry young--12 or 13. When asked when they had last eaten meat, villagers laughed and thought it was normally three or four or more months earlier. Land is cleared by burning, and in the days that I was there air quality would have warranted a high smog alert in any urban center in America.
All of this is not to say that large-scale export-oriented farming is the answer. Still, Mozambique, as one of the poorest countries in the world, with rich agricultural lands available for development (a population of twenty million occupies a country about twice the size of California, which itself has a population of thirty-three million), needs more large-scale, capital-intensive corporate agriculture, or it will remain poor. Agriculture is a potential strong suit for its economy. But large-scale corporate agriculture cannot be even close to the only answer for lifting rural Mozambicans out of poverty. Nor should it be expanded without good labor controls, fairer global markets (such as fewer trade barriers to the country's products), and efforts to reinvest reasonable proportions of the profits back in the country. But for the vast majority of rural Mozambicans, other strategies are also needed. Proposals I have seen that make sense to me stress building up small and medium-sized agricultural production--building on existing subsistence production. To do that, rural Mozambicans need "inputs"--better seeds, fertilizer, help with improving productivity, and access to credit to purchase those supplies. They need a vital trading network that collects their small outputs, and joins them with others, for larger, even foreign markets.

I reside right now in a peculiar interdisciplinary borderlands between American Studies and international development. I have learned from it, however, to shift in my seat suspiciously and to long for nuance when I hear indictments of neoliberal globalization.

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