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close this bookCERES No. 058 (FAO Ceres, 1977, 50 p.)
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A ''natural'' modernization

will the appearance of new trades, the installation of agricultural industries and the birth of a tertiary sector in the country absorb rural unemployment?

by Jean Fauchon

India and Bangladesh immediately come to mind when one mentions rural poverty, people without work wandering through the countryside seeking their daily nourishment, exploited by unscrupulous middlemen and absentee landlords. These mental pictures merge with those of the recent terrible drought in the Sahel and Ethiopia, which drove people from their villages, leaving behind them the carcasses of cattle dead from thirst or rather hunger. Both images are all too near reality. The 1971 census showed that, of a total of about 180 million rural people in India, 43.34 percent were small farmers and 56.66 percent were landless. In Indonesia, at least 44.6 percent, and in Sri Lanka 60 percent of the small farmers have less than half a hectare of rice. Furthermore, these figures are several years old; it seems that things have become worse since then.

How can this situation be explained? And above all, what can be done to remedy it?

Without going as far as India, where rural destitution seems too often to be hopeless, there are some very rich countries that nevertheless have problems of rural underemployment and unemployment. In Western Europe in the countries with pasturelands, a family lives reasonably well if it owns 20 milk cows - which in reality means far more animals, because to the 20 cows (producing more than 3 000 litres of milk per cow per annum) can be added the calves, as well as one or two hundred pigs and an indefinite amount of poultry. All of these must live on an area of about 20 hectares. With considerably smaller areas-say, 10 hectares-a family is permanently hard up.

The problem is the same throughout the world. In Kenya, the Masai practice a complicated seminomad animal-breeding system, and feed on cattle blood drawn periodically by incisions on the living animal. The necessity of limiting the bloodletting, especially during the dry season, obliges the Masai family to maintain huge herds, since each Masai needs 40 head to nourish himself; an average family must possess from two to three hundred animals, which must range over immense areas to find sufficient grazing. Territory is limited, both in extent and by soil fertility and watering points. The number of herdsmen and their families is also limited. But there the Masai have the answer. Before family planning was even heard of, the Masai were practicing it. The man whose wife had just given birth to a child kept away from her, sometimes for as much as three years.

These two impressions of the rural world illustrate the great problem of rural poverty under different aspects, and in far more favourable conditions than in many other countries. Think of the desolate lands of the Sahel, which appeared in reports on the drought as vast unpopulated areas -at least without men, because they frequently abandoned women and children in the villages to look for work, and sometimes never came back; and the luxuriant countryside of the Nile Delta, where a feddan (about one acre, or one fourth of a hectare) was enough for a family to live off the land; so rich that it could yield three successive harvests each year - but there are two families for each feddan; sumptuous rice fields in Sri Lanka or Indonesia, terraced against the mountainsides-but there, too, each family needs one hectare, and how many families are there on the land? How will the innumerable children, running naked in the rice fields or driving the apathetic buffaloes, live when the land cannot support them, however richly cultivated it may be?

The principal cause of underemployment and unemployment also lies in the limited amount of arable land available per person in view of the galloping increase in rural population. Even if there are readjustments, principally because of marriages, the number of holdings in a particular region varies very little. These rural holdings cannot support the young, who must leave and find work elsewhere. Of course technical progress often leads to better incomes for the farmers, less intensive work and less fatigue. But the fact remains that the number of jobs available on the land is virtually unchanging, except when it drops because of technical progress.

Things happened differently

Finally, the very structure of the agricultural economy and its evolution can give rise to unemployment even when modern machines do not take away work from unskilled labourers. The example of the green revolution illustrates the complexity of the problem. The introduction of miracle seeds was meant to change the agricultural economy in many countries, particularly in Asia, by increasing the farmers' incomes without increasing the land available for cultivation, because-among other things -the traditional rice, etc., seeds were to be replaced by seeds of high-yielding varieties. This did not involve any redistribution of land, since even the small farmer was in principle supposed to be able to procure the seeds in question and obtain the best possible yield from them by the application of fertilizers and rational utilization of irrigation.

In practice things happened differently. The purchase of seeds (which could not be saved, as before, from the preceding harvest), fertilizers and irrigation water required considerable capital in order to obtain increased income, and a far more intensive professional training for farmers with a very low level of education. The necessary credit facilities were rare and expensive, frequently in the hands of big prosperous farmers, who could exercise all sorts of pressures on the smallholders. The problem of water, necessary for maximum yield from the new seeds, obliged people to settle around watering points and irrigation canals. Finally, an unexpected problem arose: absentee proprietors, hitherto uninterested in the direct exploitation of their own land, realized that they could make a lot of money with modern agricultural methods. They simply eliminated the farmers or sharecroppers who were living at bare subsistence levels on their land. Thus, an enormous mass of people who lived poorly on very small holdings found themselves thrown on to the labour market, without land or skills or the hope of finding a job in industry, since the latter was insufficiently developed. Rural poverty became destitution.

Idle the rest of the year

Limited availability of land is not the only factor. The duration of periods of work also affects the situation. Thus, in Bamako, Mali, the rains generally come toward the beginning of June, and the rainy season continues for about four months, governing the cycle of crops. These must germinate, come up and be harvested during this period. The vegetal cycle hardly covers more than this length of time. The longer the rainy season, the better the harvest. Everything ends toward December. The harvest and its marketing will still occupy people for a few weeks. But from January, there is hardly any work to be done in the fields. This is the period of travel, social outings and festivities; many young people go elsewhere in an attempt to earn a little money, confident that the family granary is full when the season has been good. The situation is different when the rain falls regularly and the rainy season is longer and longer, especially when the presence of water is assured for the greater part of the year by irrigation or cultivation of swamps. The active period can be prolonged for six months or more. But the first cause of rural underemployment in the Sahel remains the short duration of agricultural work, which is hardly more than five months. The labourer is then occupied night and day. He is idle the rest of the year and must look for work elsewhere. He is in a period of continued underemployment. For centuries this situation was accepted by the agricultural population. But now that demands are growing, together with the necessity and the desire to earn money, work must be found. This is the cause of the innumerable seasonal migrations, such as those of the Tukulor who leave the Senegal river region to go to Dakar in search of work, and the Mossi leaving Upper Volta for the Ivory Coast.

The most concrete problems arise for governments, which are often carrying out agrarian reforms and must reply to questions such as: the number of families that can live in a certain area, irrigated or not; the infrastructures to be organized; the credits to be distributed and the forms of organization to be developed; the succession laws to be applied, etc. Two indications are given here, which certainly have an arbitrary character, and concern, first, the minimal land area that would provide a livelihood for a family, and, secondly, the number of days an agricultural labourer must work in order to subsist.

What is the minimal area on which a family can live decently? This question involves many subjective factors, as does any study including the notion of minimal income.

Two examples have been given above. In the regions of irrigated rice-producing land, in Asia or elsewhere, it appears that a family can live decently on I hectare of rice field, on condition that it owns the land free of debt, and cultivates it on the system of double annual harvest of rice and other productive plants (particularly legumes). This basic figure is the same for India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and even Egypt, and establishes, according to many authors, a clear distinction between relatively prosperous farmers and poor ones. It is just about as much as a family of two working units can cultivate without mechanization. With less than I hectare, the farmer must work as a labourer part of the time.

Of course, this figure can vary widely according not only to the fertility of the land, but also the sale price of rice, of inputs and particularly irrigation water, and finally the technical competence of the farmer. However, it represents an average to be taken into consideration when irrigated areas are planned It may be noted that it is also the space allocated to the workers on the big collective farms in the U.S.S.R., which provides them with a considerable income in addition to the salary they receive.

The modern artisans

One of the biggest problems of agricultural economy is that of the peak labour periods, in the course of which not only is everyone occupied, but even overpopulated countries like Bangladesh lack workers. This explains the hesitation of certain countries to put into effect vigorous policies to eliminate unemployment in the rural areas; it is difficult to find solutions that would enable the jobless to be employed at certain periods of the year, while at other times they are needed for urgent agricultural work like the transplanting of rice. Perhaps a minimum duration of annual work could be estimated, below which agricultural workers are reduced to destitution and beggary. Numerous factors come into play, but it seems that with less than 100 days' work per annum, a family of agricultural labourers would have to leave the land and look for work elsewhere.

The disappearance of nonagricultural rural activities leads to a massive extension of unemployment and underemployment in the rural regions. Agricultural societies as they used to be-and are, even today, in many industrialized countries-constitute a relatively closed world, developing its own trade as a result of reciprocal needs. A study of workers in small rural communities, in Europe as in Africa, in India as in Indonesia, reveals numerous activities that are not agricultural but depend upon the prosperity of the farmers, such as those of tailors, shoemakers, saddlers, roofers and masons, pedlars, hairdressers (always present, even in the most primitive rural societies), washer-women, ironers of bonnets and traditional costumes, dressmakers, etc.; to this list must be added the village priest or the imam, the teacher and the lawyers. What remains, in modern agricultural societies, of these artisans who constituted the economic and social fabric of the rural world of yesterday? They have been unable to compete with mass-produced goods-often cheaper, sometimes of better quality, more varied - and have abandoned their workshops

At the same time, other artisans have appeared. Electrification and the development of communications involving the maintenance of bicycles and cars, the expansion of domestic appliances, radio and television have fostered the growth of a host of new artisans, whose sphere of activity has widened from the village to the district. The nature of trade has changed, and the country grocery where you can buy anything has given way to the supermarket in the nearby town.

But these modern artisans were very seldom the same people as before; the latter would have had to change completely, and although sometimes the blacksmith has become the repairer of agricultural machinery, the weavers, saddlers and ironers have simply swelled the numbers of unemployed and fled the village to the town, finding there even greater destitution than that which they left behind.

Thus, artisans without clients and labourers without work find themselves in unemployment or extreme underemployment, forming a mass of unskilled workers that becomes a burden on the national labour market and can only find work in the budding industries, when they exist.

Finally, an important part of rural underemployment is accounted for by all those who are physically unable to work: children, old people, pregnant women, the sick. The social protection that covered them in the village has often disappeared, shattered by the breakup of the subsistence economy. The case of the old - traditional guardians of children and flocks-is often tragic.

The creation of new jobs

Obviously, agriculture should be able to offer jobs to the workers of the rural world. But the possibilities of creating new jobs in agriculture are very limited. Each rural family should dispose of a reasonable area of arable land; each wage-earning worker should be occupied for a minimal number of days, for example, 100 days a year. These two propositions show the possibilities and the limitations of the number of new jobs that agriculture can offer. The general extension of the land area under cultivation and the growing mechanization of agricultural occupations will certainly lead to increased diminution of the need for labour in this sector. Even if farmers' incomes rise with rising agricultural prices, a multiplication of jobs in agriculture is by no means sure.

The case of the technically unqualified agricultural worker is very difficult to deal with. Most crops today are harvested by machine, whether they are potatoes, cotton or even some fruits. However, labourers are always needed to gather coffee beans, pick tea leaves or tap rubber trees, and the work force of the big tropical plantations generally remains relatively stable. Finally, certain agricultural workers can only work at the moment of planting or harvesting and remain long months unoccupied in countries where particular crops absorb all the available labour force, for example, the transplanting of rice; their employment in the dead agricultural seasons raises difficult problems. And not all countries have, like Colombia, a variety of climates and soils involving a wide range of crops, which enables the agricultural workers, operating a real interior migration, to go from harvest to harvest for the greater part of the year.

However, the modernization of agricultural structures and rapid technical progress in many countries- both in the tropical and temperate regions -involve the creation of new jobs. Agricultural industries of every kind, or industries working for agriculture -from dairies, sugar refineries and other industries processing agricultural products for consumption, to factories for agricultural materials, fertilizers or packaging-require a bigger and bigger labour force, skilled or unskilled. The most interesting example is undoubtedly that of milk, formerly distributed from door to door in the towns, and now pasteurized, homogenized, transformed into butter or cheese, packed in waxed cartons; all these operations require a permanent labour force. The development of jobs of a tertiary character is undoubtedly one of the characteristics of advanced agricultural economies: farm accountants, agronomists selecting cattle or seeds, even programmers planning crops with the help of a computer are now familiar figures, not only on the big grain farms in North America or the vast kolkozes of the Soviet Union, but also in countries where family holdings that have formed groups to obtain modern services are the rule. It is also the case of the quasi-industrial plantations in southeast Asia.

A considerable labour force

To what extent can the agricultural worker benefit from the creation of these new and modern jobs? The reply is simple: he must have sufficient general education and the appropriate specialized professional training. He finds himself in competition with young people from the towns, where access to education is easier. In 1968 there were competitive examinations at the Centre d'apprentissage agricole (agricultural training centre) in Sotuba, Mali, to select about thirty young people for training as agricultural extension workers. Four fifths of those accepted were of urban origin. Perhaps it was a question of selection criteria, too severe and too abstract for the rural youth. But the fact is that the new modern rural jobs require careful preparation; they must constitute openings for the school-educated rural youth, who would then agree to return to the country, without working the land or returning to their village, whose social structures they have probably rejected.

The necessity of keeping the innumerable consumers in the big towns, existing or growing up, supplied with wholesome food offers other possibilities of "rural-urban" employment.

These towns are surrounded by belts of market gardens, needing a considerable labour force, and by meat-producing enterprises, like industrial poultry breeding. Sometimes even, agricultural enterprises are established in the towns themselves: this is the case in India, where there are dairy farms in some towns.

Although the disappearance of the different traditional crafts has led to an increase in unemployment and underemployment in the country, there has been an expansion in modern forms of handicrafts, linked to the creation of an important market of rural consumers. Stable and reasonable agricultural prices enable the farmers to spend money on industrial products of everyday use and require the services of new artisans. Consumer studies made in Sri Lanka show that, as soon as the farmer makes a little money, he buys first of all textiles, household goods, a bicycle and a radio. Then, if his income increases, he buys a sewing machine, furniture, sometimes a refrigerator; he requests electric lighting, drinking water, and spends considerable sums on the improvement of his health, his children's education and his home. All these purchases involve, as a secondary effect, the establishment of traders, maintenance and repair shops, and therefore artisans.

All the preceding observations emphasize the "natural" development of agriculture and agricultural economies, as they can be seen in many countries. Will they involve a massive development of employment, rapidly alleviating the pressure exercised on national economies in the rural countries by the innumerable people totally or partially unemployed, most of them from the rural world? Probably not, because the flow of unemployed country people into the towns is much quicker than the rhythm of the natural evolution described above. The rural world can create jobs; but it also loses them, due to technological evolution. At the same time, the social problems are aggravated, because everyone must find a job; and the fundamental aspiration of the country people is to have an income comparable to that of the city dwellers, not only in terms of monetary income but also in terms of services.

Far more costly

The transition from a traditional subsistence economy to a market economy creates economic, social and political distortions, which simple evolution cannot remedy. Furthermore, the development of the secondary and tertiary sectors hardly touches the countryside Capital is invested and reinvested in the towns in the case of profits from exportations of agricultural products (and in this particular instance, the products of the sales, all too often, remain abroad). Except for the big plantations or modern agricultural industries, the countryside receives hardly any investment funds, public or private; the introduction of shops, roads or telephones is far more costly per caput in the country than in the towns, sometimes leading to the complete abandonment of remote areas. Thus, the electrification of isolated villages becomes so expensive that it simply never happens, although it would be a most effective means of retaining the young.

One last and very important factor must be emphasized. When more than half the population of a nation earns its livelihood from agriculture, who are the potential consumers of industrial products if not this important fraction of the population living in the country? Who, for example - and this question came up at the time of the massive programmes for building the big electricity-producing dams-will be able to pay for this electricity if not the country people? And finally, how can the lot of labourers and other people living in the towns be improved if they cannot buy foodstuffs at reasonable prices, because agriculture, without modernization, will still be in a state of subsistence? The problem of employment is one element of economic development and can hardly be solved without new planning, based not on the exploitation of the rural world for the benefit of the towns, but on a system of mutual relations and exchanges between industry and agriculture, between urban and rural people.

Not only the countryside but also the town will benefit from such a policy, because the cost of urbanization in the big new towns of Africa or Latin America is becoming so high that the social consequences will involve political repercussions.

It is no good rediscovering what already exists and forgetting the experience gained elsewhere. The example of the Chinese communes is frequently cited: one should certainly study, now that they have been in existence for nearly twenty years, the lessons that can be drawn, mutatis mutandis, from countries with different political, economic or social and demographic structures. In India, the adoption of a national programme for essential needs is based on different principles, but it exists. In Pakistan, the creation of the markaz, new forms of rural development districts, meets similar needs. All these programmes have one thing in common: the struggle against rural underemployment, but bearing in mind that the solution to the problem must be integrated in a global development policy, and the progress of one social group should be made, not to the detriment of others but, on the contrary, by helping them to improve their living conditions.