This article explores the “agrarian question of labour” (AQ of labour) that is emerging in Ethiopia as part of a strategy of agricultural commercialisation present since the mid-2000s. We contribute to debates about the uneven character and open-ended trajectory of Ethiopia’s agrarian transformation, which is a state-led, investment- based attempt at a transition from a largely rural, agrarian society and economy to an increasingly industrial one. The article addresses why and how agricultural commercialisation failed in the case of two overlapping and nearly identical agricultural investment projects in Hararghe and Wolaita that were financed by interlinked multinational financial groups and facilitated by the state for the production and processing of the biofuel crop castor. The state’s contractual incorporation of smallholders into these poorly planned and financially extractive large-scale land investments was met with various forms of resistance which contributed to the failure of the projects. The article points to the centrality of an unresolved agrarian question of labour as a source of tension in Ethiopia’s agrarian transformation. While literature conceptualises agricultural commercialisation in Ethiopia through a dichotomous model – state support to small- holder farming in the country’s highlands, and investment-led, large-scale commercialisation in the lowlands – in this article we emphasise the importance of contract-farming (CF) as a third mode of agricultural commercialisation. CF relies on the incorporation of smallholders, including their landholdings and labour-power, into large-scale land investment projects via out-grower schemes. This article shows that CF gained political momentum over the course of the 2000s as a commercialisation model that facilitates investments in smallholder farming (i.e. through commercialising their productive activities) with- out necessitating rapid changes in the agrarian social structure (i.e. by inhibiting rapid social differentiation and land dispossession of small- holders). The strategic rationale of CF was to regulate the swelling of a land-detached labour force (i.e. a precarious and politically dangerous stratum), should agro-industrial growth not proceed at a pace sufficient to absorb that force (i.e. provide employment outside smallholder agriculture). Empirically, the article relies on ethnographic fieldwork addressing the trajectories of investor-operated and state-mediated CF for castor over the course of a decade (mid-2000s to mid-2010s) in the East/West Hararghe zones of the Oromia Region and in the Wolaita zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). Through the agency of near identical ad hoc investment companies – Flora EcoPower (FEP) in Hararghe and Global Energy Ethiopia (GEE) in Wolaita operating for about a decade since 2005 – Ethiopia’s development planners hoped that these two peripheries, which were characterised by high labour-to-land ratios, land degradation and labour out-migration, would see the commercialisation and improvement of smallholder production and livelihoods. The two case studies combined reveal that, firstly, top-down planning and implementation of CF, and the processes of subversion and resistance this engendered, played a crucial role in the ultimate failure of the investment projects. It shows that agricultural commercialisation, based on the state’s coercive contractual incorporation of smallholders into large-scale land deals, can lead to a backlash that undermines the state’s development(al) strategies. Secondly, the legacy that the failure of the projects left behind, added fuel to an already politicised fire surrounding the labour question, i.e. the extent to which the attempted agricultural transformation to commercialised agro-industrial production can sufficiently diversify incomes and offer employment opportunities to offset social ills and political grievances. Thirdly, the two cases of CF reveal the same land and labour exploitative logic behind investments that prioritise quick returns over long-term planning and thereby disregard the local socio-economic and ecological conditions in which they intervene. Despite their specificities, we conclude that the two cases cast a shadow on the ostensive capacity of the Ethiopian state to mitigate the adversities and contradictions of investment-based, state-mediated agricultural commercialisation through CF. Beside the economic significance of failed agricultural investment projects, the protests that followed silent subversions in Wolaita and Hararghe marked an additional point of rupture in the relationship between government and farmers. This is particularly significant as, since the EPRDF came to power in the 1990s, the leadership has always capitalised on smallholders’ support as a central social constituency.

Contract and Control: Agrarian labour mobilisation and resistance under large-scale land investments for biofuel crop production in Ethiopia

Davide Chinigò
2020

Abstract

This article explores the “agrarian question of labour” (AQ of labour) that is emerging in Ethiopia as part of a strategy of agricultural commercialisation present since the mid-2000s. We contribute to debates about the uneven character and open-ended trajectory of Ethiopia’s agrarian transformation, which is a state-led, investment- based attempt at a transition from a largely rural, agrarian society and economy to an increasingly industrial one. The article addresses why and how agricultural commercialisation failed in the case of two overlapping and nearly identical agricultural investment projects in Hararghe and Wolaita that were financed by interlinked multinational financial groups and facilitated by the state for the production and processing of the biofuel crop castor. The state’s contractual incorporation of smallholders into these poorly planned and financially extractive large-scale land investments was met with various forms of resistance which contributed to the failure of the projects. The article points to the centrality of an unresolved agrarian question of labour as a source of tension in Ethiopia’s agrarian transformation. While literature conceptualises agricultural commercialisation in Ethiopia through a dichotomous model – state support to small- holder farming in the country’s highlands, and investment-led, large-scale commercialisation in the lowlands – in this article we emphasise the importance of contract-farming (CF) as a third mode of agricultural commercialisation. CF relies on the incorporation of smallholders, including their landholdings and labour-power, into large-scale land investment projects via out-grower schemes. This article shows that CF gained political momentum over the course of the 2000s as a commercialisation model that facilitates investments in smallholder farming (i.e. through commercialising their productive activities) with- out necessitating rapid changes in the agrarian social structure (i.e. by inhibiting rapid social differentiation and land dispossession of small- holders). The strategic rationale of CF was to regulate the swelling of a land-detached labour force (i.e. a precarious and politically dangerous stratum), should agro-industrial growth not proceed at a pace sufficient to absorb that force (i.e. provide employment outside smallholder agriculture). Empirically, the article relies on ethnographic fieldwork addressing the trajectories of investor-operated and state-mediated CF for castor over the course of a decade (mid-2000s to mid-2010s) in the East/West Hararghe zones of the Oromia Region and in the Wolaita zone of the Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR). Through the agency of near identical ad hoc investment companies – Flora EcoPower (FEP) in Hararghe and Global Energy Ethiopia (GEE) in Wolaita operating for about a decade since 2005 – Ethiopia’s development planners hoped that these two peripheries, which were characterised by high labour-to-land ratios, land degradation and labour out-migration, would see the commercialisation and improvement of smallholder production and livelihoods. The two case studies combined reveal that, firstly, top-down planning and implementation of CF, and the processes of subversion and resistance this engendered, played a crucial role in the ultimate failure of the investment projects. It shows that agricultural commercialisation, based on the state’s coercive contractual incorporation of smallholders into large-scale land deals, can lead to a backlash that undermines the state’s development(al) strategies. Secondly, the legacy that the failure of the projects left behind, added fuel to an already politicised fire surrounding the labour question, i.e. the extent to which the attempted agricultural transformation to commercialised agro-industrial production can sufficiently diversify incomes and offer employment opportunities to offset social ills and political grievances. Thirdly, the two cases of CF reveal the same land and labour exploitative logic behind investments that prioritise quick returns over long-term planning and thereby disregard the local socio-economic and ecological conditions in which they intervene. Despite their specificities, we conclude that the two cases cast a shadow on the ostensive capacity of the Ethiopian state to mitigate the adversities and contradictions of investment-based, state-mediated agricultural commercialisation through CF. Beside the economic significance of failed agricultural investment projects, the protests that followed silent subversions in Wolaita and Hararghe marked an additional point of rupture in the relationship between government and farmers. This is particularly significant as, since the EPRDF came to power in the 1990s, the leadership has always capitalised on smallholders’ support as a central social constituency.
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Utilizza questo identificativo per citare o creare un link a questo documento: http://hdl.handle.net/20.500.12071/30307
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