The agrarian question of the 21st century

a briefing about the 6th BICAS Conference
31 January 2019

What are the implications of the rise of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) for agrarian and environmental transformations, worldwide and in the BRICS countries in particular? This is the main issue with which the BRICS Initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS) has been concerned since 2013, when it was launched in Beijing by a collective of largely BRICS-based research institutions1.

Farm land bordering industrial area
Farm land bordering industrial area / Photo credit John Hogg/World Bank/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Between 12-14 November 2018, the National University of Brasilia (UnB) hosted the 6th International Conference of the BICAS initiative on “Development and agrarian transformations: BRICS, competition and cooperation in the Global South”. In line with the BICAS identity, this multifaceted question was examined through critical agrarian political economy, ecology and sociology lenses. To this purpose, the conference ushered five plenary panel sessions, as well as self-organized and thematic parallel sessions, all held in Portuguese, Spanish and English.

Among the some 200 conference participants were 45 engaged researchers from China, South Africa, Russia, and India, as well as from other countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe and North America. There were also 57 representatives from the Brazilian family farmers (CONTAG) and landless rural workers (MST) movements.

It was no coincidence that the 6th BICAS Conference was held in Brazil. From the very beginning, the debate was shaped by the election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro in the presidential elections held barely two weeks before the conference. In the opening panel Alexandre Conceição from the national board of the MST stressed that amid the rise of fascism in Brazil, the struggle to democratize land ownership and wealth in the countryside needs to go hand in hand with that aimed at re-building democracy from below; and this perspective permeated the conference debates. These swung between the socio-ecological and the political dimensions of current agrarian and environmental transformations in and around the BRICS, in a generalized context of corrupt liberal democracy, as argued by George Meszaros from Warwick University.

This was also the way in which Henry Veltmeyer, from St. Mary’s and Zacatecas Universities, framed his key note speech on “The Agrarian Question of the 21st Century”. Within the broad contours of the current global resource rush, heightened financialization of agriculture, and authoritarian right-wing populism on the rise in most of the BRICS countries and elsewhere, Henry queried, what are the prospects for family farmers, fishers, pastoralists and rural workers as economic subjects? And who is the emancipatory political subject in the current context?

Regarding the former question, different perspectives were raised from within the BRICS. Jingzhong Ye from China Agricultural University discussed the new strategy of the Chinese government to modernize Chinese family farmers through their integration in high value commodity chains, while a new round of agrarian reform was underway to keep at bay economic differentiation among family farmers. Sudhir Kumar Suthar from Jawaharlal Nehru University emphasized on the need to pay more and better attention to the psychosocial dimension of rural distress in India, and to the growingly fluid urban-rural linkages in that country. More controversially, Walter Belik from Campinas University argued the peasantry as an autonomous, self-sufficient producer has vanished from the Brazilian countryside during the last 50 years. And Sergio Pereira Leite, from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro, depicted a Brazilian countryside in which land commodification has reached new heights after land became a highly coveted financial asset at the turn of the century, and thereby object to sky-rocketing prices. Conversely, Ruth Hall from PLAAS-University of Western Cape was more optimistic about current chances for family farmers and landless workers in South Africa after President Ramaphosa’s commitment to speed-up a redistributive land reform earlier this year.

There was also room to discuss the role of the BRICS in current agro-environmental transformations beyond their national borders. Lidia Cabral from IDS-University of Sussex, and Ramón Fogel from the Interdisciplinary Rural Studies Centre, discussed Brazilian investments and development cooperation efforts in Mozambique and Paraguay as double-edged swords. Isabela Nogueira de Moraes from the Brazil/LabChina described Chinese foreign investment as building up towards a “global extractive infrastructure”. And Wendy Wolford from Cornell University shared her surprise with the very gentle way in which the BRICS countries were treated during the conference. She asked “whether the growth of the BRICS over the past decade and into the future comes at the expense of others. In other words, are the BRICS engaging in the development of underdevelopment? If so, where exactly is the frontier from which the BRICS will extract the raw materials necessary for industrial production?”

Hot discussion topics during breaks and lunches, the issues of resistance and the emancipatory political subject figured less prominently in the conference debates. Nonetheless, Alexander Nikulin from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, raised the question of where it is that the BRICS countries stand within global geopolitics of power today; have they joined the global north? And regardless of whether the answer to the previous question is positive or negative, what implications does this have for agrarian and environmental transformations nowadays? Both Lauro Mattei from the Federal University of Santa Catarina and Henry Veltmeyer argued that agrarian and environmental transformations nowadays unfold within a new wave of neoliberalism.

I believe this is truly the case. And I also believe that it is important to pay careful attention to historical continuities, while inquiring about the particular avenues through which neoliberal capitalism circulates today. What are the implications of the rising power of financial capital and financiers in the BRICS and worldwide, financial crisis notwithstanding, for agriculture and natural resources? And how do the BRICS countries react to the “multistakeholderization” of agricultural commodity chains and natural resource governance? What are the challenges and possibilities for civil society-led accountability politics in these countries?

As Alexandre Conceição, the leader of MST flagged since the very beginning, this has major implications for our understanding of, and possibilities for, an emancipatory and progressive rural politics in the BRICS and elsewhere.

In drawing the broad contours of a research agenda on this regard, Sergio Pereira Leite stressed the need to “study the elites from the inside outside”. Leonilde Medeiros from the Federal Rural University of Rio de Janeiro urged us to do the same with movements advocating for social justice. Moreover, and paraphrasing E.P. Thompson, Leonilde wondered about what moral economy (or economies) are violated by contemporary neoliberal capitalism. For State University of Sao Paulo’s Bernardo Mançano Fernandes, Leonilde’s latter question was at the core of his thesis on socio-territorial movements. These “refer to forms of grassroots politics for which territory, understood as space appropriated by concrete social relations and forms of power, is their defining feature”. Now, whether these movements advocate from social justice, and the particular reasons, ways and effectiveness of their struggles, remain empirical questions.

Indeed, the 6th International Conference of the BRICS initiative for Critical Agrarian Studies (BICAS) raised many questions for an engaged research agenda on the current dynamics of global agro-environmental change in and around the BRICS countries, while offering empirically grounded and theoretically challenging food for thought. The conference program and 69 full papers submitted are online. And while we wait for a new BICAS conference, possibly in India in 2020, here you can find all of the BICAS working papers published since 2013.


1. These include the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) of the University of the Western Cape, the University of Brasilia (UnB), the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), the State University of São Paulo (UNESP), the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), and the College of Humanities and Development Studies (COHD) of China Agricultural University, in collaboration with the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), the Future Agricultures Consortium, Terra de Direitos, and the Transnational Institute (TNI).