How can we transcend fixed and imprinted imageries and open possibilities of innovation in agrarian struggles? Agrarian conversations typically center around land rights, food sovereignty and everyday interactions with neoliberal pressures. These conversations might make you think of farmers ploughing land and uniting for agrarian struggles, as is currently happening in India.
We may be aware that the picture is much more complex: that there are different types of farmers, different kinds of soils influencing the practice of farming, and different ‘asks’ in these agrarian movements. Still, the collective imagery has a tendency to coalesce around the singular images of farmers and farming practices imprinted in childhood, including perhaps less idyllic images of the eternal struggles of peasants.
Yet pastoralists (as well as fishermen, beekeepers, gatherers and hunters) rarely feature at the front and center of this collective agrarian imagery. In a recent paper, Pastoralists and peasants: perspectives on agrarian change, Ian Scoones argues that there are historical, disciplinary and political reasons for the separation between mobile livestock keepers (pastoralists), and small-scale settled farmers (peasants); but, he argues, this no longer makes sense today. Pastoralists and peasants face similar struggles of enclosure, privatization and commoditization. They also face similar uncertainties.
As the livelihood matrices of pastoralists increasingly look like those of peasants (and vice versa), maintaining bounded definitions and separate understandings of ‘pastoralists vs peasants’ not only undermines the collective influence of agrarian movements, but also misleads policy-making agendas. Beyond the question of who is a pastoralist and who is not a peasant, a more significant question may be: What can we learn from the world of pastoralism for wider agrarian struggles?
This question was explored in the first episode of a webinar series called Agrarian Conversations, which aims to engage in conversations in critical agrarian studies and scholar-activism. Set up by an interdisciplinary force of pluralists which includes CASAS, TNI, PLAAS, ICAS, YARA, ERPI, RRUSHES-5, the Journal of Peasant Studies and our very own PASTRES group, the series aims to address strategic and urgent issues in relation to the rural world today.
By parsing the wider debates, biases and stereotypes found in standard narratives, academia has an important responsibility in asking critical questions and contributing to the organization of social movements. As discussed in this first session, it is troubling that the separation between peasants and pastoralists remains visible in academia and in social movements. What are the things that pastoral scholarship and agrarian studies overlook in each other? Why should these distinctions begin to erode if we are to engage in more progressive discussions about transformation?
As I am beginning to understand in my own work in Tunisia, this is about more than just the intellectual stimulus of applying the empirical realities of pastoralism to the conceptual aspects of the greater agrarian questions. Rather, the process of cross-pollination brings the two disciplines together by revealing how they overlap and complement each other, despite their contrasting framings. This calls us to be aware of the differences in the conceptual framings of each discipline, and to actively begin this process of cross-pollination. In my view, this could be a way to avoid reductionist understandings of complex issues and innovate to sustain the coalescence of agrarian social movements.
Seven themes that link pastoralists and peasants
It is helpful at this point to briefly summarize the seven themes that Ian proposes. These themes may help us reframe joint approaches to thinking about agrarian struggles, by incorporating insights from the flexible, mobile and adaptable characteristics of pastoralism.
These themes are:
- living with and from uncertainty to generate reliability,
- mobility and movement to track variability,
- flexible land control and tenure arrangements beyond fixed and bounded understandings of private property,
- that enable adaptability,
- the importance of collective social solidarities and moral economies,
- engaging with real markets linking formal and informal markets, and
- networked politics for a transforming world.
As the floor was opened to panelists Maryam Rahmanian and Rahma Hassan, it became clear that the power struggles at the negotiation tables at all levels (national, international, governmental) continue as a result of the separate legacies of scholarship on peasants and pastoralists. Their testimonies, based on their professional and personal experiences in West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa respectively, confirm that policy debates remain divided, for example around laws on agrarian reform, land and territory. This is due in part to the absence of pastoralists in working groups on agrarian issues.
The differences in identities and cultures between peasants and pastoralists cannot be ignored. Yet the question of who pastoralists are, and what defines a pastoralist, is to my mind misleading – especially when organizing social movements. It deviates attention away from common struggles, and feeds exactly that divisiveness which, as Ian and others argue, is damaging in the face of increasing neoliberal pressures.
Avoiding definitional traps
The question should be less about detailed definitions of pastoralists, and more about defining how different livelihoods co-exist over territories in differentiated ways. It should be about what policies ensure that different livelihood options remain open for all. It should be about developing framings for agrarian struggles that include plural identities.
The tendency to fall into definitional traps is something I see happening over and over again, whether in conferences or workshops in academia or in development work – and indeed in this agrarian conversation. It’s crucial to be sensitive to these traps: they lead to the development of standard narratives, largely fed by the media, which can sensationalize (for example) farmer vs herder conflicts, while overshadowing the origins of this conflict, including that between different groups of agriculturalists and between different groups of pastoralists, which are equally significant. These standard narratives of animosity between pastoralists and agriculturalists needs to be critiqued, as they can lead us to neglect the types of mutualism that exist between different livelihoods. Conflicts arise because of wider structural issues and wider grievances in marginal areas, and these are the causes for concern in agrarian struggles.
In different ways the PASTRES research sites are confirming how the more mobile, networked, and adaptable aspects of pastoralists have a lot to teach us – as researchers first and foremost – about how to live with, and from, uncertainty. These aspects intersect with agrarian change and with peasant studies. But importantly, although our focus is on ‘pastoralists’, we have in fact been interacting with doctors, olive farmers, cleaners, migrants, unionists, Amazigh activists, bee-keepers, industrialists, capitalists, traders… and the list goes on. What I mean is that pastoralists are often something else too. All of these identities should be part of how we collectively imagine ‘agrarian conversations’, beyond the distinction between pastoralists and peasants.
Linda Pappagallo is a PASTRES PhD student.
Cover image photo credit: Linda Pappagallo
This blog was originally posted on the PASTRES website here: https://pastres.org/2021/02/26/cross-pollinating-pastoral-studies-with-wider-agrarian-questions/