HomeFarming systems’ crises, food insecurity and peasant resistance

Farming systems’ crises, food insecurity and peasant resistance

Systèmes agraires en crise, insécurité alimentaire et résistances paysannes

Which ways for an authentic sustainable development?

Quelles voies pour un authentique développement durable ?

*  *  *

Published on Wednesday, February 11, 2015 by João Fernandes


The food issue keeps feeding concern and controversy. Rightly since the fate of a large fraction of humankind is at stake: the number of people suffering from hunger has exceeded one billion in 2009, which is intolerable, in spite of its slow current reduction. Nowadays speculating about the population growth is rather outdated, since it is practically admitted that the Earth will reach a maximum of ten billion people in the course of this century. The actual question is how to ensure a decent food supply to all of this population, on account of resources that are indeed globally limited and above all most unequally distributed. The current crisis of farming systems throughout the world is a ransom for centuries of collective irresponsibility.



The "Tunisian-Mediterranean Association for Historical, Social and Economic Studies" (TMA/HSES) & "Tunisian World Center for Studies, Research, and Development" (TWC/SRD) will hold on 29, 30 and 31 October 2015 the eighth international conference on the theme: Farming systems’ crises, food insecurity and peasant resistance. Which ways for an authentic sustainable development?

The food issue keeps feeding concern and controversy. Rightly since the fate of a large fraction of humankind is at stake: the number of people suffering from hunger has exceeded one billion in 2009, which is intolerable, in spite of its slow current reduction. Nowadays speculating about the population growth is rather outdated, since it is practically admitted that the Earth will reach a maximum of ten billion people in the course of this century. The actual question is how to ensure a decent food supply to all of this population, on account of resources that are indeed globally limited and above all most unequally distributed. The current crisis of farming systems throughout the world is a ransom for centuries of collective irresponsibility. Colonial latifundism has been superseded by a strange system whose logic is that of finance capital, and strategy ‘global soilless’. What place is left for genuine peasant farming in such a context? Does the belated recognition of its virtues respond to the concern of ensuring the reproduction at a lower cost of a ‘flexible’ labour force for highly atomized tasks? On the other hand, the ever growing and multifaceted resistance of the organized peasantries must be taken into account.

Main themes

In order to engage a comprehensive debate on theses issues, the "Tunisian-Mediterranean Association for Historical, Social and Economic Studies" (TMA/HSES) & "Tunisian World Center for Studies, Research, and Development" (TWC/SRD) organize an international conference open to scholars from every discipline in social sciences which will focus on six themes.

1. Agrarian structures and relations of production

Any form of agricultural activity is inserted in a specific social and economic environment which assigns producers precise rules about access or use of means of production. ‘Peasant agriculture’ implies an organization based on ‘family labour’ and aiming to meet the basic needs (food and other) of all the members of the domestic cell as well as the reproduction of the latter. Mobilizing means of production and human energy refers to a set of relations of production bound to local agrarian structures and underpinning a given task organisation which can be either egalitarian or hierarchical. Some producers with privileged functions are able to capture a certain amount of surplus labour[1] at the expense of the majority in most variable ways. In sub-Saharan ‘lineage-based’ societies, ‘elders’ in charge of the management of material production (including land distribution) and matrimonial exchanges usually impose heavy provisions of unpaid work to ‘juniors’ and women. But in other societies, it is unequal appropriation of land that is the key divisive factor. Latifundism (well known in Latin America) involves a sharp contrast between a minority of big landlords and a host of poor or landless labourers. Customary forms of sharecropping generate ruthless exploitation and lifelong dependence for large sections of deprived peasants; such has been the case of khammassa (sharecropping on fifth) throughout the Maghreb since old times[2], though currently declining or disappearing. By cons, some contracts linking smallholders in loss of autonomy to mechanized big farmers reflect in fact a process of dispossession.

How to define the terms of the relative autonomy of any family production unit? The small family production is characterized in fact by its ability to play on the various forms of dependency and to develop autonomous spaces. In this sense the (little known) concept of ‘artisan form of production’ (AFP) appears highly relevant because of its precision as its flexibility. The specificity of AFP relies in “the dual unit, both technical and social, of the worker and the means of production”[3]. This dual unit refers to a set of practices and social conditions aimed at ensuring the small farmer a direct control of the main factors of production and labour power: it is a continually reiterated process for the maintenance of a threatened autonomy.

2. Peasants throughout history: Oppression, resistance and revolution

Although having formed until very recently the vast majority of humanity, the peasants remain largely ‘unknown’ of official history, because of huge gaps in academic knowledge as well as the bulk of stereotypes and biases about them. There are still few researchers who actually consider them as historical actors. The insertion of cultivators in any social and political formation entails constraints of variable types and intensity. In so-called “hydraulic societies” (Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, China…), peasants are subject to heavy tribute in labour or in kind (at least officially) for the common benefit. This coercive system however does not amount to a total oppression as in the slave or feudal systems. Slavery has played an important but unequal role in many ancient societies; in fact it is often difficult to identify “slave-based” societies strictly speaking, i.e. those where material production relies mainly on slave labour. This was the case of several Mediterranean societies, among which the Roman Empire whose collapse in the Christian era led to a drastic decrease of slavery, at least in agriculture. By cons, there is thereafter an unprecedented expansion of the slave trade, first Saharan and then Atlantic. The first one is directly linked to the development of caravan-trade throughout Sahara: it leads to a massive transfer of captives from Sahel countries to North Africa (and thence to the Middle East) between the seventh and nineteenth century[4]. But it is difficult to estimate the share of this servile labour affected to agricultural production in major destination areas (among which the Saharan oases). Atlantic human trade (an unprecedented deportation in all human history) met the greed of great planters in the New World. Actual conditions of subsistence for the slaves varied in time and place, as well as their forms of resistance: in Brazil, these formed a wide spectrum from insurgency or establishing independent communities (quilombos) to effective forms of challenging masters’ power in the plantations, including the formation of autonomous sectors of production[5]. As for the feudal system, it is known to have occupied a dominant place in the whole of Europe and parts of the Far East over a long period. If the condition it imposes on cultivator is well known in its principle, its concrete forms vary substantially and never evolve in a linear pattern. This system submits the serf to multiple forms of levy (in labour or/and in kind) without really seeking to raise productivity. The introduction of serfdom happened much later in Eastern Europe and Japan than in Western Europe, which affects the forms of transition from feudalism to capitalism[6].

From the Industrial Revolution, the capitalist system will constantly extend its control over all economic activity worldwide. Hence a colonial unprecedented expansion that submits the majority of peoples of all continents to direct or indirect domination by the major Western industrial countries. This relentless rule is exerted mainly on the rural populations under the most diverse forms, from land dispossession to forced labour. But they resist by all means and often play a decisive role in the struggle for national liberation. Moreover, revolutions that break out in some big countries (Mexico, Russia, China…) rely for a large part on the peasantry.

3. Agrarian policies, peasant organizations and autonomous collective initiatives

Agrarian structures and relations of production in a given country are subject to deep changes due to various factors ranging from state intervention to conscious and organized action of the producers themselves. Any state intervention is part of an agrarian policy with specific aims and endowed with adequate means for their achievement. Its guidelines vary according to the political system, the balance of forces and the relative weight of agriculture in the national economy. Agrarian policies can be either incentive or binding. In the first case, they will implement a set of measures to enhance the sustainability of a production model (eg average family farm): agricultural prices, loans, grants, assistance for access to land… However, when the main obstacle to agricultural development lies in an excessively unequal land ownership, it is necessary to undertake a land reform. Contrary to a widespread belief, this is not necessarily part of a revolutionary process. One can even say that land reform is most often designed by the ruling classes according to the interests of industrial capital[7]. The actual role of the rural poor is very variable, although a large peasant mobilization is the first condition of a successful land redistribution. But the most important (and most difficult) is a radical change in the relations of production and the emergence of viable production units. Generally speaking, agrarian policies in Southern countries prioritize export crops or food supplies for big cities at low prices, but hardly bother about strengthening autonomous capabilities of small peasants (which form the majority).

In northern countries, the government must deal with rather old famer organizations which are key partners – though predominantly representing big farmers. It is different in most of Southern countries where until recently producers were rarely represented, outside the official support structures. However, for the last two or three decades we have been witnessing in some countries the proliferation of producer groups or autonomous village associations which tend to unite at all levels. This movement, whose intensity is far from equal, is the subject of heated debate, some observers hailing it as a “silent revolution” while others see it as a mere strategy for capturing external aid. In fact, its actual implications must be scrutinized in each case, taking into account the diversity of experiences[8]. Moreover, very divergent trends are to be observed: some movements are regularly strengthening and accessing to the role of development actors, while others are declining or sinking into passive dependence on support structures.

4. Countryside and rural producers facing the urban setting and the market: complementarity or subordination?

If the period of emergence of the urban phenomenon varies according to geographical areas and societies, massive world urbanization is a major feature of our time, albeit in contradictory forms. In industrialized countries, the gap between rural and urban is reducing (or disappearing). In Southern countries, rural exodus maintains a constant inflow of people to already saturated mega-cities. The pace of migratory movements is rarely synchronized with economic development.

In some parts of the Mediterranean, the intensity of rural-urban linkages reflects the economic and political role of “cities” since ancient times. In the Maghreb, marked with a strong rural character, Ibn Khaldûn has developed in the fourteenth century a theory of the articulation between town and country, emphasizing their dialectical unity[9]. But in the course of history, the balance of power tends to change in favour of the former. In modern times, these reports generally have an asymmetrical character, despite striking regional differences. In Tunisia urban land control may contribute to agricultural dynamism (as in Cap Bon) or conversely take parasitic forms (north-west)[10]. The overall dependence of Tunisian farmers about urban markets (where they act both as sellers and buyers) has being reinforcing for decades[11]. In many sub-Saharan countries, the rapid urban growth creates an exponential increase in basic food demand. This stimulates production in rural areas, especially the better connected to major cities. In the Ivory Coast, a “tight osmosis” is linking towns and the most densely populated countryside, “dynamism of each […] being closely pegged to that of others”[12]. The effects are positive on every side: improving urban food supply and substantial increase in the incomes of rural producers… However, this process is often analyzed in rather simplistic and biased terms, the satisfaction of urban consumers being given priority, regardless of the inequalities between rural producers. In fact an identical result (in terms of global marketed volumes) may involve a highly variable fraction of the producers (i.e. from below 20 % to above 60 %), with very different social and economic implications.

5. Globalization, oligopolies and food insecurity

If human history has been marked by famines, these are no longer considered nowadays as a fatality but as an anomaly or an outrage, given the technical and scientific resources that should theoretically ensure proper feeding to all inhabitants of the planet. However, controversies persist about the possibility of achieving such a goal in a context marked by both the continual population growth and the overall reduction of exploitable resources (arable land, water, etc.). In addition the effects of climate change would threaten especially the poorest and most densely populated parts of the Earth. But aside from these highly complex issues (that mobilize mainly ‘hard’ scientists), there are issues related to traffic and trade of food items and their impact on the conditions of production itself. Since ancient times some Mediterranean regions exported grain surplus by sea while neighbouring regions were suffering severe shortages. Food has always played a strategic role over centuries, in spite of its reduction in total value of world trade (successively dominated by manufactured goods, then by financial products). In the current context of globalization, the food trade is concentrating in the hands of large oligopolies that strive to impose their rule to the world through the WTO (World Trade Organization) by the abolition of custom barriers, the “patenting of life”, etc. But the most serious consequence in the medium and long term is probably the direct or indirect intervention of food ‘empires’ at the level of the processes of production themselves, subject to increasingly rigid and arbitrary standards. Outside binding forms of contract agriculture, small and average farmers are reduced to the status of implementers on mostly invisible ‘assembly lines’ operating on a logic similar to that of major industries (especially car assembly plants). And these chains are arranged in a vast system connecting each producer’s field to the global market[13].

Nevertheless, it would be excessive to assert that some multinational firms exert sole control over the entire food world market. The latter is subject to complex and unstable force relationships – currently under advantage of the Chinese superpower[14]. Whatever the price level (and its fluctuations) it can never be favourable to the majority of world population and even less to the poorest fractions, in so far as it can at best balance the solvent supply and demand. It would be quite unrealistic to expect the global market to solve the problem of food insecurity; by cons it can contribute to the worsening of it. A 2004 FAO report estimates the number of people suffering from hunger by 852 million, representing an increase of 37 million over ten years. And the sharp rise in world prices of major food staples in 2008[15] severely affects the poorest classes of many developing countries (net importers), leading to ‘hunger riots’[16], while the billion mark of undernourished people is reached in 2009. This tragic episode illustrates the growing dependence of most Southern countries due not only to an ‘internal’ deficit but to unfair competition imposed to local producers facing the influx of imported food staples. Most of us ignore one of the many tragedies of Sahel Africa: the steady decline for decades of millet and sorghum crops, cereals with high nutritional value, in favour of rice (mostly imported) with much lower food value.

6. Natural resource management, environmental crisis factors, rising inequalities and uncertainty

Any ‘sustainable’ agriculture must be based both on a cautious and efficient management of natural resources and an adequate mobilization of human resources such as physical abilities, knowledge and shared values (solidarity, etc.). Are such requirements really new? In fact, these principles have ruled nearly all types of peasant farming for centuries. Traditionally, farmers have endeavoured to adapt their practices to the conservation of soil, vegetation cover, water resources, etc. Moreover, they cared to transmit their accumulated knowledge through generations and maintain strong forms of mutual aid and cooperation. Certainly, various factors have often forced them to change some of these practices, introduce techniques considered more productive and ‘profitable’ (at least in the short term) and gradually adopt a different logic less concerned about ecosystem and resource perpetuation. The agricultural experience of ‘advanced’ countries (though never free of errors) was often reproduced artificially in others, without regard to ecological, social and cultural conditions. Thus widespread mechanization (without intensification) in major grain regions of the Maghreb has contributed to soil erosion without significant increase in yields ; but it also led to a separation of the small producers from their means of production, since they got dependent on mechanized work contractors. In southern parts of India, the ‘Green Revolution’ led to a global water crisis. After a rather long period of uncontrolled exploitation of groundwater, some well-off farmers are switching to selling water especially to urban textile industries. These in turn reject water laden with toxic waste into rivers, to the detriment of soils, groundwater and health of the rural population – most of whom have then no other choice than leaving for town and offering their labour to the manufacturers who are in fact accountable for their ruin[17]! Lastly, some highly speculative forms of farming that emerged recently fall clearly in a ‘mining’ type of management of both natural and human resources. Such is the case of off-season strawberry production in some areas of southern Spain which have experienced since 2004 an original system for recruiting/coaching female seasonal labour from Morocco (with EU funding), based on temporary contracts much more favourable to the employers than to the workers. In fact the logic of the system amounts to assigning a ‘disposable manpower’ to a ‛soilless territory’[18]. On a global scale, we currently dispose of fairly precise (and alarming) estimates on irreversible losses caused by the most various forms of environmental degradation (erosion, salination of arable land, groundwater depletion, deforestation, desertification, etc.)[19]. But are there really available and reliable data about the countless rural families brutally uprooted from their land due to armed conflicts, giant dam building or other?


[1] This term applies to “the volume of energy available beyond the volume applied to the production of food necessary to bare reproduction of the community” (C. Meillassoux, Maidens, Meals and Money: Capitalism and the Domestic Community, Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[2] J. Berque emphasized the ‘amazing immutability’ of a contract which assigns the producer an original status, basing his assertion on detailed testimony from Muslim authors at distinct periods, the most ancient being Ibn ‘Arafa from Tunis in the fifteenth century (Opera Minora, Ed. Bouchène, 2001, I, p. 237).

[3] P. Castex, ‘Voie chilienne’ au socialisme et luttes paysannes, Maspéro, Paris, 1977, p. 63 [‘Chilean Way’ to Socialism and Peasant Struggles]

[4] Their total number would range (according to sources) from 4.7 to 7.7 millions, with a notable peak on the fifteenth and sixteenth century (J. Giri, Histoire économique du Sahel, Karthala, Paris, 1994, p. 101) [Economic History of the Sahel]

[5] J. Hébrard (dir.), Brésil, quatre siècles d’esclavage, Karthala, Paris, 2012 [Brazil, Four Centuries of Slavery]

[6] Cf. M. Dobb and P.M. Sweezy (dir.), Du féodalisme au capitalisme : problèmes de la transition, Maspéro, Paris, 1977, 2 vol. [From Feudalism to Capitalism : the transition problems]

[7] “As a state intervention, land reform can be fully achieved only if it meets the interests of the ruling classes. Generally speaking, land reforms are the direct expression of an alliance settled between these classes and the peasantry.” [That does not exclude a sharp hostility of big landowners.]  (M. Dufumier, Les politiques agraires, PUF, Paris, 1985, p. 62) [The Agrarian Policies]

[8] Among the most ancient and important organizations in West Africa, some emerged in a context of resistance to state intervention (case of the ASESCAW in Senegal’s Delta). Other, as Union of Naam Groups in Burkina, are inserted in a process of regular adaptation (“cultural osmosis”) of customary association forms (B.L. Ouedraogo, Entraide villageoise et développement. Groupements villageois au Burkina-Faso, L’Harmattan, Paris, 1990). [Village Mutual Aid and Development. Village Groups in Burkina-Faso]

[9] “Rural society and urban society, both naturally necessary, form together a unique system of civilisation in which they occupy positions that are both opposed and complementary. Moreover, rural society and urban society function according to Ibn Khaldûn as a system in which one cannot survive without the other.”

(A. Cheddadi, Ibn Khaldûn. L’homme et le théoricien de la civilisation, Gallimard, Paris, 2006, p. 284)

[Ibn Khaldûn. Man and Civilisation’s Theorist]

[10] H. Sethom, Pouvoir urbain et paysannerie en Tunisie, Cérès, Tunis, p. 40-44. [Urban Power and Peasantry in Tunisia]

[11] As soon as 1980 a large enquiry of the Tunisian Institute for Statistics (INS) put in evidence that above three fourth of the food products consumed by the rural population were bought on the market (ibid., p. 93).

[12] J.L. Chaléard, Temps des villes, temps des vivres. L’essor du vivrier marchand en Côte d’Ivoire, Karthala, Paris, 1996, p. 58. [Time of Cities ,Food Time .The Rise of Food Marketing in the Ivory Coast]

[13] J.D. van der Ploeg, The New Peasantries: Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization, Earthscan, London, 2009, p. 255-6.

[14] as appears from the Cyclops Report 2014 on world raw material prices for 2013.

[15] In six months (from October 2007 to March 2008) the registered rise is 80 % for rice, 240 % for wheat and 230 % for maize (F. Ramade, Un monde sans famine? Vers une agriculture durable, Dunod, Paris, 2014, p. 63).  [A World without Famine? Towards a sustainable Agriculture]

[16] Some of these riots would be partly at the origin of the popular uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’.

[17] F. Pearce, When the Rivers Run Dry, Eden Project Books, 2007.

[18] “In the junkspace of global food production, is there any possible condition but junkworker?” (D. Zeneidi, Femmes/fraises. Import:export, PUF, Paris, 2013, p. 156). [Women/Strawberries. Import/Export]

[19] Cf. F. Ramade, op. cit., 2014, pp. 88-108.

Scientific committee

  • Ibrahim Muhammed SAADAOUI (Université de Tunisie / T.M.A. for H.S.E.S.),
  • Yves Guillermou (Université Toulouse III, France)
  • Abdelghani GARTET (Université Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah, Fes. MAROC),
  • Antonio Garrido Almonacid (Universidad de Jaén – Espagne),
  • Danièle VOLDMAN (CNRS-CHS-Paris1-Panthéon-Sorbonne. France)
  • Djanabou Bakary (Université de Maroua. Cameroun),
  • Edinam KOLA (Université de Lomé. Togo),
  • Elizabeth BISHOP (Texas State University-San Marcos. U.S.A.),
  • Eloy Martín Corrales (Universidad Pompeu Fabra de Barcelona – Espagne),
  • Habib BELAID (Université de Mannouba. Tunisie),
  • Hasan AMILI (Université Hassan II. Mohammedia. Maroc),
  • HETCHELI Kokou Folly Lolowou (Université de Lomé. Togo) 
  • Hichem NAIJA (Université de Sousse. Tunisie),
  • Jamil HAJRI (Université de Mannouba. Tunisie),
  • John CHIRCOP (University of Malta),
  • Khalifa Hammache (Université de Constantine. Algérie),
  • Koffi Brou Emile (Université de Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire),
  • Koné ISSIAKA (Université de Bouaké, Côte d’Ivoire), 
  • Landitiana Soamarina MIAKATRA (Institut d’Etudes Politiques. Madagascar),
  • Laurence MICHALAK (University of California, Berkeley. USA)
  • Mabrouk BAHI (Université de Sfax. Tunisie),
  • Mabrouk CHIHI (Université de Jendouba. Tunisie),
  • Minoti Chakravarty-Kaul (University of Delhi, New Delhi. India),
  • Moawiyya chaker al ANI, (Université de Dhofar. Oman)
  • Mohamed Bidiwi (Université Assiout. Egypte),
  • Mohammed ARNAOUT (Université Al- al Bayit, Jordanie), 
  • Mohammed BEN ATTOU (Université Inb ZOhr, Agadir. Maroc),
  • Mohammed RATOUL, (Université Hassiba ben Bouali, Chlef. Algérie),
  • Ralph SCHOR (Université de Nice-Sophia Antipolis. France),
  • Sami Abdelmalik Al-Bayadhi  (Supreme Council of Antiquities. Egypte),
  • Salah HARIDY (Université Damanhour. Egypte),


  • salle de réunion, I.S.E.T., - Route de Tunis
    Béja, Tunisia (9000)


  • Thursday, October 29, 2015


  • paysans, système et réforme agraire, développement rural, crise alimentaire, résistance paysanne


  • Ibrahim Muhammed Saadaoui
    courriel : saadaoui_brahim [at] yahoo [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Ibrahim Muhammed Saadaoui
    courriel : saadaoui_brahim [at] yahoo [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« Farming systems’ crises, food insecurity and peasant resistance », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Wednesday, February 11, 2015, https://calenda.org/317105

Archive this announcement

  • Google Agenda
  • iCal