Pastoral Market Networks: Facing Uncertainty in Sardinia

In the last of our PASTRES PhD student blog series we hear from Giulia Simula, who is currently conducting fieldwork in Sardinia. Here, we hear from Giulia in a short video where she explains her work.

Read on for a summary of her research.

The Impact of Different Market Network Arrangements on Pastoralists in Times of Uncertainty: The Case of Sardinia 

Processes of globalization of agriculture and subordination to global commodity chains have generated multiple intersecting uncertainties with strong implications for pastoralists’ lives, livelihoods and well-being. Global commodity chains are characterised by high price volatility, great uncertainties and cyclical periods of shocks and crisis, and exclude smaller producers. 

As a response to these dynamics, a widespread call for food system transformation with alternative economies and markets has emerged. New arrangements have emerged such as community supported agriculture, local farmers’ markets and critical consumerism, linked to a plethora of diverse economies, relations and markets.  

Such alternative market arrangements are frequently more equitable, diverse and embedded in local cultures; they are characterised by less uncertainty and producers who engage in them are less vulnerable to the vagaries of global capital. Such alternative market arrangements may give producers more bargaining power, but a few questions arise:  

  • What happens to the millions of producers that are included in global commodity chains and face uncertainties and vulnerabilities in their daily life?  
  • Does “peasant-like” or “artisanal” production operate completely outside industrial market arrangements and the logics of capital?  
  • If shorter chains and alternative market arrangements leave producers better off, why are there still producers that decide to engage in global commodity chains?  
  • What types of uncertainties are connected to what types of market arrangements and does the form and topography of the market network affect the sources and arrays of uncertainty?   

I will explore these broad questions in the context of Sardinia, Italy. In Sardinia, debates about the crisis and transformation of the pastoral system are particularly centred on markets. Reliance on the long commodity chain of Pecorino Romano – a cheese produced through industrial processing, and exported mainly to North America – has increased vulnerability to market variability, resulting in strong protests against the state and the most powerful actors in the chain. While some shepherds in Sardinia are largely reliant on the Pecorino Romano chain (“the industrial market arrangement”), others have been developing more diversified systems of production and more diverse market networks, so as to be less reliant on industrial market arrangement (“artisanal market arrangements”). 

My objective is then to understand the relationship between different market arrangements (industrial and artisanal), associated with different sources of uncertainty and explore the different livelihoods outcomes (including the consequences for the intersections of class and gender) that result. My intention is to unpack the idea that industrial/capitalist markets, longer chains are bad for producers and smaller, more artisanal chains are always good for them. I also want to understand the structural dynamics that keep producers connected to an industrial chain and the topography of an artisanal chain and how these two intersect with diversified influences on producers’ livelihoods.  The main question of my research is therefore:  

How do different market network arrangements have an influence on pastoral livelihoods, especially in relation to market volatility and price shocks? 

I will conduct my research in two sites: Ittiri in the plain region of Coros/Nurra and Desulo in the mountainous region of Barbagia. Located about 400 meters above sea level, Ittiri has a population of 8,500 inhabitants. It is close to Sassari, one of the main cities in Sardinia and it is an historically relatively wealthy town characterised by the production of cheese, olive oil, wine and a lot of artisanal textiles and jewellery. One big cooperative gathers a big proportion of the town’s milk and processes it into Pecorino Romano and other minor products. Desulo, by contrast, is in the heart of the mountainous area of the Gennargentu, and is located 800-1000 meters above sea level. It has a population of about 2,300, and isless well connected to big towns and markets. Desulo is historically a poorer town and many of those involved in rural activities were herders of richer pastoralists. From Desulo, many pastoralists moved to the northern and southern plains of Sardinia, including Ittiri. Some still live in or identify as from Desulo, but have their land scattered in distant territories. These two very different sites provide a perfect opportunity to explore market networks arrangements, existing and evolving uncertainties and differentiated livelihood impacts. 

For more on the background of our PASTRES students, see the profiles on our website.

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