Pastoralists, peasants and agrarian struggles

Written by Ian Scoones, PI PASTRES Programme, IDS, Sussex

For historical, disciplinary and political reasons, studies of and engagement with pastoralists (frequently mobile livestock keepers) and peasants (settled small-scale farmers) has been separated. Today, this doesn’t make sense, if it ever did.

Across the world, pastoralists and peasants are marginalised politically, have been subject to the depredations of neoliberal capitalism – through processes of enclosure, privatisation, commoditisation – and must increasingly make their living in new ways in highly uncertain conditions.

In confronting uncertainty and having networked mobility at the centre of their practices, pastoralists have a lot to share with settled small-scale farmers, and indeed the wider world. Joining forces across agrarian struggles, and injecting these with these ideas from pastoral experiences, can help invigorate agrarian movements.

These were the core arguments of a presentation at a webinar by PASTRES PI, Ian Scoones. This was the first in a series of Agrarian Conversations,  a collective initiative of CASASTNIPLAASICASYARAERPIPASTRESRRUSHES-5, and the Journal of Peasant Studies. The series aims to address strategic and urgent issues in and in relation to the rural world today. The video of the full webinar, including commentaries by Maryam Rahmaniam and Rahma Hassan, can be seen here

The background paper for the webinar is a major output from the PASTRES programme, and is now published open access in the Journal of Peasant Studies. You can read it here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03066150.2020.1802249

The paper distilled out seven themes that might help reframe a more joint approach to agrarian struggles, with pastoralists central. They are:

  • Living with and from uncertainty – the overarching capabilities to respond flexibly and to generate reliability in the face of uncertainty and ignorance – and given the challenges generated by climate change, market volatility, conflict and contested politics, this is I argue crucial
  • Mobility and movement to respond to variability – including new forms of mobility and migration; not only moving livestock across the range for example, but transporting water and fodder, as well as the mobility of labour
  • Flexible land control and new forms of tenure – not just fixed forms of private or communal land use but much more diverse tenure arrangements to make use of fragmented landscapes.
  • Dynamic and flexible social arrangements, allowing the reallocation of resources (livestock, labour and other assets) to enable adaptable responses to change;
  • Collective social relations, knowledges and solidarities for a new moral economy, which provides the basis for redistributive allocations and survival in uncertain times;
  • Engaging with complex ‘real markets’ – including linking informal and formal approaches to market engagement in flexible ways;   
  • A networked politics for a transforming world. By which I mean engaging across people and issues, linking classic agrarian struggles, with those around labour, environment, climate justice for example, as well indigenous rights, heritage and so on.

These seven themes, the paper and webinar argued, can help add new perspectives to critical agrarian studies, developing new framings for agrarian struggles more broadly.

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