The mythical peasant

By Tomás Ricardo Rosada Villamar, Regional Economist in the Latina America and the Caribbean Division at IFAD

A few weeks ago I travelled to Mexico. Before going to the airport to return home, I visited the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) where a good friend and colleague of mine showed me a book he had just received: Peasant poverty and persistence in the 21st century: theories, debates, realities and policies. “Take a look, it's going to interest you, and I'll get you a copy if you would like one,” he said. He actually ended up lending me his copy. I sent him a message on Whatsapp during my layover in Frankfurt and said, “this book is incredible!” We immediately began to organize a discussion with one of the authors, Julio Boltvinik.

I did not know Mr. Boltvinik personally, but his name and ideas have been familiar to me since 2002 when the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AUSJAL) decided to design and offer the first continental course on poverty. Mr. Boltvinik has a keen mind and is very committed to the subject, which speaks of his passion and sense of urgency.

In his book, he attempts to answer two questions: why are there still peasants in the world, and why are they poor. In fact, referring to IFAD's Rural Poverty Report 2011 -- which estimates the number of poor people living in rural areas at around one billion -- the author suggests that the methodologies used to measure poverty underestimate the phenomenon.

I was hooked from that moment and, as I went on, I thought about how important it is for us to talk about poverty and peasants. I was thinking of Latin America, a region that is supposedly mostly urban, with levels of poverty that have stagnated in recent years and with extremely weak institutions serving agriculture and people living in rural areas. I thought of those countries where the word campesino, like “peasant” in English, has been relegated to the list of derogatory and politicized terms that meet with visceral and irrational reactions, if it has not been banned completely.

How beneficial it could be to reopen that discussion! We should analyse and try to understand the reality of this figure that has been both vilified and mythologized, a figure that has been buried under what we could call the silence of rurality: a narrative silence, because we know full well that the most effective way to downplay something is to ignore it, to stop talking about it, to stop generating statistics or measuring it, and to act as if it does not exist. And then there is the institutional silence, which is the operational equivalent to the narrative silence, a political and social discourse that also ignores it and turns a blind eye.

The central thesis of this publication centres around the seasonality of agricultural activities and its consequences for peasants’ living conditions; in other words, a crop cycle that only requires work for a part of the year and, thus, forces peasants to look for ways to generate a complementary income in other activities. The strategies used to achieve this provide some explanations of both their poverty and their survival over time. It then becomes a question of understanding and proposing ways to solve the apparent contradiction between the logic of the market, which tends to be organized in homogeneous and continuous forms of production, and the peasant's way of life, which is diverse by nature.

As described by Armando Bartra, another of the book’s authors “(...) Mesoamericans do not sow corn, we create milpas. These are different things because maize is a plant and the milpa, a lifestyle: the milpa is the matrix of Mesoamerican civilization. Planted alone, maize is monotony, while the milpa is variety: in it, maize, beans, peas, broad beans, squash, chilli, vegetable pears, wild tomatoes, amaranth, fruit trees, nopal, century plants and the varied fauna that accompany them all intermingle. (...) In cold climates they produce their food in homogeneous plantations whereas we, when they allow us to continue our agro-ecological vocation, harvest them in baroque gardens.”

In times of high climatic and economic volatility, it is very important to regain a perspective on the peasants' understanding, their way of life and their role in development. Failing to do so means continuing to insist on an incomplete narrative that ignores or hides the reality of an important side of Latin America: poor, rural and very unequal. ​

Follow the book presentation on 1 June from 14:00 to 17:30 (Rome time).