Refusing farmers’ humanity

Malagasy farmers are often said to be engaged in agricultural practices that will inevitably lead to the eventual destruction of the exceptional natural environment where they live. In order to prevent such a scenario, it is expected that they should always keep in mind the long-term effects of their subsistence practices. They are expected, for example, to desist from slash-and-burn cultivation because, it is argued, if households continue to engage in this practice, there will be no forest left in a hundred or two hundred years from now.

This type of reasoning fails to recognise fundamentally human aspirations that guide all our lives and that are recognised as legitimate in industrialised societies. Would we, for example, expect a father of three to reject a good job in a Swiss bank because it is known to finance unsustainable practices? We would not. In such a case we would recognise that individuals as human beings are driven by personal aspirations and desires; we would acknowledge the personal circumstances and opportunities behind such a decision.

By contrast, conservation programs often demand of Malagasy farmers, though usually not explicitly, that they sacrifice opportunities to create a livelihood for their children and grandchildren for the sake of saving the life of trees or lemurs. This is to fail to recognise the Malagasy as human beings driven, as we all are, by their personal aspirations and caught up in the complex business of organising life. In this sense, it is to refuse their humanity.

In his essay Marrakech George Orwell writes about the invisibility of the colonised:
‘The people have brown faces – besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? (…)  In a tropical landscape one’s eye takes in everything except the human beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm tree and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch’ (Orwell 1981[1939]: 181, 184).

To expect Malagasy farmers to refrain from clearing a piece of land in order to create productive land for their children implies overlooking the humanity of those in whose lives we allow ourselves to interfere when, for example, we urge the prohibition of slash-and-burn cultivation.

Malagasy agricultural practices are oriented towards the future: they are geared towards the livelihood of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who, in turn, will take the place of their progenitors and continue the endeavour of creating productive land for future generations. To expect farmers to refrain from making a swidden because a thousand swiddens might eventually cause the natural environment to change is to forget that nowhere in the world do human beings – neither Swiss bankers nor Malagasy subsistence farmers – plan their own lives in view and consideration of such long-term goals.

Eva Keller, 4 December 2012

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