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The power of peasant farmers

New book is an inspiring contribution to the growing literature on alternative agricultural futures


A large farm growing a variety of foods in Vietnam. Photo by Dennis Jarvis/Wikimedia Commons.

When we imagine alternative, sustainable, economically and socially equitable futures, agriculture must be front and centre of the program. It is in the agricultural realm that questions of land and resource distribution are fought; it is where food sovereignty must be secured; and it is where historical and ongoing battles between advocates of capitalist labour relations and those of independent self-provisioning clash.

It is also in the agricultural realm that justifications for settler colonialism, slavery, and neocolonialism were forged; it is where self-reliant producers who operate outside global resource flows are demeaned and attacked by large landowners and capitalist states; it is where overpopulation is deployed as a neo-Malthusian explanation for imposed deprivation; and it is where the most enduring example of anti-capitalist social relations, the small-scale peasant farmer, constantly struggles to secure their livelihood.

Tiny Engines of Abundance: A History of Peasant Productivity and Repression by Jim Handy, a professor of history at the University of Saskatchewan, is an inspiring contribution to the growing literature on alternative agricultural futures. Through a sweeping but concise history of modern industrial agriculture and its most salient alternative in smallholder farming, the book criticizes the misleading discourses of progress, development, and modernity that are regularly deployed to justify the destruction of sustainable and self-reliant rural livelihoods—livelihoods which, while not averse to market trading, resist total subsumption into unequal domestic and global resource flows.

Handy uses five examples to illuminate the ways in which capital disparages, dispossesses, and impoverishes smallholder farms for the benefit of large-scale industrial agriculture: peasant producers during England’s “agricultural revolution” of the 1700-1800s; formerly enslaved people cultivating small plots in colonial Jamaica in the 1800s; Indigenous Mayans in Guatemala resisting genocidal state violence targeting their culture and agricultural traditions during the twentieth century; Nigerian smallholders, namely Kofyar people, in the colonial and postcolonial context; and the redistributive agrarian reforms of leftist-run Kerala in southern India.

Using these five case studies, Handy sketches a history of modern agriculture from Britain’s disastrous “agricultural revolution” to the “green revolution” of chemical fertilizers and GMOs. Throughout all five examples, he outlines concerted aggressions on the part of the state and large landowners against smallholder peasants who resist being disciplined into harsh forms of wage labour.

Handy writes that peasant livelihoods have been targeted for dissolution by capitalists and development specialists for centuries, many influenced by writers like Adam Smith and Thomas Robert Malthus. He explains that “peasants—with carefully limited needs, calibrated to returns from the land and adhered to as a means of insuring self-reliance and independence—have been for most of these 200 years anathema” to the Malthusian conception of “modernity” that persists to this day, one in which “economic growth [is synonymous with] capital’s ability to command labour.”

In 1700s England, the cradle of the “agricultural revolution” championed by many development theorists in subsequent centuries, small-scale peasant agriculture was deliberately targeted for destruction, a process that was cheered on by newspapers such as the Economist, which argued that large farms owned by a privileged minority would increase wages, production, and standard of living nationwide. In reality, rural poverty rose as enclosures forced peasant farmers off well-tended common lands, many of which sat unused after being wrested from collective husbandry.

Over the course of several decades, the enclosure of common lands and the imposition of wage labour on peasant farmers dramatically worsened rural living conditions. As William Cobbett said at the time, the enclosures were nothing more than a “scheme for squeezing rents out of the bones of the labourer,” whose wages were “so low, as to make the labourer a walking skeleton.”

In England, around seven million acres of common lands were enclosed, and the peasants who had nurtured these lands were denied access to the areas unless they worked for the large landowners who claimed the territory as their own. This form of agricultural “development” proliferated in many countries in subsequent centuries, which effectively meant “replicating rural English social structures marked by large-scale, capital-intensive farms and a rural labour force dependent on wages.”

Despite catastrophic assaults on peasant labour, small-scale and sustainable modes of living persist around the world. Through succinct and informative analyses of the resilience, productivity, and sustainability of these lifestyles, Handy convincingly argues that “a more clearly imagined future should include determined measures to assist peasant livelihoods: providing sufficient land, supporting peasant marketing arrangements, assisting in the provision of defensible life spaces and building suitable transportation infrastructure.”

“[S]uch an image of the future,” he writes:

should prompt governments, development agencies and specialists to get out of their way, to themselves stop ambushing peasants. Getting out of the way would do more to build sustainable futures and decent lives than a hundred dams or a thousand agricultural modernization projects. Doing so would also begin to embrace the concept of food sovereignty that peasants around the world have been demanding for decades…

In his vivid descriptions of smallholder peasant productivity—the English cottage gardens, the house gardens of formerly enslaved Jamaicans, the Mayan milpas, Kofyar family farms, and intercropped small-scale agriculture in Kerala—Handy shows that productive smallholder alternatives to unsustainable industrial agriculture have always existed and continue to exist. In fact, the web of ecological emergencies that humanity currently faces shows the necessity of moving away from the kind of high-input industrial farming inaugurated during England’s agricultural revolution and the need to return to more localized and harmonious forms of food production.

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is primarily interested in applying theories of imperialism, neocolonialism, and underdevelopment to global capitalism and Canada’s role therein. Visit his website at


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