DPDF Student Fellowship Competition > DPDF Student Fellowship Competition 2009

Critical Agrarian Studies

Although globalization is often rhetorically associated with high-rise call centers, diasporic cultures, industrialization and transnational financial markets, ongoing struggles over the production and consumption of food, fuel and fiber have shaped twenty-first century modernity. Critical Agrarian Studies (CAS) takes these struggles– and their historical antecedents– as its central concern. Across different historical periods, world regions and disciplines, scholars working within the field of Critical Agrarian Studies (CAS) are broadly united by three primary analytical assumptions. First, lived experiences, structural configurations and representations of agrarian societies influence contention over and processes of modernization, development policy, democratization, globalization, and urbanization. Agrarian societies are not primitive, backward, or “other” to modern, urban societies; rather, both are mutually constituted, each necessitating and shaping the other in manifold ways.  Second, work on agrarian societies and themes highlights the importance of the political and cultural economy of production, consumption, accumulation, distribution and governance and requires in-depth understandings of diverse kinds of relations between countryside and city, social classes, regions, economic sectors, and often ethnic and religious groups. Third, understanding the particular dynamics of rural society in any given place and time requires analysis of the experiences and political culture of agrarian classes and communities. Key contemporary themes for which we believe a historically-situated CAS perspective is necessary and productive include: the contemporary transformation of property norms and rights through de-collectivization, land redistribution programs, and wide-scale titling initiatives; the rise of new grassroots social movements and actors who have mobilized to demand radical changes in their relationship to property, production, markets and resources; growing global concern for the quality of agrarian environments threatened by deforestation, groundwater pollution, declining biodiversity, desertification, and global climate changes; and, finally, the financing, production, consumption and distribution of food, fuel and fiber organized in global commodity chains.

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Field Directors

Marc Edelman
Professor, City University of New York Graduate Center, Anthropology [ bio ]
Marc Edelman holds a joint appointment as Professor of Anthropology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Professor Edelman received his PhD in Anthropology from Columbia University in 1985. Prior to joining the CUNY faculty in 1994, Professor Edelman served on the faculty at Yale University (1987-94) and was Research Director of the North America Congress on Latin America (1985-87). His research interests include agrarian issues, social movements, and a variety of Latin American topics. Professor Edelman is the author of The Logic of the Latifundio: The Large Estates of Northwestern Costa Rica since the Late Nineteenth Century (1992) and Peasants Against Globalization: Rural Social Movements in Costa Rica (1999), as well as a co-editor of Transnational Agrarian Movements Confronting Globalization (2008). His work has been supported by the American Philosophical Society, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Wendy Wolford
Robert A. and Ruth E. Polson Professor, Cornell University, Development Sociology [ bio ]
Wendy Wolford is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Professor Wolford received her PhD in Geography from the University of California, Berkeley in 2001. Professor Wolford is the co-author of To Inherit the Earth: The Landless Movement and the Struggle for a New Brazil (2003). Her second book, This Land is Ours Now: Social Mobilization and Sugarcane in the Brazilian Northeast, is scheduled for publication in 2009 with Duke University Press. Professor Wolford’s research interests include the political economy of development, agrarian studies, social movements, political ecology, land tenure, and social and economic geography. She is currently working primarily in Brazil, Ecuador and the United States. Her interests emerged after volunteering in 1993 with a grassroots social movement in rural Brazil called the Movement of Rural Landless Workers.

Recipients

Jennifer Baka
Yale University, Environmental Studies
Miracle Crop or Miraculous Flop? A Case Study of Jatropha in Tamil Nadu
[ project summary ]
As the world’s leading Jatropha cultivator, India is at the center of the global biofuels debate. Advocates claim Jatropha-based biofuel offers marked advantages over today’s food grain-based biofuels by avoiding competition with food production, providing an additional income stream to rural communities and minimizing threats to environmental quality. Yet little is known about the ability for Jatropha to live up to these promises. Using Tamil Nadu, India as a case study, my research will assess how Jatropha is altering social and environmental landscapes in order more critically analyze the potential of biofuels to meet society’s energy needs. In addition, these findings will be integrated with a similar ongoing research program conducted by my research team at Yale examining Jatropha production in Brazil. Drawing upon a mix of economic and anthropologic methods, I seek to understand the complex web of linkages between agrarian communities and the global world and how the presence of biofuels is altering these relationships.
Christina Campisi
University of Chicago, Anthropology
Melting Glaciers in a Mining Nation: Transnational Peasant-Irrigator Networks and the (Re)Positioning of 'Nature' in Northern Chile
[ project summary ]
As the quality and quantity of water supplies diminishes in the Chilean Andes, so is the positioning of ‘nature,’ and its relationship to the future of the ‘nation,’ undergoing a dramatic transformation. In northern Chile, mining corporations play a significant role in the marketization of rural water supplies, as mining activities require vast quantities of water. One mining corporation’s construction of an open-pit gold mine on glaciers connected to a watershed system used by local irrigators, has provoked a complex debate over the role of mining in decreasing glacial water supplies. For peasant irrigators, the question of climate change is a strategic site where nature is positioned as a subject capable of positive change, and for the mining company, climate change is construed as an inevitable reality, in which nature lacks agency. I will demonstrate how peasant-irrigator movements are attempting to radically change their access to water by re-positioning how ‘nature’ is constructed as an actor in the future of the nation-state. While this movement could never achieve the politics of scale of the Bolivian water wars due to its relatively small size in Chile, it is conjoining with multiple actors in redefining the locus of this debate. Peasant-irrigator transnational networks are questioning the internal tensions of the nation’s imagination, showing that mining is not a sustainable program for rural development in the context of water depletion. This movement's alternative vision of nature consists in a distinctly Chilean ‘ecology of glaciers’. This vision has been reconfigured by state actors such that villages in proximity to the glaciers, and the descendants of indigenous groups, have been given a greater political role in the debate. Where the re-positioning of the ‘nature’ of glaciers opens up new possibilities for social action, it also limits its reach insofar as the community associated with the mine has been spatially circumscribed.
Gabrielle Elise Clark
New York University, Law and Society
"Plenary Power as Exceptional Labor Regulation: The Production of Flexible Non-Citizen Workers in U.S. Agriculture: 1963-2008.”
[ project summary ]
To what extent are labor regulations in advanced liberal societies rooted in agrarian power structures? Although scholars assume that physical and economic coercion characteristic of agrarian economies has been replaced by state protection of wage-labor through liberal legality in capitalist societies, labor coercion remains in modern agricultural production. We may no longer observe the direct application of violence undergirding labor outputs, peonage and indentured servitude enforced through criminal laws, or farmworkers’ economic subjugation through sharecropping and tenancy. However, legal frameworks and logics of the modern administrative state operationalize exceptional zones of labor control anew. Advanced liberal states, such as the US, remain a salient site for critical agrarian research. I argue that Congressional and executive plenary powers juridified exceptional legalities for US agro-business production. Despite 1960s liberal legal reforms in farm labor laws, plenary power ties non-immigrants to their employers under threat of deportation while undocumented workers remain outside of labor protections, within immigration law’s realm, and under the gaze of a virtually unrestricted sovereign power. How do plenary powers shape agricultural labor regulation? I examine 1) post-1960s farm labor legislation 2) administrative and judicial legalities; and 3) what I call “the rural legal field”, where lawyers and farmworkers meet.
Elisa Da Via'
Cornell University, Development Sociology
The future of small farmers in Western Europe
[ project summary ]
My research focuses on the articulation of patterns of resistance to the implementation of neoliberal agricultural reforms in Europe, with special emphasis on the mobilization of farmers’ movements, trade unions, and local administrations advocating a radical shift from the EU’s current corporate-driven agenda. More specifically, I intend to focus on the political, discursive and organizational strategies developed by farmers’ networks such as the Confederation Paysanne Europeenne, Plataforma Rural, and the European Coordination Via Campesina, committed to the promotion of diverse and sustainable agro-food systems within a more democratic and redistributive policy framework. In this respect, I analyze how and to what extent the emergence of grassroots forms of agrarian politics is countering the marginalization of small-scale farmers brought about by the industrial model of agriculture sponsored by the EU since the 1960s and intensified by the removal of price supports over the last decade. Similarly, focusing on the formulation of alternatives to the concentration of agribusiness power in the food system, my research examines the role played by local and regional initiatives of seed sharing, seed saving and biodiversity conservation as a countermovement to the transformation of agriculture and food relations into a source of corporate profit, speculation and bargaining.
Thomas J. Fleischman
New York University, History
Feeding Socialism: The GDR and Economies of Food
[ project summary ]
My project sets out two major goals: 1. To determine the actual practice of agriculture in the German Democratic Republic, from the function and form of cooperative and collective farms, to the subsequent commodification of farm goods in domestic and international markets. Such a study requires an understanding of both the formal and informal economies of food consumption, as well as their interaction with one another. An examination of the economic and administrative structure of the food industry helps us to understand what state socialism in the GDR made possible and what it precluded. 2. To examine the ways in which the practiced food economy transformed the geographic and environmental form of the GDR. This will include understanding how populations grew and declined around different centers of food production and the structures created to facilitate both the production and transportation of commodities. An examination of the technical practices of agriculture—such as the use of pesticides and fertilizers, the types of crops grown, and the practice of animal husbandry—will provide a greater understanding of the environmental changes that occurred to the land, flora, and fauna of East Germany.
Aaron George Jakes
New York University, Middle Eastern History
Delta Forces: Egypt's Agrarian Transformation in Global Comparative Perspective, 1882-1914
[ project summary ]
Following the British invasion of 1882, Egypt’s agrarian economy underwent a rapid and dramatic transformation. A British-led overhaul of irrigation systems and land tax laws sought to render the Egyptian Delta a massive and even field for the production and exchange of cotton. These specific reforms encouraged a more general penetration of global networks—of transport, capital, and information—ever farther into the countryside. This period of Egypt’s agricultural history has received only sporadic scholarly attention, and despite their theoretical diversity, the few extant studies share two defining features. First, they treat the territory of the modern nation-state as the appropriate geographical frame for inquiry. Second, whether in praise or criticism, their authors privilege the British administration as their object of analysis. In fact, Egypt’s experience in this period paralleled developments in several other localities, most notably Punjab. And while debt-financed intensive irrigation certainly defined new powers for the state, these localities simultaneously became sites of experimentation for forms of finance capital and agricultural science circulating beyond the purview of state authority. This project seeks to reconsider the changes that took place in the Egyptian Delta between 1882 and 1914 by situating them within this wider moment of global agrarian transformation.
Pablo Lapegna
State University of New York at Stony Brook, Sociology
Poisoned environments and popular contention. The politics of GM crops in northeast Argentina
[ project summary ]
Based on archival research and ethnographic fieldwork in northeast Argentina this project examines the dynamics of popular contention prompted by the production of genetically modified (GM) crops. During 2003, herbicides used in GM soybean fields rented by Argentine entrepreneurs ravaged nearby crops grown by peasant families. Women, men and especially children felt feverish, experienced headaches and muscular pains and had frequent episodes of feeling sick and vomiting. Hundreds of dead fish floating on streams revealed the consequences of water pollution. Massive and disruptive contention was the popular reaction against toxic onslaught. Peasants organized road blockades in Monte Azul and sued the entrepreneurs. Hundreds of protesters seized an aircraft in Moreno, occupying the airport to prevent further fumigations. Conversely, in Bermellon and other equally poor villages where the contaminating effects of agrochemicals were similarly damaging, no protest occurred. Why rural populations of the same province, sharing similar socio-economic indicators, reacted very differently to a similar environmental assault? Taking heed of the sociology of collective action and political ecology, this research will reconstruct, compare and contrast three different communities’ responses to agrochemical exposure to understand and explain the ways in which rural populations experience, negotiate, and counteract the expansion of GM crops.
Greta Marchesi
University of California, Berkeley, Geography
The Science of Sovereignty and Dispossession: Hemispheric Solidarity, the Inter-American Indian, and US-sponsored Soil Conservation in the Americas, 1933-1945
[ project summary ]
This dissertation will undertake a comparative consideration of linked US-sponsored agricultural development projects across the Americas during the New Deal-era. Specifically, it takes up the epistemological intersection of indigeneity, productivity, and political community underwriting scientific soil conservation projects developed among US tribal peoples and exported to agrarian communities across the Americas. Drawing on internationally circulating discourses linking soil, civilization, and racial natures to the stability of modern nations, these programs were part of a US strategy of wartime hemispheric solidarity in an age of growing international anti-imperialist sentiment. Surprisingly unexplored by scholars of both Agricultural History and Development Studies, these World War II-era projects offer an important opportunity to understand how the social constitution of difference within settler colonial contexts has informed both technical and discursive strategies of territorial consolidation as well as how geographically disparate spaces help constitute one another. This dissertation will explore the ways that US scientific knowledge about human and non-human natures articulated across the culturally and politically heterogeneous spaces of the Americas. Further, it asks how the diverse social and environmental conditions of those spaces in turn shaped the trajectory of US international power.
William Thomas Okie
University of Georgia, History
Peachland: The Political Economy of Southern Horticulture, 1850-2000
[ project summary ]
The southern peach industry has always carried more symbolic than economic weight. Although the peach never earned more than a fraction of southern agricultural income, it has represented much more: from progress and permanence in the early 1900s to southern hospitality and agrarian tradition today. But behind the ubiquitous image of the southern peach—plastered on everything from Olympic memorabilia to insurance plans—lies a fascinating tale of environmental knowledge, labor manipulation, and political and cultural power. "Peachland" tells this story: explaining the origins and dramatic rise of peach-growing in the late nineteenth century, charting the decline of the industry since the 1930s, and analyzing the latter-day labor transition from local African-Americans to Mexican migrants. Drawing on primary sources ranging from oral histories to census figures, the study raises questions common to global agrarian studies: What role did peach-growing play in the rise of agrarian capitalism in the rural South? What effects has global trade had on U.S. and Latin American countrysides, and why have the two places become intertwined in recent years? Finally, how have rural residents, rich and poor, interacted with these twentieth century transformations in their daily lives?
Mariya Radeva
City University of New York Graduate Center, Anthropology
Environmental Nationalism in the New Europe
[ project summary ]
My dissertation project will explore alliances between different groups concerned with natural and social reproduction in a post-socialist society. I plan to do fieldwork in Bulgaria, where I grew up in late socialism and during the first fifteen years of democratization and market liberalization, and where I have been returning for family visits, rural festivals, and political rallies. My ethnography will follow the campaigns of a youth environmental movement. I am particularly intrigued by the overlaps in the ritual repertoire of extreme left and right organizations, and of urban and rural dwellers, within the context public protest against state-corruption. Taking a position within and outside one movement, I hope to offer a critique of the European Union’s eastern expansion and accompanying politics of regional economic development. To this end, I will address questions of the transformation of property value after state-socialism, the role of green politics in building post-socialist civil society, and the genealogies of environmental and agrarian nationalism in Eastern Europe. The conceptual underpinnings of my project stem from German Romanticism with its emphasis on nature and folklore in defining place and identity, and from anthropological analyses of property as relations between persons through things.
Sara Safransky
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Geography
Praire Gold: The Global Rush to Farm Fuel
[ project summary ]
Over the past ten years, “bio-fuels” have been transformed. Formerly a fringe fuel mixed in the kitchen blenders of environmentalists, they have emerged as the major green solution to “peak oil.” However, a global transition to bio-fuels increasingly seems like a mixed blessing. Widely accepted reports suggest that they may be more environmentally destructive than fossil fuels. Some have linked them with last year’s soaring commodity prices and resulting food riots. Nevertheless, the craze for this “fuel that starts low on the food chain” persists. In my proposed dissertation research, I aim to: (1) understand how agro-fuels became the common sense answer to the global energy crisis and (2) explore the resulting reorganization of land and livelihoods at key production sites in South America. In-depth, field-based research will focus on the Plata River Basin, which stretches across the southern part of Brazil, southeastern Bolivia, a large segment of Uruguay, Paraguay, and northern Argentina. This region—the main site for current and future bio-fuel production in South America—is rapidly being transformed by agricultural expansion and infrastructure development.
Zehra Tasdemir Yasin
State University of New York at Binghamton, Sociology
From Agro-Ecology of Soil to Petro-Ecology of Oil: Unmaking and Remaking the Arabian Gulf Region
[ project summary ]
The relationship between the social and the ecological is usually taken for granted. The focus of my project is to unite social change and ecological change in historical perspective. I propose analyzing their dialectical unity in the context of state formation in the Arabian Gulf Region. Particularly, I am interested in the transformation of the dominant agrarian social organization and agricultural forms of (re)production in the region into an oil-based configuration of social, political, economic, and ecological space. This transformation began in the first half of the 20th century and gained momentum in the second half with the expansion of the extraction of local oil by the global oil companies. Simultaneously, the political boundaries in the region were re-divided to make up the modern “nation-states”. My project will address the oil concession regime and the relationship between the global oil-capital and the local state defined by that regime as a historical dynamic that mediates between and shapes the unified processes of socio-ecological restructuring and state formation. Based on archival research, I seek to explore how the oil-driven re-structuring contradictorily became both the basis for national unification and the source of social and political contention in the remapping of the modern Arabian Gulf region.