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17 février 2014 1 17 /02 /février /2014 21:08

[extract of Les Indomptables, MSc thesis]

Peasant space as negotiated space

In this last section, I would like to characterize peasant space and its relationships with other spaces. Farmers I met consider agriculture is in crisis because of income decrease, multiplication of rules, standards and norms, various threats on continuity, degradation of agricultural resources, and other many reasons -see section “Modern problems”. In order to escape from the crisis, they take the lead to change farm organization and relationships much beyond and in other direction(s) than what they are asked or supposed to do. Thus, farmers struggle against existing state of affaires and institutions on three main battlefields [Fig. 39]: regrounding, repositioning and self-regulation (van der Ploeg, 2006). The fifty novelties listed above can be understood in this context of struggle [Table 3].

First, “regrounding” means developing farm resource base and internal cycles. Farmers seek to integrate resources and their uses in order to increase farm autonomy and reduce expenditures. For instance, they mix cattle races to get “better cattle” -i.e. more appropriate to their context and objectives-, foster self-provision of animal food, value by-products on the farm, rely on soil biology to improve soil structure and fertility, value existing buildings and ‘ecological infrastructure’ (incl. woody vegetation), and settle rotational grazing (paths, water troughs, fences, shelters). Regrounding can lead to enter in conflict with “regime” institutions and rules. Some farmers keep, sort, and clean their own seeds while seed industries are lobbying to forbid that, others struggle to get manure accepted as fertilizer by environmental regulations and make cereal-legume associations acknowledged in CAP categories.

Figure 38 Ways out of the current agricultural crisis - from (van der Ploeg, 2006)

Secondly, “repositioning” the farm toward output markets leads to process and increase added-value of farm products, diversify farm production, and to value alternative ways of working and producing food. Farmers seek to re-define performance and to make people accept to pay (more) for “better food” and more sustainable modes of producing it. They invest labour and energy in the elaboration of markets where they can do and say something about food price and qualities. Thus, they struggle to construct new markets rather than taking over market shares -invading supermarket shelves. For instance, farmers create their own brand, label and/or farm shop. Others struggle against large traders for access to weekly markets.

Thirdly, farmers struggle for “self-regulation” “décider nous-mêmes” (lit. decide on our own) and to incorporate their own values in their decisions. For instance, raw milk requires specific know-how and skills to make good and safe dairy products out of it. Farmers really want to process raw milk because it has an identity; it is the living fruit of the whole farm (animal food, living conditions, farmers care, etc.). They often struggle against hygiene rules and standards aligned to industrial practices. Both ontological properties of milk -milk identity “mon lait” (my milk) vs. global commodity- and farmers specific know-how -comparative advantage toward industries and source of income- are reasons for disagreements with control agencies that sometimes operate beyond the state itself. Farmers want to defend their own way of making distinctive dairy products; they question some of prescriptions about ‘good practices’ and ‘proper equipment’. Thus, they take an active part in public debates and make people ‘taste the difference’ -e.g. via degustations and open-doors.

“Struggle and hope”

Why do they struggle? The legacy of modernization project is still deeply rooted in many “surrounding” institutions; these farmers are pioneers and experience these institutions as additional constraints that foster prescription, commodification, and externalization of tasks. While these institutions do not guarantee good food, rural employment, nor sustainable development -cf. institutionalised incapacity (Roep, 2000)-, farmers consider these institutions are constraining them in novelty production and in their definition of progress. Thus, farmers not only cannot align -it would lead to their disappearance- but they also do not want to align -it would not bring desirable future. Farmers do not focus on sending signals, imploring institutions and policy-makers; these farmers focus on changing their practices -sometimes despite legality. Their ability to do such moves is deeply rooted in peasant culture. This can be explained by Chayanov’s balance between utility and drudgery [see first drawing]. “C’est dur mais il y a de l’espoir” (it is hard but there is hope) -as a farmer says in the movie “Il a plu sur le grand paysage” (Andrien, 2012). In other words, it’s hard now but the future will be better (increased utility) so pesants accept higher level of drudgery i.e. to make extra effort today. Thus, current institutional constraint is not an absolute barrier for peasant practices; they find it ‘reasonable’ to move forward despite that.

“Struggle and hope”

Therefore, novelties cannot be reduced to the re-organization of farms as closed and isolated spaces. Renewed peasant space is open but negotiated space; it is characterized by many relationships with other spaces but its existence is not institutionalized. It has to move to be seen, peasant space “n’a pas sa place” (its existence is not given), it has to “faire sa place” (insert itself and claim its own existence).

What gives hope? Farmers seek support from elsewhere than agro industries -their vendors, advisors- and subsidy schemes -tightly related spaces some people would call ‘dominant’ regime. Farmers say their work would be easier if they plow grasslands and stick to vendors’ prescriptions but it is not compulsory to do so -they decided not to choose this option. Farmers look for other relationships with actors from a non-limited list of other spaces, for instance: eco-construction sector, second-hand websites, groups of consumers, entertainment and tourism agencies, biodiversity and nature conservation associations, schools, restaurants, artisans, care institutions, “revendeurs”, and ‘different’ scientists. Thus, the ensemble of options for repeasantization is not size-limited but rather popping-up from many sources; there are as many sources of novelties as farms spaces. Farmers I met told me they enjoy having diverse tasks to do (vs. monotony), better labour income - it is a lot of work but it pays back-, and these farm projects open doors for continuity and attractive future, notably in the eyes of their children. Peasant space is open so that farmers can engage in new relationships with a multitude of actors from other spaces.

To settle new bridges is not that easy; theory of space may help to understand processes going on. In order to go further in the analysis, I suggest focusing on one case: relationships with “participatory” research and scientists ‘looking for something else’. Actually, ‘Science’ is often seen as major source of innovation. In the list above, we could see it is far from being the only one. Moreover, I would like to show how and why science itself has to evolve to actually contribute to novelties in the following paragraphs. In the words of Jean-Pierre Darré, ‘Science’ should not be such monolithic space [see second drawing] and should get rid of believes such as that there would be only one kind of actual knowledge, that knowledge can be transferred in packages, and that having ‘higher status’ provides with better access to truth (Darré, 1996: 183-184).

“Struggle and hope”

During fieldwork, I met scientists who are not satisfied with ‘Science’ as it has been built and framed in modernization project. These scientists criticize “recherches qui planent dans les universités” (research projects that ‘fly’ in universities), “un beau modèle, quelque chose de bien théorique et qu’on est en déphasage total par rapport au terrain” (a beautiful model, something strongly theoretical, and in total discrepancy with the field), « j’ai une connaissance livresque » (I have ‘bookish’ knowledge) as Louis Hautier (CRA-W) told me. They think ‘science’ and ‘practice’ became two disconnected worlds, with different interests and problems. The only ‘intermediaries’ are agro-industries that finance and provide research topics [see Annexe 6]. They think “déphasage” (discrepancy) is source of irrelevance and misunderstanding while they -personally- would like to contribute to sustainable agriculture.

Thus, some scientists are eager to find time to ‘fix discrepancy’, « aller à la rencontre des réalités de terrain » (go out and meet ‘reality of the field’), and “quitter un peu le siege du chercheur-fonctionnaire” (quit the position of researcher-public servant -pejorative: guy having cushy, desk job) -as Louis puts it- but they also struggle with the context of modern scientific institutions -key elements of the “regime”. This stuggle takes different forms. First, divergent grammar and vocabulary are big challenges for inter-disciplinarity (collaboration between academic disciplines) and trans-disciplinarity (between ‘Science’ and ‘field’). Misunderstandings emerge because actors use both different words and different meanings; “le signe doit être reconnu, le discours doit être compris” (the sign must be recognized, the meaning -or content, discourse- must be understood) (Darré, 1996, p. 140). The author insists on the fact that surrounding “univers de pensée” (lit. thoughts-world) provides a word with a meaning; location of the word in the whole life-world really matters while the idea of knowledge transfer is made redundant. During last decades, ‘Science’ imposed its language while the one(s) of ‘practitioners’ became imprecise, relative, subjective. Second, funding schemes are characterized by covering a time-limited period and candidate researchers have to convince funders of project’s relevance in a context of political and personal issues in research centres. Third, common frameworks of scientific activity -study, publish, vulgarize- are orientated toward “comment diffuser” (how to diffuse) packages that contain particular knowledge, rationale, a single solution, and a single way to adopt it. Darré characterizes this orientation toward provision of ready-made solutions with the following words: it displays “urgence sans alternative” (emergency without alternative option), it further “enferme dans cette soumission à la pression économique” (wedges in submission to economic pressure) (Darré, 1996: 155-157). In the same vein, design of research project are often restricted to system optimization, i.e. the development of adoptable, marketable, controlled, and closed systems.

These characteristics of ‘Science’ space are sources of challenges for “participatory research”, they make it more complex than expected but they are not fatalities. Building new relationships between two spaces [see third drawing] requires time, dialogue, actual knowledge encounter, shared observations, reciprocal adjustment and evolution of vocabulary, concepts, and language. There will be misunderstandings for sure as actors start with different frameworks in mind. One must be aware that an academic research protocol will not bridge the spaces; « le labo débarque en champ et ce n’est pas une approche de co-construction, d’observation » (the lab ‘lands’ in the field; it is not a process of co-construction nor shared observation) as Louis says. Such change demands learning from both sides; both farmers and scientists have to develop their ability to communicate feelings, go deeper in their own thoughts, and reflect on their experience.

During fieldwork, I had the opportunity to observe and/or take part in two ‘participatory’ research projects. Firstly, the Centres of Reference and Experimentation on fodder autonomy (described above) consist in on-farm experiments and trials aimed at improving farm autonomy together with making progress on nutritional, environmental, food quality issues. Farmers get a financial support and access to lab analysis in order to test new things or assess new practices they developed. This group of farmers gets support from different farming technical organizations. Farmers and technicians meet regularly (group discussions), organize open doors, and write reports. Technicians say the goal of CRE is not to do actual research but rather on-farm observation. Moreover, they say it is good for vulgarization “ça permet de communiquer” (it allows to communicate) toward other farmers. However, farmers think they do more than observation and vulgarization; they consider they also do research and produce knowledge as they try, test and assess new combinations in real farm conditions. As you can see, debate is open about goals, frameworks and relevant types of knowledge. Secondly, the Agroforestry participatory research project started recently and consists in group discussions between few scientists from Université Libre de Bruxelles (prof. Marjolein Visser and her assistants) and an heterogenous group of farmers already developing novelties on their farm and planting trees and/or hedgerows in particular. This meeting took place on our farm. The ‘proximate’ or short-term goal of this project is to gather diverse experience, knowledge, and observations about ‘trees on farms’. The ‘ultimate’ or long-term goal is to create space for discussion, exchange of experience, ideas, and knowledge between farmers and scientists about novelties that farmers are developing on their own farm. We wish to make the group last and the discussions evolve according to new problems, questions, and techniques farmers ‘encounter’ on their own ‘path’. After the first meeting, farmers told me they were eager to discuss about new combinations re-adaptable in every farm systems, ideas and practices they can re-think and re-mould in their own farm (cf. ‘system innovation’, vs. system optimization). During discussions, actual dialogues could take place and lead to knowledge encounter -see Darré about making new knowledge through dialogue (Darré, 1985, p. 150). This kind of new relationship requires tolerance toward diverse (“crazy”) ideas -we are all “fools”- and coexistance of different ways of thinking, everyone has to accept that one’s truth is not universal; farmers may be more used to that and their attitude really helps (Darré, 1996, p. 147).

“Struggle and hope”

From these experiences, I learnt that it is of great importance to jointly construct new relationships and new space. On the one hand, novelty and knowledge production that take place within the intimacy of farm spaces must be acknowledged - particularly by scientists- as a relevant way to produce knowledge (new relationship). On the other hand, we should consider creating “support” space outside the farm and fed by inputs from ‘scientists’ and ‘farmers’ as a new common for both ‘scientists’ and ‘farmers’ -where roles may be confused, negotiated and/or redefined- and as a new way to do research. As Darré says, we should orientate ‘doing research’ toward “comment vivre” (how to live) i.e. helping farmers to create room for reflection and elaboration of their own answers. (Darré, 1996: 155-157). Thus, we would develop space outside the farm for dialogue and exchange of ideas where different types of knowledge -incl. experiential- could contribute and be of help to novelty production -incl. within and between farms [see third drawing].

In the literature, debate is open about new ways of doing research -see (Carr & Wilkinson, 2005) about boundary organization and (Sherwood & Paredes, 2013) about ‘being’ practitioner and social actor. Indeed, such participatory research projects are opportunities to start building new spaces but ‘participatory research’ is above all a first step that calls for next ones in further evolution toward other types of relationships. For instance, farmers are eager to take scientists in their “never-ending walk” instead of being enrolled in time-limited research projects. In the new space, “ floor is ours” there is no fixed state of affaires and things are evolving; there is room open for multiple types of novel practices and relationship -incl. even researchers running a farm themselves. Through this particular case, I wanted to show how new bridges between peasant space and other spaces can bring (desired) change.

However, we could see that change does not occur without distancing from, struggle against ‘modernization’, ‘regime’ institutional background and its manifestations within attitudes and frames of thoughts of actors involved. Farmers often told me they were struggling for “autonomie” (autonomy) and “liberté” (freedom). Actually, distancing from the regime induces changes at the level of the farm on three entangled dimensions. First, it involves creating other materialities, another reality i.e. other biological processes, nutrient cycles, farm building arrangement, food ration, crop rotation etc. [see Fig. 40 & 41, next page]. Secondly, it involves engaging in other networks. Pierre (FDB) told me that he’s talking “un language que les collègues ne comprennent plus” (a language colleagues do not understand anymore), he feels a kind of exclusion and he doesn’t consider them as colleagues anymore, “on n’a plus les mêmes problèmes, on a l’air mystérieux, ils ne viennent pas voir” (we don’t have the same problems anymore, we look mysterious, they even don’t come and see). He feels he is not understood anymore, since they shifted to organic farming and seek for animal food self-provision. These new materialities bring about other relationships with other actors (artisans, cook chefs, NGO activists) but also other socio-technical problems. To fix them, farmers seek support from elsewhere than vendors and elaborate answers through other knowledge practices -e.g. attending conferences, experimenting, reading books. Thirdly, distancing from the regime involves other truths and knowledges. Arthur (FQP) says « chaque ferme est spécifique, je ne prétends pas avoir le système universel qui marche partout » (each farm is specific, I do not claim to have universal system that works everywhere) « j’ai adapté à ce qu’on avait » (I adapted to what we had) « il faut connaitre ses vaches » (one must know his own cows, -i.e. they are not generic cows). While distancing, other things -incl. internal details, balances, and specificities- become relevant; other things become true. Then he gives an example : « la traite, ça ne peut pas être une contrainte. Sinon, on ne peut plus le faire, faut pas le faire pour les sous. Heureusement, on a le commerce pour valoriser ; c’est un tout » (milking cattle cannot be a constraint. Otherwise, we cannot do that; we could not do that just for money. Fortunately, we have a farm shop to value our milk; it is a whole). Direct selling makes it possible and realistic to continue milking cattle on their particular farm. It allows not only to maintain -even improve- labour income but also to keep the production running so that specific knowledges are still reproduced and quality food is still offered. Through these three types of moves, farms thus become specific and unique spaces, niches for novelty production.

“Struggle and hope”


To conclude this section, while agriculture modernization, its ‘Science’, agro industries, cattle competitions, and CAP subsidies do not bring desirable future anymore -even no future at all-, “Les Indomptables” creatively respond to interstices - regime failures- with multitude of novelties, new projects, relationship and bridges with other spaces -incl. by creating new commons such as nested markets and spaces where they share experience and knowledge. To institutional lock-in, deadly constraints, and powerless rule-makers, they answer with heterogenous and multiple logics; van der Ploeg says peasantries are “multitude” i.e. they “master the art of not being governed” (van der Ploeg, 2013, p. 14). They build new relationships between spaces -while they also keep distance from other spaces-, move the boundaries of farming, and construct new materialities according to their “bon sens” (lit. good/wise sense, i.e. ‘common’ sense) i.e. their own particular rationale where signals from living nature, societal wishes, and their own cultural repertoire and aspirations can all be taken into account.

In their struggle for freedom, “les Indomptables” keep moving and actually bring change by civil disobedience -e.g. by not tolerating waste, “non sens”- and acting for more coherence between their own problems’ definitions and practices within farm spaces. By developing sustainable farming practices and creating rural jobs, they struggle to insert themselves in the future as legitimate and desirable part of tomorrow’s society.

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