Climate Injustice: Cash Crop Capitalism and Peasant Farmers

Capital has penetrated into agriculture in Pakistan, changing the ways rural communities are organized and structured; from the tenancy model, agriculture in Pakistan has moved towards the cash crop model. The latter model, however, is far more deadly for tenants, and one of the major reasons for this is climate change.

The former meant that the tenants (peasants) who tilled the land had a greater autonomy, they could decide what will be planted and grown and how it will be harvested, and after all of the work, a fixed percentage of the yield would go to the landowner. In such a model, tenants usually grow food crops that sustain the family and the village. Allowing the village community to be self-sufficient while exporting the surplus to the cities.

In the cash-crop model, the tenancy rules are changed as the object is no longer to sustain, but to generate as much profit as possible; which is the logic of capital in the current system. In such a model, the tenants have far less autonomy; the tenants pay a fixed rent to till the land rather than a fixed percentage of the crop. This means that the peasants need to give a cash amount to the landlord regardless of how the crop yield turns out, unlike the previous model where such discrepancies are taken into account by giving a percentage of the crop yield. This forces more and more peasants to shift towards cash-crops and continuous planting and harvesting to generate more profit.

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The pressure to consistently generate profit makes agricultural less sustainable and eco-friendly. Cash crops have a higher carbon footprint as they require more urea and nitrate-based fertilizers which pollute waterways and freshwater bodies, as well as making the soil less fertile. The soil is harmed even more with the continuous planting and harvesting (intensive farming) and leaving less and less room for fallow years for the land. The changing relations of the tenancy have led to agriculture being less sustainable and damaging the environment.

However, with this ecological price, the new system also has a very high human price. Most tenants are only a bad harvest away from bankruptcy and eviction. A bad harvest means that the tenant can no longer afford to pay the pre-decided fixed rent price and can now be evicted. This leaves landless peasants evermore vulnerable to the exploitation of the landlords. But maybe the gravest injustice being done here is how utterly defenceless these farmers have been left to the impacts of climate change.

Traditionally, farming in Punjab has depended on the fixed cycle of seasons and expected rainfall, the stability of the season systems that is threatened by climate change. A 1-2 degree celsius increase in world climate allows for a 7% increase in water vapour content in the air, climate change has already impacted the millennia-old monsoon system of the Indian Subcontinent. The monsoon has been one of the most consistent climatic and season phenomena of the globe, but it has become more and more unstable and unpredictable in recent years. The changing dates and intensity of rainfall have adversely impacted crops growth and yield in the region. With most estimates placing the decrease in crop yield somewhere around 6-16% in recent years.

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Climate change makes it much more likely for yield to decrease and makes predicting weather and rainfall much more difficult. This means that farmers are more likely to have bad harvests, or lower yields if they are lucky. As of recent reports over 60,000 farmer suicides in India are linked to climate change.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan has already declared climate justice a fundamental right of citizens in the Asghar Leghari v. The Federation of Pakistan case. The state of Pakistan has a responsibility to effectively counter climate change and work to form policies that mitigate the harms, especially on agricultural communities.

However, far from the language of rights and duties that echo in the corridors of our apex court, the reality has been stark. Farmers have been left without much protection. Where the state has failed to act, communities have mobilized against the issues, the root of it being the changing nature of the tenancy agreement. The Anjuman e Mazareen e Punjab (AMP) stood up to the Okara Military Farms against the change in tenancy contract and faced decades of violence, intimidation and harassment.

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As of now, India has the highest rate of farmers’ suicides in the world. India, like Pakistan and other countries in the region, is heavily impacted by climate change. We need to learn from the mistakes and policy failures of countries that face similar climate challenges as us before it is too late.

This article has been written by Balach Khan. To write for The Students Herald contact: writetostudentsherald@gmail.com

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