Small-scale family farming and revitalized peasant agriculture in Turkey and the world

Small-scale family farming and revitalized peasant agriculture in Turkey and the world

While the number of registered farmers has drastically declined in the last twenty years, inner city agriculture is also under the threat of construction and rant. What has been offered to the fifty families who are long time producers on The Yedikule Gardens, a 1500 year old agricultural spot of Istanbul, is not different from what has been deemed proper to the people of Soma, who used to earn their livelihood through tobacco planting until ten years ago. — Image Credits

First, let’s address some misconceptions, a few figures and a few claims such as: “Agriculture is a backward and primitive activity. If it has to be done, it should be done intensively and without manpower.” “Air, water and soil are infinite. They can be exploited unconditionally.”

These are the two basic misconceptions. They are not specific to Turkey but are globally accepted! Turkey is reiterating what the developed world and the ones that try to resemble them have been doing for decades.

Let’s start with soil...

Turkey has misunderstood modernity as an excuse to eradicate its agriculture and animal husbandry. The process has been greatly accelerated under the present government. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has supported the dominant mindset in this regard, which has already been in place for years.

The figures speak for themselves. 46% of the employees in Turkey were working in the agricultural sector in 1990, which has currently dropped to 24.7%. The employment share of the agricultural sector has declined by approximately 50% in the last 20 years.

According to a research by TEPAV (The Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey), the number of registered farmers dropped to under one million in 2013, declining by 12% from 2012. The figures published by the Union of Turkish Chambers of Agriculture demonstrate that the total cultivated area decreased by 11.3% between 1995 and 2013, withdrawing to 23.81 million hectares.  There is an inclination towards eliminating farming and corporatizing agriculture not only in Turkey but all over the globe. A farmer goes bankrupt every two minutes in Europe and every fifty seconds in Turkey.

The tendency is everywhere, including the academic world: agricultural engineering, veterinary medicine and agricultural economics are considered the least attractive departments in Turkey and provide a correspondingly low level of education.

As regards the name of the ministry, you cannot see any traces of the word village in it any more. First, they closed down the Rural Services, and then they erased the “rural affairs” from the name of the ministry. Remember what the Prime Minister said about villages: that they have to be urbanized. So allegedly, we are being freed of being a peasant country!

Opening its arable lands to urban development, Turkey is leasing 780 thousand hectares of farmland from Sudan for 99 years.

Let’s continue with nature...

Waterways have been seriously damaged. Doğa Derneği (The Nature Association) has obtained the plans for the hydroelectric power plant network for 2023 prepared by the General Directorate of State Hydraulic Works; and a review of the plan estimates that there will be no rivers left flowing in 2023 due to environmental damage.

The ultimate result of this process is desertification, areas devoid of people, and the eradication of agricultural and animal production which is already dependant on the outside world. 60% of the area of Turkey faces the risk of erosion and desertification; two million hectares of wetlands have dried up, including the 36 lakes which have dried in the last 50 years and the 14 lakes which are currently in death throes. The water loss in the Euphrates-Tigris basin amounted to 144 billion cubic metres between 2004 and 2010.

Before the dams were built, Turkey was one of the seven agriculturally self-sufficient countries in the world. Currently, Turkey is importing agricultural products and animals from more than a hundred countries.

Let’s take a glance at natural protected areas

It is still possible to stop the activities which harm nature in one of the 1234 natural protected areas by taking action through the courts and preservation boards. If the so-called Bill on the Preservation of Nature is passed by the Parliament, the Preservation Boards which are currently independent will have no power over natural protected areas. If the bill is enacted, the ecological characteristics of Turkey, a unique natural wealth with over 3500 endemic plant species, will be irretrievably lost.

The destruction of nature and the countryside also means the urbanization, cultural alienation of a vast population who will become  non-agricultural workers.

Urbanization of villages

From the government's point of view, the urbanization of villages is a symbol of progress and development. Administratively speaking, the municipality is the only governmental entity situated in the periphery that has some autonomy and possesses some legal authority in Turkey. There are only 1,389 municipalities in Turkey, which lies across an area of 783,000 square kilometres with a population of approximately 75 million people.

The decline in the number of municipalities means that decisions cannot be taken on the level of local government anymore.

Menial labor and alienation

It would suffice to remember the recent Soma mine massacre. The Lawyer Berrin Demir says: “We live on the most fertile lands of this country. My family used to grow tobacco; when I was a kid, everyone was growing wheat and olives. The harvest was carried out by people collectively on a voluntary basis. As a result of the Law on Tobacco, and the privatization of TEKEL (the General Directorate of Tobacco, Tobacco Products, Salt and Alcohol Enterprises), tobacco was no longer profitable for farmers. So they stopped cultivating it. There was also cotton farming, which was stopped. Just like sugar beet farming. It was stopped, too. Nobody could sell anything any longer. We cannot even stay on the lowlands. We migrate to cooler places. And look what has happened: they have made us work underground.”

Menial labor and degradation: What does the unskilled labour force do after having been dismissed from the agricultural sector for decades? They try to work for peanuts in dead end jobs mostly in informal sectors as water carriers, car park attendants, pizza delivery men, bodyguards at bars and discotheques, etc.

Deculturation and alienation are also results of these policies. The new urbanites have new needs. In this sense, developmentalism and the eradication of agriculture, nature and rural areas are two factors feeding off each other. New urbanites get used to consumption, and they buy more by running up debt.

Alienation is not only associated with migration to cities. All the accumulation of rural knowledge is being lost as well. A sustainable, self-sufficient and nature-friendly lifestyle is being lost.

What to do then?

Peasant farming is anti-systemic—because the priority is not commercial profit. First of all, agricultural production is not a “primitive” activity as it is assumed by those whose ancestors were forced to leave the countryside to come to the city a few generations back. On the contrary, if it is done well, it can yield much more profit than a working factory.

Organic and nature-friendly forms of agriculture are among the most precious solutions for correcting the aforementioned mistakes. These forms of agricultural activity rely on measurable input including human labour. On the other hand, there is the kind of agriculture which is based on maximum production and maximum consumption; is dependent on the competitive market; carried out with the minimum number of people; exploits soil, water and air unconditionally; spends immense amounts of energy; and uses all kinds of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs carelessly. The latter is neither sustainable nor favourable for the small-scale farmer, nature and the consumer.

Agricultural policy of the EU

It is in this framework that the Europe Union is rapidly revising its production and consumption models to become more sustainable. The building blocks of this attempt are organic farming, biodiversity and rural life. Environmental awareness can possibly become almost the only criterion for giving financial subsidies to agricultural and rural pursuits. Naturally, it will not be easy to erase the pollution accumulated over centuries, the production methods that have played havoc with agriculture in every manner, and the agriculture lobbies. Still, it is clear which course of action to take. The European Union Common Agricultural Policy has been revised accordingly. It has been ascertained that as an essential principle, extensive farming should host and support a wide “variety of species.”

These measures have successfully encouraged farmers to assume a positive role in the preservation of nature and the rural life by aiming to reduce the risk of environmental deterioration in the framework of a common agricultural policy. In other words, the farmer or the livestock breeder does not only deal with agriculture or livestock; s/he also protects the environment and nature. The objective of the Environmentally Friendly Agricultural Programme (Agri-Environment Programmes) strategy, which has been developed under the EU Common Agricultural Policy, is the sustainability of agricultural ecosystems which protect nature.

Unfortunately, the adaptation activities expected to be carried out by the candidate countries for EU accession are totally inspired by the paradigm the EU is trying to erase at the moment as far as agriculture is concerned. On the one hand, the EU is trying to leave behind the extremely productivist “green revolution” approach, which was developed in the post-war period under the conditions of the time, and do away with its results. On the other hand, it is still imposing the principles of this approach on candidate countries, as clearly seen in the examples of Poland and Romania, by forcing them to reduce rural populations and establish an absolutely competitive market.

What needs to be done is clear

Turkey is a priceless treasure in terms of biodiversity and agricultural memory. The fundamental principle, first and foremost, should be to adopt a policy to enable the rural population to live in the rural areas. The keystones of this policy consist of organic farming, nature-friendly and environmentally aware family production, and rural development. Therefore, we need to convince the EU to revise its approach to Turkish agriculture according to the aforementioned policy.

The international community is not standing idle either. May 14—the day the International Federation of Agricultural Producers was established—has been celebrated as World Farmers’ Day since 1984. 120 agricultural organizations from 80 countries are members of the Federation which represents 600 million farmer families in the world.

The UN wants family farms to be supported for both environmental preservation and the issues of healthier production, food safety and poverty in the rural areas. Accordingly, the UN has declared 2015 as the International Year of Family Farming; 70% of all the food consumed on the globe is produced by family farms. Intensive conventional agriculture, which produces the remaining 30%, however, uses minimum manpower but a high level of inputs.

The political economy of seeds is also a problem. Seeds are vitally important for sustainable agriculture and food safety. We all know that local seeds have red flags. Besides the monoculture practice and monopolization of seeds by companies, fertilizers and pesticides are added to the seeds developed in laboratories, hence, degrading water and soil. The farmers also have to buy these new seeds every year since the seeds cannot reproduce on their own.

Is there any hope regarding the AKP?

Can the AKP abandon following the outdated model of development, and start to seriously consider Turkey’s immense potential? Can the AKP stop undermining agriculture and animal husbandry, begin valuing organic agriculture, opt for clean energy, take measures against urbanization, and give importance to the Anatolian historical heritage?

These alternatives seem to be out of question since they are incompatible with the sociological characteristics of its electotare. A lifestyle reminiscent of the rural countryside is not considered respectable by the AKP voters who generally come from a rural background. Despite the fact that the AKP is conservative about several family values, traditions and the Internet, it is totally anti-conservative about preserving natural, cultural and urban values, which they consider to be obstacles for development.

It is not a coincidence that the weakest and most backward point about the AKP is the preservation of environmental and cultural values. As is the case with the vast majority of the developing countries, society’s level of awareness about “preservation” is the same as that of the politicians in Turkey. What Turkey wants is to develop, become wealthier, consume, consume, and consume further. To prevent this mindset is difficult since the opportunities, economic rent and power which capitalism brings with it are very attractive and endless, but we must continue the struggle.

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