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The transformation of agriculture along the New Silk Road



Oliver Pye,

Female workers at the production line in a Chinese banana plantation in northern Thailand.
Female workers at the production line in a Chinese banana plantation in northern Thailand. © Oliver Pye, 7/24/2018

The Belt and Road Initiative consists of far more than simply the construction of infrastructure. New capitalist relations are transported by way of its roads and ports, penetrating deep into the rural areas of Southeast Asia. As a consequence, China is exporting its agricultural model at the same time.

In the north of Thailand, at the centre of the Golden Triangle (Thailand, Myanmar, Laos), and within an almost idyllic landscape of rice fields and forested mountains, lies a banana plantation. Located on the banks of the Ing River, a tributary of the Great Mekong, it is quite large: seven kilometres in length and 600 meters wide. Thousands of banana plants stand here in rows. The clusters of bananas growing on them are packed several times over—in cardboard, foam, and plastic. This keeps the fruit dry, warm, and insect-free, so that the insecticides and fungicides are not washed off and dispersed. Cavendish bananas are susceptible to diseases and pests.

Dr. Oliver Pye is an associate professor at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Bonn. His research interests include labour and organizing strategies in industrial agriculture. Translation by Joshua Rahtz.

Men in ragged clothes and rubber boots run back and forth as fast as possible, carrying the large, heavy clusters to a truck. A young man stands ready to chop a cluster with a machete at the exact right moment. It must fall precisely on the carrier’s shoulders, since it is quite heavy, weighing up to 50 kilograms. The men then haul it through the wet mud of the plantation. They cross over irrigation channels and walk, bent, under numerous plastic cords, without which the banana plants would buckle. The faster they work, the more money they receive. They are paid by the unit, at a rate of 8 baht—the equivalent of 20 cents—per cluster. That does not sound like much, yet here they can earn three times the Thai minimum wage, which is around 300 baht a day. Those who work hard can process more than 100 clusters per shift. But they are exhausted by the end of such a day. One worker told me that after a few shots of liquor, they fall, dead tired, to sleep.

The further processing of the bananas is done in separate steps, on an assembly line. In an open hall in the middle of the plantation, the fruit passes through a production line. Every single step of work is planned: unloading clusters and hanging them up; stripping the packaging; cutting banana hands (the name of the individual clusters we know from the supermarket); washing; sorting and removing “malformed” bananas; proofing them in wax solution; drying; packing them in plastic bags and in the banana crates we know; vacuuming and stacking the crates.

Can this type of agro-industrial production still be called agriculture? There are no longer any farmers here. Instead, one finds wage labourers slaving away day in, day out—with broken backs, rashes, or injuries—who will be replaced after a few years. Just like the bananas that do not meet supermarket standards, the plastic and foam as well as the empty pesticide buckets end up on huge mounds of garbage. Images of this particular banana plantation are exemplary of the worldwide production of the fruit, whether for the European or the Chinese market.

The Transformation of Chinese Agriculture

Chinese agriculture is hardly different from the capital-intensive, agro-industrial and environmentally-destructive production we know in Europe. In China, however, one observes an accelerated modernization, based on the rapid proletarianization of the Chinese peasantry. Industrialization of agricultural production is taking place with the aid of colossal agribusinesses.

The fact that arable land is still state-owned—some cite this as evidence of the socialist character of the Chinese economy—only means that usage rights are sold and consolidated. As part of a targeted intensification of Chinese agriculture, the state is promoting long-term leasing contracts to larger farms, commercial family enterprises, and agribusinesses. Between 2003 and 2013, an estimated 65 million farmers lost their land (Trappel 2016).

China’s official modernization policy is geared toward the industrialization and vertical integration of agriculture. More than half of the population already lives in cities, and this figure is expected to soon rise to 60 percent. The living spaces of the rural population are to be systematically linked to the urban centres via urban-rural industrial corridors to promote growth and prosperity. Large agribusiness companies—the so-called dragonhead companies—are to advance as if by “dragon dance”, and incorporate small-scale producers in the processing and marketing of agricultural products. They provide inputs and technology, while the contract farmers produce at fixed conditions and specifications. Already in 2011, 60 percent of China’s agricultural land, 70 percent of its livestock farming, and 80 percent of its aquaculture was organized in this way, and the trend is accelerating (Schneider 2017).

These processes of commercialization, accumulation, and concentration have now resulted in huge agricultural corporations able to compete globally with Western giants such as Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bayer. Since it took over the US meat giant Smithfield Foods, for example, the Shuanghui Group has become the world’s largest producer of pork. The US company has repeatedly attracted media attention because of its anti-union practices and poor working conditions, among other reasons. Companies such as the agricultural company Beidahuang, with three million hectares of land, the state-capitalist agribusiness company COFCO, which runs subcontractors in over 140 countries, or the dragonhead company New Hope Group, are not well known in Germany, although they are among the largest in the world. We are more familiar with the name Syngenta—but few know that the company was recently bought by ChemChina and has thus become one of the world’s largest producers of pesticides and herbicides (Zhang 2019).

All of this is leading to a massive change in the social structure of Chinese agriculture. Capitalist family businesses and larger agricultural enterprises operate in conjunction with huge agribusinesses. The small farmers who remain are integrated into vertical chains as contract farmers. Their role there may be compared to pseudo self-employment: through longer-term contracts, they are bound to a customer who determines the means of production to be used and the terms of purchases. Above all, however, a proletarianization of undreamt-of magnitude is taking place. There are now 250 million wage earners in rural areas working directly in agriculture or in downstream production. Added to this are the 150 million or so migrant workers who work in the factories of the large industrial zones (Zhan and Scully 2018).

Logistics and Capital Relations

What is happening inside China is being carried outward through the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. Beyond pure infrastructure and its often-discussed geopolitical implications, the new Silk Road can be understood as a spatial expansion of this vertically integrated industrial agriculture. In the process, agricultural production is being transformed from a small-scale farming system to one characterized by capital and wage labour (Baird 2011). The BRI’s roads and logistics centres comprise the physical infrastructure of the enforcement of capitalist relations of production. The large agribusiness, distribution, and logistics companies in China push through the BRI’s standardized requirements for products that are to meet the demands of supermarkets or industrial processing.

The expansion of the banana plantations is an example of this. Chinese companies initially used the new infrastructure to bring about an unprecedented boom in banana output in Laos. Between 2000 and 2010, production grew from 50,000 to over 400,000 tons per year. Once the Laotian government banned further investment in banana plantations—as a result of labour law disputes and environmental pollution—investors increasingly switched over to Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia. The BRI’s infrastructure was essential for this (Fries and Nielsen 2017).

The trading centre for bananas from northern Thailand and Laos is located in the city of Mohan, in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, directly on the border with Laos. Here one finds the distribution centres from which the bananas are brought to various other regions of China. On the other side of the border is the Laotian village of Boten, which is currently being transformed into a “Chinese city”—complete with the use of Chinese currency and a casino. Both municipalities belong to the Mohan-Boten Economic Cooperation Zone, the purpose of which since 2018 has been to ensure the free movement of goods. It is a central hub along the Kunming-Bangkok highway, one of the BRI’s main arteries in Southeast Asia.

The Chinese agricultural model, transplanted into Southeast Asia, is defined by large supermarket chains and dragonhead companies. The latter require standardized bulk goods that can be delivered to thousands of supermarkets in major Chinese cities every day. The aforementioned banana plantation is one good example. In Southeast Asia there are over 100 different types of bananas, dozens of which are grown by small farmers. But in the supermarkets only one variety is sold: the Cavendish. These specifications—massive quantities of a particular variety—also account for the tendency for large plantations that use a high volume of pesticides, fungicides, and artificial fertilizers, plastics and foam, in order to control production.

Capital and wage-labour relations are likewise transposed nearly exactly. Chinese companies do not buy the land, but lease it—as in China. The workers are either poor, often migrant workers, or are integrated into the supply chain as contract farmers. To ensure standardized products and work protocols, new plantations are invariably staffed with Chinese workers who train locals.

Combined Struggles

The modernization of Chinese agriculture, especially the loss of usage rights to the agricultural land for millions of farmers due to sale or expropriation, has led to massive protests in China. Under the leadership of intellectuals like Wen Teijun (a professor at Renmin University in Beijing), a new movement, the “New Rural Reconstruction” (NRR), has emerged; it pushes for the renewal of small-scale farming and farmers’ cooperatives. It has not, however, been able to halt concentration and vertical industrialization (Day and Schneider 2018). The spread of agro-industrial agriculture along the BRI has also led to small-scale peasant protests in Southeast Asia revolving around land conflicts and ecological matters such as water consumption, water pollution, and pesticide use. On the plantation discussed above, furious rice farmers demanded that authorities intervene after operators had pumped out excess water to irrigate bananas during dry season.

New agro-industrial structures of production have also sparked new social conflicts between labour and capital. On the plantation at Ing in northern Thailand, workers have in recent years held spontaneous protests against wage docking tied to specific output requirements. Health concerns also play a role, given the danger of accidents, malaria, or poisoning from pesticides. Such protests, however, have thus far remained local and uncoordinated—a union of migrant agricultural workers does not yet exist.

Migrant workers often still retain a small plot of land in their home districts, and this produces a striking combination of struggles. Workers defend themselves against the expropriation that accompanies expanding plantations, and simultaneously against the precarious and poor working conditions of the new large-scale enterprises. This dynamic is observed both in China and in Southeast Asia. Then there are the struggles of logistics workers, for some activists the Achilles heel of global production chains. The coordinated strikes of crane operators (key personnel in the construction industry) in 27 cities in May 2018, and the strikes and blockades of Chinese truck drivers later that year, are pointing the way forward. These workers fought against precisely the outsourced, pseudo self-employed, and precarious employment conditions that are also characteristic of the new agriculture. Will the Belt and Road eventually become a vector for the spread of strikes, organizations, and rebellions? 


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