Angela Serrano is a Colombian scholar and PhD candidate in Sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She studies how global industries shape agricultural livelihoods in Latin America. Angela’s dissertation explores the incorporation of small-scale farmers into the palm oil industry in Colombia and, as part of this project, she works with an oil palm workers’ union. Her research has also explored the effects of export policies in Colombia and financial land markets in the USA. She holds an M.A. in geography from King’s college London and undergraduate degrees in economics and political science from Universidad de los Andes in Bogota.
Small-Scale Farmers Growing Oil Palm: Mobilizing Local Knowledge to Confront Global Risks
Oil palm causes ecological damage that affects the long-term sustainability of soil, is a capital-intensive crop, and has caused violent displacement to small-scale farmers in Colombia. Yet, 68% of oil palm growers in the country are small-scale farmers. While the livelihoods of many of these farmers have grown more precarious, compared to before they grew palm, others have more secure livelihood sources now. How has this second group of farmers been able to confront the risks posed by an environmentally damaging and capital-intensive global value chain? A story about local organizing traditions, agroecological knowledge, and national and international NGOs explains the unlikely persistence of these farmers through oil palm crops. My research suggests that the use of agroecological knowledge and practices by small-scale farming communities, together with the mobilization of agroecological goals through organizations at regional, national, and transnational scales, has helped farmers confront the economic and environmental risks posed by global value chains. I focus on the participation of small-scale farmers as growers of oil palm in the region of Magdalena Medio, in northeast Colombia. Drawing on agrarian change literature, I highlight how the focus of the agrarian question on the possibilities of peasant persistence in the context of the adverse conditions posed by capitalist markets has historically ignored the possibilities that peasant farming holds for transcending the very contradictions of capitalist agriculture and global value chains that make it so difficult to engage in peasant farming nowadays. Small-scale palm oil growers point towards a path of transition to more environmentally sustainable and economically viable farming.
Affiliation: University of Wisconsin-Madison