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Green Growth, Social Agency and the Regulation of Agricultural Production in India and Brazil

10 Feb 2012

Green Growth, Social Agency and the Regulation of Agricultural Production in India and Brazil
This is part of a series of think pieces reflecting on the importance of bringing the social dimension back into discussions about green economy and sustainable development.

Green growth is being promoted as a new paradigm that encompasses economic growth, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. However, some developing countries have been questioning its relevance for their development. This think piece shows how this paradigm is challenging, and being challenged by, traditional social norms and practices in agricultural production in India and Brazil, and how the commitment and agency of supply chain actors—both of which are key for resource efficiency and social inclusion—are affected.

Diego Vazquez-Brust is Research Manager and Senior Research Associate at the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Centre for Business Relationships, Accountability, Sustainability and Society (BRASS) at Cardiff University.

Evelyn Nava-Fischer is a Doctoral Researcher at Cardiff Law School and ESRC. Her research interests include issues of capture and access to environmental regulation in developing countries.

Green growth is being promoted as a new paradigm that encompasses economic growth, environmental sustainability and social inclusion. In intergovernmental negotiations, the concept is being supported by the European Union (EU) and other developed countries, and increasingly championed by emerging economies such as the Republic of Korea, a country that has embraced green growth as a state-led strategy for regional competitiveness. However, some developing countries have been questioning the relevance of the green growth paradigm for their development. We add to this discussion by examining how this emerging paradigm is challenging and being challenged by traditional social norms and practices in agricultural production in India and Brazil, and how the commitment and agency of supply chain actors—both of which are key for resource efficiency and social inclusion—are affected. Following Hajer (1995) and Dryzek (1997), we apply a “discourse perspective”, and draw on a taxonomy of dominant environmental discourses that has been tailored to analyse interactions between environmental stakeholders and firms (Vasquez-Brust and Liston Heyes 20081).

Discourse analysis, which focuses on the narratives or storylines that different social actors use to interpret reality and frame agendas for action, is a useful tool to identify clusters of norms and concerns among public, private and grassroots sectors that can influence policy and practice. Mapping them may also help to ground policy in actions that work with rather than against farmers. Despite the differences in the Indian and Brazilian contexts, a focus on narratives helped identify “ecocentric” options (such as certification or carbon footprint or credits) and values that might work with farmers and environmental services. In other cases, certain combinations of enforced regulation and voluntary standards of self-regulation can work better for processors, public administrators and individualistic, self-interested farmers who do not regard collective group interest as a priority. This revealed the need for a more procedural and strategic involvement of state institutions to achieve greater resource efficiency and farmer inclusion.

In the empirical case studies discussed, green growth narratives have shaped the policies of animal and plant resource exploitation and have consistently failed to understand that markets, production and consumption are socially constructed through social relations embedded in specific places and cultures. Such failures arise from a conflict between core assumptions about green efficiency and those that traditionally define relationships between farmers’ agency, choice and regulation in agricultural production. The narrative of green growth efficiency tends to: (i) assume the legitimacy of top-down policy design and implementation; (ii) underestimate farmers’ agency and voice; (iii) emphasise state- and market-led regulation; and (iv) portray choice as the result of individuals’ self-interest. In contrast, traditional farming perspectives tend to: (i) assume a mix of top-down and bottom-up policy design and implementation, acknowledging farmers’ concerns, norms, beliefs and attitudes; (ii) include farmers’ agency and voice; (iii) acknowledge the role of negotiation, consultation, social norms and customary rules in regulation; and (iv) understand that individual choice is intertwined with concerns for group and social interests. Consequently, policies aligned with the green growth paradigm in Brazil and India can potentially ignore prevailing institutional arrangements and engrained narratives, thereby creating disincentives for farmers to participate.

Discourse analysis reveals similarities between the emerging green growth paradigm and the narratives of two existing Western environmental paradigms: ecological modernization—the technocentric and socially watered-down variety of sustainability that prevailed during the last decade—and environmental problem solving—the dominant paradigm during the 1970s and 1980s, which views ecological issues as clearly contained problems that are solvable by industrial society through the intervention of experts, markets and bureaucracies. These two paradigms are supported by a combination of top-down governance and private sector standards that assume complementarities between voluntary and mandatory regulation as well as public-private partnerships. Both paradigms hold rather anthropocentric values and emphasize the role of particular institutions without fundamentally changing the existing governance and power structures. Despite being complemented by social innovation, the emerging market-led green growth paradigm is not radically different to mainstream framings in the past in developing countries.

In India and Brazil, purely anthropocentric frameworks can be even more problematic in that they ignore certain values, standards and unwritten norms that affect resource efficiency and social inclusion in agricultural production. Uncovering and acknowledging such norms and values in agricultural production can not only contribute to progress toward sustained greener socio-technical change, but also help to more appropriately measure transaction and relational costs in these contexts.

We analysed the narratives around public and corporate policies promoting the integration of “vulnerable” social actors in resource-efficient and increasingly export-oriented agricultural production. More specifically, we studied policies promoting the inclusion of small-scale farmers in biodiesel production for biodiversity protection in Brazil;2 and programmes encouraging the adoption of contract farming for animal health efficiency by small farmers in the poultry food production in South India.3 Narratives in line with the green growth paradigm shaped the design and implementation of these policies. Institutional and socio-technical objectives aimed to achieve efficient resource use while improving social conditions of farmers and challenging rural inequality. By promoting technological or managerial innovation and market-led production models, small farmers were to be socially and economically “upgraded” and could jump straight into sustainable agricultural production. Despite the momentum in policy design, common “techno-fix” solutions were not able to sustain changes in agricultural production. As a result, in both cases, the outcomes of policy have been disappointing as regards both income generation and social inclusion; while in the case of India, breeding biodiversity and pollution of the farming environment has remained practically unchanged.

Improvement in social and environmental conditions failed to take off because the prevailing institutional arrangements and engrained narratives created disincentives for farmers to participate. A chief source of disincentives was the failure of predesigned institutional programmes to recognize and accommodate social (often informal) norms and practices of key stakeholders, notably farmers. Consequently, their perception of programmes involved narratives that framed the intended changes in the existing modes of production as an impossibility or even as a threat to the farmer’s livelihood. In particular, narratives framed policy makers’ insistence on formal contracts as a threat to the more ecocentric modes of production of small-scale farmers.

“We are afraid [of signing the contracts] and doing what they say. We are just us, we live off our herd and farm, if we lose them, we lose all” (small-scale farmer, Brazil).

“If we change to contract farming we cannot use our homeopathic remedies to prevent animal diseases…but this is necessary to maintain the weight of animals, otherwise more animals get ill and the margin is too low” (traditional farmer, India).

A second source of disincentives was the limited space for farmers’ participation. There were very few situations where small farmers directly interacted with policy makers or companies’ managers to influence their perspectives. Instead, third parties acted as representatives of farmers’ interests; exploited entrepreneurship opportunities in the supply chain; communicated and interpreted the state of policies; or played a mediation role as a form of regulatory imposition.

“We sell (to an intermediary who came and collected the produce). [This means] less money but [avoids] a long journey to the factory, we have to go twice to get paid, we need to keep working in the farm, we don’t have the money to pay for fuel and wait” (small-scale farmer, Brazil).

“We haven’t been asked for our ideas, big ideas come always from above.…companies doing trials to discover products and medicines, come and ask a few things but they are not interested in sharing the profit” (commercial farmer, India).

In all cases, the lack of mechanisms to involve farmers in decision-making processes appeared as a major obstacle to bridge efficient animal and plant resource exploitation and sustained farmer inclusion. In most cases, such a lack of integration appeared intentional, since farmers’ traditional knowledge and norms were regarded as “obstacles to innovation” that should be superseded. Thus, despite references to social inclusion in mainstream narratives, small farmers were perceived as passive agents in policy design and implementation. Farmers were unable to create the bonds with outsiders required to access resources and influence policies to support innovations based on traditional knowledge—innovations that potentially could be used, for instance, as an asset for environmental services. This suggests the need for policy interventions to be able to recognize and value certain standards and norms that shape the behaviour of stakeholders. Such norms—for example, those related to ecology and collective modes of empowerment—may contrast with those associated with anthropocentric concerns and notions of self-interest.

If sustainable production methods are called on to play a vital role in the new paradigm of green growth, particularly in the agricultural sector, they will require the recognition of social norms and practices in the supply chain. A paradigm shift in agricultural production must work with, rather than against, such norms.4 This implies at least a deeper and more pragmatic understanding of the degree of environmental concern and levels of autonomy of different institutions and social actors embodied in the “greening of production”—including the role of the state in strategically steering the direction of choices and opportunities accordingly. Success will not be achieved solely through the application of pre-designed mechanisms aimed at achieving sustainability by leapfrogging traditional modes of production.

The authors are particularly thankful to Dr. Clovis Zapata from UNDP International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, who introduced us to the biofuels case. This piece is partially a reflection on our previous collaboration.

Cameron, D., E. Frazer, P. Harvey, B. Rampton and K. Richardson. 1999. "Power/knowledge: The politics of social science." In A. Jaworsky and N. Coupland (eds.), The Discourse Reader. Routledge, London.

Dryzek J. 1997. The Politics of the Earth. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hajer M. 1995. The Politics of Environmental Discourse: Modernization and the Policy Process. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Nava-Fischer, E. 2011. Framing Access to Agro-Environmental Regulation in India. Doctoral Dissertation, Cardiff Law School. Mimeo.

Vazquez-Brust, D. and C. Liston-Heyes. 2008. "Corporate discourse and environmental performance in Argentina." Business Strategy and the Environment, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 179–193.

Zapata, C., D. Vazquez-Brust, and J. Plaza-Ubeda. 2010. Productive Inclusion of Smallholder Farmers in Brazil’s Biodiesel Value Chain: Programme Design, Institutional Incentives and Stakeholders Constraints. UNDP International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth, Brasilia.

1 Both authors – inspired by theories on power relations – seek to categorize individuals according to who they think should be empowered with the right to manage the environment (that is, entities and agents), what are their underlying motives and what are the basic assumptions they hold about the biophysical world. In doing so they produce a set of storylines – rhetorical devices or narratives that help make sense of unfamiliar environments by transferring information across from more familiar settings – that are instrumental in uncovering the basic assumptions and motivations hidden in the discourse.

2 Brazil’s federal government has worked with energy company Petrobras to support and regulate the use and production of castor beans as biofuels feedstock. Castor is a crop that can be grown on small farms in conjunction with subsistence agriculture. The production of biofuels can therefore have positive effects on biodiversity protection and soil fertility while promoting social inclusion ( Zapata et al. 2010).

3 Indian contract farming is a government-endorsed private instrument that views the poultry sector as a highly resilient agri-food model, capable of addressing the social demands of small farmers by integrating them in systems of cleaner production and more standardized processes. Such a model is seen by mainstream stakeholders (government, media, scientists and industry associations) as having positive effects on animal health, nutrition and disease control. By integrating farmers in the global supply chain, the goal is to develop a mode of livestock production that is one of the fastest growing and most resilient in the developing world (Nava-Fischer 2011).

4 We draw here a parallel with Cameron et al. ( 1998) notion of empowering research. Empowering agricultural policy working for and with farmers should acknowledge in its design that farmers should not be treated as the objects of policy or entities without agency; they should be partners in policy. Farmers have their own agendas which should be addressed by policy. Finally, policy should be a means to exchange, rather than transfer or impose, knowledge.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.