Friday, March 19, 2010

Traditions, Western Union, Churches and Taro

I spent a few weeks in Samoa, a paradise Pacific island country. My task was to be part of a technical team assisting the government in the development of a program for increasing the competitiveness of the agriculture sector. My role was to look into opportunities for commercial organic production.

It has been a treat to visit Samoa, experience its people, see the nature, enjoy the food and the sea. In eighteen days no-one was rude or aggressive. Samoans are proud of their culture and their country, rightly so I think. I can strongly recommend Samoa for a visit.

You can look at a lot of pictures at:

When it comes to development, Samoa, like Bhutan that I also visited earlier this year (see my posting), is a complex case. Some things strike you in Samoa. One are the traditional villages with their special building style, the open fales , houses without walls. The village and the extended family (still) have strong positions in Samoa, land is mostly still communal (some 90 percent) and leaders of the extended families, the mathai, assign land to the members of the family. Soils are mostly rich, but some of the soils have more rocks than soil and some parts of Samoa, especially on the island Savaii, are lava fields, the younger of them hundred years old. In these soils Samoans have been growing coconuts, breadfruit, taro and bananas as well as a number of fruits. Traditionally, pigs played a big role. Later cattle, cocoa and coffee were introduced. A lot of the products are not sold in the market but are distributed within then families and villages, the meat in particular is mostly consumed at big parties. So farming is still not so integrated in the market economy.
(cocoa growing out of the lava rock)

Missionaries brought Christianity to Samoa. I have not seen any statistics, but it appears to me that there must be in the range of thousand churches in Samoa, every village has a number of churches of competing congregations. The churches and Christianity seem to have integrated quite well with Samoan culture and is today a part of the culture and not an alien element. They have added another layer of people living on the surplus from farming, pastors. To be a pastor is a remunerative occupation and following a theological college is undoubtedly a pathway for personal income. So the farmer doesn’t only have to share his earnings with the extended family and the village but also with the congregation.

Overseas remittances play a very big role for the Samoan economy. Samoans are working in New Zealand, Australia and the USA and send money home – the signs for Western Union are as frequent as are the churches. Nobody seems to be hungry in Samoa. There is limited wealth and the wealth is distributed within the extended family.

There are a number of obstacles for a commercialization of farming. In essence this means bringing more farmers into a mainly cash-based and market based economy, both on the input and output side. It means that farmers shall sell products in a market situation, but it also means that farmers use more inputs, both hard and soft inputs, ranging from credits, fertilizers. irrigation to advisory service, business planning. In this way they can increase productivity and their incomes. But the price is increased risk. But not only that. When traditional farming systems are brought into the market economy, the change is not only technical or economic and the effects are not only for the household, but the whole village social context is disrupted, reducing the role of the village, and the extended family, as economic institutions. This was certainly the case for when farming was brought into the market economy in Europe and the same pattern is seen everywhere.

We tend to believe that social security is some modern innovation, but the truth is that all traditional societies have had social security and poor or sick people have been taken care of – within the limits of the ability of the society. That is why the introduction of the (capitalist) market economy in farming systems often result in devastating effects on the less resourced, such as famines like the one in Ireland in 1800s and those in many developing countries the last hundred years.

If people are desperately poor, say like many farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, breaking down traditional institutions in order to unleash the innovation and investment based on private property and entrepreneurship seems perhaps reasonable. But we should still keep in mind that there will be winners and losers, and if there are no new social security systems developed replacing those of traditional societies the results can be devastating. In societies that are less poor, it is harder to see that commercialization of farming is such a sign of progress, even if the GDP is likely to increase.

When visiting some dozen farms in Samoa, I realize that many of the farm families seem to be happy with their life. Even on direct question of what they would like for their business, they come up with nothing related to increased production, higher income etc. Combine this with the effect of the remittances: lot of money coming in with little efforts from the locals and a certain shortage of labor. Add the effect of the village structure, land ownership, and churches: low incentives to invest in higher production as it will be shared by so many and low incentive to invest in the soil as it is not private. Yes, then there are simply not very big reasons for farmers to increase productivity. In particular there is little reason for why they would like to specialize and increase risk in their production, something that is often a basis for modernization of farming.

While Samoa as a whole, and the Government of Samoa, might want more commercial agriculture it is still not very clear that it is the best option for the individual farmer, which then would also be the main cause for repeated failure of “modernization efforts”, not only in Samoa but in big parts of the developing world.

Some claim that small holders never voluntarily change into the market economy but must be coerced into it through many different pathways. Sometimes by brutal means such as the British enclosures; trading monopolies or outright colonization. But more often through more subtle means: credit programs that makes them dependent; compulsory schooling that means they need to pay school fees, uniforms, books as well as they loose labor force and the children get other values; land titling, i.e. the transformation of land from communities to individuals etc. “Commercializing agriculture means ending subsistence agriculture. How can subsistence agriculture be ended? The simple answer is by huge amounts of compulsion administered by central governments. Only compulsion will induce most peasants to increase per capita production for sale on anonymous markets” says Ronald Seavoy in Subsistence and Economic Development (2000).

It is hard to accept that people should be forced to leave their traditional ways of living…..And ultimately, there is really no proof that a Swedish, German or American farmer is any happier than their Samoan colleagues. As most factors for well-being are not about money but about social and private relations, one may suspect that it is rather the other way round.

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