Agriculture and Pandemics: From Indeterminacy to Solidarity
Since the beginning of the ongoing pandemic and state-enforced confinement (non-carceral “lockdown”), amongst other things, I have been listing global agriculture and coronavirus-related articles and references in an online document. The document has been shared with friends, family and a reading group that I met online recently. In a time of uncertainty, I recall anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing: “Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible.”1
After visiting six collectives in the Basque Country, France, and now staying at home near the Alps, I would like to share some of what I have read, and with you, think through some agricultural and transnational possibilities—hopefully ending with some land struggles in Hong Kong, my home.
My exploration of these ideas began in 2010, when I met farmers in the urban/rural/mountainous northern part of Hong Kong called the New Territories. The non-place-like name “New Territories,” is suggestive of its colonial past and the British empire’s pattern of awkwardly renaming places of landing and conquest “new”—New Zealand, New Britain and Newfoundland.2
In 1898, the New Territories and 200 outlying islands were leased from Mainland China to the British colonial government for 99 years, which created the arbitrary classification of “indigenous” and “non-indigenous” villagers. Today the hegemonic and patriarchal land policies in the New Territories are the colonial residue that continue to dispossess villagers from their homes and farmland whilst privileging males in “indigenous” families with land and building rights. Oftentimes these indigenous villagers profit from their land rights by illegally contaminating farmland into brownfield—concretising fertile soil to make way for car parks, waste recycling yards and container storage.
In Hong Kong, indigeneity has an adverse resonance to the songs that were streamed during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016. Indigenous villagers in Hong Kong have no resemblance whatsoever to indigenous communities in the Amazon—who in early April had their first coronavirus death in the forest.
The New Territories farmers I had met at Ma Shi Po Village, Ping Che and Tin Heung Garden, were and are victims to developer hegemony, specifically Henderson Property Development Company Limited, who like other developers in Hong Kong and China have extended their empires into the art world. 3
In 2016 such land struggles led me to later visit other worlds advocating food sovereignty and access to land such as an autonomous region in the west of France called the ZAD (Zone à Défendre in French, “Zone to Defend” in English). The ZAD at Notre-Dame-des-Landes is an ongoing 1,650-hectare land occupation, home to numerous collectives, who have fought for 50 years against a government-proposed new airport and its world (later cancelled in January 2018).
Four years later I am in Europe again and had been visiting farming collectives up until the 16 March 2020 confinement—and hope to resume and visit the ZAD again in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. I believe this pandemic has radically changed our relationship to agriculture, food access and dependence on essential workers such as farmers, delivery drivers and supermarket cashiers. One example visible in Grenoble yesterday was seeing unmasked food delivery cyclists—mostly people of colour—waiting for deliveries on an empty high street. Nearby there were white families leisurely cycling amidst the confinement. 4
Naturally, food-related issues have different complexities—some of which—if not all, are biopolitical, located at the intersection of systemic global inequalities. Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC-centered community farm in America teaches us how to resiliently grow food in a racist and unjust system. The following people and collectives also share ways to survive.
The (im)mobility of essential workers
Produce and rice are delivered in bulk by the vegetable seller who lives in the village next to ours; the village leader sends a message to the WeChat group telling people to come out. There isn’t as much variety as the supermarket, but the prices are about the same as they were before. I heard that in the city some neighbourhoods do group shopping in bulk, and the markets offer them fixed sets from A to E. Each set is strangely put together with vegetables that nobody would ever need, and in Hankou District the prices are really extravagant.
Pork costs 60 yuan for half a kilo. [RMB ¥, GBP £6.80]
— Anonymous, 武漢日記 Wuhan Diary, 黑書眾《半年多報》Black Book Assembly More-Than-Half-A-Year-in-Review
We begin in February 2020 with the above extract—the fifth diary entry of someone in confinement in Wuhan. This entry foresaw what was to come globally: organising access to food through social media; bulk purchasing in supermarkets creating food scarcity and limited choice (indicative of “panic buying”); mutual aid groups forming with neighbours; price gouging; and fluctuations in livestock farming. Later a three-channel documentary video, with English subtitles, by Tsing Ying Film (Tsinghua University) shared Wuhan social media videos of: a terrace gardener with enough vegetables to last a month that include lettuce, pak choi native to Wuhan, and purple choi sum; a bee harvesting nectar from its yellow flower; sparse shelves in a supermarket; an electric food delivery bike fully loaded with vegetables; and free vegetable deliveries showing a truckload of daikon—“two for each person.”
In Yunnan the confinement travel restrictions made life impossible for migratory beekeeper Liu Decheng (刘德成). China is the largest honey producer in the world and every year over 300,000 beekeepers drive through the country with a truckload of bee colonies, chasing the seasons and blooming flowers, and pollinating crops in the process. On 13 February 2020, with around 100 bee colonies (some of which poisoned by pesticides), insufficient flower sources and no money and access to purchase bee feed, Liu Decheng committed suicide, leaving his family of six. His passing was announced on the Apicultural Science Association of China website. Two days later but too late, government officials announced the free mobility of essential workers such as those working with livestock, feed and bees.
Non, un paysan n’est pas un militaire.
J’ai un peu de mal avec ces propos guerriers.
Je comprends l’intention mais je préfère parler de «solidarité».
[No, a marginal farmer is not a soldier.
I am slightly troubled with these warlike words.
I understand the intention, but I prefer to talk about “solidarity”.]
— Nicolas Girod, Confédération paysanne (a small-scale farmers’ union)
In mid-March the World Health Organization called Europe the “epicentre of the pandemic.” In France I watched President Emmanuel Macron enforce the confinement and restrictive measures on 16 March 2020, when he likened the situation to war. “Nous sommes en guerre [we are at war]”, said six times in a single televised address. If this is war, what do we call the Herbicidal Warfare in Gaza (2014 and ongoing), the Forensic Architecture investigation that revealed the spraying of crop-killing chemicals and weaponisation of the wind by the Israeli military onto Palestine (colonised by the Israeli state since 1967)?
Macron’s military and machismo talk seemingly inspired the Department of Agriculture to initiate projects such as “la grande armée de l’agriculture française” (“The Great French Agriculture Army”) to find 200,000 citizens to work on farms, as pandemic border closures have restricted seasonal migrant workers from eastern Europe, who are reportedly underpaid and exploited. The next day the British government announced a similar “land army” plan, uncertain if 60,000 seasonal worker positions, of which 90% are usually European Union citizens, could be filled—owing to closed borders and exacerbated by Brexit indeterminacy. Due to contract lengths, remote farm locations and full-time hours making care work impossible, unprecedented measures were adopted as part of the “land army” plan. The anti-migrant “BREAKING POINT” Brexit poster from 2016 quickly became a distant memory when over six chartered flights were organised, flying farm workers in Romania to the UK. For those who voted Brexit, the pandemic is revealing of Britain’s real dependence on migrant labour, juxtaposed with the spectre surrounding the start of Brexit.
In the so-called United States, being a farm worker highlights an ongoing paradox for undocumented immigrants who continuously risk deportation, but due to the pandemic have been provided official letters to remain in the country indefinitely. Agricultural migrant workers show another strong case for “no borders, no nations”—but not under current underpaid and exploitative conditions, where they put their health at risk to feed those who work to restrict them and those who have the privilege to stay at home.
As the lockdown enters its second week, supply chains have broken, medicines and essential supplies are running low. Thousands of truck drivers are still marooned on the highways, with little food and water. Standing crops, ready to be harvested, are slowly rotting.
— Arundhati Roy, “The pandemic is a portal,” 3 April 2020
Over-production and displacement
After the sudden announcement of a confinement in India, videos of baton-wielding police officers dispersing street vendors in Ahmedabad circulated online. Overturned wooden carts and wasted fruits and vegetables on the road was the epitome of a broken pandemic food system. In Idaho a farmer posted a photo of a mound of potatoes onto social media, offering them for free and stating that the “potato supply chain has definitely been turned up side down.” An online article by journalist JK. Sidwaya details pandemic organising in Ouagadougou. Similar to those in France, the outdoor markets in Burkina Faso are also closed due to social distancing measures. In Ouagadougou vegetable sellers have set up makeshift alleyway stalls outside their homes that not only sell vegetables, rice, flour, oil, sugar, wood and charcoal, but also cooked foods such as doughnuts and fried yams, before all closing to observe the 7pm to 5am enforced countrywide curfew.
In the second week of April I joined a reading group organised by curator Jennifer Teets and artist Fernando García-Dory. The reading of Big Farms Make Big Flu by evolutionary biologist Rob Wallace and the book review seemed approachable, unlike the shockingly racist cover of designed and edited by Pablo Amadeo, entitled Sopa de Wuhan (Wuhan Soup), featuring a compilation of bat illustrations from a book by zoologist Ernst Haeckel—originator of the term the “First World War” and proponent of early scientific racism. The cover implicates the horseshoe bat (known for the “First Coronavirus”) and compiles 10 other arbitrary bat species alongside the book’s 15 academic contributors. Oh, “dear friend…”
Our reading group was timely in that Wallace’s book had become transnational in its reach—with mentions in Social Contagion: Microbiological Class War in China (China, in 10 languages) to Coronavirus: Agribusiness Would Risk Millions Of Deaths (Germany, in 15 languages), onto two leftist platforms in Hong Kong (in Chinese). And then, back again via our European-scattered group that connected with people in America and Columbia, and finally our collective notes back to Wallace. Sharing these Wallace texts during this pandemic raises the alarm again for the third (human-deadly coronavirus) time: “Factory practices [industrial livestock] provide what seems to be an amenable environment for the evolution of a variety of virulent influenzas, including pandemic strains.”5
I learnt that in 2008 the private equity investment firm Goldman Sachs purchased ten poultry farms in China for USD $300 million. Furthermore, neoliberal capitalist land reforms by the Chinese government have led to the privatisation of small farms, inserting them into industrial farming networks through “accumulation by dispossession.”6
Concluding the reading group I thought about precarious wetlands such as the recently evicted ZAD de la Dune in Brétignolles-Sur-Mer, the continued deforestation happening in Aarey in Mumbai for the new metro line, and the relationship between land struggles, precarious farmers and the ongoing anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong.
Do you have a villager plot cursed with the infamous “I’ve moved out” glitch?
Please let us know if this latest update has made any changes to the issue for you!
— Animal Crossing World, @ACWorldBlog tweet, 23 April 2020
It seems that the now politicised and banned-in-China Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing shows that art can cruelly imitate life and vice versa. A bug in the game left online friends visiting each others’ islands and homes to discover, “I’ve moved out —(friend’s name)” when walking up to their front door. During an ongoing four-year resistance, on 15 April 2020 the Hong Kong government posted a 15 July final eviction notice to Wang Chau villagers, who live within a greenbelt area of the New Territories. Speaking to the villagers and members of the Wang Chau Green Belt Concern Group today, my face on a selfie-stick at the dinner table, we discussed a village displacement that happened 10 years ago in the New Territories, two other land struggles in Hong Kong and what can be done during a violent oppression “under-cover-of-COVID-19.”
All of a sudden, so many people came to our fair for vegetables that our supply could not meet the demand.
— Becky Au, Coronavirus sparks boom for local farmers in import-dependent Hong Kong
Food sovereignty and the possibilities of Dual Power
Mapopo Community Farm (Mapopo) is located in Ma Shi Po Village in the New Territories. Prior to the pandemic and social distancing measures, Mapopo and friends could be seen on the streets demonstrating and distributing hot food, made from their organic produce, to protesters and journalists active in the anti-extradition bill movement.
As mentioned in the Wuhan Diary, vegetable prices are known to have increased during the pandemic. Owing to such cost increases, the fact that over 90% of vegetables in Hong Kong come from China, and food sovereignty issues that relate to government and/or developer land grabs, a local produce boom is now happening in Hong Kong. But perhaps it has come too late owing to a government-approved development plan conceived in 2007 that will devour swathes of Ma Shi Po Village. This July the Hong Kong government will acquire even more arable land from Ma Shi Po Village, as part of three New Territories village evictions scheduled for this summer—in chronological order: Kon Hang in Tai Po (30 June); Wang Chau Village (15 July); and Ma Shi Po Village/Kwu Tung (28 July).
“A dual power strategy is one which meets genuine need and involves a broad base of society in order to build up local autonomous institutions, democratic structures and an alternative economy.
— Katie H, From Mutual Aid to Dual Power: How Do We Build a New World in the Shell of the Old?
Although already extended once, social distancing measures in Hong Kong have once again been extended, this time until August 31. Learning from Mapopo’s mutual aid activities, recognising the ineffectual and outnumbered pro-democratic Legislative Council members, seeing the three individual village evictions as one, and focusing specifically on the ongoing demand of “double universal suffrage,” would this summer be the ripe time to implement a Dual Power strategy—one that resists the destruction of nature, biodiversity and habitats, and advocates an agriculture that rejects the ‘normal’ which creates the conditions for pandemics, patriarchy and hegemony to emerge?
Solidarity with all essential workers, marginalised farmers and dispossessed villagers of the world.
— Michael Leung, 30 April 2020, France
 This reminded me of lunchtimes in secondary school in the UK. In the cafeteria there were three cashiers, one of which was only for pupils who received free school meals, most of whom were people of colour. https://www.gov.uk/apply-free-school-meals.
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