Like ants scurrying for work, for food, and most of all for land.
~ John Steinbeck, “The Grapes of Wrath”
Received wisdom relies on simple categories to survive and persist. In this sense, certain numbers are repeated until they are virtually canonical. If we could come up with a taxonomy of success for statistics, we might consider the convenience of numbers that freeze flows of population, money or goods into easily retained averages, devoid of the nuances of space or time. I may, for example, agree with the statement that “500 people arrive in Mumbai every day” if whoever responsible for this statement could point me to the set from which this average was derived – was this from 2000 to 2008? Or maybe it was from 1997 to 2011? Let’s consider other aspects that the datum is implying: Are these people migrants who are truly moving to the city, or are they on a long, seasonal loop that takes them back to their villages, or, even more inconveniently, other cities? And could someone please tell me where the city of Mumbai begins (or ends)? Inconvenient truths are both temporal and geographical, but when we are attempting to impress our audience we tend not to speak in graphs but in talking points. This is the peril of a successful statistic.
By the same token, “255 people born every minute” is a nice, smooth number, and not difficult to remember for those uncomfortable moments when the cocktail party conversation needs a nudge. The lazy acceptance of such a statement demonstrates our contentedness with the notion that this is something that is happening consistently, not unlike the comfort we get from looking at a flowing stream: every time we go back to the stream, there it is, still flowing. In a Heraclitean sense, if I dip my toe into that stream of newborns today, they will certainly be different than yesterday’s stream, but it will still be 255. This is comforting. Until, of course, it becomes 256, or 325. But we will have to wait to be told that, too.
Was the seven-billionth person born in Manila on October 31st, 2011? Absolutely – if you are the parents of Danica May Camacho. Declared so by the United Nations, the organization did her the further favour of swooping down on her delivery room, scholarships in hand for the lucky newborn, like an international development version of Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes. (Danica’s parents may want to take heed of the experience of Adnan Nević, the title-holder of Six-Billionth Person of this particular celebrity circuit, whose cradling by Kofi Annan at his birth hasn’t exactly led to a silver spoon in his mouth). But for those paying attention to the vagaries of demographic estimation,
Even the best individual government censuses have a margin of error of at least 1 percent, said [Gerhard Heilig, chief of the population estimates and projections section of the United Nations Population Division], which would translate in the global aggregation to “a window of uncertainty of six months before or six months after Oct. 31.” An error margin of even as little as 2 percent would mean that Monday’s estimate of seven billion actually was 56 million off (which is more people than were counted in South Africa).
By the same token, I am wholly prepared to believe the notion that, “as of 2008, 50% of the global population lives in cities,” if the United Nations could only define for me what constitutes a city (or was that fateful moment set to happen in 2005, as reported in 2005?). Is the city defined as its urban core, or does it involve the surrounding metropolitan area? Richard Saul Wurman famously defined Tokyo in (at least) six different ways, including boundaries determined by postal delivery, utility service, administrative districts, or population density, among other measures that, our intuition tells us, ought to line up together somehow, but instead lead to radically different geographic delineations. At least we can agree that Tokyo is a proper city – a mega-city, even. Ought we then define a “city” by the density of its population? In that case, Tokyo ranks only 50th, and Mumbai reigns supreme – at least by some measures. But at what point does a city stop being a city?
As it happens, the UN does not have a definition for a city, which is probably just as well. However, it does define “urban area” according to a dizzying array of country-specific factors. If you live in Panama, you are an urban dweller if you live among “1,500 or more inhabitants with such urban characteristics as streets, water supply systems, sewerage systems and electric light”. In Albania, “towns and other industrial centres of more than 400 inhabitants” will help you make the cut. And if you are Cambodian, the only requirement is “towns”, the definition thereof being unspecified, but likely left to the Cambodian authorities to determine as they see fit. Once you realize that this is the methodology involved in generating the above assertion, it’s much easier to just stick with the idea that half of us live in cities, and that more of us are moving to cities every year, simply because there are more of us in general, generally speaking.
Obviously, there’s a fine line between being entertaining and sounding knowledgeable versus being pedantic and boring, so this is perhaps a good moment to apologize to any readers who see me tending towards the latter. (My goal, in fact and hopefully, is to be both pedantic and entertaining.) But one could also say that there is a fine line between being right and being wrong. When facile truth-claims such as the above are actually subjected to observation, our linguistic wave function, metaphorically speaking, collapses.
Why this matters lies in the follow-up to the statement that we now live mostly in urban areas: “It is expected that 70 percent of the world population will be urban by 2050”. Aside from providing urban planners and designers with the rhetorical dry powder required for maintaining a high level of employment into the foreseeable future, this number moves us from the domain of stating a simple factoid – no matter how problematic – to making a claim about the future, which is rather more contentious, since claims about the future are invitations to policy.
On one level, this claim is of great utility to corporations like IBM, who are making enormous bets on successfully manufacturing the need for cities to create vast, IT-driven command-and-control structures that will allow city administrators to ostensibly manage the infrastructures of cities, or at least of those cities that are willing to pay for the hardware and algorithms needed to run such meta-infrastructures. On another level, this claim is also of convenience to politicians to instate certain kinds of change they would like to see: Arundhati Roy asserts that “the home minister of India has said that he wants 70% of the Indian population in the cities, which means moving something like 500 million people off their land.”
Conflating trend with policy has its obvious dangers: What if the trend is wrong, or weaker than anticipated? Are we really to believe that any one individual, city or state is capable of planning that far in advance? Rather, this conflation indicates another assumption in our facile acceptance of the first claim – that people are moving to cities because they want to.
This imputed desire is a fairly unexamined bit of boilerplate, endlessly repeated in the media. A common example may read: “In Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, hundreds of millions of people are rapidly moving from rural areas, where they practiced peasant agriculture, to cities”. You get the distinct feeling that the “peasantry,” thunderstruck by some ambiguous revelation, have collectively laid down their hoes and, gazing towards a distant, shining metropolis, hopped on the nearest mule and set off, whistling like some freshly minted college graduate bound for Manhattan: “If I can make it there…”
In the meantime, Roy continues:
“That [migration] cannot be done without India turning into a military state. But in the forests of central India and in many, many rural areas, a huge battle is being waged. Millions of people are being driven off their lands by mining companies, by dams, by infrastructure companies… These are not people who have been co-opted into consumer culture, into the western notions of civilisation and progress. They are fighting for their lands and their livelihoods, refusing to be looted so that someone somewhere far away may “progress” at their cost.”
Regrettably, Roy is not being the least bit dramatic here. The roots of this particular phenomenon go back to 2007-2008, where a spike in the price of many staples precipitated food riots in 22 countries (unsurprisingly, like most civil unrest, many of these riots occurred in cities). Following these events, governments understood that securing food supplies was going to be essential for stability and security, if not democracy. Hence the catalysis of what was an already emerging trend: the long-term leasing of agricultural lands from willing governments with alleged excesses of such land. Both governments and private entities ranging from South Korea to Kuwait have since engaged in massive transactions that seek to secure food production for their populations.
To give a sense of the scale at which this is unfolding, the Economist estimated that, by May of 2011, 80 million hectares had been transacted, “more than the area of farmland of Britain, France, Germany and Italy combined”. Over half, or 50 million hectares, were in sub-Saharan Africa. In many cases, the leases approach 10% or 15% of the available land in a given country, and at prices generally impossible to beat: “In sub-Saharan Africa land is being leased for up to 100 years at average prices of USD $800 to USD $1,000 per hectare yearly; six times cheaper than in Brazil or Poland, and over twenty times cheaper than Germany.” (The Land Security Agenda, p10).
As Roy implies above, these arrangements have not been received kindly by the people who suddenly find themselves disenfranchised. In Madagascar, a 2009 deal put together by the government and South Korea’s Daewoo Heavy Logistics would have put fully a third of the country’s available land under Daewoo’s control for, literally, generations. This led to the swift fall of Madagascar’s government, and the cancellation of that and several other large land deals. But Madagascar has been the exception. Most governments in sub-Saharan Africa have relied on authoritarian measures to clear the land of people who may have no official title to the land, since “only 2-10% of land across Africa is held under formal land tenure, which is normally just in urban settings”. The fact that those smallholders have been farming and grazing their livestock on that land for centuries before the current crop of nation-states even existed obviously holds little water. In fact, Ethiopia’s government, not known for its light touch to begin with, has earned the baleful gaze of human rights groups for its project of “villagization”, which is really just a thin veneer for forced relocation that is already causing its share of misery and rising violence. Can an insurrectionary guerilla movement be far behind?
When land deals were first proposed, they were said to offer the host countries four main benefits: more jobs, new technology, better infrastructure and extra tax revenues. None of these promises has been fulfilled.
Locals usually regard jobs as the most important of these. But so far they have been scarce, and only partly because many projects are not yet up and running. In Mozambique, the World Bank found, one project had promised 2,650 jobs and created a mere 35-40 full-time positions. A survey by Thea Hilhorst of 99 smaller projects in Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger reported “hardly any” rural job creation…And when there are jobs, foreign investors often bring in outsiders to staff them, leading to “conflict or accusations of cheating”, according to the World Bank…At the moment, land-grabbing foreigners seem to be creating islands for themselves, cut off from the poverty-stricken countryside.
Not only that: in a supreme irony that perhaps best sums up the entire situation, The Economist also noted that Saudi Arabia spent almost as much money on agricultural investments in Ethiopia – to grow food for its own consumption – as the UN World Food Program was spending on food aid in Ethiopia.
Thus food insecurity seems to be perpetuating itself on a global level. Supply chains are being stretched even more thinly, as nations grasp for guarantees that food shortages will not threaten the stability of their home governments. Nations and private actors are ever more entangled in transnational contracts, while local populations are displaced and incited to rage and rebellion. In the meantime, all of this unfolds under the unwarranted assumption that cheap energy will continue to be available to grow (in the form of fertilizer) and move (in the form of transportation networks) those crops to their intended destinations.
It is justifiable to consider this state of affairs as late-stage capitalism being take to its logical conclusion. Cities – wherever they might be – need to be fed. If the costs can be made to work, then it does not matter where the food comes from. In this sense, it is a small step from strawberries in January to African land grabs. In another sense, however, we may also look at it as a consequence of the way the West has developed its perception of the function of the built environment. In a paper on urban agriculture in Africa, Kenneth Lynch cites Luc Mougeot:
Mougeot (1994) argues that the definition of ‘city’ as non-agricultural is a Victorian invention. He cites archaeological and historical records that clearly show that agriculture was an integral part of the urban scene until the late 19th century. During the Victorian period, laws were introduced in many European cities to exclude agricultural activities, mainly on the grounds of concern about public health. This approach to city management was subsequently transferred to the administration and planning of colonial cities.
Urban agriculture may be making a cosmetic comeback in the West, with scrappy farmers tilling the soils of Detroit, and hipsters raising heritage chicken breeds in Williamsburg. But given the scale of imbalances we see occurring globally, it will be a long time before this legacy is undone. Westerners would do worse to look south, and see how these problems are being solved in an elegant fashion that seeks the re-integration of the urban and rural fabrics. For example, Bogotá recognized that nearly 67% of its food comes from small farmers located around the city, and yet farmers’ incomes were failing. Working with Oxfam, significant efforts were made to open up key locations in the city for regular farmers’ markets. As a result,
…as of December 2009, the Mercados Campesinos project had benefited more than 2,000 producers with less than 5 hectares of land each. Their total sales over three years have been worth more than $3m. These sales have represented a real benefit for small producers: monitoring…has shown that the average net increase in prices for farmers is 64 per cent.
As a result of the markets’ success, the participation of the small producers’ association was encoded into the official Bogotá Food Policy, and the association has gone into discussions for distribution of its produce with Corabastos, the company with “the greatest power in the country to set food prices and…a key actor in preventing small producers from achieving greater power in markets. However, in a groundbreaking tactical alliance, [Oxfam] encouraged the company to use its influence with local politicians, pointing out that it risked losing out itself if the Mayor’s Office excluded it from the food supply plan. This was the first time that small producer organizations had formed a tactical alliance with this company.”
Perhaps what we should be measuring is the resilience with which a single geographic entity – the city and its surrounding rural environs – can respond to the needs of its own people. Then we might say, with a modicum of pride, that 500 people arrive in Mumbai every day, and they are all fed.