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Tropentag, September 20 - 22, 2017 in Bonn

"Future Agriculture: Social-ecological transitions and bio-cultural shifts"

Future Agriculture: Development Visions and Socio-Ecological Transformations in Africa

Liz Watson

University of Cambridge, Studies in Geography, United Kingdom


African rural environments are currently characterised as places of crisis and opportunity. The dryland regions of East Africa, for example, are portrayed as areas that are particularly vulnerable to the contemporary ‘grand challenges' of population growth, climate change, food insecurity and political instability. At the same time, they are also seen as new lands of opportunity: as poorly developed areas with unexploited resources, investment there is thought to be able to reap good returns, and to potentially drive the growth of ‘rising' national economies. This context, together with other factors, has led to a flurry of new development visions, plans, policies and initiatives. Together, these activities can usefully be described as forms of ‘future-making' (Appadurai 2013), that employ particular kinds of ‘socio-technical imaginaries' (Jasanoff and Kim 2015). Historically, researchers have not paid much attention to these imaginaries, but they play a huge role in social, environmental and political outcomes. Appadurai (2013) distinguishes between two kinds of future-making: the aspirational, that is more ‘open', and connected to ‘informed, creative and critical citizenship'; and the ‘anticipatory', a more reductive, probability-based approach. Empirical research suggests that in dryland East Africa at least, the perceived moment of crisis and opportunity has brought with it more anticipatory forms of future-making that embrace urgent and large-scale solutions and the involvement of supposedly more effective international management consultancy companies. They have tended to employ ‘socio-technical imaginaries' that occlude local visions of the future and cast existing agricultural practices as non-existent, inadequate or environmentally degrading. If successful, these anticipatory forms of decision-making will result in a biocultural shift – from relations to nature that are socially embedded, socially managed and locally negotiated, to ones that are increasingly commoditized and enclosed. The process is complex: the future is not a choice between experts vs citizens, modern vs customary/traditional, local vs global, private ownership vs the commons, or subsistence vs markets. What is clear is that rural development and natural resource management is at the centre of this dynamic future-making process, and that it is possible for that future-making to be more aspirational, based on socio-technical imaginaries that are more empirically grounded, created and owned by all.

Keywords: Agricultural transformation

Contact Address: Liz Watson, University of Cambridge, Studies in Geography, Cambridge, United Kingdom, e-mail: eew1000@cam.ac.uk

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