chris.hamby + agriculture   9

Global Food Networks: Countries Buying Countries
[Greenhouses being erected in Jittu, Ethiopia. Simon Norfolk for The New York Times.]

Two weeks ago, in an article entitled ‘Is There Such a Thing as Agro-Imperialism‘, the New York Times reported that financially wealthy but resource-poor nations in the Middle East and Asia are attempting to ensure food security by buying up large tracks of arable land in Africa, “seeking to outsource their food production to places where fields are cheap and abundant.”
The rising food prices last year left many wealthy nations feeling vulnerably aware of their food insecurity. Some fluctuations, such as the spike in food prices, may be transitory, but others, such as global population growth and water scarcity, show not signs of abaiting, and have created a global market for farmland.

The article points out that “because much of the world’s arable land is already in use — almost 90 percent by some accounts – if one excludes forests and fragile ecosystems — the search has led to the countries least touched by development, in Africa, which contains one of the earth’s last large reserves of underused land.” Research by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Institute for Environment and Development and advocacy groups such as Grain, suggests that huge tracts of Africa’s agricultural lands are being sold, off the radar.

[Satellite measurements of vegetation. Map by Robert Simmon, based on GIMMS vegetation data and World Wildlife Fund ecoregions data.]

There is, of course, an irony that a continent which is persistently beset by large-scale famine is seeing its land sold off, in order to sustain wealthy neighboring nations.

Foreign investors — some governments, some private interests — are promising to construct infrastructure, bring new technologies, create jobs and boost the productivity of underused land so that it not only feeds overseas markets but also more Africans. It remains to be seen, however, whether local farmers and African citizens will reap any of the benefit of this agro-imperialism.

Other nations, including China, India, South Korea and the UAE are also joining the global land-buy.

[Land buyers and sellers, via]

Great interactive map of global land transactions found here.
The first green revolution, which began in 1945, enabled developing nations to achieve food independence. Mexico was the first ‘test site’ of this green revolution, through programs largely funded by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, and India was the second poster child of the green revolution. There have been numerous attempts to introduce the versions of the Mexican and Indian project into Africa, but these programs have generally been less successful, due in small part to environmental factors, and in large part to political and economic instability.

This second version of an African green revolution seems far more ominous, leaving poorer nations to sell off the rights to their own survival.

Pruned posted a while back describing how European nations were considering spending upward of “£5bn on a string of giant solar power stations along the Mediterranean desert shores of northern Africa and the Middle East, with the hopes that Africa could provide part of their energy needs, basically turning the continent into one giant solar power plant.”

In an optimistic scenario, Africa nations will see lush fields of food supported by a robust infrastructure of water and electricity delivery – an African ‘Broadacre City’. However, if the resource imperialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries is anything to judge by, the outlook for Africa isn’t rosy, both in terms of environmental impact and the possibility of wealth trickling down to local farmers.

Nations as global supermarket?
Networks  agriculture  from google
december 2009 by Chris.Hamby
Inverted Infrastructural Monuments, pt.1
[Chand Baori Stepwell in Abhaneri, Rajasthan, India via Creative Commons]

As the looming threat of global warming persists, one of the most prominent effects has been the erratic nature of weather patterns with pronounced emphasis on weather extremes. Some areas of the world are accustomed to such polarity. In Western India, for instance, three months of a healthy monsoon is followed by nine continuous months of arid weather. The polarization of weather promotes renewed interest in ancient infrastructures that could mitigate these extremes through sustainable means. In the case of the dry weather in Western India, this was done with Stepwells.

[Panna Mia Stepwell, Plan + Section]

Dated to 600 AD, stepwells are essentially inverted ziggurats excavated from the earth, producing an infrastructural monument to water collection.  Like most great inventions, the concept driving a stepwell is surprisingly simple and composed of two parts – a well and access route.  The large well is used to collect monsoon rain, which then percolates through layers of fine silt (to screen particulates), eventually reaching a layer of impermeable clay.  Eroded rock from the Western Himalaya, further refined through several centuries of farming has produced a fine alluvium soil for the wells, which acts as an ideal filter. With larger sediment gathering at the top, the stepwell operates like an underground aquifer.

[Alternate Stepwell Section, Adalaj Wav Stepwell via Vatsu Shilpa Foundation]

The second component of the stepwell, are the steps or access passages to collect the water.  Unlike traditional wells, stepwells allow one to enter, manage and maintain the well, creating a spatial occupation of the infrastructure.  Some stepwells contain continuous transport infrastructure, such as ramps, to allow cattle to reach and transport water.  More elaborated stepwells host galleries and chambers surrounding the passageways that were ornamentally sculpted.  It is no surprise that these wells that allowed communities to sustain their crops during the arid months, eventually became religious temples dedicated to water.  The functional characteristics of stepwells, soon made them a metaphor for the Ganges – the largest and most divine river in India.

[Temple stepped tank of the Vijayanagara Empire via Creative Commons]

What is intriguing about stepwells is that they were both an infrastructure to collect water as well a space of gathering and leisure.  As a subterranean landscape, the base of the inverted pyramids provided a cool microclimate to escape the hot conditions at grade. As such, these became central public spaces of gathering and architectural significance.  The collection of water also attracted large ecosystems of bees, fish, lizards, parrots, pigeons, and turtles amongst other species.  Each monsoon would reinvigorate these stepwells and promote new life.  As a functional, religious and social infrastructure, these became the central spaces for many communities to gather, bathe and converse.

[Step structure accounts for varying water levels, Chand Baori Stepwell]

The British Raj phased out the use of stepwells during the 19th century due to concerns over water borne parasites.  Beyond the architectural beauty of stepwells, was an infrastructural intelligence, which is of importance today.  These wells acted as water filters as well as mega storage and irrigation tanks in a completely sustainable manner.  As weather patterns continue to polarize, these local infrastructures could provide clues on how to handle and store water for irrigation.  For further reading, Morna Livingston has a great book on Stepwells, which I highly recommend.

[Deepest Stepwell in India, at Chand Baori, 11th Century AD]
agriculture  water  india  stepwells  water_irrigation  water_storage  from google
july 2009 by Chris.Hamby

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