As the discussion on farm size continues to grow from Stephen Carr's blog post: "African Agriculture: Does farm size really matter?", Carr responds to comments that have been aggregated in this post: "We asked, you answered: Does farm size really matter in Africa?". Formerly of the World Bank, Carr has spent 60 years working with small scale farmers in a range of African countries, both at the village level and in senior positions with African governments and internationally.
I find the snippets from pro large-farm comments lack an apparent awareness of the real issues. Commentors in favor of large-farms believe that urban migration will make more land available for large-scale food production, provide improved farming opportunities for farmers who remain in the field, and greater employment opportunities for those who move to the cities. But, if you get people off of the land and into the cities, you cannot assume that the remainder will have adequate land and that it will be farmed properly.
Let us look at one of Africa’s larger populations in Ethiopia, with a total population of around 80 million—13 million in cities and 67 million in rural areas. If you follow the pattern of clearing the Scottish Highlands to make way for large farms (where the army was sent to burn down the homes of hundreds of thousands of people and drive them into urban destitution), the remaining rural population in Ethiopia would move from 1 ha. to 2 ha. But the population will double to 160 million over the next 30 years, so unless the urban population can be forced above 83 million (over 6 times the present level), then the rural population will be back to 67 million and farm size will be back to 1 ha.
It is patently obvious that in this century, forcible land clearing on this scale is out of the question and that proposals for mass movements into cities, which offer few employment opportunities, are just not going to take place.
In Malawi, with smaller farms than Ethiopia and less urban development, the level of expulsions from the land in order to achieve 2 ha farms over the next 30 years are unthinkable.
Nigeria also has one of the larger populations in Africa and is most unusual in having 50% of its population already in urban areas because of its oil wealth. Even so, the rural population has grown from 46 million in 1973 to an estimated 75 million today.
One just has to look at India with its massive urbanization and industrial development to gain some perspective of the scale of the problem. In 1973, the rural population of India was around 475 million. Following 40 years of urban development, the rural population grew to 840 million with a consequent contraction in farm size. With a population currently growing at more than 10 million a year, it will take many more years of urbanization to get it back to where it was 40 years ago and to the farm sizes which existed then.
In densely populated countries, urban development in most of Africa is not going to lead to any significant increase in per capita land availability because of the ongoing rapidity of overall population growth. Forceful evictions like the 18th century British model on a scale which would make a real difference are unthinkable in today’s world. Stalin might have killed 23 million peasants to gain access to their land for state farms in the 1930’s but hopefully the infinitely larger purges, which would be required in Africa and Asia, would be met with much greater resistance today.
There are of course countries in Africa where large-scale farming could be practiced with no need for sweeping people off the land. Zambia, Mozambique, Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) all have land to spare and the move from small to large does not require any displacement of people. The constraints are political (CAR and DRC) and technical and financial in the case of the others.
This is obviously a rich discussion. Demography and rural-urban migration are key issues that are often not taken into account when we discuss farm-level issues. The effects of changing conditions on farm size, both in population and climate, also remain to be seen. This is an area that the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems hopes to continue understanding.
Editorial note: A typo has been corrected: the urban population of Ethiopia is 13 million, not 30 million.