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Erasure of settler colonial realities in critical agrarian studies

May 25, 2023
5 mins read
Image: Filipino activist painter Federico (“Boy”) Dominguez

There are tensions when it comes to writing academically about settler-colonial contexts, and such case studies are not often represented in mainstream academic journals. Only a small number of highly specialized journals exclusively discuss colonial/settler-colonial logic. This certainly applies to Critical Agrarian Studies (CAS), a growing interdisciplinary field that offers a critical analysis of historical and contemporary processes in agrarian and rural settings from a variety of angles. Much of the Marxist-leaning scholarship on agricultural development is often focused on how dispossession and capital accumulation are used as a strategy to resource extraction and labor exploitation. 

Most of the specialized agrarian studies journals have insufficiently discussed agricultural development in settler colonial contexts. Settler colonialism is a particular form of colonization, centered around the logic of replacing and erasing a native indigenous population with settlers. Agrarian studies journals have not addressed regions where indigenous people face marginalization and disempowerment primarily because of settler colonial logic. The near absence of studies in contexts such as Palestine, Kashmir, Tibet, Xinjiang, and many others, is striking, and that signals their erasure from academia.

Interestingly, in recent years, a few papers have been published on settler colonial contexts in Papua New Guinea, Tibet, Palestine, and Xinjiang. However, they mostly ignore the ways in which settler colonialism and capitalism interact to produce forms of domination and exploitation. In addition, most Western academic institutions refuse to engage in serious studies on agrarian change in settler colonial contexts or regions under military occupation.

As a result, too much focus on contexts where capital accumulation is playing an important role distorts the nature of agrarian change happening in other places. In addition, it often marginalizes and obscures the work of (indigenous) scholars who have been working on settler colonialism. There are other issues such as citational erasures as most of these journals cite and situate their work in debates that are part of that journal.   

Why is it so? 

I think there are a couple of reasons for that.

First, such absence can be in part explained by the settler-colonial state’s attempts to suppress and silence scholars that directly address oppression, thus reinforcing the settler‐colonial logic of erasure. For instance, scholars and activists working on Palestine are often subjected to harassment by pro-Israel advocacy groups. A recent report titled “Unveiling the Chilly Climate: The Suppression of Speech on Palestine in Canada” documents the impact of reprisals, harassment, and intimidation faced by faculty and students who criticize Israel’s policies toward Palestine. The report points out that submissions to mainstream journals and publishers were met with negative reviews and rejections. This creates a general fear among academic journals and they refuse to engage with studies critical of settler colonial states.

Furthermore, academic knowledge production relies significantly on donor funding, and settler colonial states can pressure academic institutions through their funding streams. Max Ajl (2020: 2) notes that “the agrarian specialist journals’ near-silence on the Arab region is tied to that region’s history, and the politics of knowledge production”. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that there are asymmetric power relations in academic knowledge production that lead to systematic exclusion. 

The second, and most important factor is the prevalence of reductionist class analysis in critical agrarian studies. Frantz Fanon, one of the most influential revolutionary thinkers of the oppressed third world, argued that class alone cannot explain the problems faced by oppressed nations.

According to Fanon, Marx’s discussion of primitive accumulation cannot fully explain development in oppressed nations, as colonialism played an important role in obstructing industrialization (primitive accumulation). Furthermore, there is no true bourgeois class that is conducive to the development of a large-scale proletariat. In his influential work The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon, therefore, stressed the need to amplify Marxist analysis so as to capture the racially inscribed dispossession and specific capitalist accumulation that occurred in colonized countries. In recent years a new strand of scholarship has emerged that engages with the questions of imperialism and war.

A recent study of the Arab agrarian question by Max Ajl argues that the scholarly literature on the framing of the agrarian question in the Arab region often neglects imperialism. In several contexts, such as the Arab region, omitting imperialism suppresses major determinants of rural development and underdevelopment. In the case of Yemen, Basha (2022) stresses the need to examine warfare (both economic war and invisible forms of war) so as to have a nuanced understanding of agricultural development. However, such analysis is currently lacking in most of the published articles in critical agrarian studies. Thus, academia itself is complicit and perpetuates the erasure of settler-colonial contexts and dynamics.

Agriculture under settler colonialism

Let’s now look at how agricultural development takes place in settler colonial contexts. A key strategy of settler states is to disallow independent indigenous development through the dispossession of their resources so as to sustain exclusive territorial control. In this process, the conditions for creating capital accumulation and extraction of surplus value are stalled, as resources and the means of production are demolished rather than expropriated. As Max Ajl writes, “The Arab region then and now, hammered by imperialism, disrupts narratives which argue that capitalism progressively develops the productive forces” (Ajl, 2020: 18). 

In Palestine and Kashmir, settler colonial expansion is primarily motivated by the desire to eliminate natives and control resources. Toufic Haddad has rightly argued that neoliberal development in Palestine is primarily centered around the Zionist political project of territorial expansion and pacification of the Palestinian population. Several scholars have brought to light (in specialized publications and journals) the key mechanisms through which resources are controlled. For example, Amira (2021) in his work on Palestine shows how the Israeli colonial settler state uses slow violence as a tactic to weaken and curtail agriculture in indigenous communities. He documents the Israeli state’s use of wild boars in Palestinian agricultural lands which has limited the mobility of farmers and destroyed agriculture.

Similarly, Tartir (2018) focuses on Israeli policies of targeting agricultural infrastructure and farming that lead to the distortion and deterioration of Palestinian agriculture. He shows how access and mobility restrictions through separation walls, checkpoints, militarisation of agricultural land, etc are used to devastate Palestinian agriculture. In Yemen, naval blockade and damage of trade infrastructure serve as the main warfare mechanism that has substantially disrupted the supply chains of imported staple food. In the case of Kashmir, economic blockade through the closure of highways is often resorted to by the Indian state so as to curtail food supply and marketing of exported goods. These examples clearly illustrate that warfare tactics as well as the racialized lens that Fanon talks about are crucial and require attention.   

What needs to be done?

First of all, mainstream journals need to become more aware and actively engage in research on settler-colonial contexts. This is intrinsic to inclusivity in academia. At the same time, there is a need for the establishment of specialized agrarian studies journals that focus on the study of agricultural development in settler colonial contexts. To address the influence of settler colonial states on academic funding, it is extremely important for journals to raise independent funding to promote free and critical research. 

Second, it is also fundamental to document the role of indigenous resistance movements against settler colonial exploitation and subjugation. It will require knowledge of decolonization and building solidarity between indigenous communities and activists.

It’s time to address it.

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Babur Hussain

Babur Hussain is a researcher from Indian Administered Kashmir with a PhD in Development Studies. He works in the areas of political economy of development, economic transformation of ethnic minority economies, and development policy.

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