Sunday, March 15, 2009

Labor Scarcity

Generally, poor rural agriculturalists divide their time between on-farm and off-farm activities to stabilize an income, whereas larger landholders get most of their income from the land they work. This chapter begins with a question of whether development programs (mostly concerned around less fertile land) should put effort toward off-farm industrial wages or on-farm capacity investments. The answer entailed a bigger-picture description of labor scarcity.

W.A. Lewis (I took him for an elite economist of capitalism) reasoned that small farms would have plenty of extra labor and still be able to function properly, because that’s what it looks like when people migrate (from temporarily to permanently) off the farm in search of income “from the free choice of the individual.” This gave rise to labor-intensive development which hurt more than helped.

Jane L. Collins argues land scarcity and labor scarcity are closely related. Labor requirements seem to outweigh available labor, and less labor means less productivity and more land degradation, as seen with the Aymara-speaking farmers of Peru. Their main cultivatable land is in the labor-intensive highlands where they manage the land carefully and can at least grow enough to sustain themselves. Supplementary coffee fields below bear the brunt of strained labor supply. Collins seems to want them to permanently move there to manage the soil better, and give up the highlands and their food supply (I think I might have missed something). However, her bigger problem is with the government in their commercialization of coffee and their indirect control over the whole process (maybe that’s what I missed).

The Jamaican soil preservation terraces didn’t work (partially) because the “philosophy was that if productivity could be improved, and soil loss decreased, farm labor could be more fully utilized and young people would be attracted back into agriculture.” The main times for maintenance and agriculture conflicted, landlords could have decided to take the land away from the farmers, prices fluctuated, and there was no market outlet. They knew labor was going to be a problem.

The Peruvian soil preservation terrace project worked with the people more, and seems to have been successful, but this article doesn’t exactly say. This time current labor availability was considered. Initial terrace construction was intense, but maintenance was less. The terraces needed more labor to farm on, but yields were higher (is there a typo that said fertilized land was 43% and unfertilized was 142%?). All in all, the terraces sold themselves.

So, whether off-farm wages or on-farm productivity should get more attention is relative to the place. Too assess this, go local and ask rural families their considerations for “gains and risks over the short and long term” (Peru) rather than “engaging in elaborate promotional campaigns” (Jamaica).


  1. I appreciated that this article discussed how capitalism has become necessary to survive, even for farmers who can grow their own food. Farmers need other sources of income, which means they spend less time on the farm. The less work done on the land, the more that will be needed in the future. This leads to labor scarcity, because there will be more work than workers. This in turn results in ecological degradation. It’s just an ongoing cycle of problems, and the problems fuel each other. It seems like capitalism generally causes environmental harm.

  2. As I was reading this article, I looked for the three components emphasized in lectures pertaining to similar issues. Those components being Nature, Labor and Culture.

    I believe this article did a good job explaining the interconnected nature of these three components and how greatly disturbed this relationship has become as the areas in question approach industrialization.

    That being considered, I think Collins made it quite clear that these problems are inevitable. At our point in time, this type of interaction will continue to exist at each point of contact between the haves and the have-nots. Preventability is out of the question. What is important is that we "must become more sensitive to the problems of this type." We have to analyze the data holistically and ultimately act locally, addressing land and labor jointly as they are inextricable.