Policy Making in a Globalized World: Is Economic Growth the Appropriate Driver?

October 31, 2017

This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change, launched to coincide with the Resilience 2017 Conference, Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017. In this series, experts discuss examples of policy reform and their potential to foster transformative change and social-ecological resilience for sustainability. The series contributes to a better understanding of the political processes underlying a range of policy approaches and reforms, and aims to inform global policy debates about the kinds of change processes that promote sustainability and resilience. It complements the UNRISD panel organized at the conference. 

This think piece traces transnational influences in national-level economic policies and their impacts on one municipality in Mesoamerica. Policy influences that emphasize economic growth, and propose “modernization” and market-based solutions led by the private sector, are found to undermine resilience at both household and community levels, and pose threats to the sustainable livelihoods generated by the activities and practices historically engaged in by the population. The policy implications are relevant across the region in question, and far beyond.

Under neoliberal capitalist globalization, not only are material environmental goods commodified, as they have been for centuries, but such disparate “goods” as pollution and genetic resources have also been financialized and are traded or extracted. In this story, economic growth will overcome inequality, insufficiency and exclusion while technological innovation will overcome scarcity and environmental degradation. The concept of “sustainable development” is used to suggest a balance between social, environmental and economic dimensions of development. But within the logic of twenty-first century capitalism, environmental and social goals continue to be subordinated to profitability and economic growth in much policy making.

This think piece traces how such transnational policy influences play out from national-level policy down to the local level, and appraises their effects and appropriateness, in one municipality in Mesoamerica1. The setting remains anonymous, but because practically all of its details exemplify conditions present throughout the region, the analysis and implications are more widely relevant.

Detailed analysis of government documents, from the national to the local level, shows that policies and action plans for the municipality consistently emphasize economic concerns, and centre on stimulating growth and market-based solutions initiated by private actors. The municipality in question is primarily rural and its population primarily indigenous. Its only city, the administrative seat, is dependent on tourism and has a population of approximately 11,000. Extensive (although diminishing) forest cover and a wetland recognized internationally for its importance are features of the territory.

What livelihood strategies currently exist in the rural domain?

While the municipality is now home to people who have migrated internationally as well as from within the country, it was originally founded by indigenous people around 415 CE. The indigenous people´s response to the Spanish invasion of the territory (1540s CE) was to move deeper into the forest. Later, a bloody conflict arose as the indigenous people tried, and partially succeeded for a time, to reclaim their ancestral lands. The region remained turbulent until the turn of the twentieth century, when indigenous leaders made an uneasy peace with national forces.

Today, the rural areas of the municipality are devoted to agriculture, with two very different approaches prevailing. The one pursued by indigenous farmers is essentially the Mesoamerican classical form (milpa), built on the triad of corn, beans and squash with other edible herbs and vegetables interspersed. This system is based on short-term use of productive plots, given that tropical soils quickly lose their fertility when cleared (Kleinman, Pimentel and Bryant, 1995). After use, plots are left untilled for an extended period to allow for regeneration. This type of agriculture is generally undertaken for family consumption, although some surplus may be available for sale or trade. A subset of these farmers also engages in beekeeping, which yields high-quality honey that generates cash income from sale to European markets.

The other model of agriculture prevalent in the territory is practiced by immigrants who arrived en masse about 15 years ago from a neighbouring country. They built new communities (the largest with a current population of about 1,000) and opened up extensive fields, deforesting plots of many hectares each. These farmers use mechanized tilling, agrochemicals and genetically modified seed. Their production is market-focused and the product is mainly sold outside of the municipality. A significant portion of the crops harvested are used as components of animal feed.

How does official policy accord with these livelihood options?

Analysis of the policies from the national to the regional, sectoral and state levels shows a recognition of the poverty prevalent in the municipality, especially in the rural areas. Prescriptions for ameliorating this condition are pro-growth and developmentalist, favouring changes in the use of the land and “technification”—or modernization through technological upgrading—of the most prevalent livelihood strategies currently existing in the region. An expansion of tourism options is proposed. The need to create larger, modernized agricultural production units is posited. Construction of holiday homes to provide employment options and bring more purchasing power to the area is projected. These are all based on the assumption that economic growth will both increase per capita incomes and solve distributional inequities. Additionally, while environmental concerns are mentioned, there is no evidence that these proposals take account of the interconnectedness of human and ecosystem functioning.

The second group of farmers described above fits the policy prescriptions as briefly described. In regard to their farming practices, they are “modern,” employing technologically enhanced materials and methods, with the potential to benefit from the efficiencies that may come from larger scale production. However, these practices are not suited to the ecological conditions in which they are operating and may be toxic to the milpa farmers and beekeepers.

Given the extent of deforestation over space and time, rainfall patterns have changed within living memory, increasing risk in the rain-fed agriculture practiced by most of the indigenous farmers. The planting of genetically modified corn by their neighbours places income generation through beekeeping at risk as well, as European buyers will not tolerate evidence of GMO pollen in the honey. The emphasis on crops that go into animal feed does not increase the food security of the municipality or meet the needs of the existing tourism complex.

Official policy favours moving the indigenous subsistence farmers into the wage economy, through the generation of jobs in tourism and waged labor on consolidated farms. Most jobs in tourism and agriculture in the area are episodic and poorly paid. Leaving issues of environmental and social justice aside, it seems the national policy approach will produce a sizable group of dependent rural dwellers who may be forced to migrate to the cities to look for work, likely further impoverishing their life conditions. This has happened in other regions of the state as mass tourism has extended its reach. Similar situations can be found across Mesoamerica.

Are these transformative policies that support sustainable livelihoods?

There are alternatives, however. Subsistence farming can be a viable and productive livelihood strategy with certain adaptations to current conditions. Diversification, rainfall capture and implementation of strategies to enhance soil fertility along the lines of agroecological principles are among the possibilities for increasing the resilience of milpa production schemes. Applying practices and technologies that respect the ecological characteristics of the region and the cultural preferences of residents may augment production and decrease the physical burdens of farmers. Popular education and teaching by example may induce positive changes to reduce the heavy use of agrochemicals that are significant contributors to pollution of water sources and the lagoon-estuarine system.

Such adaptations would go some way towards establishing greater social-ecological resilience in the municipality. But it is also possible to imagine more transformative policies, developed based on knowledge existing in the region. In this case, it would mean inverting the directionality of policy design from top down to bottom up, and including the indigenous/practical knowledge of all population groups resident in the municipality. Sustainable development policy making and implementation must respond to changing environmental conditions and promote human well-being within the social-ecological system. Surely emphasis on increasing well-being should prevail over creation of investment opportunities that bring negative externalities and few benefits to the municipality. Other worlds are possible, and responsive policy making would be a chance to shape those possibilities.

Kleinman, P.J., D. Pimentel, and R.B. Bryant (1995). “The ecological sustainability of slash-and-burn agriculture,” Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, Vol. 52, No. 2-3, pp. 235–249.

1 The Mesoamerican region encompasses parts of Central America and Mexico. It is not a geographic region, but one shaped by cultural and historical factors. This essay draws on information generated by an ongoing action-research project that has been under way for two years at the time of writing.

Andrea F. Schuman

Andrea F. Schuman is an interdisciplinary social scientist with a primary interest in social policy and public health and education. Current activities and research projects emphasize the creation and maintenance of sustainable lives and livelihoods for excluded sectors of the population. Under this broad umbrella, she studies transnational agriculture and trade policy, migration/immigration/return migration, intercultural communication in education and health settings, and the development of economic alternatives. Andrea Schuman is the Director of the Centro de Estudios Científicos y Sociales (Center for Scientific and Social Studies) in Mexico.

Tags: economic growth, indigenous knowledge, rebuilding resilient communities, rebuilding resilient food systems