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Session Overview
Session
7-HP126: New Digital Technologies, Sustainable (Rural) Development and Social Justice
Time:
Thursday, 08/July/2021:
11:00am - 12:15pm

Session Chair: Dr. Oane Visser, ISS, Netherlands, The
Session Chair: Dr. Karin Astrid Siegmann, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam (ISS), Netherlands, The
Session Chair: Dr. Sarah Ruth Sippel, Leipzig University, Germany

Session Abstract

Digitalization increasingly affects sustainable global development. Farming apps, GPS-controlled fishing, and forest-monitoring drones are examples of how the ‘digital’ extends into the realm of natural resources. Governments and development actors have embraced these technologies as solutions to global resource scarcity and environmental problems. Yet, digitalization is likely to fundamentally re-shape labour and property related to natural resources, raising concerns about social justice. This panel investigates the implications for those depending on natural resources for their livelihoods (e.g. farmers, fishermen). It aims to provide an interesting (non-urban) angle to debates on automation, algorithmic governance, labour and commodification of data and nature.


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Presentations

When You Are Gone. Smartphones, Stewardship and Sustainability in a Community-Based Conservation Project in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan

Katarzyna Cieslik1, Art Dewulf2, Marc Foggin3

1Unviersity fo Cambridge, United Kingdom; 2Wageningen University, Netherlands; 3University of Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan

In recent years, the top-down, prescriptive approach to natural conservation has given way to community-based ecosystem stewardship. Concurrently, the imperative of sustainability has become an explicit policy within the development sector: donors choose projects that assume a high level of community participation which is expected to enhance the prospects of sustaining the impacts in the long-term. In this paper, we argue that the link between stewardship, sustainability and what is considered as a project’s ‘success’ lacks proper scrutiny in development literature.

We use a case-study of a stewardship - based conservation project in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan to critically assess the imperative of project sustainability in development theory and practice and reveal its many limitations and internal contradictions. The aim of the project was to innovate participatory environmental monitoring and to generate evidence to support sustainable livelihoods. Technology transfer (smartphones, weather stations and camera traps) was an integral component of the project.

Upon the project’s closing date, we compare the viewpoints of the project’s key stakeholders regarding the future of the project and planned use of the donated equipment. Our results show that while the project activities are likely to continue to some degree, local stakeholders adapt them to their needs in ways that do not always match the project’s stated objectives. Our findings point to three independent dimensions of project sustainability: continuation of delivery of project's goods and services, durability of the achieved changes and the feasibility of independent growth.

We conclude that the sustainability imperative carries the false promise of a conflict-free consensus whereas, in fact, the project reality often shifts and the vital interests do conflict. We propose a more nuanced approach to sustainability assessment and a non-binary evaluation of projects’ success.



Emerging Datafication of Smallholder Agriculture in Ghana and Its Implications for Food Security, Social Justice and Sustainability

Fabio Gatti1, Nicholas Atanga2, Oane Visser2

1Wageningen University & Research, The Netherlands; 2ISS, Netherlands, The

Digital innovation in agricultural settings is a topic of rising importance for social sciences, development studies and agrarian studies due to the rapid increase of capital investments in digital agriculture (FAO 2019), and the far-reaching implications they could have through reshaping farming and rural areas. In the discourse of donors and policy makers, digitalization of agriculture is depicted as having the potential to empower small-scale farmers by allowing them to reduce agricultural inputs while at the same time increasing crop yield, reducing harvest uncertainties, and enhancing their access to markets and credit (World Bank 2017, FAO 2019). On a global scale, digital technologies are seen as constituting a potentially important means to decrease the environmental impact of agriculture and to achieve Sustainable Development Goals regarding food security (combatting hunger) and poverty. According to the proponents, digital trends like the acceleration of computing power, the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT), the rise of 5G connectivity, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) when applied to agriculture hold the promise of a ‘triple-win’ addressing the problems of global food security, climate change and (rural) poverty simultaneously.

Rather than highlighting poverty reduction, and empowerment through ‘sharing economies’ and digital inclusion, a recent but growing body of critical social science studies – mainly focussed on urban industrial or retail settings – has scrutinized datafication as ‘a new frontier of accumulation’ (Sadowski 2019). This literature puts the spotlight on value extraction that benefits big tech companies, yet inserts other actors in highly uneven, dependent or exploitative arrangements (e.g. Srnicek 2016). To date, however, hardly any social science research has examined how digitalisation is penetrating the rural world, in particular with regards to the Global South (and exception is Stone 2011 on India) where most rural dwellers life.

Over the past few years, a wide range of actors (ranging from international development agencies and donors, Big Tech companies, agribusiness multinationals and domestic start-ups) has started to target African smallholders with the help of digital means, within an international development agenda centred around notions like ‘climate smart agriculture for Africa’ (Newell & Taylor 2018) and ‘the (new) green revolution for Africa’. Ghana (together with Kenya, Nigeria) is one of the major African hubs (AGRF 2019, Tsan et al 2019) in this recent trend of promoting digital agriculture on the continent.

This paper tries to address the research gap regarding the dearth of social science studies on digitalisation of agriculture in the Global South, with an approach that combines Science and technology studies (STS) and political economy studies of big data with critical agrarian studies. Focusing on the case of Ghana, the aim is to understand to what extent -and how- digital innovation contributes to a “datafication of agriculture”, namely to the transformation of data collected by farmers via digital devices into a profitable asset for big corporations and data analytics companies. The risk is that “while farmers still own the fields, they are effectively renting [or completely loosing ownership over] their data […] Farmers and farm workers continue to carry the material risks and bear the livelihood impacts of agriculture while the capital gains of digitalisation are, largely, extracted by data management companies […] (Rotz et al. 2019).

Based on qualitative research involving web and document analysis and in-depth interviewsthe paper explores possible implications of power imbalances among the agri-food actors for small-scale farmers (and farm workers workers ) and aims at critically questioning the narrative around digitalization of agriculture as a triple win strategy for strengthening food security reducing rural poverty, achieving global environmental sustainability.



Imprecision Agriculture? Examining the (in)accuracies and risks of digital agriculture

Oane Visser1, Sarah Sippel2, Louis Thiemann1

1ISS, Netherlands, The; 2University of Leipzig, German

The myriad potential benefits of digital farming hinge on the promise of increased accuracy, which allows ‘doing more with less’ through precise, data-driven operations. Yet, precision farming’s foundational claim of increased accuracy has hardly been the subject of comprehensive examination. Drawing on social science studies of big data, this article examines digital agriculture’s (in)accuracies and their repercussions. Based on an examination of the daily functioning of the various components of yield mapping, it finds that digital farming is often ‘precisely inaccurate’, with the high volume and granularity of big data erroneously equated with high accuracy. The prevailing discourse of ‘ultra-precise’ digital technologies ignores farmers’ essential efforts in making these technologies more accurate, via calibration, corroboration and interpretation. We suggest there is the danger of a ‘precision trap’. Namely, an exaggerated belief in the precision of big data that over time leads to an erosion of checks and balances (analogue data, farmer observation et cetera) on farms. The danger of ‘precision traps’ increases with the opacity of algorithms, with shifts from real-time measurement and advice towards forecasting, and with farmers’ increased remoteness from field operations. Furthermore, we identify an emerging ‘precision divide’: unequally distributed precision benefits resulting from the growing algorithmic divide between farmers focusing on staple crops, catered well by technological innovation on the one hand, and farmers cultivating other crops, who have to make do with much less advanced or applicable algorithms on the other. Consequently, for the latter farms digital farming may feel more like ‘imprecision farming’.



A CEE Of Change: Effects of Technological Change on CEE Agricultural Labor Migrants in The Netherlands

Andreea Ferent1, Tyler Williams2

1Babes-Bolyai University, Romania; 2International Institute of Social Studies ISS

In this study we present an ethnographic account of how new digital technologies reorganize migrant labour in the context of the Dutch agricultural sector. Agriculture (including technology), domestic and export, is a key industry for Dutch GDP, yet most jobs in agriculture are characterized as 3-D—dirty, dangerous, demeaning-(Cremers 2016: 22) jobs and are performed by Central and Eastern European (CEE) migrants (e.g., FNV 2013; SOMO 2016; SOMO 2019, Ivosevic, P., 2018). At present, there are trends across industries both in adoption of automation throughout the labour process, and for evermore precarious forms of employment through legal means (e.g., gig-work). We suggest rising debates about digitalization in agriculture must be bundled with discussion about the seasonal and flexible migrant. Since the classic works of Marx (1992), Ricardo (2004) or Keynes (1930) on the automated future, a rich literature has documented the linkage between technological development and work, working conditions, redundancy of jobs (Frey and Osborne 2013; Acemoglu and Restrepo 2016; Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2014; Ford 2015), possible reforms to protect workers (Ford 2015), or less work (Mason 2015). Two main gaps in this literature are the omission by scholarship of the linkage between technological advancements and agriculture and the little attention paid to these transformations when the dependency on the cheap migrant labour force is at play. The research addresses these gaps by asking what is analytically distinct about automation’s effects on migrant labour vis-à-vis its reiteration: the current main discourses on technological advancements.

To do so, the project draws from in-depth interviews and informal conversations with industry, union and farm-labourers and a desk review of government and industry documents. The aim is to critically discuss the implications of automation for the labour process by mirroring the worker’s narratives with the mainstream Dutch technology discourses that shape agrarian change. This research utilizes a range of methodologies to surface the impact of (technologically induced) precarious labour on CEE migrant agricultural labourers in the Netherlands. Qualitative interviews were conducted in both English and native languages with Polish and Romanian workers. Further interviews were conducted with union representatives, NGO representatives, farm- and greenhouse-owners, and other interested parties. These experiences are then contrasted with the positive representation of emerging agricultural technologies by the Dutch government and agricultural interest groups. In combining these research streams, we can paint a broad picture of Dutch agriculture and CEE migrants along the specific issues facing Poles and Romanians in the Netherlands.

While jobs are changing in ways we cannot anticipate, we also must be cognizant of the shifting manners in which technology manifests. We propose an account of technology as a way of re-shaping labour and managing people. Hence, we examine the factors that affect the way in which technology impacts the worker. While portions of this research are still ongoing, we aim to present findings to this point which illustrate the precarious nature of CEE migrant agricultural labour in the Netherlands and the lack of focus on this issue by policymakers. We also demonstrate that while emerging technology is certainly an important facet of this issue, it is not the only reason for this precarity.



Introducing A New Model Of Labor Management To Tunisia’s Agricultural Sector: Labor Tracking Software And Self-discipline In High-tech Dutch-Tunisian Greenhouse Production Enterprise

Ilja Maria van Lammeren

Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway

Since 2012, 3 Dutch greenhouse production enterprise have established high-tech production sites in Tunisia for the export of high-quality produce. The advanced technological substitution of ambient conditions and digitalized production-management in these greenhouses enables producers to control various parameters and export high-quality produce when greenhouse production in the European Union is low. The Tunisian government has welcomed these investments as a means to create employment opportunities and model for sustainable intensification in the south, where water resources are scarce. This paper argues the cutting edge of the Dutch model should be recognized, not merely in its ability to optimize production results in suboptimal climates, but the enhanced ability to control agricultural labor and introduction of a new model of labor management. Drawing on site-observations and 42 qualitative interviews with producers and staff in Dutch greenhouse enterprise, as well as representatives of Tunisian governmental institutions, unions and civil society actors, this paper analyzes the digitalized management of agricultural labor in Dutch-Tunisian enterprise, and discusses their model of investment and employment in relation to social justice. The paper identifies digitalized labor monitoring as the extension of a smart farming approach to the manual labor that remains necessary, one which seeks to affect precisely those ‘human factors’ obstructing productive use of agricultural labor. It describes the use of labor tracking software to monitor individual workers’ performance coupled with performance related bonuses between different business and identifies a management rationale of competition and self-comparison aiming to disposition workers to continuously optimize their own productivity. Resembling a management approach earlier introduced in manufacturing industries, the Dutch management of agricultural workers radically departs from more arbitrary -and repressive- forms of worker discipline typical to less technologically advanced greenhouse production in the region. While Dutch companies offer
comparatively better working conditions, this paper challenges the public image of ‘good foreign employer’ by examining the adaptation of the Dutch model in Tunisia and situating it against demands for justice and dignified work of the 2010-2011 uprising and onward. Unlike in the Netherlands, where agricultural workers receive a more-or-less livable minimum wage and bonusses are within 10%, the Dutch bonus-system in Tunisia can add up to 80% to the agricultural minimum wage, yet the total wage remains a supplementary income. With productivity standards continuously re-defined by the results of the fastest worker, the Dutch bonus-system in Tunisia adds pressure to physically demanding work, performed by vulnerable female worker populations with few alternatives. The adaptation of Dutch systems of digitalized labor monitoring in subsidiary production sites in Tunisia illustrates the potentially exploitative dynamics of digital technologies for labor in agricultural production, where labor is particularly precarious. Set against the politics of post-2011 subsidies for foreign investors alongside a stagnant agricultural wage, the wage-regime of Dutch greenhouse enterprise in Tunisia undermines demands for a livable wage as a right, while the appropriation of limited governmental funds and non-renewable water-sources for Dutch export limits Tunisia’s developmental trajectories and possibilities for employment creation at large.



 
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