A small group of young white North American farmers has migrated to Brazil to start soybean megafarms. They finished college and wanted to start their own farms; not happy to work on their parents’ farms and unable to purchase land on their own, they were inspired by glossy pages of farm journals that showed lines of combines harvesting massive fields of soy. Reporters declared that ideal growing conditions and an agribusiness-friendly government made farming easy in Brazil. The farmers toured farms in Western Bahia, Brazil, near the city of agribusiness, Luis Eduardo Magalhães, and at the frontier of soybean production in the Brazilian Cerrado, returning with dreams of ten thousand soy fields. They courted investors, often retired and active farmers from their home counties, purchased massive tracts of flat, cheap land, and began their Brazilian experiments. These farms resemble plantations in many ways: they hire a large, racialized workforce; workers live on the farm and farmers live in a nearby city; and farmers have little social attachment to the land, workers, or plants. Further, the farmers’ time in Brazil is often temporary. They work there until they are able to take over operations of family farms in the United States. When they talk about their futures, they talk about farming and business practices that they will bring back from Brazil, not long-term commitments in Brazil. These practices include soil management techniques, as well as business tactics like hiring farm workers to do farm labor and becoming a manager. Work here resembles a plantation and reflects what many are now calling the Plantationocene.
The Plantationocene describes the “ever-greater ferocity in globalized factory meat production, monocrop agribusiness, and immense substitutions of crops like oil palm for multispecies forests and their products that sustain human and nonhuman critters alike” (Haraway 2015, 162). The plantation simplifies landscapes by removing original plants, animals, and people and replacing them with workers and cash crops; alienates those workers and plants from places and purposes otherwise; and remakes them as plantation resources. Relocation and alienation of animals, plants, people, and microbes are key processes in the Plantationocene (Haraway et al. 2016). Aside from human control and domination of nature, and beyond the alienation of microbes and plants, the plantation features racist division of labor founded on principles of slavery and settler colonialism (Davis et al. 2019). The plantation was made possible by processes of removal and recombination. Plantation owners appropriated land, cleared it of people and plants, and disrupted local economic flows, then replaced plants with commercial cash crops from afar, replaced original inhabitants with a racialized workforce, and connected the plantation to global circuits of capital, all brought together, but alienated from place.
My aim here is not to advocate for the Plantationocene over sister terms of Capitalocene and Anthropocene, but as Kathryn Yussoff (2018) writes of the Anthropocene, to explore its contexts. What does it show, and what does it obscure? What it illuminates is the process of alienation, separation, and recombination. It shows racial dynamics of plantation farming, it shows power, capital, and biocontrol. However, it obscures the fighting back of people, plants, soils, and animals, and microbes. In the remainder of this essay, I will first explore the ways farmers use labor, land, and plants, land on their farms to identify convergence and divergence from the plantation model and, second, explore the ways that this project faces resistance from people, soils, and plants to enrollment in the Plantationocene.
The plantation model of labor depends on the replacement of local communities by workers from outside the region, somewhat fixed relationships between workers and owners, and racialized worker relations; the American farms in Brazil fit this in some ways. U.S. farm owners in Western Bahia often visit the farm a few times per week to meet with managers, check on progress in the fields, assure things are in working order on the farms, and make an appearance, but otherwise leave the fieldwork to farm workers, mostly hired from the immediate region.
They had told investors that they knew how to farm and just needed capital for land, but quickly learned that managing a 30,000 hectare farm with 130 farm workers is much different than operating a thousand-acre family farm in Illinois. Their farms cobble together displaced workers; soybean seeds that have been bred in the U.S. and Brazil and then spliced with a bacteria from soil bacteria, and land that is not only dispossessed from local populations, but remains unattached as farm families live either hours away in the capital of agribusiness, Luis Eduardo Magalhães, or in the United States. Their work in Brazil is transformed. In Brazil they became more fully capitalist, hiring farm workers and becoming managers themselves. They also became managers of capital—dependent on outside finance, even if this financing came more often from neighboring farmers than from Wall Street. They adopted flexible farming as a strategy which minimized belonging, attachment, and stability in favor of interchangeable parts (Ofstehage 2018a) and financialized their labor, values of farming, and farm assets (Ofstehage 2018b). This transformation advanced unevenly. As farmers attested, it’s easy to farm in Brazil, but it’s hard to become a Brazilian farmer (Ofstehage 2016). They had to learn to be managers, to follow the strict environmental and worker regulations of Brazil, and manage the expectations and demands of far off investors. Within the family, the very meaning and value of farming came into question as older generations questioned what about this new way of life constituted farming. Younger generations argued that this was the future of farming.
Workers are regarded as low-skilled positions and easily replaced by other workers or machinery. The farm workers are divided according to teams of hoers, machinery operators, cotton gin workers, agronomy advisors, managers, and front office employees, including accountants, lawyers, and public relations staff. The clearest marker among these distinctions is race. White Sulistas (Brazilians from the southern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul) operate heavy machinery and work in managerial positions, while local Baianos (primarily Afro-Brazilians) from the surrounding area south of Luis Eduardo Magalhães work as manual laborers. Of these two groups, the second is far more likely to be seasonally hired or released, replaced by machinery, and treated as unskilled workers.
One divergence from the plantation model is that workers are not expected to make a long-term commitment to the farm and neither is the farm owner expected to invest in the worker. Tea plantations in India, for example, provide hereditary employment, gardening plots, and other ways of connecting workers to the plantation (Besky 2017). On the flexible farm, work is alienated from the farmer by outsourcing the labor and a bureaucratization of worker relations, which are governed more by minimal work requirements determined by Brazilian law than by reciprocal, if patriarchal, relations common to plantation economies. Brazilian worker projections require three written warnings for farmworkers to be fired; rural worker associations negotiate with farmer associations to determine minimum working wages; and regulations on farmworker housing stipulates a basic standard of living. While several farmers described an interest in creating jobs in Brazil, they quickly lost interest in the well-being of workers because of the strength of the farm worker federation. Labor regulations and labor power slow down the flexibilization of work in that farmers cannot treat workers as they please; they also forestall elements of the Plantation in that farmers provide housing, wages, and job security not according to logics of the gift, but according to bureaucratic regulations.
Bruno Latour refers to the Plantationocene as “a historical ‘de-soilization’ of the Earth” (Latour et al. 2018). But while American farmers dispossess local communities from their land and alienate themselves from family land, their encounters with Brazilian Cerrado soil requires careful and intensive soil engagement. The flat, amenable landscape of Western Bahia allows for a simplification of production. Flat topographies allow large farm machinery to easily pass through a field; large swaths of agro-ecologically consistent land encourage monocultural practices; and amenability of the land to green revolution technology allows both the implementation of industrial farming practices and a programmatization of farming tasks. And yet the soils, which farmers call “barren,” call for a much deeper engagement than the soils of the U.S. Midwest.
First, clearing the Cerrado is required to open the land for production, then heavy application of lime to raise the pH of the “acid lands” of the Cerrado, and finally farmers add massive amounts of fertilizer (or “put on fertility”) and implement no-tillage practices to “build up” the soil. Not only do they adapt new practices to make the Cerrado productive to industrial agriculture, they adopt narratives of improvement in their relation to the land, despite processes of soil degradation tied to industrial agriculture in a complex ecosystem. Not only does this engagement entail deforestation of savannah and degradation of the soil, it generates new discourses of land and soil improvement that lend legitimacy to further exploitation and practices that entrench industrial agriculture in formerly marginal lands.
Soy is the ideal monocrop in many ways, allowing it to work for the plantation and also minimize work for the plantation (Hetherington 2020). Farmers I interviewed often spoke of labor-saving technology not as a means of reducing burden, or even reducing costs, but as reducing liability to worker protections. But monocrops are also weedy. Fertilizations and low plant competition favors quick growing annuals, a feature shared by field crops and most weeds; plentiful, uniform plant populations are ideal for diseases like soybean rust, insect pests like the miniscule, pesky white fly—with little biological control and endless food. The plantation is designed to alienate and separate, but once outside of the plant science greenhouse and planted in a field, diseases, insects, and plants complicate this separation. Soy is put to work for the plantation (Besky and Blanchette 2019), and yet its production still requires constant maintenance. In recent years whitefly, a tiny sucking insect that is not affected by most insecticides, has become a constant pest to soy growers in Western Bahia. Soybean rust spread rapidly through Brazil in the 2000s and requires constant observation and expensive fungicide applications in the field.
On one side of the Plantationocene is the process of simplification and control of landscapes and assemblages of things and people, on the other is the life that proliferates from the ecological spaces created by simplification. Together, simplification and proliferation remind us that while plantations aim to simplify and alienate, that process is always incomplete as life proliferates and makes space for itself. It is challenging to consider what life is generated by the proliferation of transnational soybean farms in Brazil because they are easily connected with processes of deforestation, dispossession, and displacement. But to disregard processes of generation misses the power of Cerrado life to transform. The soy plant, alienated first from East Asia, then from U.S. soy fields on its way to Brazil is also not totally out of place. Decades of breeding directed by the state agricultural research body, Embrapa, has produced new varieties of soy that are suited to the day-length, soils, and pests of the Brazilian Cerrado. The Cerrado land is not wholly alienated, either; this is apparent in farmers’ annual fight to “build” the Cerrado soil to make it productive for crop production and painfully obvious when prairie fires remind farmers that the Cerrado was never tamed. The workers too, in resisting relationships of reciprocity in favor of legally defined worker rights backed by powerful farm worker associations, refuse to be bound by the barbed-wire fences of the plantation.
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_____. 2018a. “Farming out of Place: Transnational Family Farmers, Flexible Farming, and the Rupture of Rural Life in Bahia, Brazil.” American Ethnologist 45(3): 317–29.
_____. 2018b. “Financialization of Work, Value, and Social Organization among Transnational Soy Farmers in the Brazilian Cerrado.” Economic Anthropology 5(2): 274–85.
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