Fish, farm, forest

Published September 3, 2021
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

ON the night of Aug 27, Younis Anwar, general secretary of the Gwadar Fisherfolk Alliance, was abducted. We as a society have become so numb to the reality of enforced disappearances, especially in Balochistan, that Anwar’s abduction barely made the news. A few days later, on the International Day of Enforced Disappearances, another name was simply added to a seemingly interminable list.

That it is reprehensible for the very state functionaries that are charged with protecting the life and liberty of those at least formally deemed citizens to abduct them has been repeated many times. It is also old news that legislation to criminalise enforced disappearances has been blocked time and again by ‘invisible hands’.

I am highlighting Younis Anwar’s case because it brings into focus what is effectively a slow death for millions of people in this country affiliated with traditional livelihoods like fishing, farming and foresting. This is not happening because of some reasonable logic that guides the linear development of society. It is happening because of existing political and economic structures. For Gwadar’s subsistence fishing communities, big corporate trawlers — both foreign and domestic — are putting them out of work.

Individuals and collectivities that are peacefully calling attention to land, water and forest grabs by state functionaries and private profiteers alike are increasingly subject to repression, confirming contestation between two different worldviews. On the one hand, those being rendered surplus are speaking out not only for themselves but also future generations that face a planetary crisis if natural resources continue to be pillaged. On the other hand, propertied classes, corporations and state functionaries want to continue exploiting land, water, forest and mountainous highlands without any concern for working people.

An unprecedented process of dispossession is underway.

Displacement of traditional livelihoods is not novel. The modern era and capitalist economics were arguably initiated by what was called the ‘enclosure of the commons’ in England some five centuries ago. Ever since, capital has sought to commodify nature for the sake of profit, while movements of working people have pushed back by demanding that these resources be conceptualised as a common trust.

When the British came to India, they built dams, canals, barrages etc to modernise a predominantly agrarian economy. Many local communities were displaced, some even forced to give up pastoral ways of life for settled agriculture. In Pakistan’s early years, the burden of mega development projects continued to be borne by pastoralists, farmers, fisherfolk and forest dwellers in much the same way as under the Raj. Then came the ‘Green Revolution’, which mechanised agriculture and displaced yet another generation of working masses who became surplus to requirements.

Today, with widespread financialisation of the economy, an even more rapacious process of dispossession is underway. The building of dams and roads and mechanisation of agriculture may have displaced millions in the past but those surplus populations at least harboured the hope of making their way to a city and finding work in a factory or government job. The scale of dispossession associated with the intensification of mining and forest-felling, corporatisation of water bodies and expansion of real estate under the regime of neoliberal globalisation is unprece­dented. This is why we see unrelenting ideological propaganda that depicts all land, water, forest and mountain grabs as ‘development’ alongside strong-arm tactics to silence those who challenge this orthodoxy.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, some progres­sives in the West are ar­­­guing that at least a notionally pro-people state is back, and that the 40-year-old neoliberal cycle has reached its end. Such anal­y­sis fails to ackn­o­wledge two facts about non-Western post­colonial societies. First, that the destruction of traditional livelihoods and dispossession has been a consistent feature of our ‘deve­lopment’ for hundreds of years. Second, that a nexus of the postcolonial state, corporations, aid agencies and global superpowers has championed the specifically neoliberal stage of capitalist development in our countries. Forced grabs of land, water, forest and mou­n­tains have united all of these players, and there is no sign that Western governments who are ostensibly going back to spending big on public goods will stop patronising extrac­tive industries and regimes of dispossession abroad.

Indeed, as awareness about climate change grows within the Western mainstream, thus forcing at least some greening of those economies, the pillage of nature can continue apace in the colonial peripheries of Asia and Africa. We can therefore expect authoritarian governments like Modi’s India, our own hybrid regime, and many more — maybe even the Afghan Taliban! — to continue making merry in collusion with private profiteers.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, September 3rd, 2021

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