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Grain elevators and changing agricultural landscapes in South Africa

This entry carries on from the conversation started two weeks ago exploring the abandoned public silos and granaries in Spain. Abandoned grain elevators and silos are also something I began to notice in the beginning phase of my fieldwork in the Eastern Cape of South Africa. At the heart of King Williams Town is an abandoned grain silo that is now home to the Department of Sports and Recreation. Noticing this, I also became interested in the history of the old silo at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town where I am based. Hearing about the case in Spain, I became curious about the similarities and differences between the Spanish and South African histories connected to these silos.

Researching abandoned grain silos opens up a world of books, photographs and video clips related to these structures, in which they are often referred to as “iconic”, “cathedrals” or “sentinels”, towering above the various landscapes in which they found. Their tall, brooding appearance sparks a sense of curiosity and engagement and therefore in many places, just as in Spain, efforts have been made recently to re-purpose these structures. Often, they become refashioned into cultural spaces such as museums, galleries or canvasses for artists.

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Grain Silo art – Perth. See: https://industrialarchaeology.wordpress.com/

The Cape Town silo (also known as a grain elevator) was built as part of a networked grain storage system constructed in the early part of the 20th Century. The construction of the 57m high Cape Town grain elevator began in 1921 and was completed in 1924 and at the time was the tallest building in the city. In 1995, a year after South Africa became a democracy, the elevator was decommissioned. Over it’s 71 year life-span, the structure stored and exported wheat, yellow maize, white maize, sorghum, tapioca, soya, oats, sunflower oil cake, cotton oil cake and malt. During its life-time this building, and the country-wide infrastructure that it formed a part of, also stood witness and helped fuel the concentration of political control and power over the food system in South Africa. In this way, the situation mirrors the Spanish case, in which the state network of silos arose and were in use during a period in which political power was concentrated in a dictator rather than dispersed through a democracy

After the formation of the Union in 1910, white owned agribusiness in South Africa was supported and bolstered by a series of governmental Acts that continued into the apartheid regime. These included the 1913 Native Land Act and the 1939 Cooperative Societies Act as well as others which came together in the 1937 Marketing Act. This gave the South African state complete control over all domestic markets and trade. As a result of these laws, the industrial agri-food system was built on the one hand through land-dispossession and marginalization of black farmers from market systems and on the other hand through  subsidization of white farmers activities. Under apartheid, co-ops owned by white farmers were in essence extensions of the state – serving the National Party’s interests. White owned farmer cooperatives had rights to the market within 60km in all directions of a silo located in their vicinity.

Silo Art in Sacremento. See: https://industrialarchaeology.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/usa-silo-art-in-sacramento/

Starting in the 1970s, and increasingly into the 1980s, state control within domestic markets began to loose hold and private companies began to buy up assets. After 1994, reforms were implemented to further liberalize domestic and foreign markets. However, given the history of unequal market access, this allowed for those who had historically had access to gain a foothold and buy up large parts of the system. Today, similar to in Spain, grain handling has been fully privatized. In 1994 when farmer cooperatives became privatised, they automatically gained grain storage monopolies across vast areas of agricultural land. The largest 3 of these companies today (which now are engaged in a variety of agribusiness activities) control up to 74% of grain storage in South Africa.

The Cape Town silo formed part of a “networked landscape” of nationally built grain infrastructure developed in the early part of the 20th Century. This comprised of 2 port elevators, of which the Cape Town elevator was the first to be completed in 1924 (the other is located in Durban and another built much later in East London during the 1960s) and a further 34 smaller elevators located inland, all connected by rail. The networked system was seen as vital for boosting the country’s exports of maize. The inland elevators were “built to the same specifications; by the same builder for the same purpose; fitted by the same engineers; with the same machinery; owned and financed by the same authority; and staffed by the same labour pool” (Worth, 2005). This fleet of grain elevators continued to be run by the South African Harbour and Railways until 1963, when they were transferred t0 the maize control board and then to white farmer cooperatives under apartheid state.

In 1987 the Cape Town grain elevator was leased to the Western Cape Farmers coop. In 2001 this lease was terminated and until recently, the elevator lay abandoned. Recently, the Cape Town grain elevator site has, however, begun to be re-fashioned into an extensive set of luxury apartments and offices, a hotel and art museum and a gallery space which is set to launch in 2017. The museum is being showcased as Africa’s first Museum for Contemporary African Art. This will be know as the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) and is expected to draw visitors from all over the world. Efforts will be made to retain large parts of the original structure and preserve parts of the original machinery. It is interesting to consider how these structures that have shaped and been shaped by history, are being brought into present day use and how much of this history is referenced and remembered going forward.

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The Cape Town grain silo currently being re-fashioned into the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (Zeitz MOCAA).

References:

Worth, D. (2005). “Gas and Grain: The Conservation of Networked Industrial Landscapes” in Industrial Archaeology: Future Directions. E. Conlin Casella and J. Symonds. New York, Springer Science and Business Media: 135-154.

Greenberg, S. (2010) Contesting the food system in South Africa: Issues and Oppourtunities. PLAAS. Available on: http://www.plaas.org.za/plaas-publication/rr-42#sthash.EvvShOLY.dpuf

African Centre for Biosafety. (2013) GM Maize: Lessons for Africa: cartels, collusion and control of Africas staple food. Available on: http://acbio.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/GM-Maize-Report.pdfhttp://acbio.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/GM-Maize-Report.pdfhttp://acbio.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/GM-Maize-Report.pdf

De la red de silos y graneros a la especulación alimentaria

En los últimos meses, hemos pasado muchas horas recorriendo campos y pueblos de las zonas productoras de cereales en Cataluña y Aragón. En nuestros viajes hemos encontrado numerosos silos y graneros en desuso, ya abandonados. Inmensos y situados tanto en cooperativas de productores como enmedio de los pueblos, llaman la atención porque frecuentemente son los edificios más altos de la zona, a menudo poblados con numeros nidos de cigüeñas.

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En el Estado español existe el Grupo de Investigación Silos y Graneros, dedicado al estudio de los silos y graneros como patrimonio histórico rural, y a la promoción de su rehabilitación como oportunidad para revitalizar la economía de zonas rurales, dándoles nuevos usos: desde el almacenamiento de otros bienes pasando por equipamientos públicos, viveros de empresas, museos, etc…

La red de silos y graneros fué creada con el objetivo de almacenar las cosechas de grano para asegurar el abastecimiento de la población y a paliar la irregularidad de los mercados, garantizando el precio a los agricultores. Se construyeron en todo el país 663 silos y 275 graneros desde el año 1945 hasta el 1986, con la intención de que los agricultores tuvieran que desplazarse poco y al mismo tiempo, los silos y graneros estuvieran cerca de las fábricas harineras. En un principio guardaban únicamente trigo aunque después también se usaron para otros cereales y legumbres. Con la idea de que el régimen controlara la producción y el consumo, se estableció entonces un monopolio que tomaría la forma de Red Nacional de Silos y Graneros, que además gestionaba la reserva de almacenamiento nacional. La llegada de la CEE marcó el inicio del abandono de la actividad de almacenamiento y el traspaso a manos de las comunidades autónomas.

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En el otro extremo, la situación en la que nos encontramos hoy es el casi total desmantelamiento de los graneros o silos públicos (en la actualidad quedan 142 silos y graneros en uso) y su sustitución por silos y graneros establecidos por empresas multinacionales que operan en el mercado internacional de commodities. Por lo tanto, tal y como nos contaba uno de los entrevistados del proyecto hace unos meses, no sólo se ha privatizado el cereal, el stock, sino también el control de la información de cuánto grano hay. Esto ha catalizado los procesos de especulación, hoy en manos de un oligopolio de empresas relacionadas con los fondos de inversión y que, según el relator especial de las Naciones Unidas para el Derecho a la Alimentación, Olivier de Schutter, se encuentran detrás de la burbuja especulativa que dió lugar a las devastadoras crisis alimentarias de los años 2007/2008 y 2010/2011. Como resultado, en el período entre 2002 y 2013 los precios agrícolas internacionales se doblaron.

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Si bién es cierto que la volatilidad de precios responde a una multidud de factores complejos como el incremento de la demanda de recursos en las llamadas economías emergentes o las situaciones climáticas (tanto a corto término como al cambio climático), el hecho de que precios de la energía y de los productos agrícolas sean interdependientes entre ellos y la difusión de los agrocombustibles ha hecho que numerosos fondos de inversión hayan encontrado un filón para especular, abandonando progresivamente el sector inmobiliario hacia el mercado de alimentos.

Como respuesta a esta situación, el Parlamento Europeo acordó en 2014 reformar la Directiva de Mercados de Instrumentos Financieros (MiFID), que regula los servicios financieros en los mercados de la Unión Europea. Los acuerdos contemplan límites en la especulación con materias primas por parte de los inversores y la aplicación de sanciones, aspectos que fueron valorados como una victoria por parte de las numerosas organizaciones de la sociedad civil que hace años que reclaman que se ponga coto a la especulación alimentaria. Sin embargo, muchos de los otros aspectos siguen siendo fuertemente criticados, como el hecho de que sean finalmente los estados quienes establezcan estos límites y no una normativa europea común, con el riesgo de que haya una regulación nacional «a la baja». Tampoco queda claro qué pasará en el futuro con estos acuerdos, si finalmente se llegara a aprobar el TTIP (Tratado de Libre Comercio e Inversiones), el cuál involucraría el debilitamiento de las regulaciones y los obstáculos a la excesiva especulación por parte del sector financiero.

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The challenge of categorising maize seeds and systems

If we are to transparently report on our research process (as we intend to do in this blog), we must say that we have been experiencing some difficulties with the framing of our task. With this entry, we aim to reflect on the process we have been going through to try and categorise the different seeds and systems we are investigating in this research project.

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Our first idea, presented in the funded project proposal, was to map and compare different models of agrifood systems, namely organic, conventional and GM. This initial approach made sense since it is a common distinction made between agricultural systems of production by both policy makers and publics. Since the regulation of GMOs typically uses what are labeled ‘conventional’ alternatives (i.e. chemically intensive, industrial models of agriculture) in comparisons of risk acceptability, while much of the social resistance to GMOs draws on organic farming models as the relevant comparator, we thought it was interesting and important to empirically consider and compare all three systems of production. However, we were also aware from the beginning that this distinction implied many difficulties, especially since in the realities of practice, these systems are often not as clearly separable as the theoretical categories imply. For example, in Spain, many farmers cultivate both conventional and GM maize at the same time. There are also significant differences between organic farms depending on whether they are large or small scale, as recognised in what the academic literature calls the ‘conventialisation of organic farming’ as it increasingly adopts mainstream models of large-scale production, globalised distribution and supermarket-based consumption.

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Furthermore, our early research has uncovered that in Spain, the maize seeds that are produced to be sown in commercial organic fields are not actually organic themselves. That is, they do not come from organic parental lines. They are seeds that are produced in a ‘conventional’ way. The difference is that before the ‘organic’ seeds are put into the packages to be sold to farmers, they are not treated with fungicides and insecticides, as conventional and GM seeds are (indicated by their bright pink or orange colour). The reason behind this is that in Spain, organic parental lines are not available and therefore, the Organic Farming Certification Scheme accepts untreated but conventionally produced seeds.

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Becomingly increasingly uneasy with the distinction we had originally adopted for our mapping exercise, and after many difficult discussions, we therefore decided to try shifting the criteria we were using in order to approach the different systems. We decided to try mapping different agrifood systems by following different types of seeds, namely GM seeds, hybrid seeds and traditional varieties.

After two months working with this new distinction, however, new difficulties have arisen. We are forced to recognize that in practice we are actually sliding between the two differential criteria (both the gm-conventional-organic system distinction and  the gm-hybrid-traditional seed distinction). This is because the former is, whether we like it or not, widely used among all the stakeholders we are engaging with while the latter is marginal and only found in very few nodes of the food web. Also, when referring to hybrids, there are significant differences between their use in conventional and organic models of production. We also met an organic farmer with a small family farm who was sowing both hybrid and traditional varieties. He was sympathetic towards and valued the traditional varieties, but was also very keen on the hybrids, because they performed well and helped him to get a living. So, in that case, we saw that both distinctions were relevant and complementary for the study. This means that the research is currently employing both frames, depending on the situation. How this challenge develops in the future, and how it influences the maps of different agrifood webs that we produce, remains to be seen and described in a later post.