75th Anniversary: 41) Trapped!

By Paul Swagemakers, Department of Applied Economics, Public Economics and Political Economy, Complutense University of Madrid

A long time ago, in the 1990s, a friend of mine told me he was going to Wageningen to check out what one could study there. Forestry was among his interests. I came along with him and Wageningen sparked my interest too, as I saw numerous possibilities. I chose a course in rural development studies. I initially intended to follow it just for one year only, thinking it would widen my scope, and teach me about the world’s cultures and economic development, before I would decide what to do and study next.

Once started, I was trapped. I learned to analyse rural development issues: I choose a trajectory that taught me how the study of the heterogeneous social configurations and functional relationships between ‘man’ and nature could help combat rural marginalisation and spirals of economic decline and to identify and help develop departure points for sustainable rural development. I learned how pride and collective ideals among rural dwellers shaped their farming practices and how these were embedded in the wider institutional context of markets and policies. I learned that these external factors are often perceived as the drivers for economic development and that this often brought externalised costs. In the classes I learnt about a, now very well-known, example that illustrated this: to sustain the Dutch animal husbandry, a surface many times that of the Netherlands was (and still is) in use for feed production, including former tropical rain forests now used for soy bean production. Apart from realizing that these forests were lost, I asked myself what happened to the people who used to live in, and from, these former rain forests? And I asked myself what can Dutch farmers do to become less dependent on external inputs, and reduce their negative impact on nature elsewhere? At that time in Wageningen, I learned how neo-liberal economic theory advocates reducing the role of government and policies, and sees markets as the most efficient way to regulate supply and demand and to optimise the allocation of resources. I also learned that the revenues, split up in chunks of value added in the food chain, are highly unequally distributed among the participants in the value chain. I was taught about some innovative governance mechanisms that were emerging in those years, called environmental cooperatives. I wondered what I could learn from the farmers in this movement, and got a job helping analyse how new social configurations and relationships could result in the protection and conservation of the environment, studying the dynamics at the farm level in relation to support from markets and policies.

Over the years I learned how many farmers value and manage their land and herd in ways that differ from the dictums of economic theory that teach one to maximise production and minimise costs, and how many of them attempt to gain a living from what otherwise would often be abandoned because of lack of investment and respect: our environment. I also learned that many values produced at farms are poorly valorised in the food chain.

Triggered by this continuous manifestation of abandonment and disrespect, I continue to study where best to invest, and what to respect. This path has led me to a PhD in Social Sciences at Wageningen University, to several lecturing and researching posts at the University of Vigo, and, currently, to a position as assistant professor at the School of Political Sciences and Sociology of the Complutense University of Madrid. So much for just a year’s study! I am afraid, I am permanently trapped.

Related publications:

Swagemakers, P., Schermer, M., Domínguez García, M.D., Milone, M., Ventura, F. 2021. To what extent do brands contribute to sustainability transition in agricultural production practices? Lessons from three European case studies. Ecological Economics 189: 107197, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2021.107179

Swagemakers, P., Domínguez García, M.D., Milone, P., Ventura, F., Wiskerke, J.S.C. 2019. Exploring cooperative place-based approaches to restorative agriculture. Journal of Rural Studies 68: 191-199, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrurstud.2018.12.003

Swagemakers, P., Domínguez García, M.D.., Torres, A., Oostindie, H., Groot, J.C.J. 2017. A values-based approach to exploring synergies between livestock farming and landscape conservation in Galicia (Spain). Sustainability 9 (11): 1987, https://doi.org/10.3390/su9111987

Swagemakers, P., Wiskerke, J.S.C., 2011. Revitalizing ecological capital. Danish Journal of Geography 111 (2): 149-167, https://doi.org/10.1080/00167223.2011.10669530

Swagemakers, P., Wiskerke, J.S.C., Van der Ploeg, J.D., 2009. Linking birds, fields and farmers. Journal of Environmental Management 90: 185-192, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2008.11.020