23 de Marzo de 2018
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La Educación
Número: (132-133) I,II
Año: 1999


In a recent publication, the World Bank poses the question, “If rural development is so important, why is it not happening?”  This is a good question, and no one seems to dispute either its premise or its conclusion. Whether analyzing the past or the present, casual impressions and elaborate statistics both show that, whatever is meant by “development,” it has not happened in rural areas. Perhaps this was because the rural population was expected to dwindle as agricultural production became increasingly efficient and mechanized. But for better or worse, this did not happen either. In Latin America, now a highly urbanized region, the number of people still living in the countryside was over 100 million in 1997, and rural poverty remains a pronounced feature of social and economic life.

Rapid changes in the agrarian structures of the region began after the Second World War, when the introduction of import substitution policies promoted industrialization in cities and inspired patterns of relatively permanent rural-urban migration. Although the rural-urban pattern was more or less uniform from country to country, the agrarian structures that expelled these populations were varied and complex, the direct result of five centuries of uneven and unequal economic development. Subsistence forms of production (primarily peasant) were widespread in the countryside, and not only survive into the present, but continue to grow in number. The expanding urban market for food encouraged the development of commercial agriculture, which emerged as small holdings owned and worked by families, together with seasonal labor, or large-scale monocultural agribusiness producing for export as well as domestic consumption. During this period, sociologists and economists spoke optimistically of a process of modernization that was to transform traditional forms of production into more efficient, market-oriented enterprises, both rural and urban.

When we look at some of the most visible social consequences of technological innovation in agriculture, we can see why rural poverty continues to spread. The rapid transformation that has affected Latin American agriculture after 1950 had the effect of increasing the seasonality of labor requirements, so that temporary labor arrangements widely replaced more permanent ones. Technology replaced much labor in farming, creating saturated labor markets in rural areas and driving wages down. Throughout this fifty-year period, therefore, a trend developed toward greater destitution in the countryside. Nor is this poverty limited to a diminishing segment of the population. On the contrary, the rural population continues to grow. The farming population has actually increased in the region in absolute terms, and impoverished living conditions have also spread.

Theoretically, during the demographic shift from the countryside to the city, expanded educational services were to facilitate the entrance of recent rural migrants into a growing urban industrial labor force. Education in general was to be an instrument of social assimilation that provided intergenerational mobility for children, and adult education was to help migrants acquire the skills necessary to work productively in the city.

The most important objective of the modernization project in Latin America was never realized, however: the population expelled from the countryside by the commercialization and mechanization of agricultural work was not adequately absorbed into the urban industrial labor force. The anticipated process of transformation and absorption of the formerly rural labor force foundered on the import of labor-saving technology from the North and population growth, itself a consequence of the import of medical and health technology. At the same time, policy decisions favoring the expansion of energy-intensive industry, petrochemical extraction, and automobile and consumer durable manufacturing oriented industry toward the production of luxury goods for limited internal consumption. These decisions restrained the development of an urban mass market, prosperous enough to subsidize agricultural production.1 As a consequence of these policy decisions and the dynamics of international trade, underemployment and  unemployment spread both in rural and urban areas after the 1950s.

During the intervening years, the social and environmental repercussions of these policies for rural development have become increasingly serious. Small holders and peasant farmers have been pushed to more and more marginal lands unsuitable for cultivation, while large-scale commercial agriculture increases yields with chemical applications and dedicates more of its production to export. The countries, meanwhile, have become net importers of food to support growing populations. This pattern of production has contributed to trade deficits, rural poverty, and environmental deterioration. Additionally, as urbanization proceeded, conditions in the countryside worsened relative to cities, where public services tended to be more accessible. Rural poverty meant that fertility failed to decline in the countryside and natural increase continued, while deepening deprivation there insured a constant flow of poor migrants to cities where capital-intensive industrialization in the formal employment sector failed to absorb them.

Technology, as we are beginning to truly appreciate, is a double-edged sword. It presents us with both problems and possibilities. On the one hand, it can eliminate livelihoods, and this has already occurred throughout the region. Thus, it can impoverish. It can stimulate and accelerate rural-urban migration, leading to the unmanageable concentrations of population that we see in the Hemisphere’s mega-cities. It can lead to the over-exploitation and misuse of nonrenewable natural resources. On the other hand, it can alleviate onerous and dangerous labor conditions by mechanizing work. Technology in health care can eliminate diseases, such as polio and smallpox, that only a few decades ago could decimate entire populations. It can provide educational services to traditionally under-served and remote locations. In agriculture, technology can increase productivity and conserve resources. Much technology now developed can make small holdings more productive and viable once again. While it can cause great ecological disturbances, technology can also be used to reduce the negative effects of human intrusion into nature for the purposes of producing food and energy. Technology developed outside of one region can be transplanted, through careful policies and planning, to another. If used correctly, technology can help re-establish the ability of ecosystems to maintain a healthy equilibrium.

As the 1990s come to a close, these contradictory effects can be clearly seen in Latin America’s rural areas. On the one hand, commercial yields and life expectancies have increased. But on the other, after fifty years of industrialization, urbanization and most recently globalization, the living conditions in rural areas remain poor for most of the population, life expectancies are lower than in cities, incomes are lower, and virtually everyone agrees, public educational services are abysmal.

According to The World Bank, a lack of political will in the countries themselves is partially responsible.2 Governments tend to see agriculture as a declining sector, and rural populations have little political power. Rural people are spatially dispersed, and because of a lack of communications and transportation structure, rural populations have difficulty organizing and expressing themselves through established political processes.

Further, the international community weakened its commitment to rural development because for the last twenty years, food prices have been relatively low. The Bank also points out that in the past decade, poverty alleviation programs have focused more on policy reform and democratization than on integrated rural development. And finally, the Bank admits that its own performance in promoting rural development has been poor due to a shortage of technical capacity, excess bureaucratic rigidity and lack of regional rural strategies for change.

Of course, these statements are all sweeping generalizations about an extremely complex and varied sector. The diversity of agricultural practices ranges from the subsistence farming of Haiti and Bolivia to the highly mechanized, technologically sophisticated production of Mexico and Chile. The sector in all countries, however, is characterized by extreme inequality, resulting from a history of exclusion and discrimination against the rural poor. Many of these people then migrate to urban peripheries, where they  become an important source of urban poverty, or to environmentally fragile areas that ought to remain permanently uncultivated.