While unemployed I’m refreshing my sustainability knowledge by taking Coursera’s Sustainability Course. This week the focus is on water and agriculture. I’ve also recently sent out my (5 year old!) thesis on reducing slash and burn agriculture in Indonesia to a potential employer as a writing sample. These two combined have got me thinking of a conversation I had in a village in Sumatra (Indonesia) while conducting research for my thesis. I think of this conversation often and would like to share it.
Surveys over for the day, my translator and I were chatting with the local farmers who were curious about life in the UK. One of them asked me “Are farmers in the UK struggling like us?” I laughed at first, thinking it was a joke, until I realised they were all looking at me quite seriously and my translator pointed out that the farmer was serious.
“No”, I replied. “Farmers in the west are generally rich”.
The farmer looked pleased. “I’m glad”, he said. “They are my brothers, and I am happy they are doing well”.
I looked at him in consternation. He was so generous, and so genuinely comforted by the fact that his ‘brothers’ in the UK were doing well, I didn’t even know whether I could, or even should, explain that they were rich because of government subsidies, and that that the food they grew, cheaper because of government subsidies, competed with the food farmers in developing countries grew, both within their own countries and in developing countries, and how this meant that his well-off ‘brothers’ in the West were actually contributing to his and fellow farmers in developing countries’ poverty. How not only that, but the ones in the West were also part of campaigns to the public to ask them to buy produce only from their countries, therefore contributing even more to developing country farmers’ poverty.
Well, after his proclamation of happiness, I couldn’t spoil that for him. But I just wished, hoped, that the very same ‘brothers’ he were genuinely happy for at least spared a kind thought for him at least once in a while.