• Micah Fisher

Key questions on Food, Society, and Vulnerability during COVID-19

Updated: May 21, 2020

  • How do we fieldwork when we can’t actually go to research sites?

This was the main question of a recent Dala Institute blog post, providing pointers on how to approach research and evaluations during this time of social distancing. Rodd focused on some strategies such as communication technologies and safety measures for conducting interviews. I have worked on research involving rural communities across Asia and the Pacific for the past fifteen years, and I find that the most meaningful, memorable, and moving insights emerge from spending time in, and working with local communities. In my experience, honest interactions premised on trust, in the most human acts of mutual sharing always translated into the most profound insights.

Not only are we, as researchers, practitioners, and policymakers confined to our homes, but people across the world are contending with a change in mobility in ways we likely never experienced before. This is also changing the structures of communication and our knowledge about the world, making us increasingly reliant on certain networks of information.

Sure, now there are other ways to share. WhatsApp groups and their activity have lit up, keeping us connected to unlikely places. For example, when I did my dissertation research in South Sulawesi, I had to drive my motorbike seven kilometers to the furthest ranges of a cell tower just to get phone service. Watching those communities get connected in the past two years has come with an exponential rise in unlikely facebook friend requests. But I am also very much attuned to the who get connected, and those who are not. To access these online networks you also need a phone, network coverage, and resources to purchase data; not to mention the ability to operate a cell phone. There are many places around the world that remain without connectivity however, and during this pandemic I am concerned that we are not learning about challenges in certain places or able to hear their voices.

  • How do we learn about the effects of vulnerability unfolding in inaccessible areas?

In this post, I would like to scale out and think about land and agricultural food systems as an exercise in seeing how interconnected markets are around the world. I also want to connect these markets with what takes shape on landscapes and how these processes affect livelihoods. I would like to try to pinpoint a few key questions we need to be asking, but I especially want to ground these broader issues with an emphasis on what is happening among the world’s most vulnerable.

  • Are certain people more at risk, and are others falling into risk categories that we did not foresee?

One really perplexing phenomenon right now is human mobility. Migration for work is almost a universal phenomenon because people seek out employment – seasonal and long-term - in other places for a variety of reasons. Most of the attention on mobility right now is on urban migrants, whether they are stuck in cities jobless and vulnerable, or whether they may be vectors of disease into rural areas. This is of concern during the massive mobility of people during the upcoming holiday seasons, particularly as many Muslims return to rural areas to be with their families during the Idul Fitri celebrations.

  • When people do return, what activities will they be doing? Are they jobless, do they pick up the hoe and farm, do they still have access to land, or do they put new pressure on forests and the environment?

Growing food?

When I spoke to a friend in rural South Sulawesi about changes in the era of social distancing, I did not even have to ask my first questions about:

  • What are people growing? What changes are taking place in local agricultural systems?

He immediately divided the discussion into two land classification types. Those with rice land are doing well; those with tree crops are worried about the prices of their commodities. Nobody is interested in buying cloves right now, and coffee prices have been slashed by half. In other words, food crops seem to be doing well, while others are not. This reminds of a time I visited Ternate in 2016, when a farmer proudly pointed to his small grove of clove trees. As prices were peaking at that time, he talked about the stand as financing his children’s college educations. I can only wonder what current conditions mean for such lives and livelihoods.

Farmers are well-accustomed to boom-bust dynamics of tree crops, and those at the margins tend to take more measured risks in converting from food to cash crops. But agricultural systems are not just about households owning plots of land. Generally, there are important divisions of cash, yield, or labor exchange in farming systems. During my fieldwork in Bulukumba, Sulawesi, in one system a land owner worked with a land manager. They split financing for seed and inputs for a plot of land. In this case, cultivating corn, the women were paid in harvest yield (one sack) and for men, reward was in exchange for labor (working a full day on another’s plot of land). The remaining yield was split between the land owner and land manager, which was used for their own household needs with the rest sold to market.

  • What happens to these land-labor relations as markets recoil and reshape during COVID-19? Are there people who have become especially vulnerable because of current conditions?

In South Sulawesi, women have been especially hard hit, particularly as they are responsible for much of what happens in the marketplace. As prices spike, those making difficult choices to maintain the day-to-day challenges of the household are especially hard hit.

Markets and supply chains

I really like a research method called “follow-the-thing.” This approach looks across an entire commodity supply chain. For me, examining these chains of connections provides an opportunity to explore political ecologies in distant places.

  • What are the systems of exchange and production for creating a seed or seedling?

  • Who purchases this opportunity, and how do they grow it?

  • What labor is employed along the way?

  • What inputs and pesticides are used?

  • Who brings it to market?

  • What does the collection of these actions do to landscapes?

  • Who benefits, who loses?

  • If we were to follow these “things,” what would be new during this pandemic, and what new trajectories are being set in place for a long time to come?

COVID-19 and the environment

The headlines often speak of this time as a time of healing for the planet: Skies are bluer, pollution levels lower, carbon emissions falling. Discussions about these issues are simplified between the notion of an improved environment planet and what choices the collective we make as we return to “normalcy.” But there are also interesting under-reported tradeoffs that are taking place with respect to the environment. For example, marine conservationist friends I recently spoke to talked about a worrisome trend on nearshore ecological systems. As unemployment grows and subsistence needs increase, so are pressures in unlikely places. In particular, as people begin to intensify activity on the reefs in search of solutions for households needs, these new pressures are also affecting critical habitat and species of reef fish.

  • What pressures on the environment are being reduced during this time, and what new pressures are beginning to take shape?

Although this post was specific to food systems, rural livelihoods, and vulnerability, these questions are of course intended to be asked alongside the direct challenges of a public health crisis. These include the broader questions of:

  • How is the virus affecting peoples lives, and how are people experiencing this pandemic in terms of health impacts, psychological, or other social impacts?

  • How are policies being implemented - in terms of public health and providing extension and relief to rural people?