Establishing niches on the globe
Local knowledge and globalisation are central issues. Nowadays, rural development sociology should focus on understanding how people in the South at a local level can find a niche and make use of the ongoing process of globalisation, says Alberto Arce of WAU's Centre for Rural Development Sociology at the Department of Social Sciences
Alberto Arce's room in the Leeuwenborch is not the tidiest of places. The central heating is being renewed in the building which explains the unprecedented activity for a Friday just before the summer holiday. The floor is covered with sheets of old, undoubtedly once confidential, questionnaires now being used to catch the paint. So we move to the canteen, for once the quietest place in the building. Arce has a lot to tell. Too much perhaps for such a short time. He speaks passionately and at high speed, and although he lived for years in Britain and has been in Wageningen for the past five years, a strong accent still betrayes his origins
In 1976, Arce was forced to flee the Pinochet regime in his home country Chile. He ended up in Britain, where he finished his study and obtained his PhD degree. It was during this period that he met Norman Long, now professor at WAU's Social Sciences Department. Arce participated in the department's research programme in Western Mexico and eventually joined the team of rural development sociologists in Wageningen. Initially Arce taught environment sociology and anthropology. He explains that contentwise much has changed over the last twenty years in both education and research in the field of development sociology. The times that development sociologists focused solely on exotic and isolated local communities in the south are long gone. We have to look beyond local communities now. Arce feels that globalisation is a current issue which deserves academic attention. Globalisation is not just telephones and faxes or the Internet, but the different ways in which people experience these processes. Dutch farmers are moving to eastern Europe with loans provided by Dutch banks. At the same time the farmers are doing this to escape environmental regulations here.
According to Arce, the environment in particular is a clear example of a problem which has to be tackled at the global level. The environment is part of a much broader picture than conservation and biodiversity only. It is about how people can participate according to their capacities, background and interests. In Africa international organisations have a conservationist attitude towards environment protection, focusing on wildlife and nature protection. People are forced to move because nature reserves are established on their land. This has been the cause of a lot of conflicts, which separate local human needs from the technical needs of nature.
Besides trying to understand these kind of processes, Arce feels that development sociologists should make a point as well. Poor rural communities should not be regarded as victims. They are not isolated from the rest of the world. I strongly feel that people should organise themselves at local level, anticipate global developments and find niches in this global setting to strengthen their own position as producers and world citizens. Arce mentions the example of a student he supervised, who studied women's groups in Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. These groups were growing flowers for export. The flower auctions in the Netherlands dominate the world flower market. The Tanzanian flowers were not doing well. It turned out that their flowers sometimes did not meet the high quality standards. When the market was saturated, their flowers were the first to be destroyed. At the time KLM had a special exchange programme, ,Bridging the world, and this student applied. Her request was successful, which meant these women could come over to the Netherlands. Here they could see how the flowers are actually put up for auction and learn about quality standards and consumer preferences. Back in Tanzania they used the experience gained from the trip to ,reposition their local knowledge and adapted their production process accordingly
Arce explains that, in his view, markets should not be perceived in the neo-liberal sense of a place of free choices and opportunities. He stresses that markets should be looked at from the perspective of providing a set of possible alternatives. Thus, information and knowledge exchange become crucial elements in this sort of market. For instance, farmers in Latin America might benefit if they have access to information on the tariff systems charged in European harbours for the ships that transport their produce. Arce admits that, in order to study these kind of broader pictures and integrate this into the education programme, cooperation between different fields of science is necessary, not only globally but also within WAU. In that respect Arce has fears for the future. The cutbacks in resources over the past decades have made severe inroads. He argues that, at the level of staff, the lack of resources leads to competition between departments and researchers and that is not really favourable for either research or teaching cooperation
Besides, the cuts have fleeced the study programme for students. Courses and field trips have been dropped. In order to maintain a field trip in the curriculum, the staff have to find money elsewhere and therefore take on consultancies. As a result, there less time available for supervising students. Arce argues that on the other hand students themselves also have less time and money. Students are increasingly combining their practical period with thesis research instead of returning to Wageningen to digest their experiences before heading for another destination for their thesis. They are become more market oriented and focus on finding jobs rather than continuing with research. While these may be positive changes for some people, they are taking place increasingly at the expense of achieving a broader orientation and the ability to make a critical analysis of society.
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