Follow the Tomato!

images-1Following my earlier post on the racial geography of the Black Mediterranean, colleagues keep pointing me at North-South connections in agri-food commodity chains, particularly with regard to tomatoes. My colleague Christian Berndt, for example, has written this wonderful comparison between the EU/North Africa and US/Mexico borderlands together with Marc Boeckler (click here for pdf and here for a link to the edited book chapter). They adopt a consciously marginal perspective – a view from the border – to document the heterogeneous associations that literally connect the agricultural fields to the supermarket shelves.

“In tracing the network tomato we posed one central question: How is the tomato held stable as a tomato while it is not only displaced through space but also subject to multiple ways of b/ordering that try to control the double play of framing and overflowing?”

 

The authors interestingly conclude with a quote form Ulrich Beck: “It is not the dissolution of borders, but rather border negotiation and border work which is at the heart of current globalisation processes.”

Their approach reminded me of the original approach taken for example by Ian Cook et al. (Follow the Papaya). As Cook writes while following his papaya from the field to the plane, to the London supermarket, and to the fruit bowl:

Although the narrative appears linear, it is not, as cross-cutting connections are drawn among and outside its constitutive stages: to colonialism, to the World Trade Organization (WTO), to Western middle-class consumption aesthetics, to the diseases and pests of exotic fruits, to the character of international air cargo transportation, and to developing-world labour control and surveillance. This is an unbounded, dense network of associations. And precisely because it isn’t a simple chain, the commodity itself is no ‘trivial thing’; it is composite, defetishized, decrypted, reflecting all manner of trace effects.

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Years ago I remember seeing this Brazilian documentary that followed a tomato from the field -where it grows, is watered, taken care off, and then, as it is further transported, sold and carried home, it ends up in the garbage of one wealthy family in Rio de Janeiro (unfortunately I cannot find the documentary any more, if anyone can give me a hint that would be highly appreciated).

A friend journalist then mentioned this feature on the Dark Side of the Italian Tomato by Mathilde Auvillain and Stefano Liberti.

“Makola market, the main market in Accra – one of the largest in Western Africa – is the commercial heart of the capital (…) Everywhere, wooden stalls seem to be laden down by red tins of tomatoes, skilfully balanced by the sellers in mysterious geometric formations. (…) “Salsa”, “Fiorini”, the brands are Italian pastes (…) even the Chinese product “Gino” displays the Italian tricolour on the tin to attract customers.”

 “(…) the government should have limited the quantity of tomato paste coming in from abroad. “If the market had been regulated, the farmers would’ve gotten better prices and would’ve had a market for their produce. But the government did the exact opposite. It swung open the doors of the country to imports of European tomato paste. Now there’s such a wide choice and such an amount of produce that it’s practically impossible to sell locally-grown tomatoes”.

 

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The webdoc concentrates amongst others on the swamping of African markets by European and Chinese tomato paste. What I didn’t know is that many of the African day labourers who end up picking tomatoes in Southern Europe come from tomato growing regions themselves; as a result of commercial dumping, these producers often have no other choice than to re-enter the commodity chain as unfree labourers. Bernard Hazard already mentioned Béguédo in Burkina Faso. The documentary by Mathilde Auvillain and Stefano Liberti furthermore mentions Upper east Region in Ghana. This raises the further question how African seasonal workers are recruited, how their labour force figures in a wider restructuration of agri-commodity chains dominated by big retail businesses, and how informal employment schemes intermingle with formal border regulations.

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free from exploitation

 

Finally last week, I became acquainted with an alternative way of organizing local tomato productions during a fair organised by SOS Rosarno. With their help, a group of African producers from Venosa, Basilicata, proposed their product, bottled tomato sauce, which says ‘free from labour exploitation’. Labourers are regularly employed without the intervention of criminal intermediaries, or caporali.

 

Working the Black Mediterranean

This somewhat longer post involves a reflection on a number of meetings I’ve had over the last months with African refugees in the city of Bologna, while preparing research on migrant labour and urban marginality. Though these meetings took shape in the context of a travelling theatre project (called City ghettos of today), I am thinking of enlarging my questions into a broader comparative agenda on what some people have started to call, first hesitantly, but ever more publicly and consistently, the Black Mediterranean.

I would like to contribute to this discussion by adding a few, loosely related, ideas around material labour conditions (for more on this dimension see here) as well as emerging hybrid identities in the arena of migrant mobilisations on the Afro-European border (primarily in Italy but also in other places). All of this may result in a research paper later this year.

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The Racial Geography of the Black Mediterranean

The Black Mediterranean has recently started to surface as a terminology to describe the cultural crossroads between Africa and Europe. It indicates the emergence of a vibrant cultural borderland characterized by growing proximity between African and European cultures in the area of film, music and literary expression. This post is an attempt to situate this borderland in the geography of racial subordination black Africans in Europe, specifically in Italy, continue to be subjected to (for more on the cultural dimension of the story see here).

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War connects places

While anti-terror operations in Europe go on unabated (for example this morning, several Chechen terrorists were arrested in Southern France) the critique against some of the Western posturing is also rising. Mustafa Dikeç, who I mentioned in my post, writes this brilliant reflection from Paris, France.

The appeal of fundamentalist discourse resides in its potential to turn a feeling of powerlessness into one of being all too powerful, guided by a divine source and a heavenly objective (…). If there is an element of truth in this observation, if the fundamentalists do indeed capitalise on the imposed inferiority of discriminated youth and provide them with doctrines and fora designed to make them feel somewhat powerful, then the French state has been doing exactly the opposite – not just in terms of concrete policies, but also by the deployment of stigmatising language by its high-ranking officials that went unsanctioned.

This attitude, together with Charlie Hebdo’ insistent irreverent style, is now causing more trouble in Africa and Asia. Two days of riots in Niger’s capital Niamey has left half a dozen deaths and many churches burnt. The riots occurred as a reaction of the president’s participation in a mass manifestation days after the gun attacks against Charlie Hebdo. Chechnya’s capital Grozny has known some of the most violent protests since the cooling down of the protracted civil war there; these riots -which were, interestingly, named ‘islamic protests’  by the Washington Times– arise along with manifestations in Jalabad and Kabul. Indeed, war connects places, Duffield wrote back in 2007:

Unknown-1While the recent terrorist attacks on America have had a profound social and political impact, it would be wrong to suggest that they mark a wholly new or unexpected departure.   What we are witnessing is a significant consolidation of systems and inter-connections that have been slowly maturing for several decades.  The violence of 11th September was an historic moment that quickly pulled together many existing threads to reveal a fuller sense of the design.  It is now easier to appreciate the consolidation of a new security terrain shaped by the advent of ‘network war’.  Like the Cold War before it, network war now defines the global predicament.  Across this contested landscape, bounded by the opportunities and threats afforded by globalisation, new forms of autonomy, resistance and organised violence engage equally singular systems of international regulation, humanitarian intervention and social reconstruction.  Increasingly, what one could call the ‘them’ and ‘us’ components of this new security terrain, that is, those systems of resistance and their opposing forces of regulation and intervention, have to varying degrees both assumed a networked and non-territorial appearance.  While states and their security apparatuses remain pivotal, in both camps they situate themselves within and operate through complex governance networks composed of non-state and private actors.

 

‘Us’ against ‘Them’

Given my experience with armed conflict, people have been asking my opinion about the terror attacks and anti-terror operations in Paris and Belgium. Despite the rhetorical proliferation around this issue, I add two small reflections. I could summarise them in these two, very short statements:

1. ‘we are them’ –or the collapsing scale of global military 
engagement in the (post?)-War on Terror age.
2. ‘they are (like) us’ –or the paradox of an emerging global society

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displacement economies

The LSE Book Review decided to dedicate a piece on an edited volume I have chapter in, on Displacement Economies (edited by Amanda Hammar, and published with Zed Books).

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It describes the book as “a volume of varied, compelling discussions on displacement economies in Africa that seeks to shed light on the large influence of displacement on the continent’s economies, and address the lack of systematic research on this topic. It does so through unusual angles that range from the Somali economy of camel milk to the role that being ‘out of place’ plays in the identity and livelihoods of unarmed youth in Eastern DRC. Each of the ten authors admirably examines both the widening and contracting opportunities present in situations where unpredictability and uncertainty dictate both the economic market and peoples’ lives. All of the chapters in some way address the questions: What do we find when we broaden the lens on displacement economies? And, what is not just destroyed but produced by displacement?”

The book’s compelling invitation – which owes much to Amanda Hammar’s sharp introduction – is that it “to look beyond the crisis of displacement and examine the adaptation and innovation of the economies that persist in, and even result from, such situations.” Also welcome is the reviewer’s emphasis on the cohesiveness of our argument, which, given the disperse character of displacement in the diverse case studies we describe, should be read as an achievement.

You can read the entire book review here.

 

Barbed Wire

UnknownI’ve just finished reading Reviel Netz’s, Barbed wire: an ecology of modernity (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2004). The book offers a detailed genealogy of this pain-inducing technology, from its initial use in the control of cattle in the American Midwest, to the control over people’s mobility in the South African Boer war, the Nazi concentration camps and the Russian Gulag. The book has strong credentials (endorsements by amongst others Bruno Latour) and has been widely discussed on the web: see here for an interview with the author in Cabinet Magazine, for example, and here for a review by Ian Hacking.

I decided to share my own thoughts on the book with you here.

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No Man’s Land

 

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It is worth mentioning a fascinating new project by Noam Leshem (Durham University) and Alasdair Pinkerton (Royal Holloway University of London), called Re-inhabiting No Man’s Land: from dead zones to living spaces.

The concept of the No Man’s Land is frequently related to the trenches of the First World War, which somehow dissolved the boundary between body and space – transforming the soldier into an integral part of a frontline ecology. In their concept paper the authors trace back the rich history of this spatial category, which typically indicates spaces that are anything but terra nullius. Instead they identify two constitutive forces that together produce the unique dynamics of no-man’s land: abandonment and enclosure.

Click here for a project overview and here for their concept paper (pdf).