Why peasants stay poor

A panelist at a United Nations-sponsored meeting observed that to understand why peasants (a class of people, of low social status, who depend mainly on agricultural labor) stay poor, one has to study first why their neighbors have become rich. He was saying that the rich exploit the poor.

Studies from early civilizations to the present have shown how ruling and other classes accumulated enormous wealth at the expense of peasants. As the rich accumulated more wealth, the effort to extract surplus from the peasants grew ever more.

Thus the growth in wealth on the one hand was accompanied by the growth of poverty on the other hand driving living standards of peasants down to the minimum level or even lower.

The exploited communities suffered poverty and associated malnutrition and disease burdens which further decreased their productive capacity – leading to endemic poverty.

Medieval Europe was characterized by three social orders – the clergy who prayed and cared for the souls, the lords who governed and fought, and the peasants (the majority of the population) who labored for themselves and for the other two orders.  In return for the lords’ protection, peasants paid tribute, provided free labor on the lord’s land, and paid fees for using the lord’s mills, bakeries, etc.  They also paid tithes to the clergy. Over half of the peasants’ produce went to the clergy and the lords.

These exchange arrangements reduced peasants to poverty leading to poor feeding, poor housing and poor clothing. These human conditions reduced their productive capacity – through poor health and the inability to acquire better farming equipment – and kept them perpetually poor.

In Rujumbura country, the overwhelming majority are peasants who depend on their land and household labor to produce for subsistence and for cash. These are largely illiterate women either widows or wives whose husbands work for wages far away.  Accordingly, women are responsible for producing and marketing their produce. Their impoverishment has taken various forms. Let us examine them through coffee sales in the 1960s and bananas sales presently.

When the peasant took coffee to a buyer, she was sometimes told the beans were not dry enough – and therefore weighed more than when fully dry.  The seller was advised either to dry them again or sell at a discount. Because she needed money urgently, she often sold at a discount with a net loss – sometimes substantial.

Because the seller was illiterate, the buyer sometimes recorded a lower figure than the actual weight on the scale.  If the seller came with someone who was literate the buyer may still trick both.  While they focused on reading the scale, the buyer or his colleague lifted the sack of coffee from below with his thigh reducing the weight, sometimes significantly. The weighing was done so quickly that there was no time to double check. And the atmosphere was so intimidating that the seller was dumbfounded.

To make matters worse, the unscrupulous buyer sometimes gave the seller a promissory note to pay later, but stamped ‘paid’ on it. When the seller returned to collect the money, she was told she had been paid as shown on the note. All sorts of insults were hurled at her.  Perplexed, angry, crying and penniless she returned home. And she started all over again. The author witnessed some of these practices first hand. That is how growing coffee kept the peasant poor while enriching the buyer.

What about bananas?  Stories abound about sellers and buyers who negotiate and agree on the price of each banana bunch while it is still hanging up on the stem. Once they are on the ground, the buyer refuses to pay the agreed price arguing that the bananas are actually smaller than they appeared on the stems. The buyer suggests he pays less or advises the seller to find another buyer. Given the very short lifespan of harvested bananas, the seller has no choice but to re-negotiate and ends up accepting a much lower price than the market value. The difference goes to the buyer who grows rich while the seller remains trapped in poverty. These stories are incredible but true.

The sellers need to organize themselves to sell at a market price or else they will remain poor no matter how hard they work.