Delinking and Agro-Ecology


In the 1970s and 1980s, an array of African intellectuals took stock of the lights and shadows of the Bandung experiments in national developmentalism. The Egyptian economist Samir Amin was foremost in  advancing an alternative to attempting a successful incorporation into the world-system. In its stead and drawing heavily on the Maoist worker-peasant alliance in China, Amin formulated delinking – a popular development strategy based on subjecting external trade and financial flows to a popularly-determined law of value.

Delinking was a political and economic response to the social and economic pressures which capitalism exerted on peripheral development. But it was not the only one, as the limits of import-substitution industrialization, commodity-crop reliance, and agricultural modernization based on a mythical middle-peasant path to progress became ever-more-clear. Parallel to Amin’s formalization of the Maoist developmental path, peasant-oriented agronomists, ecologists, biologists, ethno-botanists, and others across the post-colonial world, built up their own counter-movement to the Bandung-era agricultural modernization project. They did not focus politically or sociologically on the peasant basis of development strategy. Instead, they set their attention to the anthropological, technical, and ecological basis of “traditional” peasant farming. On that basis they developed a set of principles which formed the foundation of what has now become a globe-spanning plan for an alternative modernity: agro-ecology.

In what follows, I first sketch delinking, the model of the world-system upon which it rested, and urban workers’ and peasants’ places in such a development strategy. I outline the history of agro-ecology and sketch the principles upon which it was based. I then show the ways in which agro-ecology and delinking diverge and converge, programmatically and empirically.


For Amin, delinking was a necessary response to how the law of value and global accumulation created two kinds of social formation: core and peripheral. The latter’s process of accumulation –which is to say, their history – depended on what happened in the core. Amin’s peripheries were the shadow cast by the core. They were defined in negative terms, in respect to what they lacked: a local bourgeoisie and local state control over accumulation.

Amin listed five conditions of the accumulation process in core countries: (1) the reproduction of the labor force, meaning agricultural development which produces surplus foodstuffs, and as time proceeds, enough wage-goods for the proletariat; (2) surplus centralization, which meant political institutions buffered from the pressures of transnational capital flows, and thus national capacity to channel investment; (3) control over a market largely reserved for local production, and ensuring some competitiveness of local goods on foreign markets; (4) formal ownership and freedom of choice as to whether to use or not use natural resources; (5) local control over technology.

These elements combined create an autocentric national economy. Autocentric was not an analogue for autarkic. Instead, it meant relations with other markets and producers were subordinated to the domestic social formation’s needs and the “logic of internal accumulation” – a logic which went beyond an arithmetic accumulation of capital to the socio-political regulation of the entire process of accumulation (Delinking, 11). Fordism was one such mode of regulation – and also domestic social containment. Such a logic did not obtain in peripheral social formations. Until industrialization began to accelerate in the Bandung/developmentalist period, bookended roughly by the years 1955-1980, the periphery’s agrarian bourgeoisie were adjuncts to core accumulation. In the post-colonial period, the middle class became more central to peripheral accumulation – becoming the basis of import-substitution industrialization and an internal market. But the widespread social democracy and wider internal market which were the calling cards of core accumulation were absent (13).

Amin pointed out two key aspects of the Bandung projects. First, they envisioned a role for the dependent bourgeoisie, to steer an internationally-oriented course to internally articulated capitalist development, that had almost no historical avatars. Second, the US assaulted them on every plane almost from their birth. In the face of this whirlwind, the peripheral bourgeoisie mostly “accepted[ed] compradorization” (17).

Each country faced either underdevelopment or breaking free from such fetters. Amin proposed “delinking” to break the chains. Delinking was not autarky, but a condition for “autocentric” development in the peripheral countries – autocentric as national control over accumulation (18). Delinking was a political choice to change the matrix of domestic decision-making. It was to break with the rationality in which domestic policy choices were made with an eye towards what the capitalist global market valued. In its place, an internal “popular alliance” would impose constraints and make choices according to its own law of value – the values and interests of workers and peasants (19).

Such an alliance could set in motion a positive program based on three pillars. One, to renounce world “capitalist rationality,” and subject all external relations to internal choices and values. Two, political capacity to introduce reforms in an egalitarian direction. Such a capacity also lay at delinking’s genesis, since the domestic bourgeoisie were perfectly happy with the status quo. And three, a capacity for “technological absorption and ingenuity” (60).

Amin modeled this transformation by abstracting from the worker-peasant alliance of Maoist China. Valuation of output of production would reflect labor inputs, and thus wages and prices would be calibrated to ensure that urban and rural workers – industrial and agricultural producers – could lay claim to shares of the social output equal to their labor inputs (62). “Rationality” and distinct laws of value take on quantitative-qualitative form when one considers that one hour of agricultural labor in the periphery produces what one-tenth of an hour produces in the core. In the industrial sector, three hours of labor in the periphery produce what one hour in the cores does. If wages and prices were calibrated with core calculations, there would be intensive rural-urban migration as surplus concentrated amongst industrial sectors. In the delinking model, however, returns to labor are constant. That is so even if agricultural productivity increases at merely two percent, whereas urban productivity increases at three percent per year. Thus, wages and prices need to be constantly readjusted to ensure that increased output does not lead to a rural-urban income differential.

In terms of inter-sectoral linkages, Amin saw the urban intermediate goods sector feeding the productivity of the rural sector, which would literally feed the urban sector. Virtuous circles would ensue. This exchange was based on a specific technological package – according to the model, increasingly capital-intensive and thus input-dependent industrialized agriculture. Amin understandably did not place such technics under intense scrutiny. He also did not know, or did not articulate clearly, the relationship between input-intensive farming and the long-run degradation of the ecology within which agriculture nests. Rather, he seemed to see, for the purposes of his model, agriculture as a factory in the field, one with lower productivity than the factories-in-the-cities (64-66). Welded to this, however, was an opening to “renovation and improvement of traditional technologies” alongside selective use of imported ones (67). This was unmistakably a nod to the technological mélange of Maoist China, where pig fertilizer, night-soil, and green manures went alongside chemical fertilizers and large and small tractors fast filling the fields. Because the model abstracted from the historical experience of capital-input-based and traditional technology-based agricultural development, it built those technics into its quantitative modeling and its program. Amin was a polymath. But he could not know everything. In particular, it seems he may have over-estimated the contribution or at least the necessity of external inputs to agricultural productivity increases, in the Chinese case and more broadly. He also was not a prophet. He could not know that agro-ecology would soon offer both well-grounded articulation of the scientific principles which animated the East Asian experience as well as experimental proof of the productivity and sustainability of infinitely renewable technics. I now turn to this second counter-movement to Bandung’s limits.

Agro-Ecology: A Brief History

Agro-ecology is the application of scientific experimentation to, and the formalization of, the processes underlying traditional farming systems. Thus, it does not surprise that it has as many regional taproots as there are diverse agricultural civilizations: from milpa and chinampa and terrace farming in Meso-America and the Andes to the water-turns, terraces, and tabias of the Maghreb, to the integrated rice-duck systems and ingenious hydraulics of East Asia.

Agro-ecology began one of several births as scientists sought to understand traditional Mexican peasant farming. In parallel, others developed theories of biological pest management in lieu of toxic pesticides. Such inquiries occurred at the same time planet-wide, as an array of agronomists “went back” to the peasantry in the Green Revolution’s wake, which upended and perturbed farming systems as it travelled from Mexico to India to Tunisia. The return to the peasantry – or the rural smallholder – was a reaction to the devastation the Green Revolution and capital-intensive hydraulics inflicted on peasants and ecology alike. Agro-ecology has also extensively cross-fertilized and hybridized with neo-populist peasant studies, which have focused on the peasantry as a fundamental laboring and productive class in the periphery and for that matter in the core.

Agro-Ecology: Principles

Agro-ecology is a set of ideas derived from mixing indigenous knowledge systems with elements of modern science and ethnoscience – or more expansively, ecology, sociology, biological control, basic agricultural sciences, anthropology, ethno-ecology, and ecological economics. It is not a list of “technical recipes.” Nor is it a buffet of inputs. It is a potpourri of principles. With those principles in hand, one can move directly to specific technological forms. Those forms are a derivation of the traditional farmers’ knowledge. They are also the fruit of participative research in farmers’ fields. They are a co-creation.

Traditional farming systems, or farming systems which have not “modernized” or industrialized, share six features. One, high levels of biodiversity, regulating the functioning of eco-systems and providing eco-system services. Two, land, landscape, and water resource management conservation systems. Three, diversified farming systems, or polycultures. Four, resilient agro-ecosystems that can cope with disturbances and absorb the caprice of inconsistent and sometimes-inclement weather. Five, they are nurtured by traditional, or handed-down and not purely book-based knowledge systems and the technologies with which they are bound. And six, cultural values and forms of social organization which ensure wide access to resources.

Such systems integrate livestock. In addition to poly-cropping, they maintain in situ (on farm) genetic diversity. Another important but not universal feature of these systems is their seamless weaving into a natural matrix. Agro-ecology, in fact, includes a series of principles which ensure a relatively closed metabolic cycle. First, recycling of biomass. Second, strengthening the “immune system” of the larger farming system by promoting natural enemies of pests. Three, promoting healthy soil. Four, minimizing loss of water, energy, or nutrients by both conserving and regenerating soil, water, and biodiversity. Five, promoting species- and genetic-level diversity over time and space. And six, enhancing synergies amongst various ecological and biological processes.

Such systems, carefully crafted by the inventors and engineers of perhaps humanity’s most important innovations, produce more than the monocultures beloved of the Western agricultural modernization project. They also fail far less frequently than do monocrops in reaction to climate-change induced disasters. Indeed, in terms of yield, and so potential surplus, the Golden Grail of productivist-oriented technologies, such systems may yield less on a per-crop basis. But when evaluated on a per-unit area, they produce far more. Furthermore, on marginal lands agro-ecology may out-yield conventional systems, whether for cereals or agro-forestry. They also do so while strengthening rather than sapping ecological health, the source of the use-values which keep farms functioning.

Delinking and Agro-Ecology

Delinking means subjecting a nation or a social formation’s external relationships to an internal popular calculus. One central concern is to avoid sacrificing domestic well-being to secure the needed specie for productivity-boosting investments. Naturally, agro-ecology would be central to delinking, since agro-ecology shies away from the expensive inputs needed for “modernizing” farming. As a result, a social formation can produce a greater surplus, and the factories in the cities – or in the countryside – can center industrial production and processing on wage-goods sectors or capital-goods rather than intermediate goods. The former leads to more satisfaction of wants for the population directly. The latter can do so indirectly. In both cases, agro-ecology allows for a more socially rational use of labor.

Furthermore, de-linking’s weak spot is reliance on external technological flows, often expensive foreign advisers to teach people how to use such technologies or to keep them running, in turn, turn-key industrial plants and continued imports of seeds, replacement parts, fertilizers, and finally onerous terms for obtaining the capital to keep the external supplies flowing. Thus agro-ecology is, or ought to be, a central technology for delinking. It is also the perfectly appropriate technology for the peasant side of the peasant-worker alliance which is at delinking’s core. First, it depends only to a relatively small extent, vis-à-vis institutional support, extension, and the scaling up of agro-ecology itself, on the state. There is also evidence that yields increase under agro-ecology. Additionally, there is evidence that the denominator of the physical productivity equation – labor-time – decreases in such systems, increasing productivity on both ends. For example, there are examples of agro-ecological conversions in Cuba in which yields increased, sometimes doubling or trebling, even as human labor and tractor energy use plummeted. In this way, labor is potentially freed for other social needs, including rural small-scale industrialization. It is not a coincidence that Cuba has one of the largest country-scale successes with agro-ecology. It is the result of Cuba’s forced delinking with the world capitalist system through the embargo, which forced it to readjust its own farming systems.

Furthermore, Amin’s model, perhaps unbeknownst to him, was abstracted from a form of farming – Chinese peasant agriculture – which largely used the techniques, processes, and principles upon which agro-ecology is based. In practice, two central historical examples of relatively autonomous national productive systems, Cuba and China, used to rest, and still do, on agro-ecological production. Finally, delinking has to account for the ecological question – ensuring that social production does not damage the long-run sustainability of the environment. In this sense, we know, due to the work of those who have extended world-systems theory to the realm of ecology, that accumulation on a world scale has been based on ecological load displacement. A logical corollary is that a delinking program would use forms of production which would prevent the accumulation of ecological damage in the periphery. Agro-ecology, once again, is the type of popular production which can attend to people’s human needs while causing no permanent damage to the ecology. In this sense, too, ecology, delinking based on placing priority on peasant well-being, and agro-ecology are the three-legged tripod of permanently sustainable development for the South.


This concept note has examined how delinking and agro-ecology speak to one another. It has examined those two reactions to Bandung at the programmatic level and has touched upon two major historical examples of delinked production based in large measure on agro-ecological farming. What I propose here is that the delinking analysis – drawn from world-systems theory and in conversation with dependency theory – is the political-strategic parameter within which agro-ecological farming ought to assume center-stage as a form of production.


Sources: Samir Amin, Delinking; Samir Amin, The Future of Maoism; Peter M. Rosset and Miguel A. Altieri, Agroecology, Science and Politics; Leslie Tse-Chiu Kuo, Agriculture in the People’s Republic of China, Peter Rosset, Braulio Machín Sosa, Adilén María Roque Jaime, and Dana Rocío Ávila Lozano. “The Campesino-to-Campesino Agroecology Movement of ANAP in Cuba: Social Process Methodology in the Construction of Sustainable Peasant Agriculture and Food Sovereignty.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 38, no. 1 (2011): 161–191.

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