Rural youth unemployment is a serious crisis facing countries of the Global South. Small-scale agriculture, which has long been the single biggest employer of the developing world, has the potential to be ecologically rational, socially just, and capable of absorbing unemployed youth. However, contemporary agrarian research has increasingly found that young people are not attracted to agricultural work. While a global urbanization trend is leading to exodus from rural areas, Hassan Turi shows the devastating impact of protracted regional and local conflicts on agricultural practices in Kurram District in Pakistan that further diminish the youth’s willingness to engage in small-scale agriculture.
With a global land rush triggered by rising food prices, the consolidation of large-scale industrial agriculture is not only dispossessing people from their lands, but also bringing energy-intensive and climate-warming practices. Small-scale agriculture, which has long been the single biggest employer of the developing world, has the potential to be ecologically rational, socially just, and capable of absorbing unemployed youth. However, contemporary agrarian research has increasingly found that young people are not attracted to agricultural work. Understanding the causes behind youth flight and unemployment is a key priority for developing a long-term youth policy and strengthening the agricultural economy.
According to a 2018 UNDP report, Pakistan currently has the largest youth population in the world, with 64% of the population less than 30 years of age. While there is a labour shortage in Pakistan and elsewhere, small-scale agriculture is no longer en vogue as youths leave their families to pursue careers in cities. But unlike the rest of Pakistan, where rural labour is migrating to cities, the rural youth from Kurram is increasingly migrating outside of Pakistan and becoming vulnerable to wider geopolitical conflicts. The conflict in the region has played a significant role in shaping Pakistan’s agricultural landscape, driving youths away from farms and changing agriculture in a way that makes it unattractive.
Conflict on the frontier
The village of Bilayamin, where I conducted my fieldwork, is located in the Kurram District of Khyber Pakthunkhwa Province that borders Afghanistan. This region has been affected by severe violence for decades. An ugly proxy war with the US lasting for years and a wider regional war have had a profound impact on people’s livelihoods, especially on agriculture, which had been the primary source of income for decades.
Before, most households employed family labour for agriculture, except during peak stages of farming. These patterns changed after the arrival of Afghan refugees in the 1980s (from the first Afghan war) to refugee camps in Kurram. With the launch of the War on Terror in 2001 and subsequent conflict in Kurram, farming practices took another hit. Land remained uncultivated during the war, and many people died, suffered injuries, or were displaced. Farmers could not bring their products to markets or buy new farming inputs. The conflict also forced many people, especially the youth, to flee from the villages in search of safety and better livelihoods. Those remaining behind were less interested in farming, seeking jobs related to their education, but without much success. Despite the sharp need for agricultural labour, young people were massively un- or underemployed and preferred to leave the country as migrant workers abroad.
Effects on farming practices
This labour shortage pushed farmers to change cropping patterns. Many have stopped growing rice. More farmers are planting plums and apricot orchards or rearing livestock. The proliferation of wild boars has stopped the cultivation of groundnuts and crops like rice or beans near the riverbanks and mountains. Young farmers are now tasked by their families with guarding their crops, often staying awake all night for the last two months of the harvest. In addition, there is an emerging trend of wage labour hired daily from villages with smaller landholdings. Remittances have also acquired increasing importance. Households with income from remittances are successfully reproducing themselves by spending money on better farming inputs and hiring labour on time. Families without remittance incomes are either decreasing the cultivation of labour-intensive crops or involving more household members to bring prices down.
Farming in Kurram, as in many places in the world, used to be a familial responsibility, but preferences have changed. Children traditionally would be involved in farming practices from an early age. Accompanying the adults to farms, children would fetch water, tea, food, and farming tools when the elders are busy. They would graze cattle and cut firewood or complete tasks reserved for children, such as weeding onions. Research suggests that exposure from an early age is crucial to engage interest in farming. But rural children who go to school are not exposed to these practices and consequently begin to lose interest in farming.
After the conflict in Kurram, households foisted more farming responsibilities onto those youths who remained in the region to compensate for labour shortages due to the war. For instance, before the conflict, children were not involved in difficult labour. However, this changed after the conflict, which seems to create an aversion for farming as the youth feels overworked. Most who are still engaged in farming see it as a transitory phase before securing a future in the cities. Yet some continue to wait and never make it to the cities, wondering if this temporary phase will ever end and despising the growing burden placed on them.
The effects of the multiple conflicts facing the Kurram District in Pakistan have been profound, exacerbating a global move away from small-scale agriculture towards cities or towards industrial agriculture. Small-scale agriculture, which can address the growing youth unemployment problem, needs to be made more attractive for the youth, who should see it as a viable enterprise instead of as a familial responsibility.
This is a shortened and edited version of an article that was originally published by Jamhoor.
About the author:
Sibth ul Hassan Turi is an Orange Knowledge Programme Fellow who studies at the ISS in 2016/2017. He comes from the Kurram district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and is a member of the Awami Workers Party Islamabad/Rawalpindi.