We Need and Owe Rural People

Kenya’s Masai people, herders to the core, have found they can increase their meager income by leasing land to onion farmers. The farmers build fences, which dice up elephant migration corridors surrounding the country’s famous Amboseli National Park. So wildlife groups have devised a novel system of payments to the Masai that cover the income difference between grazing and leasing.

The Panama Canal is in serious trouble, from obsolescence and because deforestation has altered freshwater flows and increased sedimentation. So major shippers like Wal-Mart, which gets about 40 percent of its merchandise through the canal, have purchased business-interruption insurance with whopping premiums. Understanding this, visionary Brazilian capitalist John Forgach bought land around the canal and pays poor rural people to plant trees and husband the resulting forest. Sedimentation is less, and freshwater flows more dependable. Shippers agreed to fund Forgach’s work with some of their savings from reduced insurance costs.

Faced with a federal order to build an $8 billion plant to further purify its water, the city of New York instead, after pressure from environmentalists, tackled the problem’s source: upstream farming and forestry practices, and real-estate development in the Catskill and Delaware river basins. About $2 billion to buy buffer zones and pay landowners for improved practices staved off need for the plant.

These are but three examples of recognizing something long invisible to the market’s invisible hand: Rural land and rural people do a lot more than grow food or timber. Keeping rural people in place and doing good work tangibly and economically benefits all of us. By paying them to simply grow food or timber, the market greatly undervalues these people.

Intact wetlands filter water and control floods. Native grasslands and forests stop erosion and pull globe-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Preserved rural landscapes recharge the visiting city dweller, and they enrich our lives by helping us understand the link between land and food. Soundly managed rural lands are our most important source of wildlife habitat, especially in Midwestern and Eastern states with little public land. Healthy rural communities with proper amenities can stem the urban immigration now choking our planet’s megacities.

All of these very real economic benefits are what economists call “externalities”, meaning they are outside the market. We who benefit do not pay, which is precisely why these amenities are disappearing. If the market — pushed by government subsidies — will only pay a farmer to plant corn and soybeans fencerow to fencerow, that is exactly what will happen.

Or at least that is what happened until a handful of clever people around the world began pioneering ways to bring these services into the market — which is to say, to stop undervaluing rural people.

Ironically, the United States already pays enormous sums to supposedly support rural people. We spend well more than $20 billion a year in farm subsidies to encourage farmers to practice the most environmentally and socially damaging forms of agriculture. This significant social commitment does very little to support the diverse array of services we want and need. Mostly it supports large corporate farms to grow a handful of commodities — corn, wheat, rice and cotton — that are already in surplus.

The emerging work worldwide in payments for environmental services offers promising direction on how we might rework America’s farm policy to reflect the real value of land and people.

RICHARD MANNING is the author of several books, most recently Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. He is a member of the Land Institute’s Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kansas.