Unsettling Soy: New Crops, Kin, and Conviviality on Mozambique’s Agribusiness Frontier

Young men planting rows of soy on a local farmers' fields. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Serena Stein, Wageningen University & Research §

A smallholder soy boom in Mozambique changes relations of cultivation. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: Soybean agriculture is expanding to Southern Africa, reopening archives of botanical imperialism in service of new frontiers. Hailed as a miracle crop for its nutritional profile, commercial value, and nitrogen-fixation to soil, soybean has quickly become a “donor darling” among international development and bilateral aid agencies seeking to improve food security and alleviate poverty among smallholder farmers. Many scholars and peasant activists are mistrustful of these claims, anticipating a future Africa that follows trajectories of environmental sacrifice and social suffering in South America over the past half century. Northern Mozambique is imagined to be a continuation of Brazil’s agribusiness frontier, by virtue of shared climactic conditions and colonial experiences, where Europe and Asia increasingly offshore production of livestock feed and edible oils, supposedly out of sight. In this view, soy arrives to Africa as a Trojan Horse—a vehicle for agro-extractivism, disguised as the humanitarian gift. My paper examines dynamic concepts of invasiveness, multispecies belonging, and forms of kin among Lomwé smallholders in northern Mozambique amid a regional boom in transnational agribusiness investment and soy expansion. Drawing on 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2015 and 2018, I investigate rural development that seeks to replicate the Brazilian Cerrado—one of the largest zones of soybean production worldwide—in an African landscape layered with colonial, socialist, and recent histories of agriculture industrialization and exploitation of indigenous communities. Following soy from Brazilian origins into Lomwé agrarian worlds reveals practices of cultivating, cooking, and living with soy that exceed tidy dichotomies of foreign/native, commercial/subsistence, and extraction/symbiosis. Women farmers, especially, challenge soy’s masculinist and Eurocentric materialization, traversing ontological barriers as soy is cultivated in gardens and marginal spaces. An extended discussion of multispecies conviviality draws from Lomwé concepts of co-existence to ask to what extent soy can escape its mono-culture narrative in Mozambique and the risks of making it flourish here.

Samuel, a Mozambican farmer, stands amid his five hectares of soy. A group of NGO staff circle him and take his photograph for a report on the growing number of early soy “adopters” receiving seeds and farming inputs by various agricultural development organizations avidly promoting soy. While Samuel is being interviewed, a group of his female kin labor, stooped over plots of cassava, beans, and maize at the edge of the field just beyond the camera’s frame.

Soy agriculture features prominently in anthropological literatures on land expropriation, exploitative farm labor, ruination of indigenous worlds, and agrochemical toxicities (Hetherington 2020; Gordillo 2014). Over the past half century, scientists adapted the legume from temperate climates to the tropics where mega-plantations now blanket vast expanses across Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and beyond. My paper is the first ethnographic study of the arrival of soy from South America to Africa, in a period of intense searching for “silver bullet” solutions to food insecurity, poverty, and climate resilience. Yet, programs promoting soy—including both traditional foreign donors of aid and emerging Global South powers stepping into the role of donor for the first time—are met with contestation. From the perspective of those watching South America with a critical view, soy could only be one thing: a proxy for agro-extractivism and a portent of disaster.

Lomwé women weeding a machamba. Photo by author.

Tracing a soy boom among smallholder farmers, this paper offers a challenge to an oversimplified narrative that says Mozambique will follow the agri-capitalist trajectories of other countries in the Global South. Writing against the tendency to treat Mozambique as a belated and derivative version of other countries is important to many farmers of northern Mozambique, and to me. I follow everyday experiments with soy taking place in new relational configurations in and beyond traditional agroecological practices. This view helps contradict the notion of seeds as “immutable mobiles” (Latour 1987) of new imperialism that facilitate transnational control of agriculture, while still being wary of the possible future directions agribusiness could take. The ambivalence of soy brings focus back to messy ecologies of cultivation that exceed categories of invasive and belonging, extractive and regenerative, as Mozambicans wrestle with accommodating this new crop.

The paper contributes to my larger project, called “Kindred Frontiers,” which examines Brazil’s drive toward African agribusiness via South-South partnerships at the start of the 21st century, and uncovers its fragilities and reworkings. The makers of South-South development policy imagine a future agricultural frontier extending from the Brazilian Cerrado to Africa, and attempt to smooth over disparate histories, cultures and ecologies in Brazil and Mozambique to justify their approach. When commensuration fails, South-South experiments rely primarily on “kindredness” across the former Lusophone Empire, which I describe as a top-down ploy to gain access to African land and resources through fictive intimacies, but also a bottom-up pursuit by Lomwé farmers eager to incorporate alternatives and remake agriculture change in their favor.

A Lomwé woman cooks soy in a traditional porridge dish. Photo by author.

The paper looks at specific Lomwé bodies and social formations that bring about conviviality, or multispecies thriving, and endows soy with new values both in terms of the extraction of biocapital and the production of welfare. In Brazil, the tropicalization of soy is mythologized as a Eurocentric and militaristic march of “men of science” into the Cerrado from the 1970s forward, as decades of breeding by state scientists push the limits of soy yield and resistance to drought and flooding. It is a history that erases the contributions of subsistence farmers working with soy, Japanese settlers in Brazil, and women scientists advancing the symbiotic potential of soy in new landscapes. In Mozambique, agricultural development projects continue to gender soy production by gifting inputs, financing tractors, and fast-tracking legalization of farming areas primarily for men. These initiatives sometimes stoke tensions over land boundaries and concerns over debt accrual, yet many remain keen to grow soy in consórcio (intercropped) and rotations, toward diversifying farm repertoires.

Lomwé women, however, integrate soy into farming quite differently—as kin. Small patches of soy are grown with great care and vigilance close to their houses to protect from thieving as soy grows more lucrative. Some women call soybean their filhos, or sons, with the expectation that the plants will bring reliable cash to their mother, as a good son should. Some women turn to cultivating soy in the interstices of staples, and in secret plots at the edge of forests to bypass the control of male kin. Interstitial soy represents an ethic of convivência, or conviviality (Nyamnjoh 2017), that draws etymologically from the Portuguese term for “living together” as well as Lomwé notions of harmony that may be tenuous but is necessary, and not easy to achieve. Here, conviviality is the predicament of accommodation, as farmers carefully navigate an opening and closing frontier.

For anthropologists studying the making of species companions, African soy offers a look at the ways people determine the lines of what is cut or tied for collective flourishing (Haraway 2015). Conviviality as practiced here is not naïve to the power or predation of the global agri-capitalist project, but seeks to challenge its narrative monoculture.

Young men planting rows of soy on a local farmers’ fields. Photo by author.

Works Cited

Gordillo, Gaston. 2014. Rubble: The Afterlife of Destruction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6(1): 159–165.

Hetherington, Kregg. 2020. The Government of Beans: Regulating Life in the Age of Monocrops. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nyamnjoh, Frances. B. 2017. “Incompleteness: Frontier Africa and the Currency of Conviviality.” Journal of Asian and African Studies 52:253–270.

Serena Stein is a Researcher at Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands. She investigates transnational and multispecies relationships in agribusiness frontiers in Mozambique and Brazil. Her research has been supported by the American Council of Learned Societies and Mellon Foundation, Fulbright Hays Program, National Science Foundation, Wenner Gren Foundation, and Princeton University. Current research examines evidentiary and racial politics concerning regenerative farming movements and carbon sequestration in agriculture. Serena also works on a large study of U.S. farmers in the pandemic, and she co-organizes the Mangrove CoLAB, funded by the SSRC Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean, that brings together scholars and practitioners from Mozambique and India investigating interlinked ecologies of coal extraction, agrarian change, and coastal restoration.

This post is part of our series, 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.