Bivar on Aistara, 'Organic Sovereignties: Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade'

Guntra A. Aistara
Venus Bivar

Guntra A. Aistara. Organic Sovereignties: Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2018. xvi + 263 pp. $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-74311-0

Reviewed by Venus Bivar (Washington University St Louis) Published on H-Environment (July, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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Review of Organic Sovereignties: Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade

Guntra Aistara has written a wonderfully insightful comparative ethnographic study of organic farming in Latvia and Costa Rica. One of the great strengths of the book is Aistara's ability to draw unexpected parallels between these two national narratives, weaving them together through the shared struggle for sovereignty. As the title suggests, sovereignty is a key concept for Aistara, who is interested in how it operates across several different scales: the sovereignty of the nation, of organic movements, and of farmers themselves. Complicating the story further, these sovereignties are often at odds with one another.

At the center of Aistara's analysis are two regional free trade agreements: the European Union (EU) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). As "regional peripheries" (p. 18), both Latvia and Costa Rica have had to negotiate the terms of trade within the framework of asymmetrical power relations. Latvia joined an already existing, and very powerful, EU in 2004, while Costa Rica ratified the US-dominated CAFTA in 2007. Over the course of seven chapters, Aistara teases out the implications of the two agreements, covering such topics as seed saving, biodiversity, the historical legacy of landscape and property regimes, as well as the institutionalization of organic standards and grassroots efforts to build sustainable organic businesses. 

In addition to historical and ethnographic methods, Aistara also employs several different conceptual tools in order to deepen her analysis. The work of Michel Foucault, and in particular his ideas about discipline, serves as a backdrop for much of the book, while Bruno Latour, Anna Tsing, and James Scott make several cameo appearances. Aistara has a rare ability to draw on theory to maximum effect—amplifying her empirical findings with ideas about scientific truth claims, interspecies collaboration, and legibility without allowing them to overshadow her actors. 

In chapters 1 and 2, Aistara provides historical and political context for her fieldwork and argues that both Latvia and Costa Rica have constructed national imaginaries that rely heavily on both the romanticization of the smallholding farmer (a trope that is common across the globe) and resistance to political and economic domination. In the Latvian case, centuries of occupation at the hands of Germans, Swedes, and Russians amplified the meaning of land ownership and autonomy. Joining the EU presented itself as a marker of sovereignty. Many organic farmers worried about how their operations would be affected by the standards dictated by the trade agreement, but given the overwhelming national enthusiasm for the project, chose to remain silent. Conversely, organic farmers in Costa Rica, after several decades of neoliberal austerity measures, were vocal in their opposition to the CAFTA. The national myth of exceptionalism, grounded in a long history of democracy that has set Costa Rica apart from its Central American neighbors, led many to worry about the prospect of foreign domination at the hands of the United States. This opposition, however, was complicated by the fact that Costa Rican exceptionalism ignores the internal colonization that created racial hierarchies between white settlers and indigenous populations, hierarchies that translate into very different relationships with the state and with sovereignty more broadly. These differences in ideas regarding sovereignty in Latvia and Costa Rica are played out in chapter 2, where Aistara provides more detail on the accession to their respective trade agreements. While the vote on EU membership in Latvia was treated as a matter of course, as a "return to normality," in Costa Rica the referendum on the CAFTA was hotly contested, and only narrowly approved.

Rather than offer a chapter-by-chapter summary of the ethnographic material, I would like to highlight two sections in the text that are particularly compelling: a discussion of biodiversity in chapters 3 and 4; and the use of Foucault's ideas about discipline to understand conventionalization, introduced in chapter 7 but conceptually key to the entire book. In chapter 3, Aistara raises astute questions about the nature of what constitutes an "authentic" landscape. In Latvia, a territory that was once entirely forested, hundreds of years of clearances for human cultivation have led people to view meadows and grasslands as the natural landscapes of the nation. Indeed, after the fall of the Soviet Union, re-clearing ancestral farmland that had been left fallow for decades became an act of national and individual sovereignty. Moreover, these meadows and grasslands have come to be prized for their biodiversity, a designation that Aistara astutely calls into question in chapter 4, drawing on the work of Arturo Escobar. In the language of regulation and government protections, biodiversity is understood to be a value that is produced outside of the context of human action. But as Escobar has argued, and as Aistara has demonstrated, some of the most biodiverse regions are indeed the product of human interactions with nature. In order to emphasize this point, Aistara suggests that we think instead in terms of "networked diversities" (pp. 131-34). 

The story in Costa Rica is not dissimilar, in that human history has likewise been erased from the "authentic" landscape. The lush forests of Costa Rica, celebrated for their own biodiversity, are valued precisely for their lack of human influence, the assumption being that the forests are a pristine nature. But as William Cronon has taught us, there is no such thing as pristine nature, and the presentation of Costa Rican forests as an untouched haven of biodiversity elides the existence of the aboriginal peoples who inhabited these forests long before white settlers arrived. Assumptions surrounding what constitutes the authentic Costa Rican landscape are further complicated by the fact that it was not until the 1970s that this valuation of the forest emerged. Prior to the rise in environmental awareness and international pressure to protect tropical forests, value was located in clearing the land for agricultural production. The legacy of these different conceptions has become a key part of the debates regarding land use—smallholders object to the new large-scale pineapple farms on the grounds that they do not conform to "natural" land use patterns, while organic farmers attempt to integrate their fields with the forests, working with nature rather than against it. 

The trouble arises in the gap between institutionalized understandings of nature and culture. One Latvian farmer who manages a biodiverse grassland with the help of wild horses had trouble communicating to EU land surveyors that the bushes on her property counted as productive agriculture, there to feed the horses. Similarly, Costa Rican farmers who mimic forest ecology in their agricultural practices ("the forest has no weeds") are illegible to the state and to funding agencies. The standards established by the EU and the CAFTA simply do not allow for these creative approaches to agriculture.

In order to demonstrate how organic farmers have disciplined themselves in order to conform to the standards established by regional trade agreements and globalized markets, Aistara tells the story of a dairy operation in Latvia and a coffee cooperative in Costa Rica (chapter 7). From its very beginnings the organic dairy set up in Latvia ran into roadblocks. With EU regulations designed for large-scale operations, it was difficult to meet certain standards. For example, the dairy was not approved to sell its products within the EU because the facility did not include a ton-size butter churn. Eventually, the enterprise failed and went bankrupt. The woman who had started it, Dina, went on to become an employee of the company that took over what was left of her business, and in light of her experience, Dina scaled back her aspirations for organic production in Latvia.

Similarly, in Costa Rica a coffee cooperative that began with ambitious goals and quickly grew its membership ultimately failed, went bankrupt, and was reinvented when the social networks of trust that had formed the basis of the business proved to be too informal when operations were expanded. Producers simply were not able to run their business without having to conform to the bureaucratic logic of the CAFTA. The retooled version of the coffee cooperative, at the time of Aistara's last fieldwork visit, was operating on a much more modest scale and had abandoned some of its more progressive social goals, for example, creating bridges between aboriginal and non-aboriginal producers.

Pulling these two examples together within a Foucauldian framework, Aistara writes, "In both cases the organic cooperatives tried to expand both the technical parameters and the social relations that define organic agriculture. Yet in both cases, actors who were foiled in innovative efforts to transform and reinvent the rules of the game abandoned their novel approaches. They subsequently justified the need to follow a more conservative approach, which reflects an internalization of conventionalization by discipline" (p. 182). This idea that farmers have been forced over and over again to discipline themselves in order to conform to the standards of organic certification, of trade agreements, of distribution chains, is a useful one for thinking through the history of organic farming. In other parts of the text, Aistara offers examples of Latvian organic dairy producers who sell their milk, for less than it is worth, to conventional processors because there are no organic processing facilities available. In Costa Rica, after Wal-Mart purchased two of the largest super markets and announced that they would offer no more than a 15 percent premium for organic goods, organic producers were forced to give up on larger distribution, unable to cover their costs under the terms dictated to them by the global behemoth. 

In my own work on French organic farming, these same questions regarding external standards and local visions have arisen time and time again. For example, questions regarding certification and official state recognition in the early 1980s were hotly contested. Some farmers were willing to discipline their dreams in exchange for greater recognition and state assistance. They gave up on commitments to small-scale production, to the creation of social bonds through local distribution networks, and to integrated methods that valued holistic environmental health. Others, however, continued to support this more radical mission. The end result was a rift within the organics movement that ultimately weakened its position in relation to both state and suprastate regulation. 

With her ethnographic work in Latvia and Costa Rica, Aistara has provided us with powerful examples of how farmers are continuing to fight for sovereignty over the land, over their production methods, over their livelihoods, and over their homes. As she writes in the introduction, free trade agreements, and their enforced conventionalization, are edging out "innovative place- and diversity-based practices" (p. 23). Given the increasingly negative impacts of our current food systems, from health outcomes to climate change, giving voice to those farmers who are committed to alternatives is important work.


Citation: Venus Bivar. Review of Aistara, Guntra A., Organic Sovereignties: Struggles over Farming in an Age of Free Trade. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. July, 2020. URL:

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