ritualized action in times of nitrogen, climate and ecological crises

The emission of nitrogen in the Netherlands must be reduced in the short term in the fight against further damage to nature in ‘Natura 2000’ areas. But, say many farmers: not as the government imagines. There are protests and not for the first time. It is for the first time that some in these protest actions go to great lengths. How are we to understand these protests?

By Mirella Klomp, lecturer in practical theology, PThU

Land to a stop
On 22 June 2022, countless farmers from all over the country will travel in a long line of tractors in small processions to Strø, where a farmer has donated his land for a demonstration against the government’s nitrogen policy. Tractors drive on the highways, blocking them or standing next to them, there are long queues of cars, the roads are closed, the country is almost brought to a standstill. A signal to indicate: “We do not agree to those nitrogen plans.” In 2019, farmers already made their way to The Hague in this way: a tractor procession to the sanctuary of power. But there are several forms of protest: Signs on meadows with texts like ‘No farmers no food’ and online protests, especially on social media, with hashtags like #boerenprotest, #trotsopdeboer and #respectvoordeboer.

Great interests in protests
We have seen similar protests before and not only in the Netherlands: in 2018, 2019 and 2020, farmers in several European countries (Belgium, Germany and also Spain) protested in similar ways against the agricultural measures of the EU and their national governments. To realize the transformation to a healthier and more sustainable food system that is less burdensome on the planet, it is necessary for the agri-food sector to undergo a fundamental overhaul, say experts and environmental and nature organisations. The Dutch government is more committed to symptom control and a quick bite policy; often and as now to the horror of the peasants. But how would it be? Opinions are divided on this, also among the farmers themselves. The debate is regularly heated because there is much at stake for all parties: profits from banks, feed producers, meat processors, dairy cooperatives and other large companies in this sector, the future of agricultural businesses (some of which have been in the family for a long time), as well as their livestock bloodlines), the government that has a legal obligation to achieve climate goals, the Dutch landscape, biodiversity and soil quality, the quality of life on the planet for generations to come, to name just a few. That is why many protests are so extensive, the resources deployed (large vehicles) and the words so great: the interests are also great.

Expresses symbolic meaning
Because it is symbolic action, even ritualized action, and I think we understand the protests better when we see them that way. Ritualized action means: it is not a fixed, deep-rooted ritual, but a way of doing things arises, of protesting in this case, where a symbolic meaning is expressed. This is done by designing more or less repeatable successive actions, the moment when and the place where these actions take place. Such ritualized actions often occur in situations of uncertainty, lack of control and discomfort.

Farmers are stuck
Many farmers find themselves in such a situation, not now for the first time, but for some time. Rapidly changing agricultural policies that undermine long-term business operations, the dependence on and obligations to banks that have long focused on revenue growth through intensification and economies of scale, prices of products that make it more difficult to make sustainable investments: countless farmers, yes. if they do not protest, more and less have the feeling of being trapped in a system from which they find it difficult to get out. Shifting to more sustainable agriculture, in whatever form, usually requires sacrifice, more uncertainty and usually, at least in the early years, a sense of lack of control. Farmers who paralyze the Dutch people’s daily lives during rush hour with tractor protests symbolize the feeling that their businesses are being thwarted. Farmers who repeatedly call pride and respect through slogans on their pastures demand appreciation. To be able to see this, instead of finding it exaggerated, requires us to suspend our judgment for a moment, listen and inform ourselves.

Gap between farmers and consumers
The distance between farmers who produce food and consumers who buy and consume that food is usually large – the food chain is long and has many links, and all parties have to make money from it. It can feel as if the value to farmers has been reduced to the price they get for their produce, to no more than economic value and even below cost. Angry farmers, with their protests, therefore also express the alienation that has arisen between producers and consumers. The suggestion that the current production amount of food would be necessary to feed all the mouths in the Netherlands (‘no farmers no food’) is only partially true (because the majority of the proceeds are destined for export), but the underlying call for recognition and appreciation symbolizes a normative dimension from which consumers can learn something.

“Have you eaten today? Thanks to a farmer!”
Farmers are not just anonymous producers or business owners. Their work consists of looking after their animals and their crops, dealing with the elements of wind, sun and rain, day in and day out and, if necessary, at night when the harvest must be done before the earth rains or there are calves, piglets or lambs. In the food they sell, they decide for themselves. Anyone with a job, whether you’re paid for it or volunteer, knows how much appreciation means. The peasants’ ritualized protests at least also symbolize something of this desired existential appreciation: They are thus not only about business matters, but also about themselves, their entire existence and often also their family history.

Food as a gift
There is something else. Through their work, farmers know (and still do) that food partially eludes our idea of ​​manufacturability. An animal can get sick and die, a crop can fail; a farmer can do his best but ultimately does not have full control or influence over it. ‘Successful’ food production must also be given to you; food is also a gift somewhere. It’s not something most people, including myself, usually pay much attention to when pushing their shopping cart at the supermarket, but it’s a valuable insight for all of us. The peasant protests, which symbolize the desire for existential appreciation, therefore affect not only the appreciation of the peasants, but also the appreciation of food, which is, after all, not a given.

Ritual failure
Rituals and ritualized actions are known, among other things, to enable a transition to another phase and to channel emotions by giving vent to what is bothering you. The first has now been achieved – if you can read it from the conversations with farmers led by Johan Remkes among others: people are talking together again. The second, however, is not the case: the farmers’ protests seem to be primarily motivated by anger and frustration (about more than just the nitrogen measures, as is evident from the aforementioned conversations: also dynamics around oppositions such as ‘city vs. countryside’, ‘citizens vs. government’ and ‘organic vs. conventional’ play a role), but instead of the farmers’ protests giving vent to these feelings and helping to regulate them, the situation has escalated and the chaos has only increased.* Hanging the Dutch flag on the head in the streets (for centuries a signal of an emergency where help is needed) arouses alienation and anger in some. A national flag, in any case a highly charged symbol, stands for unity and connection, but when it is used by one group to send a certain signal that is not recognized by all, rather division occurs (“of the flag you stay away from !”). Protests where borders – including Dutch law – are raised lead to more intense emotions, for example when politicians’ homes are visited and/or threatened, or when motorways, including emergency lanes, are blocked, hampering preparedness. Such moral, physical, psychological and/or legal violations always provoke strong reactions.

All in all, the ritualized actions of ‘protest farmers’ in recent weeks have lost the goodwill that originally existed among a significant part of the Dutch population. It is risky: the farmers’ protests threaten to turn into a ‘ritual failure’. A sense of pride for the farmer and the desired recognition and appreciation is not achieved in this way, on the contrary. The actions thus have the opposite effect of what they intend.

How to proceed?
The nitrogen problem, which is not just a problem for farmers, is not easy to solve. A form of agriculture and animal husbandry that is supported by farmers, major players in the agricultural sector and society at large still seems to be a long way off. The last protests will not have happened yet. For the future and future social debate, it will be important if we all succeed (including protesting farmers) in looking at what protests actually mean: what meaning is symbolically expressed here? It doesn’t offer a definitive solution, but trying to see protests as a ritual process might help.

The author would like to thank Bertus Buizer, first climate mayor of Leeuwarden, for his critical view and constructive comments on an earlier version of this text.

Source: IRiLiS

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