Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Social Sciences, Media and Communications


Low external input sustainable agriculture is an important focus of the international development sector and is often presented as a solution to ‘agrarian crises’ in developing countries. It is a project that has been taken up by formalised nongovernment organisations (NGOs) and less formalised social movements alike. There is a major focus in the literature on the value of participatory approaches to sustainable agricultural development that build alternative farming systems in a manner that reflects the immediate needs and perspectives of rural communities, particularly the rural poor. This thesis examines three sustainable agriculture organisations in India and theorises their potentials and limitations for promoting sustainable agriculture in a participatory, inclusive and democratic fashion. In particular, it considers the way that organisational structure, the middle class status of leading activists and the social relations in which they are embedded facilitate and/or limit organisations’ capacity to contribute to this kind of inclusive, pro-poor development. Data was collected on case studies over a five month period, from December 2009 to April 2010. Four main methods were used to collect data on each case: participant observation, interviews (103 in total), the collection of primary written materials and secondary sources.

The data collected suggests that, while there is some scope for the participation of the rural poor in sustainable agriculture organisations, in practice, organisations tend to be directed and managed by middle class activists, who have access to the relevant resources to sustain projects over time. In order to maintain their initiatives, these activists not only forge relations with the rural poor, but also the state, donor organisations, dispersed activist networks and local elites. In the process, these more powerful groups come to have greater influence over the ideology, strategy and direction of sustainable agriculture organisations than do the rural subaltern groups who are most in need of change. I argue that sustainable agriculture organisations could be made more responsive to the needs of the rural poor if their leading activists take up facilitative (rather than leading) roles and adopt more flexible and expansive definitions of ‘sustainable agriculture’. Ultimately, however, the limitations in the current institutional environment mean that it may be better to begin to theorise ‘beyond sustainable agriculture’, abandoning pre-formulated development models and building the political capacity of the rural poor to formulate their own responses to agrarian crisis.