Cultural Solutions To Human Needs

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The ecological sciences are discovering that the natural and cultural realms are not only more complicated than we think, but more complicated than we can think. Yet development specialists, pressured by their employers to make progress, have not paid attention to this lesson. They continue to devise plans and projects that reflect value systems incompatible with the values of local cultures in significant and subtle ways. (Goulet, 1980) It's not surprising that many well-intended development projects have unintended and often devastating consequences for local communities. A series of demonstrations in Sri Lanka shows that with an in-depth understanding of local systems and an appreciation of cultural values, projects can be designed that serve community needs without disrupting the social and cultural fabric. Solutions, it turns out, are not just technological, agronomic, silvicultural, or economic, but rather entail a holistic approach to people's life-spaces.

Sri Lanka is an ancient land with a written history stretching back more than 2,400 years. Long before the contemporary notion of nation-states, the island once called Serendib was ruled by tribal leaders and then by both Singalese and Tamil monarchs. Roughly the size of Costa Rica or the state of West Virginia in the United States, the island had three colonial masters -- the Portuguese, Dutch, and British -- before gaining its independence in 1949. While the Portuguese and Dutch were primarily interested in the extraction of tropical commodities, the British wanted more. They envisioned a tropical version of their government and economy, with English as the language of the bureaucracy and international trade.

The island is home to four ethnic groups: the predominately Buddhist Singalese, the predominately Hindu Tamils, the Tamil-speaking Muslims, and the indigenous Veddas. The history of conflict, cooperation, and coalitions among the former three is long; each struggled to gain increasing control over resources and the allocation of benefits. The British seized control of the educational system, producing people to serve their administrative needs. Promising youths from all three major ethnic groups were sent to England for advanced training in law, medicine, agriculture, warfare, and management. After more than 100 years of British colonial domination, many of the leaders poised to assume power at independence were predisposed to continue the lead of the colonial masters in establishing an export-oriented economy and a parliamentary system with a prime minister directing government services.

A Social Solution to Increased Rice Production

The rush to follow the lead of the colonists did not go unnoticed or unquestioned. Ananda Coomaraswamy (1947), Sri Lankan philosopher and art historian, commented, "We who call art `significant,' knowing not of what, are also proud to `progress,' we know not whither." The leadership began to adopt technologies without understanding their long-term environmental, economic, social, or cultural consequences.

In the early 1960s, Upali Senanayake, son of the patriot who led the struggle against British domination, asked why the importation of foodstuffs and national debt were increasing. Unable to gain satisfactory answers from British-trained scientists and government administrators, he returned to the village to practice traditional agriculture and focused on rice, the primary staple. His solution turned out to be social rather than agricultural. While he found that he could plow and plant his fields, he could not control the weeds that diminished yields. Traditionally, the village priests declared a holiday when the time came to weed the paddy. Yet under British administration, the European calendar determined the school year and the labor of the young was no longer available to cultivators. Returning to the traditional solution of putting the children in the fields required the cooperation of the Ministry of Education and of other ministries responsible for agricultural programs.

Mr. Senanayake, in the face of a leadership dedicated to the modernization of agriculture, appealed to then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, a cousin, to allow children to be absent from school to weed the paddy. After directing such an aggressive campaign that he suffered a mild heart attack, Mr. Upali Senanayake was rewarded with permission to organize the relevant government ministries and farming villages. Over 640,000 school children entered the paddy fields accompanied by village musicians and removed the weeds. The results were remarkable. Rice production increased by five bushels per acre and continued for four years. Yet political opposition put an end to the program (Moles & Melvani; Moles, 1984) because Mr. Senanayake's organization of 640,00 future voters made him a threat to aspiring politicians. Yields dropped five bushels in the subsequent season.

A Trust Dedicated to Alternative Visions of the Future

While dismayed that the weeding campaign couldn't continue, the demonstrated success of traditional practices emboldened Mr. Senanayake to establish the National Heritage Trust of Sri Lanka as a non-governmental organization (NGO). Arguing that the people have lost the right of self-determination in selecting their future, he envisioned the Trust as an educational medium, a "mirror reflecting back to the people their history and culture." The Trust's role was to provide the broader community with a way of comparing their current means with alternatives proposed by those promoting different forestry and agricultural technologies. What is known to serve the people is that which has served them in the past. Accepting the unknown and untried is stepping into mystery, and in terms of food supply and environmental health, mystery may come at an unacceptable cost.

A Social Solution to Increased Irrigation Water

The Trust was offered as a solution to increased agricultural productivity and as an alternative to blind acceptance of or opposition to colonial practices. The Trust was Plan B (see Downing and Downing-Garcia, this issue). Aware that the new technologies substituted capital for both labor and land, Mr. Senanayake argued that labor was not the limiting factor in production. Turning Western economic analysis on its head, he drew on traditional agriculture in Asia that demonstrated incremental increases in production with increased application of labor.

Government ears were closed to his pleas, so he turned to his traditional Singalese community to create yet another demonstration of the value of traditional practice. With the assistance of the Buddhist clergy, he organized 50,000 farmers to desilt the tanks -- earthen reservoirs -- that had filled because the British stopped the traditional rajakaria, the organization of thousands of men for public works, including the maintenance of the irrigation systems. As a result of the desilting, adequate water for two harvests per year was available and farmers experienced increases in rice yields of 100 to 400 percent. (Moles & Melvani, 1984)

According to Mr. Senanayake, what it meant to be Singalese was expressed in the traditional agricultural practices, the Buddhist temples that served to organize public works within the communities, and in the villagers themselves. Again, despite the successful demonstration, opposition to the campaign to desilt the reservoirs brought it to an end.

Improving Performance of Traditional Management

In the late 1970s, Mr. Upali Senanayake's son, Ranil, returned to the island with a doctorate in systems ecology to explore in greater depth the ecological wisdom of traditional agricultural knowledge. He could see -- as could traditional cultivators -- the cultural and environmental costs of changes in management practices. The British had "modernized" the upland region by planting first coffee and then tea at the expense of most native montane forests and with the result of massive changes in resource availability and damage to the landscape's productive capacity. After attaining independence, and with an ever-increasing population, many of those in leadership positions proclaimed the need to modernize or perish. Agricultural leaders, trained first in the United Kingdom and later in Western Europe, North America, and Australia, looked to the outside for answers rather than looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the existing land management system. And yet these proponents of change offered only generic solutions. Armed with an environmentally and culturally destructive approach, they asked one-dimensional questions and found one-dimensional solutions. In response to the need for wood for cooking, the drying of tea, and the making of bricks and tiles, for example, thousands of acres were planted in exotic trees (both eucalyptus and pinus species), replacing the native forests and untold numbers of native species as habitats disappeared. Forest fires became endemic, soil loss was horrendous, and the plant material used for food, oil, fiber, and medicines became unavailable. Again, there was a traditional alternative: the forest gardens on the hills alongside the paddy fields provided food, fodder, fiber, fuel, oil, and raw material for medicines. The traditional economy that served as the backbone of the Singalese culture -- and, with it, local control over life's circumstances -- was being lost.

The traditional forest gardens provide many of the same environmental services as do the native forests, building soil, improving water quality, and protecting native biodiversity. Ranil Senanayake and I founded the NeoSynthesis Research Centre (NSRC) in 1982 as a NGO to (1) use contemporary ecological sciences to evaluate traditional practices and the alternatives proposed by government, international, and bilateral agencies, and (2) establish on-the-ground experiments in sustainable land management. From the perspective proposed by Downing and Downing-Garcia in this issue, NSRC is an incubator of environmentally sustainable Plan Bs.

The forest gardens were seemingly sustainable, having existed for more than two thousand years. A 14-acre abandoned tea estate was purchased to serve as an experimental station to explore the proposition of improving the gardens' productive and economic benefits. The goal was not to change traditional practices or challenge cultural forms, but rather to improve the performance of practices already understood. The focus was on intensifying the production of the forest gardens by selecting planting materials based on yields, changing the gardens' species compositions to increase incomes, improving the processing of existing crops, introducing new crops compatible with the ecology of the gardens and cultural practices, and composting to provide additional nutrients. Rather than changing technologies, requiring new tools, and changing cultural practices, the villagers managed their gardens as they had in the past.

The NSRC first provided the planting materials to improve the gardens' performance, and when demand outstripped supply, solutions were found within the villages as Buddhist temples turned over their grounds to produce planting materials and local entrepreneurs established small nurseries to serve local needs. In a two-year period, 101,795 plants were produced in nine participating villages.

Beyond the financial returns, there were environmental rewards. At the moment the population of an increasingly crowded island nation approached 19 million -- five million more than in Australia -- the plight of native species was dire and the rate of decline in biodiversity indexes increasing. By expanding the forest gardens to areas where the primary forest had been removed and turned into tea estates and pasture, habitats were established for rare and endangered creatures. Through educational programs, the NSRC staff shared their knowledge of the native flora and fauna and of how specific species could be protected at minimal cost to villagers. Clubs were set up in local schools and students volunteered to follow specific species, describing their habitats and recording their movements. Local environmental organizations shared their knowledge, research skills, and teaching capacities to assist in the effort.

Such a "back to the future" approach to forestry and agricultural improvement was not without its detractors, who had accepted the "modern" as inherently "better" than the traditional, yet villagers responded by the thousands. Happy that the approach fit within traditional village resource management and cultural practices and did not require additional indebtedness to participate, they visited the research center to see with their own eyes the transformation of the abandoned tea estate and the goods being produced there. Many offered their own lands for experimentation. At one point, an extension office near the experimental station was closed because the heavy demand for information and planting materials could not be met. With a limited budget, the NSRC had no means to expand services at that time. Nonetheless, the program's influence continued to reach farmers across the island. Other NGOs asked to have their staff trained to serve as village level extension agents, government funds were allocated to replicate the establishment of nurseries on temple grounds, and information on the program's success was incorporated into training programs for government-supported extension agents. Bilateral funding agencies financed parts of the experimental and extension programs and an international NGO served as a broker with the U.S. Agency for International Development to continue a multiple-year experiment in six agro-eco zones with careful documentation of village responses.

Villagers' increasing incomes also enhance their ability to maintain traditional cultural practices. As is the case in many agricultural communities, Sri Lankan cultivators are often at the mercy of middle-persons, processors, and distributors in setting farm-gate prices. To increase incomes and gain recognition and position in the domestic and international marketplace, and to give consumers the opportunity to "vote" on the value of the NSRC effort through their purchases, an innovative certification program has been established, entitled "Forest Garden Products.'' These products are created according to specifications based on the traditional practices of indigenous forest gardeners. Inspectors from an independent certification NGO are responsible for overseeing the program. The program's produce meets international organic standards and its production technology fulfills its goals of erosion control, maintenance of a forest structure, and habitat maintenance for local species. As a consequence, the villagers receive an income premium for their participation in the program. Forest Garden Products are now sold in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia.

The Spread of Beneficial Plan Bs

As word spread of the NSRC's success, indigenous groups, peasant communities, and environmental groups have requested technical information. At present, efforts following the NSRC's lead are underway to protect traditional cultures, native species, and community economies in the Philippines, Zimbabwe, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Peru. This approach to forest gardens is called analog forestry; forest gardens are analogous to, or mimic, the environmental structure and function in native climax forests. (Senanayake & Jack, 1998)

Other people, once or still dependent on forest products and facing the destruction of their forests, found the approach of improving existing systems and protecting both ecological and cultural heritages worthwhile. As noted by numerous indigenous peoples from around the world (see Senanayake, 1999), culture and environment are a seamless whole. An understanding of our surroundings and ways of dealing with other species is part of how we understand ourselves and our neighbors. Change within cultural and biological systems is a part of a continual process of adaptation in a dynamic universe and both systems must be protected to survive.

The question for forest gardeners in Sri Lanka was whether they could preserve the way of life their ancestors had maintained for more than 2,000 years in the face of a growing population and increased pressures from the outside to adopt exotic technologies. Their solution ultimately came from the self-determination of thousands of villagers who decided that the protection and improvement of the forest gardens makes sense given their identity and present circumstances. As long as the forest gardens and paddy fields remain, a major element of Singalese culture continues.

Survival as a community and as a people entails having the right of self-determination. A Plan B that makes sense to local communities, requires minimal investment or indebtedness, and fits into current understandings and practices has a high likelihood of being adopted. The lesson to be drawn from these experiments is that culture and agriculture are indivisible. Traditional wisdom and knowledge -- building on thousands of years of trial and error -- are embedded in the carefully programmed relationship between people and nature.

References & further reading

Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1947). Am I My Brother's Keeper? New York: John Day Company.

Goulet, D.A. (1980). Development Experts: The One-Eyed Giants. World Development 8(7/8), pp 481-489.

Moles, J.A. & Melvani, K. (1984). Future of Agriculture in Sri Lanka -- A Clash of Values: Buddhism vs. Western Materialism. In Agriculture, Change, and Human Values: Proceedings of a Multidisciplinary Conference. Gainesville, Florida: Humanities and Agriculture Program, University of Florida.

Moles, J.A. & Riker, J. V. (1984). Hope, Ideas, and Our Only Alternative -- Ourselves and Our Values: National Heritage and the Future of Sri Lanka Agriculture. In Agricultural Sustainability in a Changing World Order. Douglass, G.K., Ed. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.

Senanayake, R.F. (1999). Voices of the Earth. In Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity. Posey, D.A., Ed. Nairobi, Kenya: United Nations Environmental Programme.

Senanayake, R.F., & Jack, J. (1998). Analogue Forestry: An Introduction. Melbourne, Australia: Monash University Publications in Geography, Number 49. Department of Geography and Environmental Science.

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