Fields of Memories as Everyday Resistance


Given an agricultural system that relies on streamlining for greater efficiency and profit as exists in most countries today, one is left with "reak-guard" options for safeguarding plant diversity, until such a time that people again come to realize its importance, and opt for a drastic change in priorities. One strategy pursued by both national and international ties. One strategy pursued by both national and international agricultural research systems is the collection and evaluation of "representatives" of diversity; i.e., samples of various crop varieties, traditional crop or "folk" varieties, and wild relatives of agricultural crops kept either in long-term storage or as working collections in gene banks. The other, largely neglected and potentially valuable complement is the collection and documentation of indigenous knowledge and technologies, including uses, preferences and evaluation criteria associated with traditional preferences and evaluation criteria associated with traditional varieties of crops - what the author refers to as "memory banking" (Figure 1).

In view of the mutually reinforcing trajectories involving cultural and genetic variability (or erosion, conversely), certain parallels can be drawn between a gene bank and a memory bank. Germplasm encodes genetic information which has evolved as a response to selection pressures. Cultural information, in the minds of local farmers who have had considerable experience in growing these crops, is stored as repositories of coded, time-tested adaptations to the environment. Genetic information coded in folk varieties is threatened with erosion because of pressure towards more intensive, monocultural production, in which the adoption of newer, higher yielding crop varieties is favored. Cultural knowledge and practices associated with traditional varieties are in imminent danger of being swamped by modern technologies.

The preservation of genetic variability is imperative, and this concern is reflected in the scientific effort to expand and protect the world's germplasm collections. Less recognized, but perhaps even more critical, is the fact that variability in terms of technological alternatives and crop choices is becoming narrower with the homogenizing effect of development. Unfortunately, in many developing countries the situation is approaching a point where the existence of alternatives is hardly recognized. It is highly probably that within the next decade, as the older generation of farmers makes way for the younger generation, much of the valuable cultural information generated and refined by long periods of co-evolution will be irretrievably lost. Herein lies the rationale for memory banking: just as the genetic information coded in the germplasm can be stored, such cultural information in the minds of elderly farmers can be and urgently needs to be documented and preserved for posterity.

This problem has been referred to in a report of a panel of the Board on Science and Technology for International Development, U.S. National Research Council, as "the real triaged of the commons." It is phenomena wherein "traditional management systems that were effective for thousands of years become obsolete in a few decades, replaced by systems of relentless exploitation of rural people and rural countries, those who depend on primary productivity." Modernization and the Distribution of Indigenous Knowledge

The read toward commercialization has precariously pared the genetic and cultural base of local farming populations. For example, the Green Revolution, in which agricultural technologies revolving around the hybreed seeds of staple grains were aggressively developed and diffused in the 1970s to increase productivity and avert possible famine, primarily affected farmers in lowland, irrigated areas of the developing world. In more marginal environments, where technology and inputs were not readily available, farmers still retained their traditional technologies and varieties. Being predominantly subsistence oriented, farmers in these areas were also relatively insulated from market demands and price fluctuations. The memory banking project focused on two sites exhibiting different degrees of market integration and commercialization of agriculture. One site was Sitio Intavas in the municipality of Impasugong, an upland area on the slope of Mt. Kitanglad. The other was Sitio Salvacion in the municipality of Libona, near the expansive pineapple plantation of Del Monte, a multinational agribusiness corporation. Both are located in the province of Bukidnon, on the island of Mindanao, where waves of migrants from Luzon and Visayas have interacted, traded and intermarried with the local population - superimposing and reworking agricultural technologies to fit with existing environmental and socioeconomic conditions (Figure 2).

Presently, the community of Intavas (composed of native Bukidnons, migrants from Visayas collectively known as Dumagats, and migrants from the Mountain Province of Luzon collectively referred to as Igorots) cultivates different varieties of sweet potatoes and harvest what they like on a staggered basis. Farmers in Intavas view the sweet potato as a subsistence crop, selling only what cannot be consumed by the family and their pigs. On the other hand, many people in Salvation cultivate sweet potatoes on a moderate commercial scale. Since Salvacion is in a less remote location than Intavas, markets are more accessible and the incentive to commercialize is stronger.

While sweet potato production in Salvacion is currently more commercialized than that in Intavas, the difference between Intavas and Salvacion in terms of commercialization is a matter of degree. Initial survey of the two areas showed in Intavas a greater number of sweet potato varieties cultivated and a greater number of varieties known, although not actually cultivated. Stronger pressure to conform to more uniform market demands resulted in the reduction of the number of varieties cultivated in Salvacion. However, the more marked disparity between the number of varieties known in the two sites indicates a faster rate of decline in agricultural knowledge (i.e, cognition of diversity) than in genetic diversity itself. In Defense of "Fuzziness": The Value of Multiple Criteria

Although scientists initiate and contribute significantly to formal germplasm conservation programs, the key protagonists in any conservation effort are the farmers who select, nurture and propagate the different varieties. As well, they are the keepers of the agricultural know-how and practices associated with their cultivation. Thus far, the multiplicity of criteria involved in farmers' decision-making, regarding crops and agricultural technologies, has served as an antidote against wholesale abandonment, of folk varieties and wisdom.

From casual interviews, participant observation and life history elicitation, the local basis for distinguishing among sweet potato varieties was systematically investigated. The asked to discriminate among sets of three sweet potato varieties, and to state the reasons behind their decisions. The results provided insights on the criteria, diverse and far from mutually exclusive, that are relevant for the farmers in distinguishing among varieties.

The diversity of evaluation criteria support the contention that selection and adoption of varieties and of technologies are not unilinear processes which involve the intentional elimination of "less desirable" options. Further, analysis of informal interviews indicated that what is desirable and what is not is really a matter of taste, a matter of timing and sometimes even a matter of mood. The following comment from an elderly female farmer in Bukidnon corroborates this observation: "I plant several varieties... the bland variety is good in combination with dried fish. If it is sweet, I would easily get satiated Powdery and bland varieties are good combining with meat and soup, wet and sweet ones go well with coffee, and sweet and powdery ones are preferred by children for snacks...."

If it were not for the "fuzziness" of multiple criteria, folk varieties and associated knowledge would have vanished from farmers" fields - and minds - a long time ago.

Diversity should be protected by policies geared to the preservation of biodiversity and farming systems, or agroecosystems, that nurture crop diversity. The results tell us that the proper locus in the search for viable alternatives, as well as mechanisms that preserve both cultural and genetic diversity is in micro environments that are sheltered from the direct influence of agricultural research development.

Instead of pursuing an ideal variety, what should be taken into account are the questions in the local decision-making frameworks that always follow: best when? best for what? best for whom? The many possible answers to these questions preclude the loss of diversity in farmers' fields and minds - resistant tendencies that flourish as pockets of memories at the margins. Marginality's Role in the Conservation of Diversity

What I refer to as "pockets of memories" are the persistent cognitive schemes regarding the evaluation, cultivation and consumption of traditional crops. They are resistant but "threatened" in the sense that in order for farmers to survive in a changing world, they also have to take cognizance of and respond to external developments brought about by changes in policy, markets, and agricultural research and extension, Sometimes, this means giving up folk varieties and agricultural beliefs and practices that they valued in the past in order to compete effectively in the larger world, or simply of get access to its credit and extension infrastructure.

Yet, there are degrees of protection afforded by remoteness (and independence) of certain micro environments. Farmers who find themselves in what we would characterize as marginal situations stand a better chance of retaining more of their options in their minds, and most likely in their fields, as well. They are spared from what has been referred to as "roadside development."

Excerpts from life histories of Bukidnon farmers illustrate this unlikely privileged position. Melencio Avergonzado was born in 1932 in the neighboring island of Bohol and migrated as a young man searching for new opportunities of Bukidnon. Although engaed in semi-commercialized production in Salvacion, he still relies on many of the practices of his elders. As the recounts: "Based on experience, we follow several practices in cultivating sweet potatoes. First of all, the area should be well cleaned and the soil should be properly cultivated.... In planting sweet potato, the tops should be cut every time they grow to preserve the planting materials. If you just let them grow, there is a risk that they will die and you will not retain cuttings for planting... With regards to harvesting, we use a wooden stick to prevent any damage to vines and roots that are not yet ready for harvesting. Damaging the vines and roots may stop further development of the younger roots under the ground. When there are a lot of harvested roots, especially during summer, we peel the skin then slice or chop the roots into small pieces and dry them under the sun. This way we can store then for some months."

Elena Gayunan, a sixty-five-year-old female farmer in Intavas, also retains memories of diversity in her mind and perpetuates this richness in her choices and practices: "Here in Intavas, where we have to depend on the rain, we chose drought and heat-resistant crops such as taro, corn, squash, and, of course, sweet potato. I have always helped my father to care for these plants... The sweet potato varieties that we cultivated during those days were kauyag which has dirty white skin and flesh and red tops; lawaton which has white skin, yellow flesh and red tops; camba which has red skin, yellow flesh and big roots; lambayong which has yellow skin and flesh, and red tops; and lamputi which has white skin, flesh and leaves. Those I've described are the traditional varieties among us Bukidnons.... We plant different kinds of sweet potatoes so when we are `fed up' with one variety there are always others to choose from. You see, it is just like clothes, you choose the ones you like best at the particular moment. Elders like different varieties so they can choose the one that suits their taste or combines well with other items in their meal."

Consideration must be given to what goes on in more sheltered, small-scale micro environments in order to appreciate farmers' positive contributions of diversity. Economic, technological, and political forces erode diversity. Even micro environments at the fringes are not completely insulated. Not are pockets of memories totally resistant. There is a need to strengthen institutional and cultural responsiveness (even vigilance) for evaluation of development of trajectories, and - when the situation warrants - modification or rejection of them. Local people possess the curiosity, the knowledge and the memories about agricultural alternatives that worked in the past and could work, with some fine-tuning, well into the future. Cultural Alternatives in In Situ Germplasm Conservation

In situ gene banking is the conservation of plant-genetic resources in locations where they normally thrive, or the maintenance of diversity in its natural environment, such as in traditional agroecosystems for folk varieties. From our experience, it was natural off-shoot of memory banking. Once people got started thinking more intensely and collectively about varieties lost, they began wondering where some of the traditional varieties had gone and began questioning the necessity and inevitability of their loss.

However, these farmers are not just passive "victims" of agricultural development who need to be enlightened or "empowered." Whether their motivation is to reserve some production for household consumption or to alternately maximize and hedge on market demand and agronomic performance, farmers often nurture diversity in their home gardens and their fields, as this comment reveals: "Most of my land is used for planting the variety than can be easily sold in the market. This is the sweet and powdery kids. But on the margins, as you can see, I cultivate different kids, as many as I can get cuttings of. Those varieties that are sweet - but won't sell in the market because they are watery - are for our snacks. The bland and dry ones we use as substitutes for rice and bread. The bland but watery ones we feed to our pigs."

Why is there a need to complement established ex situ gene banks with memory banking and locally-based germplasm conservation efforts? In situ conservation of agricultural crops would base both the power and responsibility over plant genetic resources squarely in the farmers' hands. At the same time, the present generation can serve as custodians of indigenous knowledge and can be strongly motivated to transmit this knowledge and can be strongly motivated to transmit this knowledge to the next generation. Yet, while it is easy to justify the preservation of genetic diversity in situ, the difficulty is the translation of paper concepts to diverse fields. Problems of incentives, long-term maintenance, farmer subsidies, intellectual property rights to both the varieties and the associated knowledge, and proprietary right and access to germplasm collections then must be considered.

After visiting several possible sites in Bukidnon and talking with the local populations to explore the possibility of establishing an in situ gene bank for traditional root crops, two sites, Dalwangan and Maambong, were selected. In choosing the sites, the foremost on several dimensions and the prospect of sustaining the project initiative at the local level.

In Dalwangan, Malaybalay, the in situ germplasm project was named, "Kauyagan sa Kahilawan," from a native Binukid phrase meaning, " Livelihood for the People." It was coined by local leadership signify the incorporation of income-generating activities, such as livestock raising, into the maintenance of indigenous varieties of root crops. This project component was organized in collaboration with the local male political leadership, comprised of village chieftains ("datus"), the council of elders and organized youth.

The project area that we started with consisted of 3,999 square meters of land donated by a member of the datu's extended family. Located along the river bank of Sawaga River, the land included part of the river and its surrounding land. The section closest to the river was designated as a natural reserve for wild relatives of root crops. The cleared area near the river bank was allocated for the cultivation of farmers' folk varieties of root crops. The rest of the area was cleared in anticipation of developing it for livelihood projects. It was envisioned that in this way the youth will be profitable occupied while taking care of the in situ germplasm collection. Excess roots, tubers and leaves from the cultivated area were to be used to feed the animals.

For their in situ project, the women cooperators in Maambong chose the name "Inahan sa Makugihon" or "Industrious Mothers." In signifies the involvement of mothers in the preservation of traditional varieties of root crops in the area through continuous cultivation and use. The project was situated in an 840-square meter piece of idle land that was donated by Lydia vda de Caceres, one of the elderly women, so she "will be remembered after (her) death." The location of Maambong and the degree of commercialization crop production in the area have led to and necessitated a different kind of spatial arrangement for the in situ gene banking project. Compared to Dalwangan, the project in Maambong was located at a significantly smaller piece of idle land adjacent to other parcels of cultivated land owned by the donor. There was no are designated as a reserve since many varieties of root crops "vanished," as the women themselves observed, when the farmers in the area leased or sold their land to Del Monte which converted these tracts of land to pineapple plantations.

While the Dalwangan germplasm collection was to be under the management of a male dominated political heirarchy, the Maambong project was coordinated by elderly, migrant women. The style of management was different, too, since the women were informally linked through bonds of friendship, kinship, business ventures, religious affiliations and membership in a loosely-structured village organization called the "Mother's Craft." This essentially egalitarian structure was maintained in the management of the in situ collection. In lieu of a reserve, the women worked through their informal networks to enrich the existing varietal diversity by asking for planting materials from market associates, friends from neighboring sitios and relatives from their home towns. Transformations and Outcomes

The anticipated organizational structure among the principal actors in Dalwangan did not last for very long. Instead, since the land for the in situ germplasm collection was donated by the datu's brother, his extended family ostensibly took control of the gene banking initiatives from planting onwards. In fact, even during the preparatory activities, people either slipped away at various times during the day or just stayed our of "shame."

Eventually, the maintenance of the Dalwangan root crop gene bank became the responsibility of the female members of the datu's brother's household, with male participation mostly confined to land preparation. When a long, dry season decimated the germplasm collection, one of the women "rescued" a third of the varieties and established her own "gene bank" in the form of a home garden. Other women followed, planting cuttings of different varieties I their respective home gardens. Essentially, therefore, what started as a male dominated curatorship disintegrated in favor of a patchwork of multiple curatorship, home garden-style collections established and maintained by the women of Dalwangan.

In Maambong, the local gene banking effort was pursued with a little-hearted communal spirit from the planning to the maintenance of the collection. Men and children joined in the land preparation and planting, both of which were completed in one day. Interest was sustained by the camaraderie that prevailed among the women curators. The informal network that began with the migrant women comprising the "Industrious Mothers" became increasingly more complex, with multiple links established among gene bank collaborators. Lydia vda de Caceres, the donor of the land, became a moral rather than a political or organizational leader, encouraging participation mainly by example and by enjoining neighbors, friends and kin to fulfill their reciprocal responsibilities.

We anticipated that the root crop germplasm collection in Maambong would grow by flow and accretion of germplasm through different "pathways," such a blood relations, ceremonial kinship and exchange between market associates. As it happened, the main source of germplasm enhancement was exchange between neighbors. Thus, any variety that was obtained by a participant was shared until it spread among all or almost all of them. The resulting redundancy constitutes a natural back-up system in case of loss of crop varieties in any of the row of the in situ gene bank. It also demonstrates that there is a well entrenched cultural ethic of sharing, coupled with an active interest in soliciting, in regard to plant genetic resources. Finally, it shows that communal in situ gene banks do not compete with home gardens, but rather that the two forms of local germplasm conservation can actually enrich and reinforce each other.

Although root crop diversity in the Dalwangan project site may be significantly less than that in the Maambong project site, the "rescued" genetic resources are alive and spreading "informally" among the women's home gardens. This unanticipated development - a form of fugitive diversity - underscores women's strong empathy for and active role in the conservation of plant genetic resources. From the more specific research objective of testing alternative arrangements in in situ gene banking, the male dominated political structure has failed. However from the point of view of the larger goal of germplasm conservation and enhancement, the Dalwangan case was an unexpected success with many lessons. The increase in diversity in Maambong, a commercializing area that was practically stripped of its wild root crop population because of the conversion of large tracts of land to pineapple plantations, attests to the resilience of agricultural systems and of farmers in relation to genetic erosion and conservation.

Our experience points to the distinct comparative advantage, not only of marginal areas within the world system or even of regions within the developing world but also for marginal farming households within each area's socio-economic structure and, more than this, of marginal individuals within households. Marginality, in these cases, is externally defined and is more related to centrality and power than to actual importance of the role. It seems that the degree of independence, even irreverence, necessary for the persistence of diversity in inversely proportional to the degree of integration to the market system and the degree of capture by the political vortex. In situ gene banking is a promising channel of genetic conservation that could prove compatible with ex situ gene banking and with development if it is pursued with full regard to its historical, cultural and institutional context. It is a practice that already exists in the form of home gardens, polycultures and traditional agrosystems. The next step is to make the conservation component more systematic and sustainable, and to link it to imperatives beyond the local, even regional, scale.

As scientists assume less of an authoritarian role and more of a facilitative role, open lines of communication must at all times be maintained with the farming populations and the principles of local sovereignty, access and control, respected and upheld. Programs should also be flexible enough to admit and capitalize on unexpected trajectories, as in the case of women "rescuing" parts of the germplasm collection in Dalwangan. Finally, there should be greater sensitivity to an appreciation of "fuzziness" and marginality. Multiplicity of decision-making criteria and a certain degree of insulation from commercial agriculture are effective buffers against erosion of diversity, both biological and cultural. Finally, our work indicates that women are promising key players for memory banking, in situ gene banking and plant genetic resources conservation in general.

The key to conservation of biodiversity is to document agricultural knowledge in such a way that the local population has the ultimate control over access with a voice in determining the terms of sharing and exchange. In this manner, they can utilize conventions that exist in the global marketplace to their advantage instead of being the subjects of discussion in negotiations that are supposedly for their welfare. In the Ethnoecology/Biodiversity Laboratory at the University of Georgia, we are working on a Memory Web that will connect marginal farmers through cultural corridors and enable them to exchange information regarding varieties and technologies that are relevant to their daily lives. The goal is to enhance the exchange of information about local knowledge and options in order to counteract the homogenization in agriculture that predisposes farming systems to genetic and cultural erosion. The inspiration comes from a line from a Bukindon epic, the Olaging: If we pass there This we shall pass This we shall traverse again - Hopefully, if we keep the alternative paths intact we can avert or ease what the Board on Science and Technology for International Development referred to as "the real tragedy of the commons." Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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