A hopeful harvest: Small scale solutions to the increasing yield/conserving biodiversity conundrum

Agrobiodiversity is all about trade-offs. Even from a human development standpoint, are we managing for improving yields or for improving chances of long-term well-being through diversity? For development organizations, most who suffer from short-termism, it’s usually the former.  In areas of extreme poverty and acute conflict, these tradeoffs are even more apparent and heart-wrenching. If an improved wheat variety means increasing the yield to feed a farmer’s family next year, then why wouldn’t we do it? I recently published an article with my friend Frederik in a special edition of Solutions about the inter-linkages between food security and failed state-ism. You can access the article for free here.

In this paper we draw on cases from the province of Badakhshan, in Northern Afghanistan, to present three local solutions that all have some potential to break, from the bottom-up, the self-reinforcing loop that characterizes the trap of failed states. While all deal with local-level solutions to food production and diversification, they work at very different levels of human activity: the first describes an agricultural research station’s attempt at improving agricultural production, through an innovative approach to governance. The second example is a bold and innovative experiment to teach women the skills to grow and process vegetables in the high Pamir Mountains. It succeeded in introducing greens and beans to seminomadic communities who had never eaten vegetables before. The third works at the level of identity and imagination: using food culture to rekindle people’s sense of pride in who they are, it helps to offer a different basis from which to re-imagine a future that is their own, free of war. (This is also the core of our much larger Book Project > watch this space).

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Questioning the intentions of agricultural development interventions, a comprehensive blog post by Edward Carr describes the systemic patterns of state violence and food security drawing on James Scott’s work in “The Art of Not Being Governed.”

“By compelling greater and greater market integration, and doing so through a focus on fewer and fewer crops, we are effectively closing the commons and prohibiting/constraining subsistence activities among the affected populations.  The result, in the best case, is improved agricultural outcomes and incomes that translate into improved well-being for all involved.

The worst case is a scenario where various marginal populations who have developed some expertise in managing the uncertainty of their particular contexts lose adaptive capacity, making them much more vulnerable to state violence and control.  Critically, these are not mutually exclusive scenarios – what works in one year or season to improve the quality of life for rural farmers might, in another year or season with different market and weather conditions, work to extend state control over marginal populations who already receive little for their status as citizens. I am sure that nobody who works on the donor side wants to be part of a campaign of state violence (at the worst) or part of a project that results in the further marginalization of poor, marginal populations (in the better to middle-case scenarios).”

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