Local knowledge

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Sep 3 16:20:37 MDT 2002

Robert Biel, "The New Imperialism":

Any more rational human society that is developed in the future will
inevitably regain some characteristics which look 'like' pre-capitalist
traditional society. Even where capitalism has been perfectly successful
in abolishing all direct links with tradition, this will occur, through
the negation of the negation. But this is not the only way in which it
will happen. Since capitalism is not a pure system, it still coexists
with parts of tradition. Some of these, such as the gender division, are
harmful and limit human development at an individual level, but there
are also creative elements, which are found above all in rural society
in the South. Knowledge systems are an example. This suggests that it
may be possible to use human resources quite differently from the
exploitative way they are used in the new management systems. People are
inventive. In contrast to conventional economics -- which assumes that
the 'problem' to be 'solved' is the allocation of a finite set of
resources in the optimum way -- it may be possible for society to use
its human resources in such a way that they suddenly demonstrate such a
wealth of creativity that the stock of resources turns out to be far
greater than was assumed.

Because of its social destructiveness, capitalist development often
reduced the resource base upon which future development could take
place. Capitalism at all levels sought to control the people by
undermining the autonomy of their knowledge systems. In the periphery it
often went even further, seeking to rid itself of the embarrassment of
any kind of social system whatsoever, so that the land, raw materials
and labour power could be 'shaken free' from the social systems which
originally controlled them. Later, in the post-colonial era, attempts
were made to invent new rural economies, but they were not socially
viable. The Green Revolution carried on the socially destructive
process: in the name of modernisation, and with the argument that the
rise in agricultural productivity meant that fewer people were needed in
the countryside, peasant farming systems were further weakened.

It has long been evident that land reform is crucial. But today it is
possible to put forward an even stronger set of arguments in its favour.
In the past, land reform used to be seen in terms of ownership, and the
economic rationale for carrying it out used to be expressed somewhat
negatively: land reform, it was said, would remove the obstacles to
modernisation by abolishing the power of the conservative social strata
that were opposed to it. But this perspective fails to distinguish
between those aspects of tradition which inhibit development and those
which promote it. If we look at it from this point of view, land reform
can be seen as something positive, which unleashes the human ingenuity
enshrined in grassroots knowledge systems.

The case for sustainable agriculture is being made in all parts of the
world today, which shows that the seeming increase in productivity
arising from the mainstream 'scientific' agricultural system is not
sustainable. In the South there is an added argument for not being
dependent on official agricultural technology because it is a channel
through which outsiders gain control, and siphon resources out of the
country, to the disadvantage of poor farmers. In this way, the
'entitlements' of ordinary people, which could be used as an incentive
to local food production by expanding demand, are undermined.

It is being recognised more and more by the public that ordinary people
can possess scientific knowledge of enormous importance. Besides
reflecting genuine admiration for grassroots initiatives, this shows
that many specialists believe that mainstream agricultural development
will come to a dead end if it does not take on board some of this
traditional knowledge. Part of what is needed, people say, is a
reassessment of ancient practices, for example the use of ridging
systems in agriculture. In pre-colonial America these enabled marginal
land to be cultivated very effectively, while in Africa the area of
contemporary Tanzania -- conventionally considered to have been barren
and stagnant prior to colonialism - possessed, in fact, a thriving
system that, using a mixture of contour-following ridges laced with
diagonal up-and-down ridges, permitted land on steep hills to be farmed.
But even more important than historical re-assessment is to look
carefully at contemporary practices. All traditional systems have
elements of sustainable agriculture that can be seen in the balance
between livestock and the cultivation of crops that return nutrients to
the soil, the use of mixed cropping instead of monoculture, and so on.
One widespread practice is intercropping, where different crops do not
follow each other sequentially, but are cultivated together, with
different rooting systems reaching to different levels in the soil. This
brings many advantages: one kind of plant can provide a microclimate for
another; pests are discouraged by the intermingling of different plants;
the need for weeding is reduced by the use of quick-spreading crops like
beans; insects which hunt pests are attracted by the cultivation of
plants that they feed off, and so on. As a result, intercropping systems
are not vulnerable to large-scale devastation by pests or diseases, and
the occurrence of these infestations at low endemic levels may in itself
stimulate immune reactions. What is also important in these traditional
intercropping systems is that they can be varied in response to
microvariations in soil conditions. One researcher found 147 distinct
intercropping patterns in three villages in Northern Nigeria. It seems
that, in a way, the traditional intercropping systems reproduce the
conditions of the natural forest. Even shifting cultivation, which
modernisation presents as the epitome of primitiveness, is today
increasingly seen as a flexible set of practices responding to the
crucial problem of managing marginal lands, with the farmers sensitive
to the minute differences between different types of soil. Another
crucially important issue is the management of time, which in this
context means the natural cycle of time. This is particularly evident in
the farming of semi-arid lands. The tree, Acacia Senegal, whose root
systems penetrate to great depths in a symbiotic relationship with a
bacteria which fixes nitrogen in the soil, is highly beneficial to
marginal lands. It also lies at the heart of an agro-sylvo-pastoral
system in Sudan which involves a cycle of 20-30 years, with the
cultivation of millet and sorghum followed by a fallow period, and then
colonisation by A. Senegal, and finally gum arable production.
'Cyclical' here means something quite different from its meaning under
capitalism where it reflects the realisation of accumulation.

The principles embodied in these traditional practices certainly answer
a contemporary need. In this context, sustainability is far from being a
middle-class luxury. Rather, it is a survival mechanism for the poorest
people. New techniques are being constantly invented as part of the
day-to-day struggle to exist in conditions of super-exploitation. A
fishermen's co-operative society near Calcutta, India, which started in
the 1930s, has developed recycling to such an extent that today it is
fully sustainable with the production of everything it needs to feed
fish and to fertilise the paddy. It shows that people will recycle
things when they need to do so to survive.

But, in the formulation of a grassroots blueprint for development, more
is needed: we must understand how the traditional element can relate to
the technology sanctioned by the official world, which clearly must be
involved in the strategy. As we shall see, the interaction between the
two worlds could be restructured in a way that would bring more benefits
to the grassroots.


Louis Proyect

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