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close this bookCERES No. 158 March - April 1996 (FAO Ceres, 1996, 50 p.)
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View the documentLiberalism runs out of steam
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View the documentAncient tradition continues today

Ancient tradition continues today

Comprendre d'agriculture paysanne dans les Andes centrales, Pu-Bolivie, edited by Pierre Morlon, INRA Editions, Route de St. Cyr, 78026 Versailles Cedex, Paris, France, 1992, 522 pp., ISBN 2-7380 0412-1 (Pbk), FF 250.

The agriculture of the central Andes epitomizes sustainability. Centuries before the term came into use, Andean farmers had perfected a land-use system which, despite difficult climatic and geographic conditions, has provided food security in a region that has been continuously and densely populated for thousands of years.

This study attempts to understand and explain how today's peasant farmers carry on the traditions of their ancestors. And it does this not through preconceived ideas, which are often erroneous, but through detailed observation of the farmers' techniques and tools. It explores in depth their complex strategies for organizing and using their productive resources.

The book is the result of multidisciplinary and multinational collaboration, coordinated by the agronomist Pierre Morlon. This in itself should be a consolation to those who believe it is wrong to separate the various scientific disciplines from one another, particularly the social sciences and economics, and lament the lack of communication among national and international researchers.

Morlon takes a rigorous, scientific approach to his subject. He shuns easy generalizations, simplistic economic views and the paternalism that can slant scientists' views of indigenous culture and technology.

But he has not produced a book valid only for the academic world. The study can serve as a tool for strategists, decision-makers and experts in agricultural development policy because it contains an abundance of methods, parameters and points of view, which reveal the elements at play in the sustainable exploitation of natural resources, particularly in extremely difficult climatic conditions.

The book points out that although the age-old Andean farming system would be classified as precapitalistic, it continued to support vast numbers of people through political, economic and agrarian upheavals. It survived the drastic changes in land distribution and use that occurred during the Spanish colonization in the 16th century, as it did again when Peru and Bolivia joined the international market in the 19th century. The historical context as well as the intrinsic characteristics of the Andes system provide a wealth of solutions - and a challenge for development strategists and intellectuals in those countries.

Presenting detailed information on the Andean infrastructure and production system, the study chooses variables that are more complex than the simple cost-benefit mechanism. These include the role of Andean agriculture in terms of demographics. The purpose is to encourage action to reinforce those elements that make the system sustainable and efficient and establish flexible strategies that are complementary to and compatible with development plans.

Another important feature of the study is that it is not based on a rigid ideological position. Because of this, it can confirm the strategic rationality and validity of practicing biodiversity, complementarily and heterogeneity in agriculture. It endorses variety within species and crop variety, variety in tilling techniques and different ways of extending the harvesting period over the productive cycle in order to reduce risk.

The study does not go so far as to present the Andes farming system as a universal paradigm of sustainability. But, by showing how and why the system works, it helps the reader to discern the universal elements of sustainability which other communities in different geographic regions of the world can practise despite growing processes of homogenization ant globalization.

- Patricia Baeza-L is a Guatemalan journalist based in Rome.