Cover Image
close this bookUnited Nations University - Work in Progress Newsletter - Volume 14, Number 2, 1993 (UNU, 1993, 12 pages)
View the document(introductory text...)
View the documentThe case for sustainable development
View the documentMeasuring sustainability - Spotting signals in the noise
View the document"Overshooting" environmental cures
View the documentTo avoid gridlock - Governance without government
View the documentCovenants and protocols
View the documentIndustrial restructuring - Does it have to be "Jobs vs. Trees"?
View the documentSustaining Africa's genetic riches
View the documentManaging international waters
View the documentEnergy - The bad news, the good news
View the documentSustaining the mountains
View the documentThe case for agrodiversity - Drawing on the farmer's adaptability
View the documentUNU update

The case for agrodiversity - Drawing on the farmer's adaptability

By Harold Brookfield

Environmental degradation falling crop yields and the draining away to the cities of their youngest and fittest are part of a vicious cycle that is sapping the vitality of third world countrysides. Hope of finding a way out of this impasse may lie in the ancient ability of the farmer to tap nature's array of resources - a practice for which Harold Brookfield and his colleague Christine Padoch have coined the term "agrodiversity" Professor Brookfield notes that agrodiversity has common goals with biodiversity conservation, risk reduction, and propagation of valuable species.

Dr. Brookfield, who is coordinating the UNU project on Population, Land Management and Environmental Change, is Professor Emeritus of Human Geography, Division of Society and Environment, Research School of Pacific Studies the Australian National University in Canberra. He is editor of the UNU volume, South-East Asia's Environmental Future Can Sustainability Be Achieved?, published this year - Editor

One major consequence of the projected world population growth in the coming 30 years will be a significant decrease in the developing world in the amount of cultivated land per person. Another result of population growth will be the increasing flow of younger men from rural areas into the cities. Inevitably, these factors will work to reduce the productive capacities of the countryside.

Furthermore, much good land and natural biodiversity are being lost because of various forms of degradation. Some evidence suggests that 10 per cent of former agricultural land has already been turned into desert or waste by human interference or indifference, while a further 25 per cent is endangered. Others conclude that from 30 to 50 per cent of the world's arable land is suffering from various forms of degradation. Whatever the ecological rhetoric, such figures express the truth that resource degradation should command much greater attention as one of the world's major contemporary problems.

Land and Poverty

The relationship of rural poverty to land shortage has been extensively documented. Close to one billion people living in absolute poverty in the developing countries are often thought of as the principal threat to the environment as they move on to more and more marginal land. However, any simple correlations of poverty with population density and growth are difficult to sustain at anything below a macro-regional level. The equation is rarely simple, and there are important intervening agencies including such things as inequitable land tenure and share-cropping systems, patron/client relationships, taxes, forced deliveries and corvees by government and regional authority, and access to credit.

For large segments of many rural populations, absolute land shortage is far less common than is a lack of access to land and other resources. Nor is there an automatic link between poverty and high population density. In a Javanese case, for example, despite continued growth in population density, there were notable improvements in rural welfare in recent years. These were related to higher productivity and, more importantly, to major growth in off-farm employment.

There have been few, if any, organized societies in which all production has been for self-consumption within local communities, or in which all members of the society depend wholly on locally grown food. Under whatever arrangements, some production for exchange appears a necessity. Division of labour requires that some members of society be supported by the production of others.

These exchange and redistribution elements are even larger in more complex societies. A major contribution of growing economic interdependence - introduced initially by 18th and 19th century colonialism and commerce, and greatly intensified by 20th century development efforts - has been to eliminate economic autarky or self-sufficiency from almost all parts of the world. The effect of the modem growth of off-farm employment, with or without migration to urban and other places of work, has been to modify the basis of rural livelihood radically. Again, to cite the example of Java, the poorest parts of Indonesia are no longer on this densely populated island, but in the outer islands where population densities are far lower.

The impact of the forces intervening between population numbers and the capability of the land is well demonstrated in such long-term natural disasters as drought. Even in the 19th century, some felt that the major famines that struck India and China during drought years were due more to the abject poverty of exploited people than to the natural event itself. The lack of rains were only the trigger.

In more modem times, uncertainty continues over the relative roles of drought and of the politico-economic system in generating severe distress in the Sahel and Sudan regions of Africa in the 1970s and 80s. Not all would agree, as some have argued that all the conditions of famine were set in place several decades earlier. But there is a broad consensus that production, tenurial and exchange arrangements, which evolved in the late-colonial period, exposed large sections of the population to severe distress. Moreover, studies have shown how distress was very unequally distributed among the population, and was negatively correlated with access to land and other resources.

The connection between population, development and the environment must be studied in a way which captures its dynamism. This is even more so when one takes into account the important issue of degradation - which affects a major part of the world's cultivated lands in varying degrees. Whether or not it is true that up to a third of arable land runs the risk of being lost from use by the early 21st century, there is no dispute over the widespread incidence of degradation, and its severity in certain regions.

The Adaptive Farmer

Some measure of degradation is an inevitable consequence of all land use, particularly, say, when fallow periods are made too short or new forest areas cleared. Yet there are land management systems that have endured on the same sites for centuries and are more productive today than in earlier times - and they include lands worked by many of the world's very poorest farmers who make great efforts to manage land sustainably.

Farmers are adaptive and most of the world's great range of farming systems have risen as spontaneous adaptation. Agro-forestry, for example, is no new discovery, but includes a complex and ancient set of systems designed to manage soil fertility while yielding rewarding crops. Terracing, and many other forms of slope-management, have been adopted for reduction of soil erosion over the millennia

And farmers continue to adapt their technologies. One can read cases in which farming systems have been radically transformed over periods as short as a generation, in order to manage conditions of perceived stress. The objective of farmers is rarely conservation for its own sake, but the preservation of conditions for production. However, this adaptability is now placed under unprecedented stress in many parts of the world by rates of population growth that exceed all previous experience.

"Agrodiversity": Rediscovering Values

The varied ways in which farmers, especially in developing countries, manage the diverse natural environments of the bio-geosphere for production, has recently been named "agrodiversity" (Brookfield and Padoch, forthcoming).* Agrodiversity is intimately interlinked with biodiversity Diverse farming systems employ a range of natural plant resources, they conserve and often propagate those known to have value. The until recent modern agricultural research trend toward greater uniformity in cultivars and cultivation methods is inimical both to agrodiversity and to biodiversity. Greater uniformity, it has come to be recognized, increases risk even though it may initially offer higher production. The insect pest and disease problems that have beset those areas which have most completely adopted "green revolution" technology are increasingly well-documented. This has led to renewed interest in the more agrodiverse forms of production that modem research has until very lately largely ignored.

* "Understanding land-resource management the importance of 'agrodiversity'" by Harold Brookfield and Christine Padoch (under consideration by Environment)


UN Photo by John Isaac

In 1992, the UNU launched a project of collaborative research on Population, Land Management and Environmental Change (PLEC). It is seeking to understand adaptive agrodiversity itself and to explore the relationship of diverse land-and biota-management systems to population growth and other forms of pressure. It is also concerned with how far such stresses work against diverse solutions to land management problems.

The project operates through a network of researchers living or working in different areas of the developing tropics and subtropics, in contrasted environments and differing conditions of societal pressures. By mid-1993, a variety of research clusters had been formed. In Amazonia the emphasis is on management of the flood plain which is seen as a major future resource. In Ghana, it is on dry land management under the stress of population, soil fertility and rainfall. In Nepal and northern Thailand, together with Yunnan, the emphasis is on sustainability on steeplands (see "Sustaining the Mountains" by J. Ives). The last cluster is in Papua New Guinea where a remarkable degree of agrodiversity has evolved in a range of environments under greatly differing conditions of population dynamics.

The UNU project is as yet modest in scale. Its key concepts are "production pressure" and "agrodiversity," which are seen as embracing both the problems and the potential solutions. If it succeeds, we shall have initiated something that could grow to considerable scale, and create a new and fruitful departure in understanding the complex relationships between people, welfare and the environment under the stresses of enormous change. No one involved imagines that the task will be easy. Everyone, however, believes that it is a particularly appropriate activity for the UNU, whose concern for the environment is an essential response to its Charter mandate to focus on "pressing global problems of human survival, development and welfare."