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close this bookFood from Dryland Gardens - An Ecological, Nutritional, and Social Approach to Small Scale Household Food Production (CPFE, 1991)
close this folderPart I - Gardens as a development strategy
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentReferences
Open this folder and view contents2. Gardens and nutrition in drylands
Open this folder and view contents3. Gardens, economics, and marketing
Open this folder and view contents4. Assessment techniques


A vast part of the world’s population suffers from poverty, malnutrition, and environmental degradation,1 and gardens are often a part of peoples’ struggle to cope with these problems. Gardens contribute a great deal to the nutritional, economic, and social well-being of dryland households, and they have the potential to contribute much more. Why then do so many garden projects fail? In many cases the answer is because they start out by establishing a model garden and trying to convince local people to adopt the model without first understanding existing local gardens, resources, or knowledge.2 Whether intentional or not, this reflects an assumption that the project workers know more than people in the community, and that learning will be a one way process with the project providing the answers. This is an example of the “top-down” approach to development.

The Top-Down Approach to Development

We believe that to be sustainable, development that involves outsiders must be a cooperative venture. Local people guide this process and project workers are resources for them. Community members must take pride in themselves, demand control of the changes affecting them, and work with and learn from project workers as equals. Project workers, especially those from outside, must also learn to work with community members as equals, while recognizing that the local people must guide the project’s direction. Project workers must respect and support local skills and knowledge, and always keep in mind the ultimate goal of improving people’s well-being in a way that is both socially and environmentally sustainable. Gardens that support self-sufficiency by using local resources, improving nutritional status and incomes, and protecting the environment, can make an important contribution to finding solutions.

Development is Cooperation Between Equals

Model gardens are gardens that are developed without regard to the local circumstances where they are to be promoted. They are what someone from outside the community believes gardens should be. Model gardens are often inappropriate in many ways. They may require more time, water, or land than local people can afford, use seeds and techniques that are not locally adapted, or produce foods that people do not like. Promoting model gardens also ignores both local gardening skills and local gardening problems.

There are some distinct approaches to household gardens for improved well-being that reflect different values in the field of development. These approaches can be most usefully distinguished according to whether they are based on models brought in from the outside, or are built on local, indigenous knowledge. Today agriculture, nutrition, health, and rural development projects often promote gardens in recognition of their potential contribution to household well-being, but frequently these projects promote an industrial garden model which is very different from the gardens already existing in the area. Industrial gardens are based on agriculture in industrial countries and include crops, tools, inputs, production techniques, marketing organization and nutrition education which are usually inappropriate for the local situation in the Third World, and are not sustainable.

A much less common development approach is to support indigenous gardens, those that are developed by the gardeners themselves, based on local knowledge and resources, and adapted to local needs.3 Indigenous household gardens are valuable because they adapt to so many different human needs and physical environments in such a great diversity of ways, and persist even after, or sometimes in spite of, the introduction of “modern” agriculture and gardens. In fact, indigenous gardens are not only widespread in the Third World, but are also popular in urban and rural areas of industrialized countries like the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Poland where they have important economic, nutritional, and social functions.4

An approach to gardens in development based on indigenous gardens cannot use models because indigenous gardens are often unique to specific locations. Using an indigenous garden from one area as a model for gardens in another area can be as inappropriate as using any other garden model. New ideas are valuable and needed, but their appropriateness should never be assumed until tested and evaluated by gardeners themselves.

One reason for the lack of attention to indigenous gardens in development projects is that they are not well documented or understood in the horticulture, economic, nutrition, or social science literature that is the source of information for most project planners and field workers. European colonialism in the Third World did much to establish this bias against indigenous food production.5 Colonialism contributed to the belief still held by many today that indigenous food production expertise in the Third World is inferior and not suited to the modern world, and industrial, large-scale, capital- and resource-intensive agriculture is the only way to improve the situation.6

However, while development strategies like the “green revolution,” which are based on an industrial agriculture model, sometimes result in increased production, they have often led to increased inequities in the Third World countries where they have been applied. These strategies have frequently perpetuated dependence on the industrialized nations and the international markets they control.7 Meanwhile, malnutrition and poverty persist as major problems.

Indigenous gardens appear to have suffered from both the bias against indigenous agriculture, as well as from neglect because gardens were not considered to be a significant part of the food system. As a result, most of what has been written about indigenous gardens is brief and descriptive, and does not analyze the production techniques or the effects of gardens on income or nutrition. The assumption often follows that indigenous gardens are not based on scientific principles. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the more that is learned about indigenous food production, the more obvious it is that it is based on the same principles as Western science. It is also obvious that both are influenced by the experiences and values of the people who practice them.

For example. Western agricultural science today is very much under the influence of a world economic system that emphasizes maximizing production and profits (section 3.2). The majority of research carried out is on strategies that increase farmer dependence on the market. Relatively little research is done on strategies that increase small farmer and gardener self-reliance or on minimizing destruction of the environment. The strong influence of values on the direction of research has led to a vicious cycle; because alternatives are not documented they are not believed to be valid, and those who might be interested are discouraged from researching and documenting them.8 Those who are practicing these alternatives, such as indigenous gardeners and farmers, are told that their skills and knowledge must be abandoned in favor of a system over which they have no control. However, the need for such alternatives is increasing, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the world’s drylands.

People in drylands - such as migrants to cities and to marginal rural areas, participants in large-scale irrigation schemes, and refugees fleeing across borders to temporary camps - are increasingly faced with new situations. Rising population densities, environmental degradation, water scarcity, and rapid social and cultural change mean new conditions for everyone. Without any outside encouragement, many of these people are growing gardens as part of their survival strategy. But the gardens they are familiar with may not be the most appropriate for their new, difficult conditions. These people do not need to be told how to garden, but they do need assistance as they work to develop gardens appropriate for these new circumstances.

While the problems of poverty and powerlessness facing the poor in drylands can only be eliminated by addressing their social and economic roots in colonialism, global inequity, and dependency, gardens can provide immediate benefits, and most importantly, can provide those benefits in a way that contributes to the solution of the larger problems.