Preserving biodiversity is a critical area of many conservation programs across the globe. Biodiversity is a determinant for ecosystem health, thus falling rates have produced a significant amount of concern. I recently read an article by Brush (1992) who explored the diversity of potatoes in Andean agricultural fields while fusing the analysis with an ethnoecological perspective investigating the influence of cultural practice and economic decision-making. Essentially, the research examined the resiliency of the potato agriculturalists, which were motivated to preserve indigenous varieties in the wake of globalized market forces that favor one or two varieties. Brush found that in two particular valleys, cultural norms and values motivated the maintenance of indigenous varieties that were understood as being important to social connections, festivals, and a gift giving culture. Bush notes:
“Ritual meals and celebrations and meals for guests emphasize native potatoes” (p.178)
“Native varieties are favored gift items and are used to strengthen social ties, and some reports refer to them as ‘gift potatoes’ (Spanish: papas de regalo)” (p.178-179)
“Within farming communities, native potatoes are also appreciated, perhaps as much for their cultural significance as for their superior flavor. They are favored gift items, and in a rural economy that is increasingly short of labor, they are used as added incentives by landowners to attract workers” (p.180-181)
In a world that often seems at the mercy of globalizing market forces, these findings provide optimism. Cultural practices are expressive tools that not only shape social interactions, but also shape the world in which we live.
Brush, S. B. (1992). Ethnoecology, Biodiversity, and Modernization in Andean Potato Agriculture. Journal of Ethnobiology, 12(2), 161-185.
In environmental literature there seems to be a recent fascination with the term ‘natural capital’. While the term seemingly signifies a positive notion, by producing a perspective of natural resources that are now understood as capital, and should thus be valued as such, the term also solidifies a particular socio-ecological relationship in line with a neoliberal worldview. Neoliberal forms of conservation work to provide external incentives that motivate people to act in conservation-friendly ways. So by framing resources, or the environment more generally, as ‘natural capital’, one associates benefits that can be derived and therefore one is motivated to treat the ‘natural capital’ in conservation-friendly ways. While this works towards a positive outcome, the means of providing such incentives contains troubling logic. What happens when the incentives for conservation are removed?
If people’s actions are trained to act towards monetary incentives, this not only puts the environment at risk during times of economic downturn, but also changes significantly the relationship that humans have with their surroundings. We are trained, in the capitalism system, to view objects in our environment according to how they benefit us individually. Therefore, the environment becomes a source of meeting our personal needs and wants and we impose power over it so that it produces what we want. This becomes even more intensified as we live in urban spaces that see ‘nature’ as something ‘other-than’ our current surroundings, thus nature is abstracted as a commodity to be managed and manipulated.
Such a conception of the environment is very different than that experienced by indigenous communities. In pre-modern Bhutanese farming communities, people viewed themselves as being at the mercy of the environment, crops being dependent on weather patterns that were controlled by deities in the landscape. Creation narratives in multiple religions also attest to alternative human-environment perceptions that frame the environment as worthy of protection motivating ethical behavior from followers. These examples point towards different socio-ecological relations that contest the model provided by neoliberal capitalism, one that does not create a vision of dominance over, but rather a symbiotic relationship with the environment.