Thursday, February 5, 2009

Agroecology: Finding the Elusive Middle Path

The following is an interview that was published in Talking Leaves Journal, an Oregon based magazine focusing on deep ecology and environmental issues. It is a good introduction to traditional, indigenous methods of sustainable agriculture, and how we can learn from past civilizations. Cultivating the land in accordance with ecological design principles is referred to throughout the interview as agroecology. Here's the link to the Talking Leaves website:

Homeward Bound: Agroecological Civilization and the Quest for a Sustainable Society A Conversation with Pramod Parajuli

"To restore any place, we must also begin to re-story it; the stories will outlast us."-Gary Paul Nabhan, Coming Home to Eat

Dr. Pramod Parajuli is an internationally renowned interdisciplinary scholar, sustainability educator, and anthropologist. A native of Nepal, he has traveled widely and done research and published prolifically on the topics of sustainability education, bio-cultural diversities, knowledge systems and environmentalism of the global South. With a research grant from the McArthur Foundation, he has established a multipurpose family farm in Chitwan, Nepal, which educates people on the possibility of peasant livelihoods.

Dr. Parajuli is part of the faculty at Portland State University (PSU), where he co-founded and also serves as the executive director of the Portland International Initiative for Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning (PIIECL). He serves on the boards of a PSU student-run Food for Thought Café and Oregon Tilth. Currently, he is working on a manuscript entitled Learning Sustainability: Ecological and Cultural Foundations. A sample of his writings is available at the research and publications section of PIIECL website:

This interview is part of a longer conversation with June Rzendzian, who is pursuing a masters' degree in "Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning" within PIIECL. June is involved in the Portland-area Slow Food movement and interested in sustainable agricultural issues.

JR: Where does agroecology fit in the larger context of ecological and sustainability debates?

PP: Agroecology represents one major branch within a broad movement. In a way, as we know it, environmentalism in North America has come of age. Even if we count from 1970, it is about 33 years old. The time is ripe to critically look at what has been said and done in the name of environmentalism. I identify three distinct schools of thoughts, plans of actions, and choices.

The first and perhaps the most common-sense view is that the Earth is wild and sacred so we as humans should protect it and revere it. Humans should not be around her except for times of meditation, nature walks, hiking, and contemplation. Among others, people like Henry Thoreau, John Muir, and Leo Tolstoy could be considered the "bachelors" of nature. A modern manifestation is the fascination with the idea of wilderness, parks, and sanctuaries as a form of saving and protecting nature. This has grown to be a big industry in itself. Its credo is: Nature is more pure if it is untouched by humans. So, as the logic goes, we should have fewer people and more nature. In an extremist version, this might justify killing, eliminating, and displacing people in order to save nature. There is a reason why this thinking has a strong hold. When you don't like this techno-industrial life, a natural response is that you want to run away from it and get wild.

The second view is the extreme antithesis of the first, and it could be characterized as nature as a factory: tame, subdue, and extract from nature. We have seen enough of the "hit and run" model of clear-cutting and monoculture in agriculture and forestry. This is the story of the all-too-familiar mainstream techno-industrial worldview that sees nature as an obstacle to progress and the expansion of the frontier. Ideally, in this view, nature would operate in the model of a machine--measurable, quantifiable, predictable, and thus controllable.

The Earth as a household, or an agroecological worldview, is the third way of thinking. It is most often misunderstood, and less talked about. Poet Gary Snyder eloquently represents this view when he suggests: find a place, dig in, and stay put. This view carves the middle path between the other two views by overcoming the projection of culture and nature as binary opposites in the techno-industrial mindset. In this third school of thought, the agroecological householder can be considered as a housewife or a husband of land and nature.

The idea of husbandry or housewifery is a mode of using and being in nature that I call the "moral ecology of using nature." In this mode there is a possibility of overusing, abusing, and also appropriately using nature by humans. A majority of peasant and indigenous cultures and ecological thinkers/activists such as Vandana Shiva, Mahatma Gandhi in South Asia, Wendell Berry, Gary Nabhan, and Gary Snyder in North America share such views. In some ways, Emiliano Zapata's "land and liberty," Sandino's struggle for land in Nicaragua, and other "land to the tiller" movements can be recognized in this framework. During my visits in Mexico in 2001, I found a form of "Zapatista ecologism" alive and well.

Agroecological communities are coming into focus today because of the biocultural diversities they nurture. Tobias Policha's travelogue "Mexican Plants, Places and People" (In Good Tilth, December 15, 2003; see contact info. at end of article) amply demonstrates the rich biocultural diversity nurtured by an agroecological civilization. Occupying merely 1.4 percent of the global landmass, how is it that Mexico hosts 10 percent of the global flora (26,000 plant species)? Furthermore, of the nine countries in which 60 percent of the world's remaining 6,500 languages are spoken, six of them are also the centers of megadiversity. Those six countries are Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Zaire, and Australia. In Mexico, those languages and biodiversities are nurtured by 54 main indigenous groups who speak 240 languages and dialects. In geographer David Harmon's overlapping of the top 25 countries with the highest number of endemic languages, 16 also had the highest number of endemic wildlife species.

In 1996, I also found another prophetic example among the peasants in the Peruvian Andes, where a host of grassroots peasant organizations inspired by Proyecto Andino Tecnologias Campesinas (PRATEC) are revitalizing the age-old practice of exchanging seeds and cultivating biodiversity in the chakras (farm fields). They call themselves an agri-centric civilization that depends on nurturing nature and being nurtured by nature. Although I am from the Himalayas, I was astounded to find that the Andean peasants were farming at 14,000 feet. I wondered and asked, "Isn't it too much that you are farming on the top of the mountain?" They said, "No, we are farming in a different way. This farming is for the gods because gods see the top of the mountain. We are farming for them and then by farming at the top of the mountain you get a different kind of potato that is not possible in the lower elevations." By respecting the ecological niche of the top of the mountain, they are strengthening biodiversity.

Perhaps agroecology is the mean between these two extreme worldviews: earth as untouchably sacred and separate from us, and earth as a factory to be managed and exploited. This middle path is our quest for a sustainable future.

JR: It seems like you are not merely talking about agriculture as we know it. By adding the flavor of ecology, agroecology offers something more.

PP: Yes, the issue is not merely whether agroecology is a better economic system. I am engaged in a deeper unearthing about the very possibility of human life and that of other species. I am looking at whether humans have been a co-evolutionary animal in the rise and decline of biodiversity. Is biodiversity merely a function of nature or have humans played a role in it? In what ways could linguistic and cultural diversities contribute to biological diversities?

In agroecological thinking, the issue of body, health, food, and eating is central. By eating, all of us participate in interspecies communion--agricultural cycles and cycles of the wild. Among others, I encourage people to read Gary Paul Nabhan's two books, Coming Home to Eat and Cultures of Habitat. As an alternative to the famous Cartesian dictum, "I think, therefore I am," one might say, "I eat, therefore I am."

It is worth doing a bit of historical stretching. Human culture has 40,000 years of vertical axis and horizontal spread of about 6,500 different languages, about 2,000 different cultures and ecological variations in plants and animals. Each culture is a result of cross-fertilization between cultures as they interface through migrations and adaptation and conflicts. Solomon Katz of the University of Pennsylvania has demonstrated that people's genetic makeup has evolved in synchrony with their food collecting and processing practices. After tens of thousands of years with one set of foods processed in a certain way dominating their diets, people physiologically adapt to the digestibility and nutrient levels of those particular foods. Maladaptations can result in cases such as the diabetes among Native Americans or obesity among North American children.

JR: What are the sources of your ideas? Will you describe the community and setting where you were raised?

PP: It has a lot to do with where I was born and how I was raised. I was born and raised in a mountain village in the Himalayan foothills of Nepal. It seems as if, although I left Nepal for graduate studies in the United States, Nepal did not leave me. The agroecological Nepali culture is growing within me even deeper. My village was considered to be very remote, even by Nepali standards. The first time I had to go to Kathmandu (the capital city), I had to travel three days to reach the nearest bus stop. To reach there, we'd walk on foot through forests, going uphill and downhill and crossing rivers. So we were considered to be kind of a hinterland, like you might say the Appalachian range in the American sense, or Chiapas in the Mexican sense.

JR: What form of agroecology did you practice in that village?

PP: In that village in the Himalayan foothills, we had figured out almost all aspects of sustainability and agroecology. It was what I would now call a kind of agroecological civilization. Except for salt and kerosene oil, the village produced almost everything. People did most of their labor, without buying and selling labor, through what was known as parma, a form of labor-sharing with your neighbors. Through parma, houses, fences, farm terraces, and walls were built and repaired, crops were planted, weeded, and harvested. Life journeys such as birth, coming of age, and death were celebrated without much cash exchange. However, a set of forces unleashed in the early '60s unsettled our village economy and culture--one of those being my own departure for Kathmandu and eventually to the United States. While merchant capitalism, trade, marketing of goods, wage labor, and English-speaking schools gradually moved in, we saw the accelerated erosion of the agroecological base and the customary laws that governed it.

JR: Was there a systematic knowledge system embedded in these traditional ways?

PP: There was an implicit science in a very so-called unscientific world out there. For example, when I began to develop a multipurpose educational farm in my own land in Chitwan (located south of the mountain village in the plains of Nepal) in 1993-94, I began a systematic study of these plants in the traditional agricultural and medicinal texts and found that there were books and chapters written on the quality of those plants. Some of them are used for manuring and fermenting seedlings. They can cure you when you are sick, and you can brush your teeth with the twigs of at least five plants. Perhaps the people didn't know the term "nitrogen fixing," but they knew which tree was beneficial for the soil and which was not, which one needed to be kept near the garden, which one by the end of the field as a windbreak, which trees worked together and which did not. The more I recognize how holistic and integrated that system was, the more it puzzles me.

It's puzzling in the sense that the system functioned as if without claiming anything, without telling other people, giving lectures, or putting up a "no trespassing" sign--as if all was embedded in the daily rhythms of life, as if knowledge was not separate from life.

I will give you an example. There was an implicit understanding that you not cut trees around water sources. I distinctly remember within a mile of my own house, there were about six or seven water places--springs sprouting directly from the earth. They were basically carved-out small places where the spring was just bubbling up. These water sources were either within larger public forests or where there was a thick forest cover around the water sources. Nobody could even think about cutting that forest. That is what we call the sacred. Interestingly, lots of deities were placed at the bottom of those trees just so that people would also say that this was not only a watering place but also a place of the Nagas (the serpent snakes) who were supposed to be the givers and regulators of water. In each and every source of water, the idea was that there was a certain kind of god or certain kind of goddess living there.

JR: The water sources are connected to the sacred grove and then the groves to the Nagas, serpent snakes? You are talking about not one actor in nature but many. Do humans and their cultures have a role?

PP: The work on nature is not possible by one but always requires many co-operating hands, including humans. All are bound by a need to protect a place, bring fertility to the soil, or continually maintain a water source. I found similar examples in the tribal communities of India and many other indigenous peasant cultures in the Cornwall region in England, peasant communities in Peru and Mexico, and Maori communities in New Zealand.

Let me illustrate this with another example from my own mountain village. Human rituals recognized the role of more-than-human communities in making this agroecological life fecund and possible. For example, in the month of July, there was a particular day for snakes or serpents, including the Nagas. This has to be the fifth day after the full moon, called Nagapanchami, literally the fifth day of (and for) the Nagas.

We believe that the Nagas are the regulators of the underworld, and they connect different water levels and let water springs come out. My given name according to the ritual calendar is after one of those serpents--Padma Naga. By looking into my nature and the day and time of birth in the month of July, my father (who was also an astrologer) gave me this name.

On the day of Nagapanchami, we as a priestly family--my father was the priest of the whole area--our job was to draw pictures of all these serpents. And there is a particular drawing design about how you could untangle all these varieties of 36 different kinds of serpents. We also had to acknowledge the spider, the scorpion, the snakes, and the earthworms--all the things that were in the soil. In today's language you could call them the ingredients of the soil food web. Our job was to put these hand-written posters on top of everybody's front door. Then we performed pooja (worshipping) and said, "Let this house and family be safe. Let this house be fertile. We are aware that you are around (all these serpents and these beings, the crawlers and critters of the world). We are respectful of you. Don't frighten us and don't harm us. Help us because without you our culture isn't possible."

What we were trying to do during Nagapanchami was to purify water, to make it healthy through the protection of the forest around the water because water is basically a product of trees. As scientists have now recognized, a full-grown tree can transpire 2,000 gallons of water on a hot, dry day.

JR: Are these actions deliberate in recognition and respect for other than human beings?

PP: Let me share with you another ritual from South India. In South India women of the household draw different designs in front of doors and in the yards with powdered rice flour. These patterns are known as Kalam. The patterns vary because they express the women's dreams, their anxieties, current events, etc. A cultural anthropologist might say this is the human invention of art, but here we see clearly that it is also an ecological act. It has the creative idea about designing the pattern the way you like it, but then it is basically about offering the product of the earth to other species such as ants. You are offering rice, which is the product of the soil, to the ants as well as other things that come and eat. That means you are in partnership with the ants and other critters that need that food and acknowledge that they have a role in your harvest. That is the sustainability of spirit.

Now, you might say, you are hungry but you are feeding these ants! From an economic perspective it might be a stupid thing to do. But what they are doing is nurturing nature's economy, sharing the bounty of nature with more than humans.

JR: Let's talk more about agroecology in the general sense. How exactly do you define it?

PP: Agroecology basically means doing agriculture according to ecological designs and principles. Doing so, you can get agricultural crops without overtaxing and in some cases actually enhancing nature's vital principals. In economic terms, you could say you are using the interest rather than the principal of nature in doing agriculture and pursuing your livelihoods. In a nutshell, a move towards agroecology from this techno-industrial society is a move from emphasis on the accumulation of technomass to the nurturing of biomass.

The option ahead of us, as Wendell Berry aptly says, is not whether to live with or without nature. We can afford to live only with and in nature. But we can choose how, in what scale, in what speed and velocity, with what degrees of reciprocity we want to live in nature. So the division between the wild and domestic is the function of a techno-industrial mindset. The answer is not in creating national parks and sanctuaries; the challenge is in creating different ethics for using nature. I talk a lot about this in my article, "How Can Four Trees Make a Jungle" (see

JR: Younger generations think that pursuing an agroecological civilization would be like going back in history. After all, somehow, didn't the techno-industrial civilization emerge from the agricultural one?

PP: Even if one wanted to, one cannot go back. That is the secret dynamic of history. In history we evolve and co-evolve (again not only among humans but also among more than human species) but do not go back to an earlier historical period or experience. As the saying goes, you cannot jump into the same river twice. But what we can do and many have chosen to do is to carve out a future in a different path. Among others, Helena Norberg-Hodge talks about Ladakhi society and proposes that these could give us inspiration towards our "ancient futures."

The second point I want to bring home is how many innovations and how much good thinking have gone into refining the new mode of agroecological civilization, bringing into fruition indigenous traditions and new innovations. There is a blending and the flowering of convergence between the old and new.

JR: What are some examples of this?

PP: Let me start with some living examples from indigenous and peasant traditions. Recently, there was a delegation of people from Ecuador, the Mamallakta, in Portland. They gave several lectures and also distributed an e-mail defining who they are and what they do. The first paragraph in the e-mail read: "We come from the Ecuadorian Amazon, which is a cultivated forest (le silva culta)." This is one of the most profound statements in the history of agroecology. The Amazon is supposed to be the wildest place untouched by humans, right? Now, what are the indigenous people saying? Yes, it's a forest but it is cultivated forest, not only by humans but also cultivated by birds, insects, plants, and mammals. No wonder the Kichwa word Mamallakta means "mother community."

Another example is the "forest islands" (apêtê) found among the Kayapo people in the Brazilian Amazon. In the campo-cerrado in Brazil, the Kayapo have concentrated plant varieties collected from an area the size of Western Europe into a 10-hectare plot. One hundred-twenty species were found in ten apêtê.

What on earth are these human artifacts of forest islands doing in the heart of Amazon? As shown by the late anthropologist Darrell Posey, these are the centers of biodiversity but nurtured by human knowledge and labor. Apêtê begin as small mounds of vegetation, about one to two meters round, created by ant nests in open areas in the field. Slight depressions are usually picked out because they are more likely to retain moisture. As apêtê grow, they begin to look like up-turned hats, with higher vegetation in the center and lower herbs growing in the shaded borders. The Kayapos usually cut down the highest trees in the center to create a donut-hole that allows the light into the older apêtê.

From the southwest US and Northern Mexico, ethnoecologist Gary Paul Nabhan reports that more than 400 plant species are eaten by the tribes of the northern Sierra Madre; historically, the Tarahumara alone utilized at least 220 kinds of native plants as food. He also reports the multifunctionality and purpose of an ironwood tree. Sixty-two reptiles and amphibians, and 64 mammals use ironwoods for forage, cover, and birthing grounds. An ironwood-bursage habitat also shelters some 188 kinds of bees, 25 ant colonies, and 25 other types of insects. That adds up to an extraordinary level of biodiversity.

I am currently reading an inspiring book called Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway who lives in Southern Oregon and has written one of the most intuitive books about biocultural diversity that can be maintained in permaculture gardens. I highly recommend the book. He documents many innovations. You could think about edible landscaping meeting wildlife gardening. Basically, it is the idea of the wild and domestic, the forest and farm disappearing as dividing lines and blending with each other. It becomes a continuum where there are polycultures and there are some annual cultures helping each other.

Wes Jackson'sLand Institute, based in Kansas, also offers a provocative model. There they caution us, "Wait a minute! This annual agriculture is too much! We are taking ourselves too seriously by doing annual agriculture, by planting and weeding and harvesting and storing." We're taking too much of an active role. What humans should do rather is let nature do perennial polycultures and harvest from nature's labor of love. Perhaps the future of agroecology is in the combination of some form of bio-intensive garden, permaculture designs, polycultures, animal husbandry, food-forests, agroforestry, farming within forestry and so on.

JR: Any final thoughts?

PP: Humanity is at the verge of knowing how to create our livelihood while following nature's designs and meeting nature's needs. We are enriched with foresight provided by the past and a vision for the future. That's the new terrain I want to explore, a sustainability of the spirit! Sustainability is, in my recent metaphor, a move from outward bound to homeward bound. Earth is our home and making a nest within that home is the basic challenge right now. We are already in the middle of that journey and we do not need a huge violent revolution to get there, either.

As Manfred Steger and Perle Besserman write in Grassroots Zen: "We don't have to create waves when the ocean is flat.... Finding ourselves in the middle of a big wave itself presents us with an opportunity. All we have to do is dive right in."

A slightly different version of this interview first appeared in the February 15, 2004 issue of In Good Tilth, 470 Lancaster NE, Salem, OR 97301;

Pramod Parajuli, Ph.D. is Associate Professor, Education, and Director of the Portland International Initiative for Leadership in Ecology, Culture and Learning (, Graduate School of Education, Portland State University, June Rzendzian is a masters' student at PIIECL. See introduction for fuller bios.

©2004 Talking Leaves
Spring/Early Summer 2004
Volume 14, Numbers 1 & 2
Person and Place: Adventures Here, There, & Everywhere

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