Socio-ecological systems of production

Socio-ecological systems refer to relations between societies and nature in terms of food production. The relationship is noticeably complex, involving social adaptations, local ecologies and indigenous knowledge that, when combined, influence social change. Historical analyses of social change have revealed that a variety of processes were involved. Bernard Magubane22 identifies two stages of change. The first stage is change by ‘acculturation,’ when African societies were exposed to changes introduced by colonial policies. The second stage is a period of ‘acquiescence,’ when traditional systems of production were compelled to adapt to the changes that had been introduced. For indigenous communities and their methods of organizing resource management, decision making, and prudent economic opportunities served as a cultural model. Consequently, how particular communities responded to the state’s production innovations informed how societies made decisions under changing political and economic conditions. Whether the changes were by ‘acculturation’ or by ‘acquiescence,’ social science researchers were able to analyze societies’ reactions to development. The processes of change might have varied from one society to another—each serving as a model for understanding how social science research may be applied in the context of socio-ecological systems.25

Anthropologists have described responses to development according to two viewpoints: instrumentalists and functionalists.24 The instrumentalist approach views development as a good thing and considers that it benefits societies. This approach justifies the use of advanced technologies in improving production, compared to those that rely on indigenous technob ogies. Taking the mobile pastoralist production system as an example, the pro-development argument claims that pastoralists would be integrated into state political and economic programs; in this way, it shifts attention to transformative state interventions compared to indigenous, mobile production systems.2’ By comparison, the functionalist viewpoint contends that social and cultural variations reflect cultural adaptations by a given group. Thus, adaptations of new technologies might be culturally predetermined.26 For this reason, the functionalist view is that some groups respond positively to development initiatives, while others respond negatively.

In any case, such social theories tend to caricature social behavior. Social patterns were developed as part of adaptive strategies to survive in highly variable environments. For example, pastoralists maintain large herds wherever possible to help them cope with variable environments, with livestock numbers serving as insurance against adverse climatic conditions such as droughts. These circumstances may have influenced the behavior of societies in certain ways, including their attitudes towards social and economic transformations. Thus, pastoralists may have resisted destocking programs either directly or indirectly, reflecting their cultural adaptations to avoiding disasters.

Conversely, cultural structures as instruments of change are not necessarily deterministic, whether societies accept new economic technologies. Change is a necessity of life to cope with new environmental, social, political and economic vicissitudes, implying that social behavior is fluid, as opposed to fixed. Therefore, the argument that social behavior and social boundaries enclosed African societies in some primordial environment sounds illogical. On the contrary, social behavior in response to economic and socio-political changes introduced by outsiders might require some imagination and understanding. In indigenous societies, there are no sudden instigators of change, except where societies have made such decisions themselves, or have been removed from their territories by the authorities.27 We are interested in understanding if cultural behavior responses toward development may be influenced by cultural ecology.

Cultural ecology of East Africa

Ecological anthropologists28 investigated how various economic and cultural pursuits influenced the way that communities responded to development changes. If it was cultural traditions that influenced how different African societies responded to colonial development interventions, then one might assume that there would have been some sort of correspondence between development initiatives and social-cultural responses.

Cultural responses would obviously be influenced by ecological adapta- tions, suggesting that there is a blend of ecological adaptations and social decisions.

A common theme is that the majority of the African peasants were not averse to economic empowerment.29 Conrad Kottak30 goes even further, claiming that environmental hazards stimulated environmental awareness and actions taken by officials, to which societies responded (either voluntarily or by coercion), thereby suggesting that there are ‘pervasive linkages’ between societal responses and development interventions. Thus, according to the same author, cultural practice ‘enables human populations to optimize their adaptations.’ This would suggest that those introducing development programs needed to combine variations of ecology and culture in their plans. Development planners focusing on livestock programs, for example, assumed that the technology introduced is general enough to be applied under various environmental conditions. In each case a positive response from the local communities was expected. We can give the example of animal health and destocking of rangelands. Acceptance of livestock health projects would be reflected by universal cooperation among individual households and communities.31 On the other hand, forced destocking would not have been favored by any cultural groups. We now examine how social-cultural behavior influenced responses by African societies to development programs.

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