PEASANT KNOWLEDGE AND THE EMERGENCE IN LATIN AMERICA OF AGROECOLOGY: THE PEASANT AS PRACTITIONER OF ECOLOGICAL PROCESSES

A widespread organizing principle essential to the peasant approach to agriculture is the maintenance of a livelihood dependent on a set of strategies based on the reproduction of the diversity of life, while facing structural constraints that confine them to a small land base. Comparatively speaking, a small plot of land of a few hectares set aside for peasant agriculture is likely to contain more varieties of life than thousands of hectares dedicated to monocultural production. The peasant works with this life diversity, and the aim of this production system is to work with what is naturally in place in the ecosystem were one dwells. Certainly, the ways in which the things in place are named, how they are viewed, and what is ultimately done with them has very little in common with the narratives of science.

If we travel through the countryside in Latin America, we will still find that the average peasant family (of four to six) dwells in a 1- to 2-hectare land base. We will find (with some variations) (a) a relatively humble house built with local materials (adobe, grass, branches, or local wood) and (b) a polycultural plot containing several combinations of plants that are known to complementarily and symbiotically coexist. Typically, across the Andes, this usually consists of a combination of beans, squash, corn, potatoes, and legumes, often articulated in some form of integration between producers at different altitudes in the Andes and through networks linking various communities into a regional system, linked together by a common cultural pattern of economic linkages and shared rituals.24 If peasant families are based in areas where fruit trees grow in abundance, there will always be fruit trees for household consumption, and (c) the plot will be “rented” from the larger landowner, either lent in exchange for work in the larger property or sharing products and some kind of arrangement with the absentee owner, alongside a variety of other arrangements, including surviving cooperatives from the times of the agrarian reform and individual and family-owned peasant farms. Also, (d) there will be several domestic animals, with the most common combination being chickens, ducks, one or two pigs (or depending on the altitude, one or two llamas), a cow or a goat, plus many dogs and cats. Finally, (e) the plot will be filled with bees, birds, and butterflies, and the soil will be rich in organic matter and minerals and be massively inhabited by worms, the most eloquent indicator of the health of the soil.

The peasant farm will be a place booming with life, including the kind that is uncomfortable and inconvenient for humans and smaller animals, such as mosqui?toes, flies, snakes, wild animals, and sometimes poisonous insects. Although almost impossible to define with a single definition that encompasses all, there will be a small land-base, worked by the peasant farmer and family and a surrounding community with whom the peasant will tend to be in a relatively close-knit network of mutual support, while never being entirely free of conflict.

Agro ecologists have a variety of names with which they refer to this picture, the most common one being an agroecosystem characterized by a rich biodiversity, where the productive cycle is characterized by close loops, where the energy of the sun is processed by a panoply of plants, where nutrients cycle through the system in relationships of mutuality, symbiosis, and competition. The peasant uses all three to enhance desirable traits of the system (i.e., nitrogen-fixing properties of legumes) and to control pests and discourage predators. Animals are always integrated with all the other functions of the farm in food provision, manure production for fertilizer, and nutrient cycling. These are communities involved in important relations based on reciprocity and mutual aid, thus endowed with social capital.

To survive, these “traditional” farmers require a profound and detailed practical knowledge of their local ecosystems. They are rooted in their physical locations, which equip them with a type of knowledge that is involved and participatory, rather than detached and remote. It is also subjective and value laden, because it overtly appreciates personal experiences and beliefs as resources for knowledge, rather than as obstacles. It is centered on the interests of the local community and its aim is to produce food for the local communities, with the goals of sufficiency and long-term stability, rather than fast production for foreign or remote markets with strictly quick, short-term profit in mind.

Traditional peasant ecological knowledge is also experimental and is always based on shared experiences of what has been shown and proven over the course of generations. However, the experiments conducted by peasant farmers are experiments in situ (they take place in their natural context), not in vitro (in an artificial context), as is typically the case in standardized scientific experiments. The latter approach aims to purposefully and systematically control the environment to identify the cause of the single effect under investigation. The former remains by necessity more open-ended and evolves through trial and error, often involving several simultaneous effects. By comparing Western scientific knowledge with local, experiential knowledge, we can realize that the requirements of these types of knowledge tend to be very different. Science was born and has evolved mainly from the interest of finding universals, that is, the ability to make generalizations about phenomena. So scientific research looks for regularities and uniformities of phenomena that can be replicated under controlled conditions, and such findings have been among the greatest contributions of Western science. Traditional knowledge, on the other hand, tends to be site specific and grounded in place; it seeks singularities and does not claim validity beyond the place where it evolved in local ecosystems. Thus, both systems of knowledge illuminate different aspects of reality and have their own demands, merits, and weaknesses, depending on the aspect of reality they intend to illuminate. The key question is this: is integration/ translation between these different forms of knowledge possible and desirable? As we shall see, the agroecological answer is yes.

 
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