Culturally Rich Agroecosystems: Maintaining Traditional Beliefs for Food Security in Nepal

Project Contributor: Laxmi Pant

Nepalese “rice culture” has provided important options to address the needs of ecosystems and local communities together, particularly in areas that are diverse, complex and resource poor. The cultivation of diverse landraces of rice has advantages over “improved” rice varieties, both ecologically and culturally. Despite greater economic value of improved varieties, landraces are considered to have both symbolic and adaptive values. Farmers’ selection of rice varieties that have been discouraged by scientists, for example, and their distaste for imported varieties, clearly show the strength of farmers’ knowledge connected to social and ecological factors. The exchange of knowledge and traditions associated with landraces has important implications for the maintenance of the link between culture and food and thus for food security.

The study “Linking Crop Diversity with Food Traditions and Food Security in the Hills of Nepal”, based at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, in Norway, focused on subsistence farmers in the hills of Nepal, who have extensive knowledge associated with crop landraces and food traditions. The study suggests that the traditional practices of using local crop varieties in festivals and life-cycle rituals help maintain agricultural biodiversity, since specific crop landraces are preferred in traditional foods consumed during major celebrations. For example, selroti, a ring-like bread prepared from Gurdi and Madishe landraces of rice, is essential in major festivals, such as Dashain and Tihar, and important life cycle rituals, such as Bartabandha and Bibaha. Bread prepared from any other variety of rice would not be as desirable and might even be regarded as religiously impure. Project influence extends to policy guidelines on tourism training centres and menu development for hotels to use and promote traditional foods.

All project information was generated in the local language, using participatory learning tools, and later translated into English. However, the project’s view was that language revitalization in and of itself is not a panacea for maintaining transmission of knowledge and practices. The maintenance of traditional landraces is critically dependent on the belief system and traditional practices continuing to be a part of the socio-cultural system. This is how agricultural biodiversity conservation is possible in culturally rich agroecosystems. As project contributors point out, ‘neither of the two goals, conserving biodiversity and sustaining cultural diversity is attainable in isolation.’

Indigenous Knowledge, Biodiversity Conservation, and Poverty Alleviation Among Ethnic Minorities in Yunnan, China

Credit: Xu Jianchu

Project Contributor: Xu Jianchu

Within one hour, Tibetan villagers in northwest Yunnan collected more than 80 local species, which have been traditionally used for generations and are classified according to their own epistemology and knowledge systems Credit: Xu Jianchu

The opening up and success of economic reforms in recent decades in China have produced high and sustained economic growth rates and lifted millions of people out of poverty. Concurrent political reforms have decentralized many decision-making processes and created new democratic institutions, especially in rural areas. These changes, however, have placed additional stress on natural resources and on the livelihoods of indigenous communities in politically and economically peripheral areas. Increasing public awareness of deforestation and its links to soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, floods and other forms of environmental degradation has made protection of forest ecosystems a central government priority. Conflicts have emerged between decentralization for enhancing local livelihoods, and environmental protection for the benefit of larger-scale populations.

The success of economic reform and a relaxed political environment have acted to strengthen cultural identity and generate a revival of indigenous knowledge of particular traditional spiritual practices. However, a significant consequence of the changing economic context is the loss of inter-generational transfer of this knowledge related to conservation beliefs and practices. In Southwest China, the key challenge now is how to strengthen local (both informal and formal) institutions that can support and enhance indigenous knowledge, innovations and practices of the local cultural communities in relation to environmental and socio-economic changes.

The Yunnan Initiative, which resulted from the 2000 Cultures and Biodiversity Congress (CUBIC 2000), calls attention to the uncertainties that local and indigenous peoples face in their quest to use, nurture and sustain the ecosystems in which they live and on which they depend. The Yunnan Initiative articulated the principles and strategies for cultural and ecological conservation as well as sustainable economic development applicable to places that are culturally and biologically diverse. The initiative is based on the Code of Ethics of the International Society of Ethnobiology (http://ise.arts.ubc.ca/global_coalition/ethics.php) and endorses the CBD’s call for respect of cultural and spiritual values for sustainable development. The CUBIC 2000 concluded that partnerships between local groups and government, nongovernmental organizations, and the business sector must be based on participatory processes and intercultural dialogue and institutional development, and aim for an interaction between local knowledge and aspects of Western knowledge for an equitable and sustainable continue reading–>