Indigenous people and peasants have detailed knowledge of nature. Their religion is a spiritual form of farming – pleading to the gods to bring them a good harvest. Their celebrations, their fiestas, are prayers of enjoyment to their gods for their ancestors, animals, crops, harvest, the dead and the living.
Indigenous people in the Philippines consider the land a gift of the gods.
Land in the savannah grasslands of the Upper East region of Ghana is a sanctuary for the gods.
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The Dai people of southwest China protect and preserve sacred groves where they worship their gods – exactly like the ancient Greeks.
The Dayak Pasir Adang people live in East Borneo, Indonesia, and practice sacred farming. If their reading of nature is auspicious, they use fire for clearing the land in order to plan their crops. They don’t destroy or burn fruit-bearing trees or ground that has the graves of their ancestors. They sow seeds of spinach, bitter brassica, corn, and cucumber.
Rice seeds are the most sacred of seeds of the Dayak Pasir Adang people. They place the first rice seeds in holes, each with a special name – father, mother, captain, and guardian. The community sows and harvests the rice.
At harvest time, men, women, and children work together. They sing and pray to the gods. The unhusked rice grains that will become the seed for the next growing season are cleaned first, and, then, the rest of the rice grains are trampled and dried in the sun for two to three days. Finally, the rice is thrown in the air, its chaff and impurities blown away.
In the same tradition of sacred farming, the Mende rice peasants of southern and eastern Sierra Leone use rice varieties best adapted to the ecological conditions of their land and region. And since rice is a self-pollinating crop, the Mende peasants do the shifting and choosing of rice seeds coming their way, in the rice fields, and next door in nature.
They revere their ancestors for the rice bounty they left them. But they no more feel they own the rice varieties they developed than they own the breeze. Yet they are experts in combining and selecting seeds for their way of life, which is sacred agriculture.
“Maybe,” says Paul Richards, a British scholar on African traditional farming, “it makes more sense to concentrate on enriching the gene pool, leaving local talent to do the rest. Forget the Green Revolution [industrialized farming]. Treat local myths seriously. Charter a plane and scatter duplicates of the international rice gene bank collections to the four winds.”
Paul Richards is right. The Mende peasants are the real experts and best guardians of rice genetic diversity.
The ethno botanical knowledge of several indigenous people is remarkable. The Tzeltals and the Purepechas of Mexico recognize more than 1,200 and 900 plants respectively.
It was from that careful study and understanding of the workings of nature that traditional farming came into being.
Crop mixtures with animals, crops grown with trees near or within a forest, make up a traditional farming system. Mixing plants and animals is good farming because, together, they fertilize the land and keep pests under control. Crop mixtures attract insect predators and parasites that keep hostile insects and weeds in check.
In addition, the traditional seeds of the peasant have a greater resistance to disease. Farm animals (hogs, chicken, cattle) give the peasant milk, meat, and draft power while they eat weeds and crop residues recycling them into protein and manure for the land.
The Chiapas peasants, who are fighting for survival, raise two tons of maize per hectare while the industrialized farmer next door produces six tons of maize per hectare. For this reason, the agricultural experts call the peasants backward and insist they leave the land or adopt the methods of the mechanical plantation.
Yet the industrialized farmer gets nothing more from his land but the six tons of corn, though in the United States, the industrialized farmer gets more than 9 tons of corn per hectare per year.
The Chiapas peasant, however, grows not merely maize but, along with maize, he raises beans, squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and other vegetables, fruits and medicinal herbs. Some of his food the peasant sells for cash and the rest is for his family, chickens, and cattle.
In Peru, a pre-Columbian high-altitude farming method of raised fields (waru-waru) in the midst of water ditches was responsible for bumper crops of potatoes, quinoa, amaranth and oca (wood sorrel), better diet, better incomes, and healthier and more resilient land. This waru-waru farming system of the Andes – with its canals for water, terraces, and raised fields – is very productive and sophisticated method of growing food in a harsh environment.
The water in the canals slowly percolates to the raised fields. That way, it moderates the temperature of the land and prevents the frost from hurting the growing crops. The peasants use the silt, sediment, and organic residues in the ditches to fertilize their vegetables or crops.
Raised-bed farming was a widespread agricultural practice not merely in Peru, but throughout pre-Columbian Central and South America. In Mexico, raised-bed farming or chinapas was probably invented by the Mayas and passed on to the Aztecs.
The chinapas, exactly like the waru-waru of Peru, were agricultural islands within lakes and marshes encircled by shallow water and dense vegetation. These raised beds produced maize, beans, chilies, tomatoes and fruits in abundance. They were very productive, allowing continuous cultivation. They were year-round gardens.
When, in November 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras and northern Nicaragua, the only region of Honduras that escaped the fury of nature was around the village of Guarita, close to the El Salvador border primarily because the Lenca peasants of Guarita never changed their farming way of life.
The massive rain and wind of the violent storm barely touched their land, since that land is solidly anchored on the hills with the roots of ancient wisdom and traditional agricultural practices.
The Lenca peasants don’t slash-and-burn their hillside farms. And neither do they go for the cash cropping methods of farming taught at the colleges of Honduras in an effort to speed up the country’s modernization. Instead, they plant their crops under trees, and build terraces to prevent erosion of the land. They also avoid ploughing, but use their traditional pointed stick for sowing.
In the same manner, in fighting against another deadly erosion, peasants have been waging struggles of resistance in defense of their culture, and struggles of liberation from all colonizers. Thus, it is almost part of their nature that they create and maintain crop genetic diversity. Their seeds are not the suicide seeds of genetic engineers.
The seeds of peasants are their culture – ancient, rich in variety, resilient, tasty, aromatic, dependable for the next sowing and harvest of food.
Says Jonathan King, professor of molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “Peasant farmers [in Asia] are struggling to maintain control over the material basis of their livelihood, the agricultural crop plant on which they depend. They are also struggling to maintain control over their culture, as represented in the knowledge of producing and using rice.”
The seeds of the industrial farmer have their origins in the seeds of peasants. But because their genetic structure is perpetually redesigned to meet the needs of industrialized agriculture, they are poorly adapted to nature, thus they are genetically uniform, exotic species easily attacked by insects, weeds, and diseases. They require weapons for survival-synthetic poisons and fertilizers – not exactly a replacement for the eons-tested peasant seeds.
Moreover, traditional family farmers and peasants practice sustainable agriculture; that is, they practice not merely good husbandry, but, just as importantly, they and their agriculture are expressions of agricultural, ecological, and biodiversity principles, social justice, democracy, and very small-scale farming on the land.
In contrast to the unsustainable agricultural practices of industrialized farmers, peasants and small family farmers raise food in ways that enrich the land and create strong rural society; that is, they employ sustainable farming as a way of life.
Peasants in particular are inseparable from seeds – agricultural genetic diversity. There is simply no alternative to healthy peasant communities. Seeds for food security survive and thrive only when peasants have been growing food for very long time.
Organic farmers in the United States are not peasants, much less indigenous people.
Some organic farmers, in fact, are industrialized and own large farms where they grow row crops. However, most organic farmers are sustainable farmers and do things like peasants and indigenous people.
For instance, to a large extent, they don’t spray or use synthetic pesticides and fertilizers in growing their crops. They raise food in such a way that they maintain high levels of organic matter in the soil, which means their land is healthy, resisting erosion, capable of conserving nutrients and absorbing and storing water.
Organic farms also sequester much more carbon dioxide than conventional farms.
Organic or biological farmers own farms that are, in most cases, smaller farms than those of conventional farmers.
According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the average size of farms in the United States is 418 acres. The average organic farm is 126 acres. Less than 11 percent of all farms in America are smaller than 9 acres; 45.3 percent of organic farms are less than 9 acres. Thirty percent of all farms are 50-179 acres; 17.1 of organic farms are 50-179 acres. More organic farmers than conventional farmers are female, younger, and live on their farms.
Organic farmers raise food by blending traditional knowledge and ecological wisdom. Organic food production has been growing by at least 20 percent per year. Sales of organic products, including non-food, earned $ 1 billion in 1990 and about $ 24.6 billion in 2008.
The significance of organic farming, however, is primarily moral and political. By practicing sustainable farming organic farmers become models for the present and the future. They sell a lot of food because their food is good; it is full of nutrients and it tastes good. They are always part of farmers’ markets, their presence telling urban people that the fast food of industrialized farmers is not their only option.
Organic food teaches the consumer nutrition and politics. In addition, most organic farmers grow food without poisons, earning a very good living. This neutralizes the lies of the plantation, that we would starve without pesticides.
Organic/sustainable farmers all over Europe and North America, and particularly peasants in Latin America, Asia, and Africa represent a living counterrevolution to the factory food and power of giant agriculture.
Hugh Iltis, the American expert on agricultural biological diversity, said correctly we ought to pay peasants to continue to do what they do so well-protecting the natural evolution of food seeds without which agriculture would not exist.
If we could help the peasants of Africa get back to the cultivation of their enormous variety of crops – which, according to the “Lost Crops of Africa,” a 1996 report of the Academy of Sciences, exist in the periphery of the continent – it would be humanity’s greatest gift to the African people.
Africans would have enough to eat, food security and food sovereignty would replace hunger, and the rest of us would know that those making the transition from cash cropping to sustainable farming could borrow seeds from Africa for expanding the narrow biological diversity of their agriculture.
Our organic farmers are the means by which we expand the frontiers of our biological diversity and variety of our foods, making the unambiguous connection between democracy, health, farming and food.