Preserving a Piece of Mind
by Judy Purdy
Out of sight, out of mind. That's the fate of some knowledge as cultures around the globe shift from centuries-old farming methods to modern, commercial ones. Gradually people are forgetting the flavorful fruits, vegetables and grains of their youth.
That kind of know-how is something UGA anthropologist Virginia Nazarea-Sandoval wants to preserve.
"When I was doing my dissertation in 1987, I realized that farmers in their 50s and early 60s living in rural Philippine villages no longer knew anything about the traditional rice varieties," she said. "They would be nostalgic, for example, about the aromatic varieties that they liked but the people didn't know whether the rice varieties they wanted still existed. Even if they had had access to seeds of these old varieties, they would have had very little idea about how to plant them or grow them, and these were not exactly young farmers."
The problem is not confined to the Philippines, as she points out in her book, Local Knowledge and Agricultural Decision Making: Class, Gender, and Resistance, due out this year from Cornell University Press. Technologically sophisticated agricultural practices fill the world's bread baskets, but not without a price. They crowd out simpler methods, deplete the rich variety of alternative crops and empty vast stores of knowledge.
Gene banks -- repositories of seeds, roots, and other plant parts used for conservation, propagation and breeding -- help stem the erosion of genetic diversity. But gene banks focus on collecting, documenting and preserving well-known cultivars, obscure folk varieties and wild relatives of such crops as corn, rice and potatoes, while giving little or no attention to farmer knowledge about those crops, Nazarea-Sandoval said.
"Gene banks contain 'passport' data -- very bare-boned information like where and when the plant was collected. There is no systematic collection of cultural data," she said.
Nazarea-Sandoval wants gene banks to augment their collections with "memory banks" that preserve farming knowledge accumulated over many lifetimes.
"I would like to document the knowledge of the older generation of farmers before they pass on, in a way that will be useful to anthropologists, plant breeders, other scientist and the local people," she said.
Memory banks also preserve farming alternatives. If agriculture in developing countries, for example, would suddenly need to revert to low-input, pre-Green Revolution times, memory banking would offer other choices.
"Development is ideally something that one chooses," Nazarea-Sandoval said. "Memory banking simply says that there are options available, that people survive and obtain a certain quality of life if they recognize their options. It's particularly important for third world countries because they do not control resources and have little control over global markets or political situations."
To develop a method for memory banking, Nazarea-Sandoval spent 16 months working with inhabitants of two Philippine villages -- Intavas and Salvacion -- collecting and preserving their indigenous knowledge and memories of sweet potato cultivation.
"Memory banking is not something you can do with a survey. You can't use a fixed questionnaire that you just ask people to answer," she said. "People keep things in their memories that don't exist [anywhere else] anymore. What I tried to do was to tap around those memories with different methods in anthropology. We would sit down and talk about their lives, and they would recall, for example, the varieties their parents cultivated, those they liked, what they did with them."
To understand what qualities the villagers valued, she gave them groups of sweet potatoes to sort.
"They could say varieties X and Y are both sweet, whereas variety Z is bland or varieties A and B are dry, whereas C is wet," she said. "If you do it over and over again with different random combinations, you are able to map the way a person or a culture thinks about a certain domain and which features were most important."
In addition, this allowed Nazarea-Sandoval to see differences between commercial growers and subsistence farmers, men and women, and members of different ethnic groups.
She also asked her informants to draw pictures of sweet potato varieties from memory. Their drawings and characterizations were placed in the memory bank back-to-back with scientific drawings and characterizations.
In all, Nazarea-Sandoval documented knowledge of 89 sweet potato varieties.
"The dream is that we will be able to input the name of a local variety into a computer and then call forth all the data -- the life experiences that correlated with that variety, the informants' drawings and the agricultural technologies," she said.
In the meantime she is refining memory banking protocol at the UGA Ethnoecology/Biodiversity Laboratory and completing another book, Cultural Dimensions of Biodiversity, solicited by the University of Arizona Press. She also works with other scientists, gardeners and commercial growers to develop memory banks that will preserve indigenous know-how not only in developing countries but also here in the Southeast via a Southern seed legacy network.