An Anthropological Take on Sustainable Development: A Comparative Study of Change

By Kottak, Conrad Phillip | Human Organization, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

An Anthropological Take on Sustainable Development: A Comparative Study of Change


Kottak, Conrad Phillip, Human Organization


Anthropologists can use longitudinal, comparative, and multiscale research to illuminate aspects of global change and development. Goals and procedures of the emerging field of sustainability science are examined here in relation to those of the linkages methodology and other multisited, historical, and transnational approaches in recent anthropology. Conclusions about the sustainability of development emerge from field studies in Arembepe, Brazil, and Ivato, Madagascar. The contrasts between Arembepe and Ivato, and the regions and nations that include them, are sharp and almost certainly irreversible. Madagascar suffers from an overdose of environmentalism, while Brazil has been dominated by developmentalism. Arembepe now has a sustainable diversified economy and cultural contacts linking its future with the dynamics of capitalist globalization. Ivato, by contrast, is in a region and nation with dramatically increasing population and diminishing natural resources but no investment stream to provide significant employment alternatives. In future years Ivato and similar farming communities may have little left of their past to sustain.

Key words: sustainability, longitudinal fieldwork, cross-cultural comparison, development, environmentalism, Brazil, Madagascar

Contrasts in Change: A Comparative Study

The future of applied anthropology cannot ignore the past, just as applied anthropology should not ignore anthropology as a wider field. My personal blend of academic and applied anthropology has allowed me to make new generalizations while viewing contemporary change processes in the context of broader anthropological theory. As this essay makes clear, my experiences in academic and applied anthropology contribute to the same narrative of growth and change-in me and in the communities, regions, and nations I have studied. Brazil and Madagascar, and field sites within them (Arembepe, Brazil, and Ivato, Madagascar), where I have done research for more than 40 years, are the ethnographic foci of this paper.1

Sustainability Science and Linkages

The long-term and comparative study of rural areas and of communities within them can contribute not only to anthropology but also to an emerging interdisciplinary field called "sustainability science," which aims to illuminate "the interaction of global processes with the ecological and social characteristics of particular places" [e.g., Arembcpc, Ivato] and of sectors [e.g., fisheries, agriculture, herding]" (Kates et al. 2001:641). In this essay I strive for such illumination by focusing on two very different parts of the world and on equally different processes of change and development.

Sustainability science derives its name from the concept of sustainable development (SD), a vaguely perceived but sufficiently important term to be the focus of a 2002 United Nations global conference held in South Africa. One UN Web site offers an admirably concise definition of SD: "socially responsible economic development that protects the resource base for the benefit of future generations" (http:// www.un.org/esa/sustdev/nat/info/indicators/isdms200J/isdms2001 institutional.htmtistrategy). In the 1990 act authorizing the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), the U. S. Congress defined sustainable agriculture as follows:

An integrated system of plant and animal production practices...that will, over the long-term: satisfy human food and fiber needs; enhance environmental quality and the natural resource base upon which the agriculture economy depends; make the most efficient use of non-renewable resources, and integrate, where appropriate, natural biological cycles and controls; sustain the economic viability of farm/ranch operations; and enhance the quality of life for farmers/ranchers and society as a whole (Gold 1999).

In this view, sustainable agriculture (and, by extension, other sectors and economic practices) must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible.

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