Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Are the Farmers Always Right? Rethinking Assumptions Guiding Agricultural and Environmental Research in Southeast Asia

Academic journal article Asia - Pacific Issues

Are the Farmers Always Right? Rethinking Assumptions Guiding Agricultural and Environmental Research in Southeast Asia

Article excerpt


The challenges facing agricultural and environmental resource management in Southeast Asia are many and far-reaching. Global warming and climate change, deforestation and land degradation, and genetic erosion and biodiversity loss are among the major problems impacting agricultural systems in the region. How to respond to these problems is an ongoing debate, but one that I will not engage in here. Instead, I will focus on some of the key assumptions that underlie our thinking about these problems rather than on the substantive problems themselves. I offer here an analysis of some of the main beliefs, concepts, and assumptions that guide the way we think about problems of managing agricultural resources and the environment.'

My admittedly impressionistic "ethnographic" methodology draws on my own extended direct experience in research and teaching about agriculture and the environment in Southeast Asia. Since 1966-the year of my first fieldwork in what was then South Vietnam-I have been involved in the region with varying degrees of intensity, and for the past 13 years have been almost continuously active there. During that period, I first served as an East-West Center researcher based in the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Studies (CRES) of the Vietnam National University, in Hanoi; then as a professor in the Center of Southeast Asian Studies of Kyoto University, where I was a member of the editorial board of Southeast Asian Studies', and now as a professor in the Program on System Approaches in Agriculture of Khon Kaen University, in Thailand.

The issue explored in this paper coalesced for me over the course of decades of reading countless research reports, student theses, and articles dealing with management of agricultural resources and the environment in Southeast Asia. These writings have dealt with a great diversity of topics and geographical areas, including coastal zone management in Indonesia, reforestation programs in shifting cultivation areas in Sarawak, social forestry in Thailand, the impact of ethnic minority peoples on forest resources in Vietnam, and improved fallow management in shifting cultivation systems in Laos. Despite this diversity, I have been continually struck by the extent to which many of the authors shared four basic assumptions:

1. Traditional agricultural systems are superior to modern systems because they are sustainable and environmentally benign.

2. Indigenous knowledge about agriculture and the environment is usually correct and valuable.

3. Community-based resource management is the most effective and equitable system for managing resources and protecting the environment.

4. Participatory rural appraisal (PRA) is the best research method for investigating agricultural resources and environmental management.

These assumptions form an interlinked system of thought that privileges the traditional and local over the modern and cosmopolitan. When taken to an extreme they lead to the view that traditional farmers are always right and that modern science is the cause, rather than the cure, of the serious environmental problems associated with agricultural development in Southeast Asia. Although when first proposed these assumptions represented a radical alternative to the conventional thinking that guided national efforts to manage agricultural resources and the environment, in recent years they have themselves become the new conventional wisdom. Recently, some academic researchers have begun to raise questions about their validity and to propose alternative concepts. But the assumptions are still widely accepted-not only by many scholars but, perhaps more importantly, by leaders of environmentalist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), who exert considerable influence over popular discourse regarding environmental problems in Southeast Asian countries.

Given that these assumptions exert so much influence on current thinking about agricultural development and environmental problems, they merit in-depth scrutiny. …

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