The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living

By Nora Haenn; Richard R. Wilk | Go to book overview

Chapter Eight
Some Perspectives and Implications

Ester Boserup

Agriculture in Europe and the United States has undergone a radical transformation in the last century. Scientific methods of cultivation have been introduced and mechanized equipment and other industrial products have become widely used.

On the background of this technical revolution of agricultural procedures in the already developed world, agrarian change in underdeveloped countries may seem trivial, and it is understandable that many economists should presume that in countries where agriculture has not yet reached the stage of scientific and industrial methods it is stagnant and traditional, almost by definition.

The preceding chapters should have shown that this view is unwarranted, and that in the supposedly immutable communities of primitive agriculture profound changes are in fact occurring.

Students of economic history have not failed to describe the successive changes within primitive agricultural systems, but this has largely passed unnoticed by economists. They tended to regard the existing methods of cultivation and systems of land use as permanent features of a given locality, reflecting its particular natural conditions, rather than as phases in a process of economic development. In accordance with this view, the causal explanation of differences in cultivation systems was supposed to be a matter for geographers to consider; and these would naturally be inclined to explain differences in agricultural methods in terms of climatic conditions, type of soil and other natural factors which were believed to remain uninfluenced by changes in the size of population. It is in the logic of this approach to expect that major increases of agricultural population within a given area must result in the emergence of a labour surplus on the land and a consequent pressure for migration to other regions or to urban areas.

Our investigation lends no support to this conception of an agrarian surplus population emerging as the result of population growth. We have found that it is unrealistic to regard agricultural cultivation systems as adaptations to different natural conditions, and that cultivation systems can be more plausibly explained as the result of differences in population density: As long as the population of a given area is very sparse, food can be produced with little input of labour per unit of output and with

From The Conditions of Agricultural Growth: The Economics of Agrarian Change under Population Pressure, ed.
Ester Boserup. © 1993 by Earthscan Publications Ltd. Used by permission.

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