Uncertainty, Humility, and Adaptation in the Tropical Forest: The Agricultural Augury of the Kantu'

By Dove, Michael R. | Ethnology, Spring 1993 | Go to article overview

Uncertainty, Humility, and Adaptation in the Tropical Forest: The Agricultural Augury of the Kantu'


Dove, Michael R., Ethnology


The first and in some respects most important stage of the swidden cycle of the Kantu' of West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) consists of selecting a favorable site based on augury from seven species of forest birds. Evidence suggests that the relationship between augury and favorable conditions for swidden cultivation is random, and that this randomness is culturally enhanced by the rules of the augural system itself. What is the meaning of this metaphoric throw of the dice at this critical point in the swidden cycle? What insights does it offer into the unparalleled historic success of swidden agriculture in achieving sustainable use of tropical forests? I suggest that the augural system is a statement that is "saying something of something" (to use Geertz's [1972:26-29] phrase), and what it says is that the environment is indeterminate, that knowledge of it is imperfect, and that systematic management strategies are ill advised.

This article intends to show that the selection of swidden sites is problematic because of the large number of environmental variables that differentiate sites and because the particular variables associated with swidden success change unpredictably from year to year. My thesis is that the augural system, through both instrumental and symbolic means, helps to randomize swidden behavior and minimize a tendency towards systematization. This promotes intrahousehold and interhousehold diversity in swidden strategies, which helps to ensure a successful adaptation to a complex and uncertain environment. I will further argue that this traditional system of adaptation provides a needed lesson to development planners in the virtues and ills of, respectively, indeterminate versus determinate strategies for resource use in the tropical forest.

There is a precedent for this analysis in Moore's (1957) pioneering analysis of scapulimancy (bone divination) among the Naskapi Indians of Labrador. He concluded that divination helped to randomize Naskapi hunting strategies, which maximized their chances of success against nonterritorial herbivores whose location on any given day was also random. Lawless (1975) studied divination in a context of ecological change in Northern Luzon, and describes how such a system evolves as resources become scarce. In a related vein, Rappaport (1968) shows how ritual cycles regulate the relations among people, pig herds, and the natural environment in highland New Guinea. The linkage between ritual and ecology in all of these cases is instrumental: ritual practice has consequences that in turn have direct economic or ecological implications. The Kantu' augural system links ritual to ecology not just instrumentally, but also symbolically and pedagogically.

ADAPTATION TO UNCERTAINTY IN THE TROPICAL FOREST

The Kantu' are a tribal people living along tributaries of the Kapuas River in West Kalimantan. They are Ibanic speakers and share most cultural traits with the well-described Iban of Sarawak. The Kantu' meet their market needs by tapping rubber and their subsistence needs by growing rice and other cultigens in swiddens. Every year each Kantu' household makes an average of two-to-three swiddens, with a total area of 4.6 hectares per household.(2) Their cultivation is constrained by the character of the local environment, notably its high degree of uncertainty. Several variables are crucial to swidden success; viz., the amount and timing of annual rainfall, the magnitude and timing of riverine flooding, and the types, location, and severity of pest outbreaks. All these vary greatly from one year to the next.

This variation makes the selection of swidden sites problematic. For example, swiddens cut from primary forest will yield very good harvests in a year with a drought of sufficient length to thoroughly dry and burn the felled timber. Otherwise, such swiddens will burn and yield poorly. Similarly, swiddens cut in the riverine flood zones will yield well, because of the rich alluvial soils, as long as there is only minimal flooding. …

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