Introduction

The development goal of increased food and fiber production to match the needs of growing populations and their rising expectations may often conflict with the in situ conservation goal of preserving plant genetic diversity (Williams, 1986; Alcorn, 1991). As broadly adapted high-yielding varieties — coupled with input packages of irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides — find their way into traditionally diverse, marginal agroecosystems, the number and diversity of local landraces as well as associated local knowledge may erode. This process is global, although its dynamic and intensity may vary from place to place and across time (Ford-Lloyd and Jackson, 1986; Oldfield and Alcorn, 1991; Brush, 1992; Dove, 1996).

One of the premises of sustainable agriculture is that this trade-off between increasing productivity and loss of biodiversity is not inevitable (National Research Council, 1992; Thrupp, 1997). Precisely how the two goals are simultaneously achieved, however, is not an insignificant research problem or an easily answered policy issue (see Williams, 1986). Present demographic and economic global trends require more food per unit area and unit time, but the necessary yield increases will not be forthcoming unless sufficient biodiversity is continuously available to plant and animal breeders. Our primary thesis is that one useful but neglected strategy to achieve sustainable food production lies in supporting traditional in situ biodiversity management. We argue that many local populations have historically managed biodiversity, that the associated knowledge is valuable and irreplaceable, and that both management practices and knowledge should be enhanced through policy and technology initiatives.

Specifically, we address our thesis by exploring three major themes related to indigenous management of germplasm and the potentialities for the localized creation, maintenance, and enhancement of biodiversity. First, we place biodiversity management by traditional agroecosystems in global historical context, especially as it relates to the major food crops. Second, based on our own research experiences we outline some principles of in situ biodiversity maintenance within traditional, marginalized agroecosystems and contrast these to the scientific, ex situ approaches of formal, external input-dependent and market-linked approaches. Third, we examine the social, economic, and political dimensions of marginal communities managing in situ agrobiodiversity. Finally, we conclude with some observations on future research and action needs.

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