Pathways Toward The Future

In the preceding sections we have outlined many of the problems and potentialities of local in situ management and conservation of plant genetic resources. In proposing positive future steps for effective conservation, we utilize a dichotomy articulated by Janice Alcorn as a discussant at a symposium on "Local-global (Dis)articulation of Plant Genetic Resources" (Rhoades and Nazarea, 1996). Alcorn noted that in the rush to address critical issues of genetic resources, farmers' rights and intellectual property rights, poverty causal links, and other concerns, much more emphasis has been placed on Conservation with a "big C" vs. conservation with a "little c." That is to say that more energy and debate are being directed toward the macrolevel (e.g., international forums, world organization policies, national laws) and much less is devoted to thinking about or working at the critical juncture, at the microlevel. Alcorn concludes that we need more case studies, documented experience, and community models for working with farmer curators at the grassroots level. Research on such case studies and models is now emerging at the global level through a number of international programs (Martin et al., 1996).

Biodiversity will not be preserved in situ unless local communities see it in their best interest to do so (Norgaard, 1988). However, this in itself is complicated. On the one hand, marginality and poverty can drive communities to act in ways which are not necessarily in accordance with the global agenda for biodiversity conservation (Agenda 21 of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development). Many objectives of Agenda 21-inspired projects (nature reserves, endangered species, clean air and water, natural resource management) may not be congruent with the interests and priorities of local farmers (Reardon and Vosti, 1995). On the other hand, subsidies, price supports, and other developed country approaches (e.g., such as applied in soil conservation programs in the U.S.) will probably not work. Solutions such as intellectual property rights, patents, and trade secrets will only benefit local communities if the nation-state allows income from these legal arrangements to reach local populations (Vogel, 1994).

While conservation of genetic variability has received national and global attention, funding continues to be inadequate to assure protection of ex situ collections and many nations give low priority to genetic resource efforts. However, even less recognition and funding support is given to preservation of the cultural knowledge which underlies the genetic material (Nabhan et al., 1991). Interest in this activity is relegated to a few token social scientists in international agencies or advocacy groups such as local and international non-governmental organizations.

To address knowledge loss, Nazarea (1995; 1998a) developed an approach called "memory banking," based on the principle that effective germplasm conservation should involve cultural dimensions along with the biological. She points to parallels between memory banking and gene banking. While germplasm encodes genetic information that has evolved as a response to selection pressures, cultural information in the minds of local farmers who have had considerable experience in growing these crops is likewise a repository of coded, time-tested adaptations to the environment. Moreover, genetic information embodied in folk varieties is threatened with erosion because of pressure toward more intensive, monocultural production which favors the adoption of newer, higher-yielding crop varieties in the same way that cultural knowledge and practices associated with traditional varieties are in imminent danger of being swamped by modern technologies (see also de Boef et al., 1993). This loss of germplasm, and associated knowledge, has been referred to in a report of a panel of the Board on Science and Technology for International Development (National Research Council, 1992) as the "real tragedy of the commons; that is, within a few decades traditional management systems in effect for thousands of years become obsolete, replaced by systems of relentless exploitation of rural people and rural countries."

One of the most important issues for biodiversity conservation is how to give farmers incentives to maintain diversity in light of these external pressures (Brush, 1993; Vogel, 1994). Although many marginal regions remain somewhat impervious to the introduction of improved varieties as a result of inaccessible land and isolation from markets, this same marginality leaves farmer curators normally politically powerless and struggling with poverty. In such settings, the answer to in situ biodiversity preservation does not entirely lie with projects which focus on commercial farms as private enterprise, but rather with the strength and interest of the traditional community. In this chapter, we have already discussed such mechanisms as informal curation, seed fairs, seed exchange gardens, and memory banking, and access and control by local people of their native patrimony. If only a small percentage of development funds could be earmarked to support individuals and the community's sense of pride in diversity, a significant amount of genetic variation might continue to be nurtured in situ (Shulman, 1986).

Formulating effective guidelines or action plans for locally based conservation is more easily written on paper than actually carried out in the field. We are fully aware of the complications, trade-offs, and unanticipated effects, not to mention the power of homogenizing forces of the global markets swirling around the remaining pockets of agrobiodiversity on this earth. However, we cannot accept the conclusions of the cynics who argue that diversity, once lost, cannot be restored or if the market penetrates at all then the very comparative advantage of the marginal area for diversity creation is gone. Brush (1993), Cleveland et al. (1994), and Nazarea (1996), among others, show that diversity can indeed be reintroduced to regions and there are many individual and project cases (e.g., Seed Savers Exchange, Native Seed Search, Southern Seed Legacy) of both restoration and preservation.

In response to the apparent widespread loss of in situ genetic resources of heirlooms (vegetables, fruit trees, and ornamentals) in the rapidly changing deep south of the U.S., we established in 1996 a program called the Southern Seed Legacy. What began as a limited project to test the memory-banking approach mentioned above has taken on dimensions of a social movement itself. Farmers and gardeners of diverse ethnic origins who were born in the earlier part of this century and whose land is being enclosed by urban development still maintain diverse stocks of local varieties of beans, melons, peas, okra, pecans, ornamentals, and dozens of other disappearing varieties. Very little of this material is maintained within the region and accessible to the local people in the U.S. Department of Agriculture germplasm system. Likewise, other seed-saving organizations (for profit or not for profit) often collect or solicit the southern seeds but maintain or market them from locations in the northern U.S. or on the West Coast. Although the Southern Seed Legacy is a young project, the enthusiasm for exchange and maintenance of the old varieties is widespread and intense among both the old-timers and a new generation of small-scale growers. A key to the success of the project so far has been the enthusiasm on the part of farmer-gardener curators for documenting and passing along the crucial link between cultural knowledge and preservation of the genetic material itself.

Regardless of whether in situ conservation is an indigenous event or one stimulated by an outside-funded program, one principle must be preserved. That is, the degree of independence, even irreverence, necessary for the persistence of diversity is inversely proportional to the degree of integration into the market system and the degree of capture by the political vortex. In situ conservation is a promising channel of genetic conservation that is entirely compatible with ex situ gene conservation. It already exists in the form of home gardens, polycultures, and traditional agroec-osystems. The next step is to make this conservation strategy more systematic, more sustainable, less risky, and to link it to imperatives beyond the local and even the regional scale. Finally, if the system of access and rewards can be restructured, we feel that local populations can use conventions that exist in the global marketplace to their benefit — and for the benefit of humankind — instead of being subjected to these conventions (Moran, 1998). Our argument is that marginal populations know how to preserve biodiversity, have been doing it for centuries, and do not need a great deal of outside direct assistance to get the job done. However, they cannot continue to preserve the essential diversity solely for the sake of conservation if there is no compensation for their labors or access and control over their ancestral resources. These are the factors which need to be restructured. If not, we will "kill the goose that laid the golden egg" and not even realize what we have done until it is much too late.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment