Before exploring the potentiality and plausibility of smallholder, householder practices within an American context it is first necessary to determine a basic definition of what a smallholder, householder is, both as a concept and as a practice.
Smallholder agricultural practices are viewed as a primitive system of agriculture that occupies the tail end of an evolutionary trajectory of agriculture and society. Often inciting images of peasants bent over a field with simple tools, their way of life is assumed to be unproductive, volatile, and primitive compared to the large scale and technologically-advanced practices of the contemporary agricultural industry. This characterization not only suggests a certain set of policies for developmental agencies towards smallholder communities in developing countries, but prescribes the direction of future agricultural policies across the world. Utilizing the frameworks of Ester Boserups’ theory of agrarian change and Julian Stewards’ concept of cultural ecology as situated knowledge, Netting examines a broad spectrum of research on smallholder communities, including the Nigerian Kofyar, Torbel farmers in the Swiss Alps, wet-rice cultivators throughout Asia, and the smallholder practices that were present during the Chinese Imperial age. He discovers that these cross-cultural studies demonstrate a common set of functional similarities of intensive farming across a wide-range of cultural groups, environments, political-economic regimes and time periods. Netting argues that commonalities between population and land use practices is a result of either land scarcity or population growth, which leads to a corresponding increase in the production of food per unit of land when relocation or expansion of land is not an available option.
As a family-run, small-scale agricultural system that maintains a unit of land under permanent production, the smallholder strategy often must substitute the labor efficiency of large-scale agricultural systems for the productivity of their small plots of land. Through an in-depth knowledge of their micro-environments and crop diversification practices, “combined with a tool kit of practices for soil manipulation, water control, nutrient conservation and restoration,” smallholders are able to consistently achieve a relatively higher yield per unit of land than even large scale farm enterprises (Netting, 56). Instead of relying on fossil fuels and chemicals to work their land, however, they rely on manual labor, composting, and farming byproducts, which has the added benefit of avoiding issues of environmental degradation and resource exhaustion. As such, smallholder practices of intensive agriculture could serve as a viable alternative to large scale agricultural practices that depend on fossil fuels, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides and have created a whole range of environmental problems. Furthermore, the cross-cultural elements that make up the smallholder system bare some affinities with the deeply embedded values of Americans today, including their priority of private property, individualism, self-sufficiency, puritan work ethic, and even competition and market participation.
The American Context:
Review of Relevant Literature:
for University Students Intending to Become Natural Resource Managers and Administrators
By Richard J. McNeil
McNeil’s article on the fundamentals of ethics provides an intellectual foundation for understanding and analyzing the ethical reasoning behind the actions and decisions taken by smallholders. It also serves to ground individuals living in the United States who are considering practicing intensive, yet sustainable “backyard gardening” at their homes and in their communities.
In the article, Richard J. McNeil argues that it is important for researchers to begin building their understanding of the various ethical frameworks in order to better understand the ethical basis of people’s arguments and the conclusions that they reach. He points out that humans tend to employ a number of ethical theories in a consistent manner. By drawing on classic texts of bioethics, ethics, and morality, a brief overview of the fundamental principles and theories on ethics is provided to better grasp peoples’ ethical frameworks. He explains that there are five ethical theories, including Consequentialism, Rule-based, Rights-Based, Intuitionism, and Virtue Ethics. Beyond a theoretical knowledge of ethics, however, he highlights a more recent issue regarding who or what deserves to be included within moral and ethical considerations. In order to understand this issue, ethical concepts are elaborated upon, including the notion of moral considerability, moral agent, moral subject, moral community, and moral extensionism. Even then, certain situations arise where it is difficult to make a decision between two or more choices of actions. These situations are known as ethical dilemmas and are discussed, namely those between, truth and loyalty, the individual and the community, between short-term and long-term interests, and finally between justice and mercy. While the purpose of McNeil’s piece is provide a foundational understanding of the theories and concepts of ethics, he also introduces concepts that are confusing without going into detail. For instance, he states that people can use different theories and reach similar conclusions, and also states that people can use the same theories and reach different conclusions. He also recommends occasionally seeking consultations with philosophers as if philosophers are readily available and regularly offer their services in understanding the ethical dimension of a wide range of issues.
A View from a Point:
Ethnoecology as Situated Knowledge
By Virginia Nazarea
This article serves as both a challenge and a framework for analyzing the classificatory systems of the sustainable living community within the United States. It provides valuable theoretical and methodological approaches to investigate deeper the action plans of self-sustainability practitioners.
Seeking to understand how environmental components are interpreted and categorized locally is an essential first step in dispelling the assumptions of the superiority of Western scientific traditions that have lead to confusion and misguided policies. However, Virginia Nazarea argues that debates within ethnoecology to determine whether environmental classificatory systems are obtained at the perceptual level and whether perception is guided by culture are not at odds. Furthermore, she argues that such undertakings ignore the role of other areas of human experience on perceptual frameworks, as well as the role that classificatory systems themselves play, both in policy and the practical everyday experiences of people within a society. Nazarea draws from a wide variety of earlier papers by Hunn, Ellen, Conklin, Meinig, and Bourdieu to support her applied methodological and theoretical approach to ethnoecology. She argues that ethnoecology needs to shift more focus in developing integrated models that reveal the plans of action that are inherently derived from perceptually-shaped environmental classificatory systems. Within that investigation the influential role of historical and political power structures needs to be taken into consideration. In addition, the perceptual position of the researcher “taken from a point, from a determinate position in an objective social space” must also be acknowledged (106). Transforming the very perception of classificatory models from static to dynamic systems situated in a much wider context. Nazarea does not discuss any specific examples outlining how these various factors work in a culture. Instead, she only puts forward a basic theoretical foundation for moving forward.
Endangered Forests, Endangered People:
Environmentalist Representations of Indigenous Knowledge
By J. Peter Brosius
Robert Netting confronts many assumptions and politically-motivated representations of small-scale intensive agriculturalists around the world in his book “Smallholders, Householders.” Smallholders are either held up as utopian, egalitarian societies that practice communal traditions and enjoy full equality or backwards traditionalists that practice economically irrational subsistence lifestyles. The fundamental issue of “who talks for whom and who constructs representations of whom” that Brosius points to as critical to the futures of indigenous peoples is equally true for the small-scale intensive farming communities and their particular form of livelihood.
Resistance to logging companies by indigenous Penan communities in Malaysia in the early 1980s drew international attention and positioned them as iconic representatives for many environmental campaigns across the globe. However, Brosius points out that representations of indigenous knowledge portrayed by the environmental movement has raised serious concerns for the consequences of the appropriation and deployment of indigenous knowledge. Brosius argues that environmentalist’s deliberately transform the substance and complexities of both ethnographic accounts and interactions with indigenous peoples into discourses laden with Western-centric values in order to serve as persuasive arguments for environmentalist agendas. To illustrate how environmentalist discourse transforms indigenous knowledge, Brosius conducts a comparative analysis between an ethnographic account of the Penan that he himself wrote, titled “River, Forest and Mountain: The Penan Gang Landscape” and several texts written by ethnobotanist Wade Davis and environmental activist Thom Henley, including the book Penan: Voice for the Borneo Rainforest. He discovers a number of inaccuracies in their retelling of his ethnographic accounts regarding Penan resource management and their concept of Molong that indicates ownership of particular trees. No distinction is made between Eastern and Western Penan traditions, they misconstrue the practice of Molong as being a system of direct inheritance, and they include a number of other objects, plants and spaces within the concept, all while infusing their rhetoric with an air of mysticism and spirituality. Davis and Henley also draw on Brosius’ ethnographic account of the Penan’s rich vocabulary used for talking about their landscape, including the naming strategy of environmental features that preserves certain histories, genealogies, and identities. What Brosius finds in Davis and Henley’s retelling is a complete transformation from the original account into “an obscurantist, essentializing discourse which in fact elides the substantive features of that knowledge.” Finally, in their rhetoric of medicinal plants, Davis describes the Penan’s belief system surrounding their use of medicinal plants as a “magico-religious belief” coupled with a deep-rooted knowledge that can be potentially important to Western medicine. Brosius has found in his own return visits the surprising frequency in which the loss of medicinal plants is brought up by Penan people, which signifies the full-circle adoption of environmentalist rhetoric as their own rallying cry against deforestation.
The Anti-Politics Machine:
“Development” and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho
By James Ferguson with Larry Lohmann
Pointing out the futility of development projects initiated by agencies of the developed world, Ferguson and Lohman seem to suggest that what is required is the dismantling of larger, systemic political and economic inequalities and injustices in the world. While this may be seen as idealistic, grassroot solutions that start at the individual level but have far reaching consequences to the current power structures can affect positive change. Smallholder practices in the American context can disrupt environmentally damaging market practices while demonstrating the viability of certain practices in developing countries.
Governmental and nongovernmental agencies spend massive amounts of money and effort on development projects every year in order to provide aid and assistance to countries in the developing world. However, despite consistent efforts, many of these projects persistently fail to achieve their goals. Ferguson and Lohman examine development projects within the African country of Lesotho over the past several decades as well as international reports of the region that helped shape the policy actions of the projects. They find that reports on Lesotho portray the country as a “traditional subsistence peasant society” that bears little resemblance to the present or historical situation of Lesotho (414). Ferguson and Lohmann argue that a one-size-fits-all narrative of developing countries allows development agencies to formulate initiatives as a universal framework.
Development planners operating in Lesotho also regarded their role as apolitical and actively chose to ignore the presence of elites or institutional corruption within internal government institutions. A project in Lesotho to promote the commercial productivity of the country’s livestock contradicted the deeply embedded social and economic role of livestock. As a result, the project was met with resistance and incited social discord. Ultimately, development projects in Lesotho had the unintended consequence of aiding the government in building a much stronger presence in the regions targeted by development projects.
Rural Household Demographics, Livelihoods and the Environment
By Alex de Sherbinin, Leah VanWey, Kendra McSweeney, Rimjhim Aggarwal, Alisson Barbieri, Sabina Henry, Lori M. Hunter, Wayne Twine, and Robert Walker
This comprehensive review on how rural households’ livelihood strategies impacts environmental change demonstrates that popular theories that attempt to describe rural households are inadequate when describing these relationships and often fail when other contextual factors are taken into account. Netting’s theory of smallholder, householders, which utilizes Boserup’s theory of agrarian change in order to examine livelihood strategies across a wide range of contexts throughout the world may be a viable alternative to current understandings of rural household livelihood strategies and their impact on the local environment. In any case, Sherbinin et. al’s findings demonstrates that assumptions regarding smallholder, householders and their impact on the environment need to be reevaluated. My focus on smallholders, householders and their correlations with American values attempts to begin that process.
The diverse livelihood strategies of rural smallholders has important implications for the environment as their activities utilize natural resources for subsistence and to leverage regional markets. However, their relationship with the local environment is mediated between a complex set of contextual factors, such as the various forms of capital, institutional, cultural, economic, and global factors, which need to be taken into account on a case by case basis when developing health, environmental, and economic policies.
Sherbinin et. al review a wide range of recent studies examining household population dynamics and their relationships with various forms of environmental change. Specifically gauging the Vicious Circle Model (VCM), which states that poverty causes a domino effect that leads to higher fertility rates, which leads to population growth, which leads to environmental degradation, Sherbinin et. al look at a number of studies that examine the relationship between household fertility and their use of natural resources. What they find is a wide range of contradictory findings between contextual factors and put forth future research questions to determine the different scales of analysis and extent to which households “‘externalize’ the costs of high fertility,” and why.Sherbinin et. al also examine how morbidity and mortality determine livelihood strategies at the household level, as well as how it affects environmental changes. A review of how the HIV/AIDS epidemic impacts household livelihoods by one study finds that mortality rates associated with the AIDs epidemic negatively impacts most forms of human capital, including a communities ability to maintain and productively utilize property. However, they present additional research questions in order to better determine the impact that morbidity and mortality have on natural capital.
Furthermore, Sherbinin et. al review how out-migration is utilized as a livelihood strategy and its impact on the environment within the places of origin. However, they again find that a review of various studies “on the relationships between migration and environment shows mixed results.” They present a set of future research questions on this relationship, as well as its effects at the various levels and contexts.
Finally, Sherbinin et. al review research on how household changes throughout a single generation, referred to as household lifecycles, impacts the environment. They find that Chayanov’s household economy framework has served as a foundation for much of the research on household lifecycles. However, very few studies have actually found a statistically significant relationship between environmental factors and household lifecycle factors. Furthermore, the studies that examine the links between environmental factors and lifecycle factors have primarily focused on frontier contexts, while little attention has been paid to established rural environments. Research of indigenous and ribereño communities suggests that older households “may not be motivated by the same factors as young colonist households.” They propose further research across different land and cultural contexts, as well as the influence that other contexts, such as the institutional context have on the relationship.