A rural village community is enmeshed in a complex web of exchanges
with its environment and its population. This trophic web, including
the population and its organization, is simplified by development.
Agricultural by development. Agricultural simplification eliminates
the various ecological baffles and adaptive resources that insulate
the community against perturbations in the environment. Development
also brings the community into the world economic system. Thus,
development requires building support institutions at the national
level to insulate the community from both environmental disasters
and perturbations in the world economic system. Reliance on the
national level can be minimized if agricultural diversity is encouraged
with mixed cropping and preservation of forest reserves for continued
use. Thus, to minimize external costs it is advantageous to build
onto the provisioning practices of the rural community, taking advantage
of their complex ecosystem exchanges. Local religious beliefs serve
as indicators of fragile links in the trophic web. The religious
system also justifies the redistributive system in the population,
which if destroyed requires the involvement of support and maintenance
from the national level. Development also results in loss of indigenous
knowledge, loss of cultivars, loss of wild species. Assessments
of what is to be lost should be considered to ascertain their value
to humankind. The education system also disarticulates the population
from its ecosystem. Schools should consider incorporating into their
curricula resources of the local community and education by known
masters of knowledge and skills to prevent the loss of community
knowledge and resources. An explanation is advanced for why development
agents ignore the local community resources, both social and ecological,
that would facilitate change and make it more successful. Social
change also produces health consequences as a community is disarticulated
from its local ecosystem. A model of a rural community is presented
and the costs analysed to develop such a community into irrigation
or plantation agriculture. One of the resources of the community
is its medical system. Medical facilities re recommended to minimize
the health consequences of development, but is also import to support
the local medical system rather than devalue it, for belief in the
efficacy of medicine cures in 20 to 70 percent of the cases.
Development has ecological ramifications that we are just beginning
to understand. And these ramifications spread out to include regions
remote from where such acts of rural development actually occur.
For example, the development of the northern forest in the U.S.S.R.
and North America has resulted in dioxin flowing into the Arctic
Sea. It has then been brought into the food chain by the fish and
arctic sea mammals that the Eskimo live on. As a result, now, in
the most remote areas of the world, along the almost vacant arctic
coast, Eskimo women can no longer breast feed their children because
of the high levels of dioxin in their milk.
Examples such as these are rapidly accumulating, and they show
the complex interlinkages of our world ecosystem. However, rather
than discussing these world-wide impacts of rural development, I
want to start at the beginning of this chain of interlinkages and
focus on the village level to see how such ecological ramifications
are set in motion. Perhaps this way we can design better approaches
that minimize the spread of ecological consequences, that prevent
environmental degradation, and most importantly that provide benefits
to the local village itself. These benefits can then grow to aid
the surrounding region, and eventually the nation itself, which
in turn influences the world-wide environments.
For example, while the cutting of the tropical forest may result
in atmospheric damage, affecting us all, there is evidence now that
it can cause a shift in local weather regimes so that there is a
decrease in precipitation and a longer dry season. This in turn
can have major local agricultural consequences (Shukla, Nobre, and
Sellers 1990). Furthermore, a consideration of these ecological
aspects at the local level might make development action more successful.
And when I refer to the local level village, I will use the term
community to refer to the village, as this is the more frequently
used term in anthropology, sociology, and development literature.
A MODEL FOR ENQUIRING INTO THE ECOLOGICAL RAMIFICATIONS
I would like to present a model to help us understand the ecological
consequences of development. And from this I would hope that we
might draw some general conclusions that are applicable to other
situations of development. However, in considering ecological approaches
to development we must consider the flow of energy throughout the
total ecosystem, which includes the human population. Critical to
this is the social organization that the population uses for making
extractions from its environment, that is its cultural ecology.
In other words, we are going to ask how a community provisions itself,
what are the ecological interlinkages in this, what steps can be
taken to minimize these consequences and make development more successful
ecologically and economically.
The model that I am interested in exploring here is that of a relatively
self-sustaining agricultural community, with a minimum of interlinkage
to the world or national economy, and I want to examine the processes
involved by which such a community is converted into one that is
integrated with the world economic system, at least through its
national integration. The type of self-sustaining community I will
use is a swidden agricultural community, and we will follow its
development into either a plantation economy or an irrigated rice
Let me add here that these processes we are analyzing are universal
both in time and place. The integration of peripheral populations
into a larger socioeconomic system has been going on since the first
growth of urban areas thousands of years ago. But the fundamental
questions are: (i) Can we improve on the process? And (ii) since
the whole world environment seems to be in danger, is there any
way that this process can proceed with a minimum of destruction
to ecologically valuable assets?
Confrontation of Differing Cultural Ecologies.
Before we begin, I must draw your attention to another universal
phenomenon intimately linked with the first. When individuals from
a society that is interlinked with a national or world-wide economic
system come into contact with members of a community that has a
locally based cultural ecology, they frequently refer to such members
of the local community as dirty, stupid, and sexually profligate.
I first found this somewhat puzzling when I heard these statements
made with regard to the Rungus many years ago by people from urban
centers and members of the colonial government. They just did not
apply to the Rungus I knew. Then we worked among the Bulusu’
in East Kalimantan, also swidden agriculturalists. And we found
the Bulusu’ talking about their upcountry neighbours, the
hunting and gathering Punan, in this same fashion. But then people
living in the commercial centres where the Bulusu’ traded
talked about the Bulusu’ in this same way. I did not tumble
to this universal phenomenon until I found people from the cities
who holiday in rural Maine, where I live, talking about the local
people in the very same way, people with whom my children were going
to school. So I began to realize that there must be some latent
function in this form of dehumanization (see Appell 1985a).
First, when people of all cultures find matter out of place, they
refer to it as dirt (Douglas 1966). So when individuals from one
cultural ecology meet up with a strange cultural ecology based on
a different organization of matter, they do indeed find matter out
of place, different from their form of organization and so to them
it is “dirty”. More cosmopolitan peoples do this constantly
to their more rural compatriots.
But there is also something else happening. Almost universally
we project our fears and anxieties onto members of other cultures.
So frequently a negative valuation of the members of another cultural
ecology tells us more about those making the evaluation than about
those being evaluated. And finally derogatory statements about another
culture is one way of affirming the value of ourselves. By putting
the others down we rise in our own self-esteem, even if reality
itself is violated (Appell 1985a).
But if this is true, does it have any relevance for our discussions
here? Let me give two brief examples.
Many years ago I was doing research with the Rungus, and enjoying
the produce from their many groves of fruit trees that were scattered
across the countryside. A Swiss agricultural worker came to our
house and told me that he was going to teach the Rungus how to plant
fruit trees; they did not have any. I was astounded since you could
see these fruit groves all around the hillside from our porch. And
I wondered what was the purpose of this other than attempting to
present himself and his work in a favorable light, and what this
form of development would accomplish.
Some years later we were working with another group, and along
came a worker from the agricultural department. She complained that
the local people did not know how to grow vegetables, and she was
to teach them how. Again, I was somewhat astounded as the local
community did indeed grow many vegetables rather successfully. One
chap was composting his vegetable plots heavily and was selling
his produce through a number of local markets, making a rather nice
So this brings me to my first generalization. Don’t devalue
the ecological knowledge of the members of a local community or
their methods of agriculture and provisioning of their society until
you have had a chance to evaluate them. This only hinders development
in the service of self-aggrandizement and alleviation of anxieties
over dealing with a strange cultural ecology. Instead, as I will
give example after example, the knowledge and techniques of the
local community may be of considerable use and importance to the
development process (Posey 1983, Warren et al., 1989, Richards et
al., 1989). After all, their methods have been tried and proven
true for generations.
Community Swidden Systems.
To turn to an analysis of a swidden-based society, our model for
discussion, the first characteristic of such a society is that it
depends on a diverse number of crops for its provisioning. For example,
the Hanunoo of the Philippines cultivate 413 varieties of plants.
This includes 53 varieties of vegetables and 188 varieties of starch
crops. Why such a diverse number of crops? The argument is that
the diversity of crops protects the community from ecological disasters.
In other words, it insulates the community from perturbations of
the ecological cycles of weather, pests, and other natural disasters
which may impact one or several crops, but not all. Dependence on
a wide variety insures that there will at least be some food. That
this works successfully is shown by the fact that such communities
have existed for hundreds and even thousands of years in Southeast
But cultivar diversity is not the only characteristic. These crops
are also planted within the community’s boundaries in scattered
plots. No strain of rice, for example, is planted in one area alone;
it is put in several microecological niches to minimize the chance
of total failure in response to environmental perturbations. Furthermore,
wet places, stream banks, household yards, swidden fields are all
utilized for planting different cultivars according to their needs.
Diversity of crops, diversity of microecologies are thus major characteristics
of such a system to buffer it from perturbations in the environment.
The domestic family is critical in this, as it is the primary production
and consumption unit. And it is important to look at how its economy
is managed. For it is the first level in the complex interlinkage
of the various microecosystems occurring at different levels which
constitute the community and which are affected by development.
Each domestic family in the swidden systems of Borneo also has
growing near its house a variety of fruit trees, vegetables, and
spices. The domestic family also raises dogs, chickens, pigs, and
sometimes cattle or water buffalo (kerbau). This forms a very complex
first level ecosystem that is densely interlinked. Pigs, chickens
and dogs eat rubbish and detritus from the family’s activities
and provide in return a certain amount of fertilizer. Most importantly,
with the exception of dogs, they provide protein for the household.
I have seen development projects in several regions of Borneo where
the complex microecosystem on which the domestic family depends
for its provisioning has been ignored. As a result, the projects
have not reached their full potential. For example, in two projects
I have observed the domestic families were not permitted to grow
their own fruit trees or plant gardens next to their houses. As
a result, few fruits and vegetables were grown. The houses also
were considered hot, because they did not have the protection of
their usual fruit tree cover. Water was scarce. Such projects did
not fit in with local needs and perceptions. The local people need
crop diversity, as they cannot buy all the variety that they themselves
grow. And crop diversity also protects them from changes in economic
markets beyond their control. In one of these resettlement projects
in Kalimantan, those who had moved into the resettlement area were
obviously having a harder time provisioning their society than those
who remained outside the development area. Individual women from
the development projects were markedly thinner and undernourished
in comparison to those females from upcountry.
Another characteristic of such swidden communities is that there
is a complex division of labor, which supplies support and aid to
the co-members. There are midwives and other specialists who provide
emotional support in times of disease and death. And there are kin
living close by that supply various labor services from child sitting,
so that parents can work in the fields, to help when the household
is faced with illness or scarcity.
Thus, the simplification of the agricultural interlinkages with
the domestic family and the simplification of the division of labor
in such development projects results in these not being acceptable
to the local people. And it also lowers the community’s capacity
to adapt to new challenges.
Let us look further at what ecological consequences arise from
bringing such communities into a greater level of integration and
exchange with the regional, national, and world economic systems.
The primary effect is a trend to monoculture. That is, the number
of cultivars on which the community depends for its provisioning
is simplified. This has several consequences. First, there can be
a decline in community nutrition (Dewey 1985). Second, the community
is more vulnerable. Diversity provides, as we have shown, many baffles
to environmental perturbations. Thus, ecosystems with greater diversity
are less vulnerable. But growing a commercial crop not only puts
the community at greater risk to environmental perturbations, it
brings the community into the world economic system and exposes
it to the perturbations in this economic system which are beyond
the community’s control. Thus, the community loses control
over its own destiny.
Eder (1985) reports that in his survey of upland villages in the
Philippines, he found that those villages that were dependent on
one or a couple of crops were much more vulnerable, less adaptive,
and poorer than those communities that maintained a diversity of
cultivars (Burch n.d.).
A further consequence of the movement towards monocropping is that
it requires that the nation step in at the local level to provide
the support functions that were originally provided by the community
in order to buffer it against both the environmental and economic
Then, most such projects require fertilizer and insecticide inputs,
as monoculture is more susceptible to disease and pests. And this
in turn has its effects in producing insects that are tolerant to
pesticides. This creates an ever increasing spiral--new insecticides
for new pests, and so on, as Indonesia has found. They are now turning
to natural pest controls and minimizing the input of insecticides.
Simplification of the cultural ecology of a community towards commercial
cropping, or even the introduction of improved varieties, has other
effects. There is a loss of indigenous cultivars. I expect that
some day in the future I will read about a book for Borneo that
is the equivalent of what the National Research Council of the United
States has produced for Peru: The Lost Crops of the Inca. Not only
are many of these commercially useful, but they are critical for
purposes of interbreeding to develop new and better crops. The loss
of genetic material selected over generations by local communities
is a loss that effects all mankind.
As the community’s ecological system is simplified, there
is also the loss of useful knowledge about the original ecosystem.
This can include wild and cultivated plants that have medical potency.
Intensification of the agricultural system may also result in the
loss of wild places in the community’s boundaries where important
species of wild plants are found that have not yet been assayed
for their economic and medical values and which the community is
dependent on. In many instances, the products from these wild places
produce substantial income, frequently more than realized from their
destruction (see Gentry and Blaney 1990, Peters et al., 1989).
REVIEW AND SOME GENERALIZATIONS: THE DISARTICULATION OF
THE LOCAL COMMUNITY FROM ITS ECOSYSTEM
Before we go on let me review some of the ecological generalizations
that we have reached on processes of development. First, development
involves the process of disarticulating the local ecosystem. Second,
development thus produces a simplification of the ecosystem of the
local community. Third, the local community is moved towards greater
integration into the world-wide economic system, with a loss of
buffers to perturbations in the environment and the world-wide economy.
Fourth, the community organization is simplified as well so that
many of its support functions are lost.
In ecological perspective, all of these mean that the community
loses its resilience to challenges in the environment and the world-wide
economy (Holling 1973). As a result of losing many of its support
networks and buffers, new supports and buffers have to be built
in from the national level.
Fifth, the cultural ecology and social organization of the community
are usually foreign to change agents. As a result, they respond
to this with the feelings of dirt, matter out of place, and they
may also project their own anxieties on the community. Thus, the
methods of initiating development by change agents often involve
devaluing the local cultural ecology and community traditions to
achieve their purposes (Appell 1985a). This is the more common procedure
rather than presenting the new ideas in terms that fit in with the
perceptions and needs of the community. But this latter approach,
positive rather than negative, would require that the strengths
of the local community be assessed first to see what they can contribute
to the development process. Furthermore, attacking a community’s
culture in negative terms lowers the self-esteem of its members,
so that they are less capable of coping with change.
Sixth, every society has its own redistributive system. This is
usually supported by religious sanctions. For example, the idea
of giving during the Christmas season is a method of redistribution
of goods. Local communities that are the focus of change also have
their own redistributive system. Yet it is almost universal for
agents of change to devalue the indigenous redistributive system
as wasteful, a loss of economic value, and so on. The local community,
it is argued, should change its thinking to one with the emphasis
on private property, assuming that the modern world system is based
on private property and the traditional world on communal property.
The first assumption is only a half truth; the latter is completely
false. So with the destruction of the redistribution system of the
local community, the change agent can go home to his own redistributive
system which provides all sorts of support, while the local community
lies in limbo with no replacement. In other words, destruction of
the local systems of redistribution may impoverish certain segments
of the local population, creating social stratification with its
built-in inequalities, and requiring that new support systems be
introduced from the national level (Tibbles 1957).
Seventh, the disarticulation of the local community from its ecosystem
is continued in the local schools. Local knowledge is devalued.
Instead the children are frequently told how dirty, or bad, or stupid,
their own cultural traditions are. The children also are given instruction
on how to move into an urbanized economy. Yet not all can. Nor can
the urban centers of Borneo absorb all the rural population. Seldom
does local education encourage the children of farmers to stay and
THE FUNCTION OF RELIGION IN THE ARTICULATION OF THE LOCAL COMMUNITY
TO ITS ECOSYSTEM AND IN ORGANIZING ITS REDISTRIBUTIVE SYSTEM
I now want to turn to religious and other symbol systems in the
local community that integrate it with the ecosystem and organize
its redistributive system.
I have previously alluded to the function of religion in supporting
the redistribution system within any community. But the religious
system also maintains to community’s links to its ecosystem.
Let us briefly look at the various metaphors that religion provides
to help maintain the exchanges with the local ecosystem without
destroying the environment.
Specifically, local religion rather than being devaluated as superstition
instead should be looked at for clues to the vulnerabilities of
the local ecosystem. For the vulnerable links between the environment
and the human population are protected by religious sanctions. And
these thus serve as valuable indicators.
Let me illustrate this with the example of sacred groves.
Managing the Water Table and the Destruction of Sacred Groves.
One of the consequences of the spread of world religions has been
the destruction of sacred groves. Prior to the Christian era the
Mediterranean basin was full of such sacred groves protecting the
environment. In Borneo the indigenous peoples have had sacred groves
that they believe are inhabited by potentially dangerous spirits
who could cause illness to those people who cut these groves down.
The groves are found around wet places, springs, and along river
banks. They protect the water table. They slow down the run off
of rain. They transpire moisture to be returned again as rain. They
keep springs from being silted in. They protect river pools from
drying up in the dry season, both by shade from the sun and by preventing
these pools from silting in. They prevent erosion. And the members
of one local society we studied argued that if these sacred groves
were cut the environment would dry up. They understood the function
of their religion; they understood their metaphoric system better
Missionaries on the other hand argued that if a person became a
Christian these localized spirits could not hurt the person who
cut these groves down; and since the earth in them was very fertile,
a significant agricultural profit could be made.
However, it has been our observation that the local people were
right. Now since these sacred groves have disappeared, the environment
has indeed become drier. A colleague of mine working in Pakistan
found a similar assessment by the local communities. Therefore,
local religions, in addition to managing the redistribution within
the society, are powerful indicators of the weak links in any ecosystem.
It is important not to ignore local religious belief.
HEALTH CONSEQUENCES OF DEVELOPMENT AND ECOLOGICAL CHANGE
Every population is engaged in a series of energy exchanges with
its biosocial environment. Social change may disrupt both the quantity
and quality of these exchanges, causing health impairment. Cutting
the jungle in certain sections of Africa and Malaysia has meant
greater exposure to malaria. Introducing irrigation agriculture
has produced a greater incidence of schistosomiasis. In one resettlement
area I found that the local people were brought together in greater
density than their usual sanitation system could handle, yet no
provisions were made for this. As a result, as one bathed in the
river you had to watch out for floating feces. There was an epidemic
just waiting to happen there.
Thus, for every change in the system of energy exchanges of a population,
there is a reaction. It is better to find out what might be the
consequences of this before rather than afterwards.
Also, every rural population in the process of adaptation to its
environment develops defenses against predators, parasites, and
pathogens in the environment. Social change can destroy or invalidate
these defense mechanisms or present new challenges for which there
are no defenses, precipitating an increase in disease and disability.
Then there is the problem of the social stress of change. From
the study of Life Change Events it was discovered that among subjects
who had between 150 and 300 Life Change Units within a year, about
half would become ill or impaired during the following year. Life
Change Events include, loss of job, death of a parent or spouse,
and so on. To change a swidden community to one based on irrigation,
I have estimated that this produces 251 Life Change Units (Appell
1986). Or in terms of adaptation load, about half of the community
within the following year will have some sort of health impairment.
And this materially reduces the ability of the community to provision
itself. Social change does indeed produce health impairments (Appell
RECOMMENDATIONS IN APPLYING THESE GENERALIZATIONS
1. Be aware of the dangers and consequences of monocropping.
2. Disrupt the web of ecological relations between the community
and its environment as little as possible.
3. Inventory what is valuable in the natural environment prior
to destroying it, including potential pharmacopoeia.
4. Assess the exchange system of the population with its environment.
In other words, study how the society provisions itself and use
this as a basis for development.
5. Collect the indigenous cultivars and preserve their genetic
6. Record the local indigenous knowledge about crops, their uses
of the ecosystem, including their uses of wild plants. Let me say
that the realization of the importance of indigenous knowledge and
its value for sustainable rural development is becoming more and
more widespread. There are a number of institutions involved in
this, such as the Center for Indigenous Knowledge for Agriculture
and Rural Development (CIKARD) at Iowa State University; the African
Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge, which has been established
at the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research; the International
Institute of Rural Reconstruction in the Philippines, which has
developed the Regional Program for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge
in Asia (RPPIKA); the Information Center for the Low External Input
and Sustainable Agriculture (funded by the Netherlands Ministry
of Development Cooperation). Each year there are more and more symposia
being organized and monographs being published on this important
7. Prepare for the stress and health consequences of social change
by providing good medical services and at the same time utilize
native medicine and practitioners. All too often modern medicine
means deriding the local medical system. This destruction of belief
endangers health, as we know belief cures in 20% to 70% of the cases
8. Build on the local social organization and the land tenure system.
There are adaptive reasons for the local system of land tenure and
social organization so that they function well in that environment
(Appell 1971, ms.).
9. Destroy nothing that cannot be saved. For example, if there
is a tradition of native weaving, do not replace this with modern
western handicraft classes producing crafts of lesser value. Build
on what is there.
10. Involve the older generation in the schools so that they can
pass on their knowledge to their children. To position what is learned
in schools against parental wisdom and knowledge only creates division
and eventually antisocial behavior by the young. In this regard
Japan has made a significant innovation in terms of their program
to designate master artists, craftsman, and performers. This program
could be well extended to states in Borneo.
11. Do not disturb the redistributive system of the community,
for this will result in the necessary support and maintenance to
prevent the local community from becoming poorer.
12. Use the local religious beliefs as clues to what are the critical
ecological links and social links in the community.
13. In sum, minimize the destruction of the local ecosystems and
the integration of the local population to it so that the community
does not become more vulnerable to environmental and economic perturbations.
You cannot substitute or replace as fast as you can destroy institutions.
So move slowly and build on what is there. Otherwise rural communities
may become poorer than before.
Finally, I would like to conclude with a brief mention of one other
ethical issue. I have argued that in rural development the cultural
ecology of the community must be taken into consideration before
development proceeds. This is to prevent the loss of any valuable
knowledge and those genetic resources produced by the community
through selective breeding. This will make development more successful,
and will minimize the deterioration of the local environment. Furthermore,
it has been shown by recent research that members of the local community
make wise decisions in terms of economizing for their own benefit
(Barlett 1980, Gladwin and Murtaugh 1980, Hoben 1980, Johnson 1980).
Thus development from the ground up rather than from the top down
is more productive.
But the ethical question is this. Who owns the knowledge of the
local ecosystem, the strains of cultivars, and the local pharmacopoeias?
Who should benefit from their commercialization? Only the corporations
that do the commercialization, not the original discoverers? This
is not an idle question. For example, look at economic value that
has accrued to the cosmopolitan world from quinine and curare? Those
who discovered their uses have certainly not been compensated.
This question was raised at the First International Congress of
Ethnobiology in what became known as the Declaration of Belem (Borneo
Research Bulletin 21:149-50, 1989). The argument in this is that
native peoples have been the stewards of 99% of the world’s
genetic resources. And the Congress urged that procedures be developed
to compensate native peoples for the utilization of their knowledge
and biological resources. But that will not be an easy or simple
I am indebted to Carol-Carmen Burch for very fruitful discussions
on resilience and stability in tropical subsistance systems.
1. The thrust of these recommendations is that resettlement as
a means of rural development can indeed have pernicious effects
and should be avoided if at all possible. It uproots the community
from its web of ecological exchanges with its environment. It destroys
the local environment of the resettlement area. It usually involves
movement to a monocropping economy with the associated consequences
discussed here (Appell 1985b, 1985c, 1985d, 1985e). It lowers the
capacity of the community to adapt to new challenges. And finally,
it has associated with it significant health impairments.
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