Agriculture in East Africa: Small Structures and Their Role in Biodiversity

June 13, 2019

On 20 and 21 June 2019 a conference with the title “Guardians of Productive Landscapes” will be held at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (MPI). It was organized as part of a research initiative of the same name, a cooperation that includes the University of Göttingen and the Department ‘Integration and Conflict’ at the MPI. The goal of the initiative is to document how traditional agricultural and land management in East Africa can help to preserve biodiversity. The conference will include screenings and discussion of ethnographic films created as part of this project. The language of the conference is English.

The destructive power of foreign capital
In recent years it has become increasingly common to hear reports about how state actors like China, Saudi Arabia, and India are making huge agricultural investments in Africa. Immense swathes of arable land are acquired through long-term lease arrangements at low prices. The land is used for large-scale industrial monocultures, and the crops – cotton, sugar cane, foodstuffs – are generally exported, supplying the investing nations with food or industrial materials and biofuels. “This practice is often justified with the argument that the land supposedly doesn’t belong to anyone and the local agricultural methods have low productivity,” says Prof. Dr. Günther Schlee, Director of the Department ‘Integration and Conflict’. “But neither of these claims is true. Usually the land has been intensively used for generations in manifold ways by agropastoralists and smallholders. And a large portion of the meat consumed in East Africa is raised by nomadic pastoralists.”

Traditional agricultural methods are highly productive
Thus, it is not at all true that the land had been lying fallow instead of being put to good use. On the contrary: the money flowing into interventions aimed at creating large-scale agricultural production frequently results in the destruction of the livelihoods of large portions of the population. “Not infrequently, this new form of colonialism is supported by local elites or even brought by them,” says Schlee. “For example, in Ethiopia members of the military and power elites close to the government have appropriated fertile land in the southern part of the country. There has been a virtual militarization of agriculture, since the prior users of the land naturally resist this development.” In these cases, too, the argument is that this results in higher productivity that would not have been possible without foreign investments. “However, the yield per hectare is usually greater with traditional agricultural methods than it is with modern imported methods which – whether due to ignorance or hunger for profit – fail to take into account the particular climate and geographical conditions of each region,” explains Schlee.

The endangered balance of culture and nature
The Guardians of Protective Landscapes (GPL) initiative aims above all to raise awareness about the enormous importance of traditional agriculture for preserving both biodiversity and the continued livelihoods of millions of people. It isn’t about creating nature reserves in which humans are to be prevented from interfering with the natural world. Schlee: “It is precisely the interaction between humans and nature, based on knowledge accumulated over many generations, which has led to the development of stable landscapes that have maintained their diversity over hundreds of years while allowing humans to support themselves through intensive cultivation.” This balance is now seriously threatened, as the initiators of the GPL project show in ethnographic films that vividly bring to life the traditional forms of agriculture and animal husbandry in Ethiopia.

Support by the MPI and the Ethiopian government
Most of the funding for the GPL initiative has come from the Department ‘Integration and Conflict’ at the MPI. The Institute has supported the production of ethnographic films in Ethiopia and a series of field trips, exchange programmes, and conferences with participants from research institutions in Europe and Ethiopia. Additional support has been provided by Ethiopian science and government organizations, who have arranged conferences and offered consulting services.

Studying global social change
The Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology is one of the world’s leading centres for research in socio-cultural anthropology. It was established in 1999 by Chris Hann and Günther Schlee, and moved to its permanent buildings at Advokatenweg 36 in Halle/Saale in 2001. Marie-Claire Foblets joined the Institute as Director of the Department ‘Law & Anthropology’ in 2012. Common to all research projects at the Max Planck Institute is the comparative analysis of social change; it is primarily in this domain that its researchers contribute to anthropological theory, though many programmes also have applied significance and political topicality. Fieldwork is an essential part of almost all projects. Some 230 researchers from over 30 countries currently work at the Institute. In addition, the Institute also hosts countless guest researchers who join in the scholarly discussions.

Conference programme

GPL website

Contact for this press release
Prof. Dr. Günther Schlee
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Department ‘Integration and Conflict’
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-100

PR contact
Stefan Schwendtner
Press and Public Relations
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
Advokatenweg 36, 06114 Halle (Saale)
Tel.: 0345 2927-425

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