One hundred years ago, in the early days of cultural anthropology, anthropologists studied and then described cultures “on their own” as if they were isolated wholes. No doubt many cultural groups were more isolated than they are now. Important questions driving research now are how multiple groups, interests, and values meet and, often, are in contestation with each other, in a rapidly globalizing world. Factors of ecology, environment, and ways of making a living in this changing landscape are some of the most urgent issues.
Douglas Hume is assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy at Northern Kentucky University. His core interest is understanding how humans interpret their environment and how their interpretations may influence their practices in the context of agricultural development. Hume uses both qualitative and quantitative methods to explore how cultural models vary within and between groups. He recently published an article about the transition from shifting horticulture (swidden) to irrigated agriculture in Madagascar. This interview follows up on that article to learn more about his research in Madagascar.
How did you first get interested in doing fieldwork in Madagascar?
I became interested in Madagascar because of my interest in conservation and Africa. It just so happened that there was a professor in my graduate program that had spent several decades doing research in Madagascar. After speaking with him, I was convinced that Madagascar was the optimal location for my own research interests due to the lack of anthropological work on the conflict between conservation projects and subsistence farmers in eastern Madagascar.
Did you need to learn a local language and/or dialects? And did you also need to use interpreters?
As an undergraduate, I had several years of French studies and I spent a summer at the Alliance Française in Paris studying French. Before I began fieldwork in Madagascar, my advisor gave me an instruction manual for learning Malagasy (in French), which was not much use out of the context of the spoken language. While in Madagascar I spent three months in intensive language study with a faculty member from the University of Antananarivo. During my research in Madagascar I hired local field assistants/interpreters to work with me, a different person each of the three field seasons. They each assisted me with introductions to local people and the interviews.
Where in Madagascar did you carry out your fieldwork to learn about indigenous cultural models?
I carried out fieldwork primarily in Toamasina, the provincial capital on the western coast of Madagascar, and Andasbe, which is about half-way between Antananarivo the capital, in the center of the country, and Toamasina.
Did you also conduct fieldwork with the conservation organizations in Madagascar?
Yes, I collaborated with and interviewed representatives from several conservation organizations, NGOs, and government agencies (Ministre de la Recherch Scientific, Direction Inter Regionale Centre, Regional de Recherch Est, FOFIFA, Toamasina; Ministre des Eaux et Forêts, Toamasina; Ecole d’Application des Sciences et Techniques Agricole (EASTA), Analamalotra, Toamasina; Ministre de l’Agriculture et de l’Elevage, Direction Inter Regionale du Developpement Rural Toamasina; and L’Association Nationale pour la Gestion des Aires Protégées (ANGAP), Toamasina and Parc National D’Andasibe). The collaboration between the agencies listed above and myself involved negotiating questions that each agency wanted answered about subsistence farming in the region that I could ask and report back a summary of my findings to the various agencies. On reflection, this weak form of collaboration did not yield the changes in policy that I had, at the time, hoped for.
Do the conservation organizations have a “cultural model”?
They most definitely do! I published a paper on this topic in 2006, Swidden Agriculture and Conservation in Eastern Madagascar: Stakeholder Perspectives and Cultural Belief Systems. Conservation and Society. In the article I describe the conflicting models of the agricultural technicians and the farmers.
Why is shifting horticulture no longer sustainable in Madagascar?
The main reason for the unsustainability of shifting horticulture in eastern Madagascar is the lack of arable land. Farmers reported that they allow the land to fallow for only two years, which is not nearly enough for the soil to replenish nutrients needed for even moderate crop yields.
Did the local people in your study feel that it is no longer sustainable?
Yes, they recognize that their crop yields have dropped. They also described to me the process of desertification of the rainforest. They are actively looking for alternatives to swidden farming.
The major research question you address in your 2012 article is about how ritual practices related to the stages of horticulture are affected by exposure to conservation organizations, informed by the hypothesis that more exposure would lead to greater abandonment of longstanding ritual practices. You didn’t find a perfect relationship. Can you please discuss the challenges involved in quantifying such complex relationships?
The main problem with this type of analysis is demonstrating a causal relationship between the activities of the conservation organizations and indigenous knowledge change. You therefore need to collect data before the “treatment” of new knowledge and document any changes in the knowledge of farmers and account for any other effects that occurred that may explain the change in knowledge. In a natural experiment such as this, it is nearly impossible to be absolutely certain of the cause of knowledge (culture) change.
At the end of your 2012 article, you say this about the conservation organizations: “…one hopes that these organizations and others will acknowledge and take into consideration culture when attempting to change people’s lives.” Can you sum up what a conservation organization should do to “take into consideration culture”?
Quite simply: conservation organizations should partner with the local communities in planning and implementing any change –in other words, they should practice community-based conservation. There should be an equal partnership in that the knowledge of the farmers is of equal importance as the knowledge of the conservation organization.