[permaculture] Ancient Ways - NY Times

Jeffrey Newman newman at bcinternet.net
Wed Feb 2 02:30:15 EST 2000

January 30, 2000
The New York Times


Each June for at least the last four centuries, farmers in 12 mountain
villages in Peru and Bolivia follow a ritual that Westerners might think
odd, if not crazy. Late each night for about a week, the farmers observe the
stars in the Pleiades constellation, which is low on the horizon to the
northeast. If they appear big and bright, the farmers know to plant their
potato crop at the usual time four months later. But if the stars are dim,
the usual planting will be delayed for several weeks.

Now Western researchers have applied the scientific method to this seeming
madness. Poring over reams of satellite data on cloud cover and water vapor,
Professor Benjamin Orlove, an anthropologist at the University of California
at Davis, and colleagues have discovered that these star-gazing farmers are
accurate long-range weather forecasters. High wisps of cirrus clouds dim the
stars in El Nino years, which brings reduced rainfall to that part of the
Andes. In such drought conditions, it makes sense to plant potatoes as late
as possible.

Orlove's work, which was reported in January in the British journal Nature,
is just the latest example of indigenous or traditional knowledge that has
been found to have a sound scientific basis. In agriculture, nutrition,
medicine and other fields, modern research is showing why people maintain
their traditions.

Take the Masai of East Africa, who are famous for the kind of high-fat diet,
rich in meat and milk, that would make a cardiologist swoon. Timothy Johns,
a professor at McGill University in Montreal and director of the Center for
Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment, has long studied the Masai to
determine how they stay healthy.

The Masai add the roots and barks of certain plants, including a species of
acacia high in antioxidants, Johns said. They also chew a natural gum,
related to myrrh, that helps to break down fats.

"It's not a magic bullet protecting the Masai against heart disease," he
said. "But there is a benefit from what they are doing."

In a 1998 study, two Cornell University researchers analyzed the spices used
in 36 countries and found a correlation between average temperature and
cooking with spices like cumin, turmeric, ginger and chili peppers, all of
which have antimicrobial properties. The hotter the climate, the hotter the
food -- in part, at least, to keep it from spoiling.

Sometimes, however, the benefits of traditional knowledge are not so obvious
to those outside the culture. In Bali in the 1970s, the Indonesian
government, persuaded by international advocates of the "green revolution,"
forced rice farmers adopt new growing schemes. Among other things, the
farmers were made to stop their centuries-old ritual of meeting in small
groups at a series of water temples set at the forks of rivers, to negotiate
seasonal schedules for flooding their paddies.

The new techniques resulted in disaster. Farmers were pressured to plant as
often as possible. With little coordination of irrigation, water shortages
and pest infestation were the norm.

At about this time, J. Stephen Lansing, an American anthropologist, began to
study the water temples. What he found, which was supported later by
computer modeling, was that the old system was quite sophisticated and
efficient, encouraging cooperation among thousands of farmers. Water was
shared and controlled through a process involving reciprocal altruism.

"Everybody gets more rice and variation in harvest disappears, so there's no
reason to be envious of your neighbors," said Lansing, who now teaches at
the University of Arizona. "It's a bottom-up system of management that's
worked very well." The green revolution, he added, "was very much top down."
The traditional system has been re-established.

Orlove has studied similar traditional resource management around Lake
Titicaca, on the border between Bolivia and Peru. A distinctive feature of
the lake is the reeds growing in its shallows. The people around the lake
use them for rafts and livestock feed, among other things.

"They are a major component of the household economy," said Orlove. The
residents replant the reeds, which also serve as a spawning ground for some
of the 22 species of fish that are unique to the lake.

But indigenous knowledge can be faulty. "Traditional people sometimes get
things right, and sometimes get them wrong," said Alan Fiske, a
psychological anthropologist at the University of California at Los Angeles.
"Some things people do are bad for them." Other anthropologists have
challenged the notion that all indigenous groups have somehow developed a
blissful oneness with their world.

The problem, Fiske noted, is that verifying traditional knowledge is not
easy. The scientific method can be expensive, and data can be difficult to
obtain. Orlove's research on the potato farmers would have been impossible
even 10 years ago, because the type of satellite data he needed did not

There may be a shortage of data, but there's no shortage of traditional
knowledge that awaits possible confirmation by science. James Lynch, an
American scientist who has spent the past two decades helping Costa Rican
farmers, said he has learned from them the importance of timing. A tree cut
down during a new moon, he said, will quickly be ravaged by the insects,
while one felled several days before a full moon will stay free of termites
for years.

Lynch now follows the practice. "But I've never seen any scientific study to
back it up," he said.


Jeffrey Newman

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