Anthony Bebbington on 'Modernization from Below' - from 1993


Reading up on articles that has been collecting in my “read these” folder, I write small remarks that somebody might find of value. Basically I am figuring out how these articles relate to my own writing and projects.

First out is an article by Anthony Bebbington from 1993 on “Modernization from below: An Alternative Indigenous Development?” (Economic Geography, 69(3), pp. 274-292). 

What caught my attention was how he sets up his argument—that if empowered, the rural poor of the Ecudorian highlands could engage in ‘Green Revolution’ technologies as a means to sustain their culture. This runs counter to the ‘alternative agricultural’ practices that many promote that are self-reliant and based on traditional practices (and increasingly now also support biological diversity and ecological functions). From this viewpoint, Green Revolution technologies would undermine indigenous cultures (and as Bebbington notes, it certainly has in many instances), while alternative agriculture would sustain them. He notes however that the Indian federation, groups of indigenous farmers, promote the use of Green Revolution technologies since they can help to create a viable rural economy in the hands of themselves, thus given opportunity to the young who will not need to leave the rural areas for the city. This threat, of the young leaving is seen as a greater threat to their culture than the introduction of new farming technologies. 

His article relates at least theoretically to our Ways of Knowing Urban Ecology project. For instance, he writes usefully about what is termed ITK - Indigenous Technological Knowledge (closely related to Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and Local Ecological Knowledge). Under the heading “The Limits of Indigenous Technical Knowledge” he writes: “Merely by naming something called "ITK, this literature creates the sense that a body of knowledge exists in a coherent form. [...] In do doing it creates the impression that rural people are farmers, that agricultural technology is central to solving rural poverty, and that premodernized techniques are keys to a solution. In addition, the emphasis on the "knower" (the farmer), and on the knower's capacity to invent and create, tends to remove agents from structures and to replace determinism with voluntarism (cf. Giddens 1979; Long 1990).” (my italics) Bebbington continuous: “Likewise, an emphasis on what knowers know about technology and ecology diverts attention from the myriad things they do not know about markets, politics, and the machinations of a world beyond the farm gate.” He uses this to suggest that “while a place must be kept for farmer agency” it is important to retain the analysis of constraints and possibilities within “social, political, and cultural structures.” 

He later concludes that one implication for theory, that still seems important, is that “we need to understand ITK as a dynamic response to changing contexts—a response constructed through farmers' practices as active "agents"who are "situated" within cultural, economic, agroecological, and sociopolitical contexts that are products of local and nonlocal processes.” This is said in contrast to the static notion of ITK that are in use by policy makers and many NGO’s and external actors. He goes on to state that “On the one hand, these processes have challenged the viability of indigenous agriculture, most evidently in the declining relevance of traditional practices and in the current pressures deriving from the macroeconomic changes driving the so-called new technological agenda. Yet at the same time these wider processes provide resources and ideas that are taken in and reworked by indigenous peoples.” 

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