Conservation Out of Place

Virginia D Nazarea

Paper presented to SAG 22 November 2018

In a fairly recent development, 1,500 native potatoes from the Potato Park in Cusco, Peru were shipped to the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway for safekeeping because, according to Alejandro Argumedo, the Director of ANDES, “Peruvian potato culture is under threat” (Native Village Youth and Education News 2011). Like a terrestrial Noah’s Ark, the Global Seed Vault protects “spare copies” of seeds held in gene banks worldwide in the event of political upheavals, climatic change, and other disasters. The seeds are sealed in “black boxes” whose contents are known only to the scientists who deposited them there. The Global Seed Vault garnered worldwide attention when it was established in 2008. By Year 1, it held more than 400,000 seed accessions. That number has more than doubled with shipments from national and international gene banks. By design, everything is going for it in terms of long-term conservation— the icy bedrock that keeps the collection in permafrost, the ideal elevation that protects it from tectonic activity, and the governmental and multilateral funding and media attention that the futuristic set-up attracts.

In the1970s, international agricultural research centers (IARCs) were established to avert famine by promoting intensive production on limited land made possible by breeding high-yielding— or input-sensitive— varieties of crops. Green Revolution centered on the development of “miracle” seeds along with a technology package designed to maximize yield. To address the imminent narrowing of the genetic variability of crops as farmers adopted these modern cultivars, the same centers also established an extensive network of gene banks for protecting crop diversity. These plant genetic resources are exchanged for scientific inquiry, plant breeding, and genetic engineering and many of their desirable traits have been incorporated into “improved” varieties of crops that we rely on today. Located in centers of domestication and diversity in the global South and linked with seed repositories and plant breeding and biotechnology laboratories in global North, gene banks have been the focus of acrimonious debates over rights and access to germplasm (Fowler 1994, Ehrlich 2002, Dutfield 2004)..

Plant collectors including botanists, geneticists, breeders, and the occasional anthropologist have deposited samples of crop diversity into international and national gene banks. Gene banks are comprised of adjoining rooms maintained in a gradient of coldness corresponding to the intended length of storage. Plant accessions are held in short-, mid-, or long-term storage under highly-controlled conditions and periodically grown out in a no less rigorous fashion. Systematic passport data document the source of germplasm in terms of habitat and not much else (Nazarea 1998). Conservation thus involves layers of containment although containment runs counter to the principle of common human heritage that allowed for their collection in the first place. It implies both a declaration of property and a fear of contamination. This contamination can be biological, as when unwanted genes “flow” or introgress into native or improved varieties. It can also be cultural as when “primitive” or “feminine” principles, like local knowledge and the maintenance of women’s homegardens and rustic kitchens intrude upon the civilizing forces of modernity encapsulated in gene banks.

The conventional meaning of conservation dictates a scientific framework, a policy mandate, and a management plan. Most of the effort has been invested in ex situ conservation which means collecting germplasm from places of origin, be it in the wild or in farmers’ fields, and systematically characterizing, evaluating, and storing these materials for posterity, breeding, and exchange. The system is driven by the threat of loss and the idea of salvage. Given this, the response—cold storage in progressively more controlled, more distant, and “blacker” boxes—make a great deal of sense. Still, significant paradigm shifts emanating from the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) coupled with increasing awareness of the social and political implications of the centralization of plant genetic resources have led to uncharted territories that bring the natural and social sciences, civil society, and state into close interaction, and leading to many permutations of collaboration and collision. The complex case of Peruvian potatoes demonstrates the trans-local and multiply-engaged nature of biodiversity conservation, on the cross- currents of loss and memory. Science seeks to deposit and deploy potatoes along with other crops and assigns them heft (see also Herman 2013) while local farmers reconcile these estranged tubers and sanitized seeds with beloved infants and prodigal sons.

Argumedo’s pronouncement in regards to the vulnerability of potato culture contrasts quite markedly with the vitality of the food culture around potatoes in Peru particularly evident at the Mistura. Every September, Peru holds the “Mistura “, a popular food festival wherein people of highlands, the jungle, and the sea bring a wide variety of their produce and artisanal products to Lima. In the past decade, a groundswell of culinary revival has put Peruvian cuisine and the name of the charismatic chef, Gaston Acurio, on the map. Every Saturday, young chefs influenced by Acurio would explore the Andes, the Pacific coast, and the deserts and valleys in between in search of local ingredients that they can re-incorporate into their cuisine, principal among them the native potato varieties. These once-lowly, twisted and bumpy potatoes have acquired the status of “heirloom” and “gourmet”. Since it was first organized by the Sociedad Peruana de Gastronomia (APEGA) in 2008, the Mistura festival has matured from its charismatic origin to a broader social movement and continues to galvanize rural producers and urban consumers alike and to distill new directions in re-valuing and re-crafting Peruvian cuisine.

At Mistura 2015, I witnessed biodiversity being celebrated and consumed. A wide range of food stalls from high-end cuisine to street food, from traditional to fusion, presented an extraordinary opportunity to not only investigate biodiversity on display, but also to touch, smell, and taste it. From causa (traditional potato dish) to chaufa (fusionfried rice) to chicha (fermented drink from corn), the intensity of hues and aromas was intoxicating. We interviewed some of the participants in the general revelry. Two women, inspired by Gaston Acurio who had given cooking lessons to their youth in the pueblos jovenes (new communities) on the periphery of Lima, after carefully examining a wide array of beans, spotted one kind that gave them a sense of food security as children, and took a bag of it home to plant. A woman explained the uses of various medicinal herbs and grains and invited us to visit her community so we could learn more. Several chefs-in-training paid close attention to the produce from the highlands and the coast. A chef who promoted “desserts without guilt” was optimistic that Lima was becoming a foodie destination and there was room for people like him to make their mark.

Mistura estos somos. Somos esta Mistura” (Mistura is us. We are the Mistura), was a much-touted slogan, but it appeared to be more than that. It will require an expanded and more systematic study to back up this observation but everyone we talked to — a mix of indigenous and mestizos, young and middle-aged, male and female, all savoring some tasty offering — was there to experience and to remember. This throbbing, warm sphere of conservation and revitalization is a stark contrast to centralization and conservation of germplasm in cold storage. I would posit that the Mistura is restorative memory work at its most performative (Connerton 1989). It awakens memories and fans their transmission across generations and across gaps where traditional transmission may have failed (Nazarea 2006). Whether the organizers intended for it to be so or not, it seemed to “mobilize an imaginary in relation to the past for fundamentally different conceptions of the present” (Boutin et al. 2005:8) and, I might add, the future.

Underwriting Place

Meanwhile, in secret places “far from pomp and pride”, co-being, enchantment, and memory entice people to hold on to things or assemblages of things—plants among them—that hold meaning and make life more whole, bearable, and interesting. More milieus than memorials, these presumably insignificant spaces account not only for the preservation but also the generation of the biodiversity that scientific frameworks, mandates, and plans seek to conserve. This section examines such spaces to foreground conservation that is beyond design and out of the way (and, in some ways, in the way).

Since the mid-1990s, there have been mounting efforts to complement ex situ conservation with in situ conservation or conservation in place, also known as “conservation through use” (Maxted et al. 1997, UNEP 2001). More recently, anthropologists have highlighted the importance of conservation in vivo, in viable complexes as part of more traditional lifeways that, by their very persistence in out-of-the-way places, function as safe havens from global monocultures (Hunn 1999). We have also documented another form of conservation that hinges on diasporic co-movements of people and plants. In trans situ conservation, transplanted “roots” from various homelands that immigrants grow to establish an out-of-place sense of place in the adopted homeland secures the diversity from development changes in the home country and enhances the host countries’ biodiversity. Thus, while modernization may erode diversity in their countries of origin, these transported homegardens could serve as living repositories for repatriation in the future (Nazarea and Rhoades 2013; Rhoades 2013).

Vietnamese immigrants to the US are re-planting transported seeds as markers of identity. These sensory reminders function as both anchor and sail. In the context of the project, Introduced Germplasm from Vietnam, we found that many a suburban backyard across the American South has been trellised and hilled-up to support aromatic herbs and productive vines. Arresting growth of tall varieties of corn and leafy bananas as well as conquering luffa and bitter gourd punctuate their quietly authored landscapes. Seeds are passed along in a memory-laden traffic that spans Florida to New Orleans, even Texas. When Vietnamese American students interviewed their parents, grandparents, and other relatives about the plants that they continue to grow and cook, they were surprised by how much their elders knew, and how passionately they cared, about the plants from back home. The motivations were many and nuanced, as an interview of Nhan Couch, revealed (Nazarea 2005):

I have long, green squashes (bau) —I think they call them gourds here—   lemon grass and chives from Vietnam, little purple onions, bitter melon,             and Vietnamese mustard greens. They’re big and look like cabbage, and   we make pickle out of that. We have lettuce with thin leaves, not like         heads of lettuce here….A lot of times I work outside…I (also) like to go out             there and drink my coffee and feed the fish in the morning time…A lot of    people came in and talk with me, talk about my banana trees and         vegetables. Sometimes I dig up banana tree and give it to them. They    want to plant. They say they’ve never seen big banana trees like I have.

Conservation in Marginal and Not-so-marginal Spaces

Milieus of memory are places with deep emotional and cognitive resonance. Small fields and rustic kitchens where seeds and knowledge are transmitted through gathering and storytelling are scarcely recognized for their service to biodiversity conservation. Yet, these milieus nurture diverse seeds and foodways and strengthen a countermemory that goes against the grain of monocultures and other orthodoxies. As Pierre Nora pointed out, it is milieus, not memorials, that ultimately account for “re-seeding the bed of memory”, What makes for sensuous conservation? Back to Peru, I savor the life histories of Luisa Huaman, an elderly potato farmer in Cusco, Peru, and Isabel Alvarez, a rural sociologist who has documented regional Peruvian food traditions and founded a restaurant that serves these dishes in Lima, for clues.

Residing in Cuyo Grande, Luisa Huaman, who was still actively farming in her eighties, continued to relish the hearty dishes of her youth and insisted on preparing traditional potato soup for her family. She recalled that growing up, they planted legumes like fava, grains like wheat and barley, and tubers like olluco, oca, and anu. They planted potatoes in puqos where they would put guano droppings, three or four small potatoes and, in the middle of the plate, three coca leaves as an offering because “before planting the potato one must make a payment and then you can blow some alcohol or chicha the apus (gods).” They also raised pigs and so there was a lot of lard to flavor their dishes along with yuyu or wild greens that they would collect. As Luisa recalled:

The potatoes were big and there were varieties like pasnacha, peruntus, serqa, qompis, puka nawi, churos, puka churos, and chillico. The pasnacha potato was pretty, rich-tasting, and yellow….when you ran in the chacras (fields), the potatoes would come out of the soil and it would not be necessary to dig. The fava beans were also large and tasty.

Isabel Alvarez is a rural sociologist and food activist native to Lima. I interviewed her one evening in Senorio de Sulco, her famed restaurant by the sea. According to her, “the most cruel thing about modernity is that it makes us forget. And this forgetting is most cruel when it takes place in the kitchen.” The author of Las Manos de mi Madre (The Hands of my Mother) explained further that in the kitchen — particularly in the rural kitchen and mostly in the hands of generations of women — we learn our most important lessons about connection to each other as well as to nature and the land. We taste legacy and love. She added that these grounded emotional connections cannot be replaced by “male-dominated techniques”. A founding member of APEGA, and having played a central role in the Mistura from its inception, she is somewhat critical of young male chefs who, according to her, only see biodiversity as ingredients that they “save”. To illustrate that biodiversity is instead a vital force, an ethic, and a passion, she told me the story of a woman who aspired to learn how to prepare cancacho de cordero, or delicately-roasted lamb, and who later became famous for the way prepared it. So tied to her sense of identity was this finely-honed skill that the woman was known to have said, “the day I die, I’m going to be holding my cancacho.”

Though remotely located in terms of virtually all parameters except for deep sensory engagement, Luisa and Isabel have retained and nurtured essentially what is dear to them. While their presence is transgressive in their respective contexts, the power of this transgression emanates from a coherence of their worlds. I wish to stress the critical importance of quotidian practices, affective attachments, and sensory memory as these embodied practices, sensations, and sentiments constitute compelling and enduring forces favoring the conservation and contagion of biodiversity. Edward Casey (1996) wrote that without a primary level of coherence, it would be impossible to move, much less hope. When conservation programs veer radically away from meaningful milieus of biodiversity, there is a risk of dissociation and immobilization. In the spirit of re-membering, conservation needs to be more faithful to, and coherent with, cosmologies of and intimacies with biodiversity. It has to be rooted more deeply, to include the pleasure and the dignity, the wholeness and the rightness, emanating from the availability and accessibility of a diversity of plants and the complex lifeworlds that they help imagine and congeal.       

In Luisa’s recollections, the landscape is populated with sentient beings and inscribed with lessons for those who understand (see also Basso 1996, Gonzales 2000, Nazarea 2013). The apus need to be thanked and pacified and potatoes willfully appear and disappear. From Luisa’s farm and her kitchen, re-enchantment promotes cultural and sensory relocation that counters the straightening and de-animation that development and programmatic conservation can unwittingly instigate. This goes for Isabel’s worldmaking as well, as she weaves dishes from remote kitchens in the countryside into seaside menus and re-animates them with hands that warm palates and pass on memories. Everyday practices and aesthetics —embodied in gardening, cooking, and commensality — constitute the intimate and sensual landscape that crops and other culturally significant plants inhabit and evoke. Textures, temperatures, flavors, and aromas sustain emotional attachments and compel people, both local and transported, to nurture their traditional crops. Such milieus of memory enliven alternatives that might otherwise be abandoned, including culinary preferences and rituals that require that a wide variety of plants remain in memory and in place.

Movements Out of Place

Modernity’s invasions and interventions have installed “miracle” crops, “plum” commodities, and “magic bullet” fixes into human consciousness and lifeways, but not without retort. In ecological edges and cultural folds, multi-vocal, multi-sensory, and multispecies kinships have emerged as refuges of practice and memory. We have examined both persistent and emergent forms of co-creations and counters that affectively and effectively challenge global alienation and homogenization, or noplaceness. What accounts for the resilience of these refuges? How do out-of-the-way gardens and kitchens nurture and deploy memories central to identity and persistence? And why do these and other refuges constitute powerful terms of emplacement when they are in many ways out of place?

Again, fairly recently, a diffuse and irreverent movement of making saved seeds available for sharing in public libraries took hold in the US. The phenomenon of seed libraries started in 2000, in a series of direct local responses to increasing the standardization and commodification of seeds and the homogenization of farms and tables. The first one of record was the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) at the Berkeley Ecology Center in California. Other pioneering ones —the Hudson Valley Seed Library in New York, the Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library in California, and the Seed Library of Los Angeles in California—led to the establishment of the National Association of Seed Libraries (www.seedlibraries,com). The irony of modern seed exchange was not lost to the proponents when a problem with authorities arose at a public seed library in Pennsylvania, prompting the comment “advocates of seed-sharing programs said they don’t necessarily blame agricultural departments, but some express frustration that laws focus on protecting the needs of modern hybrid seed producers while limiting age-old, person-to-person seed exchanges.” Tragically, when something like seed saving and seed sharing that reinforce biological and cultural diversity gain more acceptance and move from the margins towards the center, forces at the center agitate for its standardization and control.

Still, the movement grows. Out west and down south, I have visited the Pima County Seed Library in Tucson, Arizona and the Appalachian Studies Center Seed Library in Dahlonega, Georgia. My students in a Service Learning class, Anthropology of Roots and Rooting, also helped set up a seed library at the Pinewoods Estate Public Library in Athens, Georgia. Speaking with the people behind these seed libraries, the themes that came up time and time again were the connection between love of gardening and food and devotion to sharing seeds and the need not only for conservation but, more importantly, for equal access. These strong beliefs and affections motivate the “seed librarians” who collect, store, organize, advertise, and “lend” out these seeds. At the Pima County Library, several scattered bistro tables with small vases of fresh flowers offer those who walk in from the street a place to sit and ponder the availability of seeds and perhaps with the help of librarians find what they remember and select what they want to plant. At the Appalachian Studies Center, collaboration among a biological scientist, a professional story teller, and an artist led to their seed library being complemented by a seed bank, a garden, and a pantry. For the mostly immigrant residents of Pinewood Estates, seeds of flowers and herbs are the most prized and sought after as the bright colors and piquant flavors help them negotiate the many contours and fragmentations of “home”.

In closing, I address the double meaning of “out of place” that is at the crux of this Symposium. On one hand, it can be empowering as in crafting creative responses to challenges out of locality or place, with its repository of cultural memory. On the other, it can be disempowering as in instituting top-down programs that are inappropriate or hopelessly out of place. Place is a vexing concept to begin with. In relation to the conservation of biodiversity, we have seen how homegardeners and small farmers—both local and immigrant—author place with sensory reminders of the past or a homeland. We have also witnessed how food has become a vehicle for cultural revitalization. Such counters to uniformity and hegemony may appear insignificant except that they stand out and provoke us to wonder and question. Occasionally, too, powerfully regenerative social movements are fomented out of place. Out of re-enchantment and re-animation of lifeworlds come re-entrenchment of the displaced. From this emanates a more compelling kind of conservation.

Literature Cited

Basso, K. 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Notes on a Western Apache Landscape. In Feld, S. and K.H. Basso (eds.) Senses of Place, Santa Fe, NM: School of Americas Research.

Boutin, A.H. A.G. Leushuis, and L.J. Walters. 2005. Introduction. Journal of European Studies 31(1):5-9.

Casey, E. How to Get from Space to Place in a Fairly Short Stretch of Time: Phenomenological Proglegomena. In  S. Feld and K.Basso (eds.) Senses of Place. Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.

Connerton, P. 1989. How Societies Remember. New York/London: Cambridge University Press.

Dutfield, G. 2004. Intellectual Property, Biogenetic Resources, and Traditional Knowledge: London: Earthscan.

Ehrlich, P. 2002. Human Natures, Nature Conservation, and Environmental Ethics. BioScience 52:31-43.

Fowler, C.1994. Unnatural Selection: Technology, Politics, and Plant Evolution. International Studies in Global Change 6. Switzerland: Gordon and Breach.

Gonzales, T. 2000.The Cultures of the Seed in the Peruvian Andes. In Brush, S.(ed.) Genes in the Field: On-Farm Conservation of Crop Diversity. Rome: IDRC/IPGRI.

Herman, B. 2013. Swelling Toads, Translation, and the Paradox of the Concrete. In Miller, P.N. (ed) Cultural Histories of the Material World. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Hunn, E. 1999. Ethnoecology: The Value of Subsistence for the Future of the World. In V. D. Nazarea (ed.) Ethnoecology: Situared Knowledge/Located Lives. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Maxted, N., B. Ford-Loyd, and J.G. Hawkws. 1997. Complementary Conservation Strategies. In N. Maxted, B. Ford-Floyd, J.G. Hawkes (eds.) Plant Genetic Conservation: The In situ Approach. London: Chapman and Hall.

Nazarea, V.D. 2005.Heirloom Seeds and their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biodiversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Nazarea, V. D. 2006. Local Knowledge and Memory in Biodiversity Conservation. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 317-160.

Nazarea, V.D. 2013 Temptation to Hope: From the “Idea” to the Milieu of Biodiversity. In V. D. Nazarea, R. E. Rhoades, and J. Andrews-Swann (eds.) Seeds of Resistance, Seeds of Hope: Place and Agency in the Conservation of  Biodiversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Nazarea, V.D. and R.E. Rhoades. 2013. Conservation beyond Design. In Nazarea, V.D., R.E. Rhoades, and J.E. Andrews-Swann (eds.) Seeds of Resistance, Seeds of Hope: Place and Agency in the Conservation of  Biodiversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

National Association of Seed Libraries (www.seedlibraries,com).

Nora, P. 1989. Between Memory and History. Les Lieux de Memoire. Representations 26:7-24.

Rhoades, R. E. 2013. When Seeds Are Scarce. In V.D. Nazarea, R.E. Rhoades, and J. Andrews-Swann (eds.) Seeds of Resistance, Seeds of Hope: Place and Agency in the Conservation of Biodiversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

UNEP/CBD. 2001. On-farm Management of Crop Genetic Diversity and the CBD’s Programme of Work on Agricultural Biodiversity. Rome: IPGRI.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *