Between Tradition and Modernity: Ancestral knowledge in Agriculture

Ancestral knowledge in agricultural practices has once again gained ground in the era of climate change. The reconnection of the human being with his natural environment, his millenary customs and the knowledge acquired from experience is necessary to make agriculture more sustainable. How do we go back to this original design?

7 min. read

“Each culture has obtained the necessary resources in one way or another and has used them accordingly to its needs, in such a way that the cultural evolution has gone hand in hand with evolution in knowledge of the natural environment, and understanding of its different aspects and functioning1”. As the very term agriculture indicates, a series of customs, beliefs, myths and ways of living around the cultivation of the land have taken place to shape our societies. In turn, the latter have influenced agricultural processes and their optimization. However, in the last 200 years, the introduction of technology into agriculture, modernity and globalization of our world have led to a disconnection with ancestral knowledge and decline of biodiversity. And it is no wonder why we are facing the current effects of climate change2. How is ancestral knowledge applied to modern-day agriculture, and how does that look like nowadays?

It is worth mentioning that the main means of passing on ancestral knowledge is oral tradition, where older people or “elders” share their experience with younger generations. This practice has been harmed in various parts of the world, and in the specific case of Ecuador, rural-urban and international migration have left a generational void that traditional education has not been able to fill up to now3. If education is to become a tool for sharing ancestral knowledge, such as the use of plants or ethnobotany, it must “be contextualized, filled with local elements as a main source4“.

Ancestral agriculture is a form of bio-knowledge that seeks to understand the knowledge used in this activity5. This is a social construction since it is specific to the place where it appears. Furthermore, if we take into account only the knowledge of the West, highly sophisticated and developed on its own merit, this “is only one of the possible ways of knowledge, and, therefore, it is insufficient to account for all aspects of reality6“. Ancestral knowledge is essential for the food security of indigenous and farmer populations, who are protected by law because they promote the protection of other resources such as water and the health of people, plants and animals7.

There are multiple ancestral techniques for different parts of agricultural production such as “soil preparation, seed selection, treatment of pests and diseases, crop management, harvest and post-harvest… [and] livestock production8“. A classic example of this is how various cultures around the world have relied on lunar phases to determine cultivation and harvest times, or the mating times of farm animals. The Mayas already practiced crop diversification or “milpa”, and in the case of the Incas, organic matter was not wasted at all, and it returned to the farmland in the form of compost9. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has identified Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) that “are agroecosystems inhabited by communities that live in an intrinsic relationship with their territory10“, and that have resulted in techniques such as rice terrace systems in Madagascar and the Philippines; nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoral systems in India and China; ancient irrigation systems in Iran, Afghanistan and other Central Asian countries or sub-sea level systems such as the Netherlands, India, Bangladesh and South Asia11.

How do we integrate this knowledge into our current time? As mentioned above, the key to keeping this knowledge alive is oral tradition. In this sense, formal and non-formal education could collect this valuable information, and communicate it to students, according to their local context, and through practice. Important steps have been taken, such as protecting ancestral practices in agriculture through laws (in the Ecuadorian case through the Constitution), which encourages their preservation and allows resources to be allocated. And of course, the best way to preserve ancestral knowledge is through the use of these techniques in modern agriculture. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to approach the communities, learn their ways and become familiar with their environment, and establish a dialogue between their knowledge and the new available technologies since both benefit simultaneously.

1 Sánchez-Robles J. M., Torres-Muros, L. 2020. Revista Espacios. Educación, etnobotánica y rescate de  saberes ancestrales en el Ecuador. Vol. 41 (23). p.158
2 Ibid. Sánchez-Robles J. M., Torres-Muros, L. 2020. p.159
3 Id.
4 Ibid. Sánchez-Robles J. M., Torres-Muros, L. 2020. p.167-168
5 Mera-Andrade R., Bejarano-Rivera C. et al. 2019. Tropical and Subtropical Agroecosystems No. 22. Aplicación del Bioconocimiento Ancestral en la Producción Agropecuaria. p.837-838
6 Añazco M., Sánchez D., et al. 2014. IICA. Conocimientos ancestrales para el manejo forestal sustentable. p.11-12
7 Id.
8 Ibid. Mera-Andrade R., Bejarano-Rivera C. et al. 2019. p.837-838
9 Ibid. Mera-Andrade R., Bejarano-Rivera C. et al. 2019. p.838 – 841
10 Koohafkan P., Altieri M.A. 2011. FAO. Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems. p.1-4
11 Id.