MEMORY BANKING: THE CONSERVATION OF CULTURAL AND GENETIC DIVERSITY IN SWEET POTATO PRODUCTION

Virginia Nazarea

This is an excerpt from a paper first published in Local Knowledge, Global Science and Plant Genetic Resources: Toward a Partnership (UPWARD/CIP). Please refer to this volume for complete bibliographic information.

  • Introduction
  • Banking on Codes
  • Diversity and Commercialization
  • Indiginous Knowledge and Agricultural Decision Making
  • User's Perspective on Varietal Evaluation and Maintainence of Diversity
  • Implications for Agricultural Research and Development
  • A Long Way to Go

  • The Hanunoo people of the Philippine island of Mindoro show a fine-grained classificatory system that distinguishes 1,600 plant types, including 430 cultivars (Conklin 1954, Padilla). From the average contemporary urban dweller, one would be fortunate to elicit vernacular names for 50 kinds of plants. Somewhere in between would lie the average lowland farmer who, depending on his age, sex, and status, might have anywhere from a few to several hundred plant names in his everyday vocabulary. Apparently, the farther one gets from the primitive dependence on nature, the more insulated one can afford to be from its exigencies and variations and, hence, the lesser is one's need for diversity.

    The truth is, "modern man's" dependence has not lessened but has simply shifted: from bare elements of nature to processed ones, from wild progenitors and landraces to hybrid crops and domesticated animals, from raw genes to mutant, recombinant, and spliced ones. In reality, the farther one gets from diversity, the greater the need for diversity for short-term productivity and long-term survival. Biodiversity is the ultimate source of nearly all vital raw materials for food, medicine, clothing, and industry. From diverse flora and fauna come substances for counteracting illnesses, managing fertility, controlling pests, and lubricating machines as well as genes for breeding in desirable traits, for buffering undesirable side effects" of those desirable traits, and for fashioning or "engineering" species to suit human desires and purposes. In the longer term, maintaining diversity is the only guarantee for stabilizing the intricate web of life - indeed the key to ecological integrity.

    However, given a production and distribution system that relies on streamlining and simplifying agriculture for greater efficiency, one is left with rear guard options for safeguarding diversity until such time that people realize its importance and opt for a drastic change in priorities. One strategy that has been pursued by both national and international agricultural research systems with varying degrees of success is the collection, maintenance, documentation, and evaluation of representatives of diversity, i.e., samples of various cultivars, landraces, and wild relatives of agricultural crops kept either in long-term storage or as working collections (or both) in genebanks. A largely neglected but potentially valuable complement to that strategy is the parallel collection and documentation of indigenous knowledge and technologies including uses and preferences, from cultures that name, classify, and utilize a wide range of traditional varieties of crops -- what I refer to as memory banking.

    This paper reports the results of an exploratory effort at tapping and storing "memories" -- beliefs and practices of local farmers who possess an intimate knowledge of sweet potato and its cultivation, either as a subsistence crop or as a source of income. The project was conducted from August 1990 to December 1991 in Bukidnon Province, Mindanao, with support from UPWARD and in collaboration with the CIP (International Potato Center) station, the Department of Agriculture regional office and the Bureau of Soils research station in Malaybalay, Bukidnon (Fig. 1). The next step in this approach would be the preservation of a small patch of land in each region where the traditional crop varieties can be maintained in situ for purposes of retaining genetic diversity, verifying local names, and refreshing farmers' memories.


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