Wetenschap - 1 juni 1995

International Congress Looks at Change in Africa

International Congress Looks at Change in Africa

About 50 researchers and scholars (in the fields of anthropology, economics, geography, history, geology and biological sciences) from the USA, Africa and Europe gathered in Wageningen May 18-20th for a workshop series, African Farmers and their Environment in Long Term Perspective". Kojo Amanor, of the Institute of African Studies in Ghana, was one of the participants in the three-day programme.

Presently working as Coordinator of the Development and Gender Studies programme at the institute, Amanor joined the conference with a background of experience related to farmer participatory research and gender and development issues. He has recently published his third book, The New Frontier: Farmers' Response to Land Degradation.

Paul Richards, of the WAU Department of Technology and Agrarian Development, underlined during the Friday afternoon sessions that, If people like the Rockefeller Foundation and the Anthropology and International Programmes of the National Science Foundation are willing to put money up to sponsor discussions like this conference, we should really take the opportunity, as a gathered group of experts, to take a position on research in the African context".

In talking to Kojo Amanor about what that African agenda is, and how a workshop series like this one can contribute to how researchers see and understand the farmers, he responded, There are a lot of models and theories already available concerning African farmers and their production systems. But the data sets are weak and the linkages are poor. Then you have the problem which has been evident in the past, that conclusions have been drawn about the African situation, putting forth a big picture, as if you can generalize. What we are trying to do here is to use the expertise of people from across the disciplines to see what real dynamics and processes are happening at this moment. By discussing this we can better understand processes of change. You need an understanding of what's going on in other fields. Only then can the hard sciences and the social sciences interact to produce a meaningful debate. It's impossible to talk about Africa in general terms. Even tho
ugh the people here are from different backgrounds, sharing the different case studies and the particularities can show common characteristics across the disciplines. I guess you could say that the idea is to take a more critical look at agriculture by not starting at the global and then moving to the local."

Understanding Diversification

During the workshop Risk and Instability: Ecological and Institutional Aspects, Amanor raises an important point, It is possible that researchers romanticize diversity. We really know very little about processes of change. Take the example of the chewing sticks - Garcinia species (used for cleaning one's teeth instead of a toothbrush and paste in Ghana) - which I was looking at in a particular community. The people were using 30 different varieties of wooden sticks, and one could easily think that it is an impressive and diversified production system which has created so many varieties. However, in such a case one would miss the fact that urban traders had come to the region and cut down all of the most important tree source for the chewing stick to sell it on the urban markets. What the local people were doing was living with second best substitutes. That shouldn't be romanticized."