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Indigenous Knowledge and HIV/AIDS: Ghana and Zambia

IK Notes No.30 (2001)

It has always been difficult to reach poor people with development aid, particularly in health where most resources benefit the middle classes in urban hospitals. For the rural poor, and increasingly also for the urban poor, often the only affordable and accessible form of health care is provided by traditional healers. Zambia with an estimated 20–25 percent of the population HIV-positive has only 900 western- educated doctors (600 of whom are foreign) but has 40,000 registered traditional healers for a population of 10 million. Ghana, with 5 percent of the population being HIV-positive, has 1,200 western educated doctors but an estimated 50,000 traditional healers for a population of 20 million. Thus, the ratio of doctor to traditional healer is 1:44 in Zambia and 1:42 in Ghana. Given the central cultural role of traditional healers in communities, they provide one of the best hopes for treating and stemming the spread of AIDS. But healers rely on medicinal plants and there has been a significant decrease in the abundance of many important medicinal plant species as their habitat are lost through deforestation, cultivation, overgrazing, burning, droughts, desertification, etc. This problem has been exacerbated by the unmanaged local and international demand for medicinal plants. Furthermore, traditional healers have identified as an important issue, the loss of indigenous knowledge regarding traditional medicine, which forms part of the cultural heritage of local communities and is usually transmitted orally. This knowledge is often undervalued by the younger generations, at least in part because traditional medicine seldom brings high economic returns to the practitioner.

In recognition of the importance to preserve and protect this ethnomedical knowledge, and the plant species on which it is based, the governments of Zambia and Ghana, with support from the World Bank, are in the process of establishing a bridge between environment and health in fighting HIV/AIDS. In Zambia the executing agency is the Traditional Health Practitioners Association of Zambia (THPAZ) through the Environmental Support Program (ESP) under the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. In Ghana, the effort will be part of the Northern Savanna Biodiversity Conservation Project (NSBCP) under the Ministry of Land, Forestry and Mines. Basically, the two projects have the same approach although they differ in design: in Zambia the initiative has been retrofitted into an already existing program while in Ghana the activities will be part of on-going project design. What follows is first a short description of the AIDS component involving traditional healers under the Zambian ESP; second, a comparison of the sociocultural findings particularly concerning gender differences related to traditional medicine in the two countries; and third, some of the difficulties experienced during the process of establishing this cross-sector initiative involving agriculture, environment, health, and rural development.

Under the Zambian initiative, “Protection and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity for Medicinal Value: An Initiative to Combat HIV/AIDS” there are three main activities. The first activity, “Conservation of Biodiversity for HIV/AIDS Prevention and Treatment” includes the establishment of botanic gardens, forest reserves for medicinal plants, and a herbarium with medicinal plants. Some of the seeds, cuttings and tubers for planting will come from Spiritual Forests, which have considerable biodiversity and contain rare species of plants and trees, which have been preserved because of the traditional rules, norms, and taboos associated with them. The second activity “Training and Capacity Building” is directed towards the traditional healers and includes a long list of topics from behavior modification in relation to HIV/AIDS, understanding ecosystems, nutrition, toxicology, basic virology, epidemics, and immunology. In addition to the environmental and medical aspects there will also be legal training so that healers do not infringe the law, such as the Witchcraft Act, and get a better understanding of human rights. The third activity “Dissemination of Information/Knowledge on Biodiversity and HIV/AIDS” will set up a communication strategy to be implemented through newsletters, radio programs, TV, drama/plays and leaflets. This activity will also include an electronic database on medicinal plants and publication of a handbook for traditional healers to be used in their practice. All training materials, programs, and publications will be in the major local languages and a basic literacy program will be added to make the (often) -illiterate healers capable of registering their patients, and documenting their indigenous knowledge.

Whereas gender analysis has been essential for project design in both Zambia and Ghana the role of women are very different in the two countries. Generally the gender division of labor has been stronger in Ghana than in Zambia. This has had an effect on the position of female traditional healers as well as their ability to participate in project activities. Some of the sociocultural differences are analyzed here. In Zambia, traditional healers have received donor help to be organized on a national basis, and 60 percent of the registered traditional healers are women. The number of women healers is even said to be growing in response to the increasing number of AIDS patients. People call HIV/AIDS “Kalaye noko,” meaning “go and say goodbye to your mother,” because most people die in their villages in their mothers' homes. Although women in Ghana are also the ones to care for the ill, the contrast is striking when it comes to practicing healing. In Ghana, there is no functional national traditional healers' association, and the three northern regions have less than one fifth of the estimated healers' registered. Of these (few) registered members, less than 10 percent are women except for one minor sub-region where an active healer has managed to raise the figure to 49 percent. However, the low figure in Ghana is more a reflection of local beliefs than of the actual number of women healers. Also, the Bank-assisted initiative might have unintentionally cemented already existing gender bias by, for example, only training the registered healers, who are overwhelmingly male. According to one female healer in Ghana, women, if they openly practice traditional medicine “are termed witches and every misfortune is blamed on them; in most cases these women are disowned and sent out of their societies. For this reason it is only the queen of witches who is known to heal, because she is so powerful that it is impossible for any member of the society to challenge her.”

In both countries it was extremely rare to find traditional healers who cultivated medicinal plants, and when it did happen, it was almost exclusively funded by donors. In Zambia, women healers often referred to a spirit guiding them to the medicinal plants, which they collected and prepared for medicine themselves. In Ghana, there was substantial gender bias related to the collection of plants, preparation of medicine, and even to sexuality, which had a positive influence on males but a negative influence on women. Fewer female healers in Ghana were married than were male healers, which one female healer explained by saying that she would not be able to heal if her husband was living with her. Neither would healers, who used traditional African religious rituals in the healing process, send their daughters into the bush to get the plants, because “people would think they were witches.” And husbands would not let their wives help to make the medicine “because the medicine would not work” if prepared by a woman. An obvious rationale for this taboo was patrilineal location and succession which meant that a woman at marriage would move to her husband's house, and the family's secret knowledge on plants and its medical use, would thereby be in danger of being uncovered by another family. Healers in Ghana were also reluctant to teach their daughters traditional medicine, but little girls also have eyes and ears, and many women practice medicine, although not openly. That obviously had a negative influence on women's options for income generation through their practice. Only traditional birth attendants (TBA) were almost exclusively women, and most TBAs received some remuneration for their services. But most traditional healers earn their main income from farming and remuneration for healing was in farm products. In Zambia, the declining economy had forced many healers to give up payment in kind, and healers had increasingly turned to (their individual) standard payments for each disease. The highest price was always a cure for infertility, which had to be paid at the arrival of an infant son. The strong division of labor in Ghana gives a unique opportunity through the project to support women and families in HIV/AIDS prevention and poverty reduction, thereby enhancing the prospects of success for the project as a whole. The longterm goal of biodiversity conservation could seem abstract to communities suffering from food shortages and hunger; however, short-term income generation through the cultivation and selling of medicinal plants and vegetables leading to improvements in, particularly, children's health could have a catalytic effect on the success of the project.

Traditional healers, both male and female, expressed an eagerness to be trained to improve their practice. In Ghana, the mass communication program on HIV/AIDS had succeeded in disseminating information on transmission of the disease from one person to another via blood, sexual intercourse, infected needles, and so forth. But communities' knowledge on how it is transmitted was not always complete or accurate. Some communities referred to the danger of eating or bathing together with an AIDS infected person; even shaking hands or using the same clothes was mentioned as a possible way to be infected. None of the communities admitted that there were any affected individuals in their village, and in both Zambia and Ghana, severe stigma was attached to a person with AIDS. Thus, people were less likely to admit infection and treat HIV/AIDS as a common, but serious, disease. Poverty and cultural norms also make Africa the continent with the highest proportion of women to men infected with AIDS. In the fight against AIDS, traditional healers need training as they provide health care for about 70 percent of the population. And TBAs, according to the World Health Organization, deliver 95 percent of babies in the rural areas, which makes them particularly critical care-givers but also renders them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS. In the long run, the health infrastructure provided by the traditional healers and their organizations could provide the distribution network for AIDS medicines when they become available at a reasonable price. Traditional healers have a unique position as educators and potential distributors of AIDS medicine - for example in handling patients' doses. No African government has the resources or health personnel in the numbers needed to fight the AIDS epidemic.

Governments in Ghana or Zambia do not support traditional healers financially as they do their (modern) medical associations, and in neither country is traditional medicine part of the curriculum at medical faculties. In this respect, African countries are far behind countries such as China and India where alternative medicine is an integrated part of modern medicine practiced at hospitals. However, Ghana and Zambia both have staff in their Ministries of Health to coordinate policies to traditional healers, and both governments want healers to be registered. Ghana has shown a positive attitude towards the conservation of medicinal plants and has acknowledged traditional healers by passing a Traditional Medicine Practice Act in 2000. In Zambia, on the other hand, it was when more than one-fifth of the population became infected with AIDS that traditional healers were invited to become part of the Technical Committee on Natural Remedies for HIV and Other Related Diseases, placed directly under the Head of State. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, under which the ESP is located, was initially very reluctant to involve civil society in natural resource management, and particularly THPAZ, which is the country's largest NGO. Traditional healers were considered to be irrelevant to modernity and therefore to be excluded from development. A similar reluctance was initially found in the World Bank where traditional healers' practices were often perceived as lacking scientific validation, and hence legitimacy. This view was also widespread among western doctors, although traditional health practice predates modern medical practice just as the use of herbs and medicinal plants predates the present pharmacological practice. Gradually, however, this attitude has changed and today it is acknowledged that initiatives like the ones in Zambia and Ghana are benefiting the poor directly and have considerable potential in treating AIDS-related diseases.

This article was written by co-authored by Peter Easton and Margaret Ronald, Florida State University. The research was carried out under the joint aegis of the Club du Sahel/OECD, the Interstate Committee for Combating Drought in the Sahel/Comité Inter-état Contre la Sécheresse (CILSS) and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa.

The Contribution of Indigenous Vegetables to Household Food Security

IK Notes No. 44 (2002)

A lot of effort has been invested by the Government of Uganda to produce enough food for Uganda's population and a surplus for export. However, the indigenous vegetables, often referred to as traditional vegetables, have been underrated in favor of introduced exotic vegetables (Rubaihayo, 1995). Hence, the potential of traditional vegetables has not been exploited.

Traditional vegetables are perishable, low yielding and their value as commercial crops has not been explored. Yet, the majority of local farmers cannot always produce exotic vegetables because of the unavailability of seeds and/or high production costs of these vegetables. Unfortunately, the resource-poor urban and rural population often find it difficult to purchase exotic vegetables from local markets because of the high costs. They therefore, depend on traditional vegetables as a regular side dish or sauce accompanying the staple foods such as maize, cassava, sweet potatoes, banana, millet, sorghum and yams (Rubaihayo, 1994). The staple foods provide Calories needed for body energy but are very low in other nutrients while the traditional vegetables have a very high nutritive value. They contain vitamin A, B, and C, proteins and minerals such as iron, calcium, phosphorus, iodine and fluorine in varying amounts but adequate for normal growth and health. For example, vitamin A which is required to prevent blindness especially in children is found in all dark green leafy traditional vegetables such as Amaranthus (dodo), Solanum aethiopicum (Nakati), Manihotesculenta (cassava leaves) and Ipomea batatas (sweet potato leaves). On the other hand vegetables like Solanum indicum subsp.. distichum (Katunkuma) are believed to control high blood pressure. The traditional vegetables, therefore, meet the major protein-calorie nutritional needs especially in children, the sick, elderly, expectant and lactating mothers (FAO, 1988).

Unfortunately, the consumers have not been sensitized to appreciate the role of the traditional vegetables in fulfilling the above human needs.

Most of the traditional vegetables are produced throughout the developing world mainly in kitchen and home gardens. Because of the importance of these gardens, an international Workshop on Household Garden Projects was held in Bangkok, Thailand in May 1991 to consolidate lessons learned from experience with household garden projects. The workshop analyzed the relevance and effectiveness of household food production as a development intervention, targeted at the most nutritionally and economically disadvantaged people and identified viable implementation strategies of household gardens (Midmore et al., 1991).

The purpose of this paper is to prompt policy makers and development managers to reassess and give more weight to the neglected production and consumption of traditional vegetables so as to enhance nutrition, income generation and food security for small scale households. The views expressed in this paper are a result of interviews with several people from many countries including Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya. Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Rwanda, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Senegal, etc. although there is more focus on the Uganda situation.

Kitchen gardens. Kitchen gardens are common in urban centers and their suburbs. They are normally made up of very small plots of usually pure stands of traditional vegetables as part of the garden of the residence. The vegetables are produced cheaply in these gardens using compost rather than commercial fertilizers (Midmore et al., 1991). The commonly grown traditional vegetables include interalia Leafy Amaranthus species, Basellaalba, Solanumaethiopicum, Solanum gilo, Solanum indicum sub sp distchum, Cqapsicum species Colocasiaesculenta, Phaseolus vulgaris, Gynendropsis gynandra, Vigna unguiculata, Bidens pilosa, Manihot esculenta, Corchorus olitoris, Solanum nigrum, Abelmoschum esculenta, Cucurbita maxima, and Acalypha biparlita. Exotic vegetables such as Brassica oleracea, B. oleracea and Daucus carota are also commonly grown. The yields of some fresh vegetables in Uganda are shown in Table 1.

Home gardens. Home gardens are found in villages. The plots are larger than those of kitchen gardens and a number of vegetables and other crops are mixed are mixed together including fruits, vegetables, medicinal plants, staple foods and shade trees. The home gardens in villages surrounding the suburbs of the urban centers are often planted with cabbages, cauliflower, carrots, Amaranthus lividus (grown in swamps and water logged soils), Solanum gilo, Solanum indicum subsp. dischum mostly as monocrops. These vegetables are sold in the neighboring urban and their suburbs markets.

Table 1. Dry matter yields of common vegetables in Uganda

CropYield/ha Reference
Cowpea11.1 t/ha. Ocaya, unpubl.
Cabbage24 t/ha. Jabber, unpubl.
Amaranthus sp.20 t/ha. Rubaihayo, 1994
Solanum aethiopium7.5 t/ha. Rubaihayo, 1994

The contribution of indigenous vegetables to household food security

The home gardens of traditional vegetables in the rural setting are characterized by intercropping systems and volunteer plants during the rainy seasons. In many developing countries, where these gardens predominate, the contribution of traditional vegetable gardening as a food production strategy has been overlooked by policy makers and extension staff in favor of exotic vegetables which are mainly produced for commercial purposes (Rubaihayo, 1994). Unfortunately, the resource-poor rural households do not benefit from the remarkable increase in exotic vegetable commercial production due to the costly inputs of agricultural chemicals needed for their successful production. Therefore, it is extremely important to develop research and production strategies that directly enable the poorest of the poor to produce not only traditional vegetables but also staple foods.

Although the contributions from these gardens to family welfare are supplementary in nature, such modest contributions are very important to those who have very little in the rural and urban areas. These poor people often have access to only under-utilized marginal land and others have very small pieces of land. Intensive home and kitchen gardening can turn this land into a productive source of food and economic security by using narrative agricultural practices and the traditional vegetables that are already locally adopted.

Importance of traditional vegetables. A large proportion of the Ugandan population do not consume adequate amounts of traditional vegetables to meet their daily requirement of vitamins, minerals and proteins. Even what is consumed has a large proportion of these nutrients destroyed or lost during preparation and cooking. There is reduced effectiveness in ensuring food security all year round due to the fact that very few traditional vegetables are cultivated, with the majority being collected from the wild or fields and plantations. In some of the ecosystems they are regarded as weeds and are often weeded out and are not available during the dry season (Rubaihayo, 1994). But this situation can be reversed through concerted efforts by the government to educate the general population and extension services to cover traditional vegetables and increase research to produce improved cultivars, processing, marketing and storage methods. This would lead to the increased consumption of traditional vegetables and their contribution to food security will be enhanced.

Family gardens are far more common in less well-to-do households, and constitute the major or the only source of food between harvests or when harvests fail. They provide a critical source of energy and protein, especially to weaningage children, the sick and elderly. Some of the traditional vegetables can continue to be productive even during the dry season although at a reduced rate due to stunted growth. Habitat destruction and migration to urban areas mean that wild foods are no longer available to these resource-poor rural farmers. Moreover, the commercialization of agriculture has displaced many indigenous crops that used to ensure a balanced rural diet (Rubaihayo, 1992).

It is important to appreciate that traditional vegetables, especially the leafy ones like Amaranthus, (dodo, Bugga) Solanum aethiopicum (Nakati) etc. can be handy under emergency circumstances and hardships arising out of civil conflicts and natural disorders that result in the displacement of communities. These traditional vegetables come into production with a short time soon after the onset of rains and can be harvested in three to four weeks after planting. These leafy vegetables could then be followed by crops like beans which take two to three months as cultivated relief food, so that purchased foods are a temporary or supplementary measure (Rubaihayo 1995b).

Women and traditional vegetables. In Uganda, though rural women are responsible for feeding their household, yet they have limited access to resources. Household gardening offers women an important means of earning income without overtly challenging cultural and social restrictions on their activities. Home and kitchen gardens can enhance women's purchasing power and food production capacity which has a direct impact on household nutrition, health and food security.

Where traditional vegetables have been commercialized such as, Malakwang (Hibiscus spp.) Nakati (Solanum aethiopicum), Egobe (vigna unguiculata), Entula (Solanum gilo), Katunkuma (Solanum indicum subsp. Disticum), Doodo (Amaranthus dubious), Bbugga (Amaranthus lividus) particularly around the city of Kampala and in other urban areas, it is mainly the men who cultivate them. Middle men purchase these vegetables from the farmers (men) and transport them to the markets, and in the market women buy them and retail them to the general public. The sale of traditional vegetables in women-accessible markets do not only provide food security to those with purchasing capacity but the trading women are able to educate their children and, dress and provide their household with essential items in the home thus avoiding abject poverty.

Home and kitchen gardens and the environment. Although there has not been an extensive study of the effects of traditional vegetable gardening on the environment, it is generally believed that household gardens conform to ecologically sound land management systems. Household food production uses organic farming practices which are friendly to the environment. The traditional style of household gardens is also critical in conserving diverse plant genetic resources (Midmore et al., 1991).


Traditional vegetables are a common household food and make a substantial, though rarely appreciated contribution to the food security of the rural people in many African countries. Therefore, extensive education about their importance as a nutritionally balanced food and as a direct and indirect source of income, particularly for the resource-poor families, must be undertaken by African governments.


FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), 1988. “Traditional Food Plants.” FAO Food and Nutrition Paper 42. FAO, Rome.

Goode, P.M. 1989. “Edible plants of Uganda. The value of wild and cultivated plants as food.” FAO Food and Nutrition Paper 42/1. FAO, Rome.

Midmore, D.J., Vera Nines & Venkataraman, R. 1991. “Household gardening projects in Asia: past experience and future directions.” Technical Bulletin No. 19. Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center.

Rubaihayo, E. B. 1992. “The Diversity and potential use of Local Vegetables in Uganda.” Pages 109–114. In: The First National Plant Genetic Resources Workshop: Conservation and Utilization

Rubaihayo, E. B. 1994. “Indigenous vegetables of Uganda.” African Crop Science Conference Proceedings 1, 120–124.

Rubaihayo, E. B. 1996b. “Conservation and use of traditional vegetables in Uganda.” In: Proceedings on Genetic Resources of Traditional Vegetables in Africa: Option for Conservation and Use, 29–31 August 1995, ICRAF Kenya (in press).

This article was written by E.B. Rubaihayo, Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute, P.O. Box 7065, Kampala, and was first published in the African Crop Science Journal, Africa Crop Science Conference Proceedings, Vol. 3, pp. 1337–1340. The present version has been lightly-edited and excludes the text of the abstract in English and French.

Food security and biodiversity

IUCN/DFID. Biodiversity in Development - Biodiversity Brief 6

The husbandry of domesticated species and the harvesting of wild plants and animals are the mainstay of human food production. 840 million people in the world do not have enough to eat -and the population is growing. This means that food production will have to increase 50% by 2020. Biodiversity is part of the solution, in that it provides the genetic information used in plant and animal breeding. Furthermore it makes vulnerable livelihoods more resilient by providing risk spreading options across a range of domesticated and wild species rather than relying on a few staples that may become susceptible to disease, pests, climate changes, and market collapse. It also provides diversity for a varied diet.

Biodiversity pyramids

The greater part of the world's food supply depends on a very limited number of plant and animal species. About 7,000 plants (2.6% of all plant species) have been collected or cultivated for human consumption. Of these, a mere 200 have been domesticated and only a dozen contribute about 75% of the global intake of plant-derived Calories: bananas, beans, cassava, maize, millets, potatoes, rice, sorghum, soya, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and wheat. On the animal side, more than 95% of world consumption of livestock protein derives from poultry, cattle and pigs. There are about 1,000 commercial fish species, but in aquaculture fewer than 10 species dominate global production. Human food production therefore rests on the tips of pyramids of biodiversity, leaving the majority of species little-used and undomesticated.

Long-domesticated species tend to be highly diverse: for example, there are some 25,000 cultivars of wheat, more than 1,300 breeds of sheep, and over 20 varieties of common carp. In recent years, however, this variety has been reduced by genetic erosion. It is estimated that the number of wheat cultivars in China has dropped from 10,000 to 1,000 in 50 years; that over 90% of cabbage, field maize and pea varieties no longer exist; and that over 30% of livestock breeds are at risk of extinction. The causes of this genetic erosion are many, but replacement of local varieties as a result of the spread of modern agriculture is the most consistently cited reason.

Biodiversity and nutrition
The quality of food, especially in terms of supplying essential vitamins and other nutrients, is central to achieving food security and avoiding nutritional diseases. Although staple crops and stock provide most protein and energy requirements, they are often deficient in other nutrients. In rice-consuming countries, for example, common nutritional deficiencies include: iron, vitamin A, iodine, thiamine, riboflavin, calcium, vitamin C, zinc, fat, and ascorbic acid. Many of these nutrients are supplied by foods gathered from wildlands and fallows, upon which millions of people rely. They include green leafy vegetables which are cooked and eaten along with the meal, and which can provide important iron and vitamin A supplements. Other such “minor” products include nuts, oils, insects, mini-fish, birds, roots/tubers providing a range or fats, vitamins, minerals, and oils.

This loss of agro-biodiversity presents risks to food production, in three main ways:

Proportion of food from wild products, for poor, medium and relatively wealthy households

Survey titleDateVery PoorMiddleBetter off
Wollo - Dega, Ethiopia19990–10%0–10%0–5%
Jaibor, Sudan199715%5%2–5%
Chitipa, Malawi19970–10%0–10%0–5%
Ndoywo, Zimbabwe19970–5%00
Source: Save the Children fund (ANA)

These risks apply particularly to poor farmers who have little access to technology or genebanks for solutions, but they also apply to commercial breeders who depend on the diversity inherent in local crops and breeds, as well as in wild relatives of domesticated species, for future breeding programmes. Many varieties that have been developed locally, such as the 3–5,000 potato cultivars in the Andes, offer a vital starting point in future breeding programmes. Proportion of food from wild products, for poor, medium and relatively wealthy households.

Crop and livestock biodiversity hotspots (areas with high genetic diversity), together with ex situ gene-banks, are the main repositories of genetic information. As a result they are at the centre of a conflict over ownership, because genetic resources have been treated as “global goods”, and multilateral agencies which develop gene-banks have sent seeds, semen and other materials to researchers anywhere in the world. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) urges nations and communities to assess their biodiversity and establish their rights to its exploitation, but access to genetic resources that were gathered before the CBD came into force remain largely unregulated.

Small-scale and subsistence agriculture

Many poor farmers, especially those in environments where high-yield crop and livestock varieties do not prosper, rely on using a wide range of crop and livestock types. This helps them maintain their livelihood in the face of pathogen infestation, uncertain rainfall, fluctuation in the price of cash crops, socio-political disruption and unpredictable availability of agro-chemicals. So-called “minor crops ” (more accurately, companion crops) play a disproportionately large role in food production systems at the local level. Plants that will grow in infertile or eroded soils, and livestock that will eat degraded vegetation, are often crucial to household nutritional strategies. In addition, rural communities, and the urban markets with which they trade, make great use of companion crop species, especially green-leafed potherbs.

Fallow fields and wildlands can support large numbers of species useful to farmers. In addition to supplying Calories and protein, wild foods supply vitamins and other essential micro-nutrients. In general, poor households rely on access to wild foods more than richer ones (see table), although in some areas pressure on the land is so great that wild food supplies have been exhausted.

Government and donor policies to promote food production through monocultures may overlook these resources, distort farmers' decision-making and threaten biodiversity. A common problem has been the introduction of new varieties, or species, with high input- needs, and then subsidising chemical inputs. Programmes for maize production in drought-prone environments of southern Africa, for example, have deterred the use of a wide range of local crop varieties. And redirecting Indus River water to irrigated agricultural schemes, caused salination of the river's mangrove delta which changed from a diverse and highly productive region, supporting a large human population, to a sparsely vegetated area dominated by a single species, Avicennia marina.

Ecosystem disruption: introductions and agro-chemicals

Despite the benefits to local farmers of biodiversity- rich agriculture systems, indigenous varieties often have co-evolved pests and pathogens and may therefore have relatively low yields. In this sense, the introduction of crop species from outside their centre of origin has been extremely beneficial, and much agricultural development has relied upon it. But some introductions, accidental and intentional, have had significant impacts on local ecosystems, often with major implications for food security.

A common pattern is for a newly-introduced crop to be initially successful and then show declining yields, either through attack by evolving local species or from the introduction of a pest or pathogen from its region of origin (see BB7).

A different ecosystem balance that needs to be maintained for food production is in the soil, where invertebrates and microbes are central to decomposing dead materials and recycling nutrients as part of soil formation processes. Furthermore, there are important plant-soil relationships which should not be disrupted: certain soil fungi form mycorhizal associations on plant roots which enhance nutrient uptake from the soil; Rhizobium bacteria produce nitrogen-fixing nodules on plant rootlets. Applications of organic fertiliser, such as manure in mixed farming systems, tend to fortify these interactions and increase soil fertility, but loss of organic matter and/or large applications of inorganic fertilisers can lead to reduced soil fertility and pollution of waterbodies.

Breeding and biotechnology

A large part of the success of the Green Revolution can be attributed to genetic biodiversity that was harnessed to breed new, high-yield crop varieties. Modern plant breeding often aims for wide adaptability and tries to develop varieties that are insensitive to daylight length (and can therefore grow anywhere). It has often been directed to producing varieties that respond to fertiliser applications, and may be grown where pesticides and irrigation are available. The result is an increase in production, but a narrowing of the number of varieties grown. This can make them less accessible to poor farmers, and lead to the various problems noted above. A careful balance needs to be struck.

Part of the solution to addressing this clutch of problems is through participatory approaches to plant breeding and selection of new varieties. These attempt to decentralise plant breeding and incorporate the priorities and constraints of farmers more closely into the selection of new varieties. Farmers test them, often with low- level or no fertiliser, adopting them only if they outperform local varieties grown under the same conditions. In western India, participatory plant breeding has helped to conserve plant genes by crossing indigenous rice varieties that are more heterogeneous than those resulting from centralised breeding.

The most well-known and controversial examples of biotechnology are transgenic crop varieties, or genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These are the product of the transfer of genes from one organism to another, often resulting in genetic exchange between unrelated species (e.g. daffodil genes into rice). Most GMOs offer herbicide tolerance or insect resistance and are commonly directed at commercial farming in the North. The potential of GMOs to outcross with wild relatives of crops is prompting concerns: if a trait from a GMO conferred adaptive advantage on a wild relative it could alter the plant populations that act as a reservoir of genes for cultivated species in the future.


Further information

FAO 1998. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture. FAO, Rome.

FAO 1998. The State of World's Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. FAO, Rome.

FAO's database on livestock breeds

Groombridge, B.& M.D. Jenkins 2000. Global biodiversity. Earth's living resources in the 21st century. Cambridge:WCMC & Hoechst.

Hammond, K. & H.W. Leitch 1995.Towards better management of animal genetic resources. World Animal Review, 84/85:48-53.
reference to other Biodiversity Briefs is denoted as (see BB#).

Web site
All Biodiversity Development Project (BDP) documents can be found on the web site:

This Biodiversity Brief is based on a draft by Roger Blench of the Overseas Development Institute, and was edited by the BDP and Martyn Murray (MGM Consulting Ltd). Additional technical input was provided by Robert Tripp and Elizabeth Cromwell of ODI, and John Seaman of SCF. This Brief was funded by the European Commission Budget Line B7-6200 and the UK DFID. Opinions expressed in this document are the contributors' alone, and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission, DFID or IUCN. The Brief does not imply any opinion on the legal status of any country, territory or sea, or their boundaries.

Community Seed Banks for Semi-arid Agriculture in Zimbabwe

Mujaju C., Zinhanga, F. & Rusike, E. (2003)

The process of agricultural modernization in Zimbabwe has marginalized many farmers and increased social and economic inequalities. Green Revolution technologies brought about genetic erosion and disappearance of ecogeographically adapted crop cultivars, thus limiting choices for farmers. Farmers' knowledge of seed selection, treatment and storage have simultaneously been lost in the process of adopting improved crop cultivars.

The practice of biodiverse farming system defines productivity as the capacity to provide stable supplies of sufficient quality foods and other products in harmony with social and cultural realities. Three elements are essential for optimizing sustainable productivity of a farming system:
  • agro-ecosystem biodiversity;
  • integrated resource management; and
  • traditional local knowledge

Traditional local agricultural development depends on agroecosystem micro-adaptation. Crop adaptations follow complex patterns according to soil, water, climate, topography, social and cultural diversity, which also affect crop production and use. This has direct implication for intervention or technology development. Small-holder farmers have shown great interest in technological innovations and new seeds.

What Should Be Done to Ensure Seed Security for Small-Holder Farmers in Marginal Areas?

Interventions must be made available to enable communities to access seeds, conserve, document and enhance their resources and knowledge. In this context, a community seed bank intervention was integrated with the traditional community farming systems in semi-arid agriculture.

Objective of a Community Seed Bank

Community seed banks aim to serve and fulfill the rights of rural communities in on-farm conservation of agricultural biodiversity, recovery and restoration of both the materials and related knowledge and utilization of their plant genetic resources. The facilities serve as back-up systems for which lost and endangered materials are revived, and also serve as drought mitigation and management strategy at community level.

Structure of a Community Seed Bank

The structure of the community seed bank is designed after intensive consultation with farmers, taking into consideration their preferences and expectations of the services that it should provide. Most facilities constructed in Zimbabwe constitute the following compartments:

Germplasm Conservation Room

This room is used to conserve all locally or acquired germplasm for safekeeping, while sub-samples of the same material are deposited at the National Genebank.

Selected and Preferred Crop Cultivars Conservation Room

Materials, which have been evaluated on-farm and selected for bulking by the farmers, are stocked in this room. These materials consist of new varieties or those locally-available that have gone through participatory plant breeding (PPB) by the farmers. In addition, the room keeps materials, which are intended for bulking in quantities of up to 30 kg.

Seed Storage and Distribution Room

All multiplied seed for distribution and supply purposes are housed in this room.

Farmer Meeting Room

This is a function room where the stakeholders hold their meetings, consultations and trainings.

An Office

Day to day transactions are conducted in this room.

Management of the Community Seed Banks

A management committee, involving farmers within the project areas, is formed. The committee is responsible for aspects such as:

The farmers coordinating committee is responsible for implementing these activities and decision-making.

Farmer Training

The training is designed for the capacity building of farmers to competently manage community seed banks.

Issues covered in the training programs include:

Benefits of Community Seed Banks

  1. The seed banks have become a facility and the center for seed requirements of farmers in semi-arid agriculture. They have enhanced and kept alive the tradition of nurturing diversity through such aspects as:

  2. The new agricultural biodiversity of seed allowed the diversification of crops that can easily adapt to climate, soils and rainfall patterns. The actual impact of diversification follows a gradual approach, as incorporation of a new variety is a slow process. It takes several growing seasons before coming up with a result and it does not guarantee that the new seed will persist.

  3. Knowledge and information is exchanged about the traits and characteristics of new varieties.


Community seed bank intervention is recognized as a far-reaching strategy to reduce the effects of seed insufficiency among smallholder farmers in semi-arid agro-ecological zones of Zimbabwe. Availability of diverse germplasm in seed banks and the link with the National Genebank enhances the accessibility of seed for food production even during years of droughts. However, further research is recommended in areas related to the following aspects:

The above aspects need systematic methodological approaches to be developed in order to have technically formulated practices that are farmer user-friendly.

Contributed by: Claid Mujaju, Freddy Zinhanga and Elijah Rusike
Sourcebook produced by CIP-UPWARD,
in partnership with GTZ GmbH, IDRC of
Canada, IPGRI and SEARICE.

Key Readings 3

Lori Ann Thrupp (2003)

The Central Role of Agricultural Biodiversity:
Trends and Challenges

Lori Ann Thrupp (2003)

Predominant patterns of agricultural growth have eroded biodiversity in agroecosystems including plant genetic resources, livestock, insects, and soil organisms. This erosion has caused economic losses, jeopardizing productivity and food security, and leading to broader social costs. Equally alarming is the loss of biodiversity in “natural” habitats from the expansion of agricultural production to frontier areas.

Traditional agroforestry systems commonly contain over 100 annual and perennial plant species per field. Farmers often integrate leguminous trees, fruit trees, trees for fuelwood and types that provide fodder on their coffee farms. The trees also provide habitat for birds and animals that benefits the farms. A shaded coffee plantation in Mexico supports up to 180 species of birds that help control insect pests and disperse seeds.

The conflicts between agriculture and biodiversity are by no means inevitable. With sustainable farming practices and changes in agricultural policies and institutions, they can be overcome. Biodiversity maintenance must be integrated with agricultural practices - a strategy that can have multiple ecological and socioeconomic benefits, particularly to ensure food security. Practices that conserve and enhance agricultural biodiversity are necessary at all levels.

Ethnobotanical studies show that the Tzeltal Mayans of Mexico can recognize more than 1,200 species of plants, while the P'urepechas recognize more than 900 species and Yucatan Mayans some 500. Such knowledge is used to make production decisions.

This paper discusses the ecosystem services provided by agricultural biodiversity, and highlights principles, policies, and practices that enhance diversity in agroecosystems.

N. Vavilov, a renowned Russian botanist carried out systematic plant collection, pioneering research, and conservation of crop diversity starting in the early 20th century. Vavilov developed a theory of the origin of domesticated crops and launched numerous worldwide expeditions to collect crop germplasm. He established an immense seed bank in St. Petersburg which now houses some 380,000 specimens from more than 180 locations in the world. Vavilov also identified major areas of high concentrations of crop diversity around the world, most of which are in developing countries.

Changing Trends in Agricultural Development and Biodiversity Links

High yielding varieties (HYVs) - or “miracle seeds” - are now planted on high percentages of agricultural land - 52% for wheat, 54% for rice, and 51% for maize. The use of HYVs has increased production in many regions and sometimes reduced pressure on habitats by curbing the need to farm new lands.

Agricultural Biodiversity Loss: Conflicts and Effects

The links between agriculture and biodiversity have changed over time. Increase of agricultural production and productivity, in the last 30 years, stems from both expansion of cultivated area (extensification) and the increased output per unit of land (intensification). It was achieved through technological inputs, improved varieties and the management of biological resources, such as soil and water. Ecosystem services provided by agricultural biodiversity have degraded and therefore undermine ecosystem health.

These general trends in agriculture and biodiversity have been shaped by demographic pressures, including high population growth rates, the migration of people into frontier areas, and imbalances in population distribution. Additional influential forces are the predominant paradigms of industrial agriculture and the Green Revolution, beginning in the l960s. These approaches generally emphasize maximizing yield per unit of land, uniform varieties, reduction of multiple cropping, standardized farming systems (particularly generation and promotion of high-yielding varieties), and the use of agrochemicals. Seed and agrochemical companies have also influenced these trends.

Although the predominant patterns of agricultural development in the last several decades have increased yields, they have also significantly reduced the genetic diversity of crop and livestock varieties and agroecosystems, and have led to other kinds of biodiversity losses.

Although people consume approximately 7,000 species of plants, only 150 species are commercially important, and about 103 species account for 90 percent of the world's food crops. Just three crops - rice, wheat, and maize -account for about 60 percent of the Calories and 56 percent of the protein people derive from plants. Livestock is also suffering from genetic erosion. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO-UN) figures show that:
  • At least one breed of traditional livestock dies out every week in the global context;
  • Of the 3,831 breeds of cattle, water buffalo, goats, pigs, sheep, horses and donkeys believed to have existed in this century, 16 % have become extinct and 15 % are rare;
  • Some 474 of livestock breeds can be regarded as rare, and about 617 have become extinct since 1892; and
  • Over 80 breeds of cattle are found in Africa, and some are being replaced by exotic breeds. These losses weaken breeding programs that could improve hardiness of livestock.

As forms of biodiversity are eroded, food security can also be reduced and economic risks increased. Evidence indicates that such changes can decrease sustainability and productivity in farming systems. Loss of diversity also reduces the resources available for future adaptation.

Increased Vulnerability to Insect Pests and Diseases

Among renowned examples of crop vulnerability to pests and diseases are the potato famine of Ireland during the 19th century, a winegrape blight that wiped out valuable vines in both France and the United States, a virulent disease (Sigatoka) that damaged extensive banana plantations in Central America in recent decades and devastating mold that infested hybrid maize in Zambia.

Genetic homogenization of varieties increases vulnerability to insect pests and diseases, which can devastate a crop, especially on large plantations. History has shown serious economic losses and suffering from relying on monocultural uniform varieties.

There has also been a serious decline in soil organisms and soil nutrients. Beneficial insects and fungi also suffer from heavy pesticide inputs and uniform stock - - making crops more susceptible to pest problems. These losses, along with fewer types of agroecosystems, also increase risks and can reduce productivity. In addition, many insects and fungi commonly seen as enemies of food production are actually valuable. Some insects benefit farming - for pollination, contributions to biomass, natural nutrient production and cycling, and as natural enemies to insect pests and crop diseases. Mycorrhizae, the fungi that live in symbiosis with plant roots, are essential for nutrient and water uptake.

The global proliferation of modern agricultural systems has eroded the range of insects and fungi, a trend that lowers productivity. Dependence on agrochemicals, and particularly the heavy use or misuse of pesticides, is largely responsible. Agrochemicals generally kill natural enemies and beneficial insects, as well as the “target” pest.

This disruption in the agroecosystem balance can lead to perpetual resurgence of pests and outbreaks of new pests-as well as provoke resistance to pesticides. This disturbing cycle often leads farmers to apply increasing amounts of pesticides or to change products-a strategy that is not only ineffective, but that also further disrupts the ecosystem services and elevates costs. This “pesticide treadmill” has occurred in countless locations. Reliance on monocultural species and the decline of natural habitat around farms also cut beneficial insects out of the agricultural ecosystem.

Additional Losses-Habitats, Nutrition and Knowledge

Agricultural expansion has also reduced the diversity of natural habitats, including tropical forests, grasslands, and wetland areas. Projections of food needs in the coming decades indicate probable further expansion of cropland, which could add to this degradation. Modifying natural systems is necessary to fulfil the food needs of growing populations, but many conventional forms of agricultural development, particularly large-scale conversion of forests or other natural habitats to monocultural farming systems, erode the biodiversity of flora and fauna. Intensive use of pesticides and fertilizers can also disrupt and erode biodiversity in natural habitats and ecosystem services that surround agricultural areas, particularly when these inputs are used inappropriately.

Other direct effects of reduced diversity of crops and varieties include:

Confronting the Causes

Humanity faces a major challenge to overcome conflicts and build complementarities between agriculture and biodiversity. Meeting this challenge requires addressing root causes of agricultural biodiversity loss, and thus calls for changing practices, paradigms, and policies, as well as commitments by governments and institutions.

Devising effective solutions requires confronting the causes of agricultural biodiversity losses. Proximate causes vary under different conditions, but generally pertain to the use of unsustainable technologies and degrading land-use practices, such as relying on uniform varieties and the heavy use of agrochemicals. Yet more deeply, the roots underlying the erosion of agricultural biodiversity are tied to demographic pressures, disparities in resource distribution, the dominance of industrial agricultural policies and institutions that support and contribute to inappropriate practices, pressures from businesses that promote uniform monocultures and chemicals, the depreciation and devaluation of diversity and accumulated local knowledge, and market and consumer demands for standardized products. Of these driving forces, perhaps the most perplexing are demographic pressures leading to extensification of farming into frontier areas. Changing these patterns requires transforming land-use policies, as well as broader socioeconomic changes that give the rural poor more economic and educational opportunities. These longer-term challenges need concerted attention over time.

Diversity through Sustainable Agriculture: Principles and Practices

To achieve such transformations for the conservation and enhancement of agricultural biodiversity, the following strategic principles are critical:

  1. Application of agroecological principles helps conserve, use and enhance biodiversity on farms and can increase sustainable productivity and intensification, which avoids extensification, thereby reducing pressure on off-farm biodiversity;
  2. Participation and empowerment of farmers and indigenous peoples, and protection of their rights, are important means of conserving agricultural biodiversity in research and development;
  3. Adaptation of methods to local agroecological and socio-economic conditions, building upon existing successful methods and local knowledge, is essential to link biodiversity and agriculture and to meet livelihood needs;
  4. Conservation of plant and animal genetic resources - especially in situ efforts - help protect biodiversity for current livelihood security as well as future needs and ecosystem functions;
  5. Reforming genetic research and breeding programs for agricultural biodiversity enhancement is essential and can also have production benefits; and
  6. Creating a supportive policy environment - including eliminating incentives for uniform varieties and for pesticides, and implementing policies for secure tenure and local rights to plant genetic resources - is vital for agricultural biodiversity enhancement and for food security.

Practices for soil fertility/health and nutrient cycling also make use of agricultural biodiversity. Good examples include:

Possible lossesNatural grainsManagement options 
1Erosion6Rain11Woody species 
2Volatilization7N fixation12Feeding concentrates/minerals
3Leaching8Weathering13Recycling (via livestock, compost, biogas, slurry, etc.)
4Export (market/gifts)9Sediment/dust14External inputs
5Removal of wastes10Blue-green algae  

Source: ILEIA, 1992. Farming for the Future: An introduction to Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture. Netherlands.

These kinds of soil-management practices have proven effective and profitable in a variety of farming systems. Agroforestry illustrates “best practice” of using agricultural biodiversity that also generates multiple benefits. In many contexts, the integration of trees into farming systems is highly efficient, and the trees have multiple functions, such as providing fuel, fodder, shade, nutrients, timber for construction, and aiding soil conservation and water retention. (In West Sumatra, agroforestry gardens occupy 50 to 85 percent of the total agricultural land.) Complex forms of agroforestry exhibit forest-like structures, as well as a remarkable degree of plant and animal diversity, combining conservation and natural resource use.

Agroforestry systems in traditional forms also shelter hundreds of plant species, constituting valuable forms of in situ conservation. Many of the practices noted here serve multiple purposes. For example, intercropping provides pest and soil management as well as enhanced income. For example, an estimated 70–90 percent of beans, and 60 percent of maize in South America are intercropped with other crops. Farmers in many other parts of the world have recognized such diversity as valuable sources of soil nutrients, nutrition, and risk reduction - essential for livelihoods as well as other economic values.

It is a common misperception that agricultural biodiversity enhancement is feasible only in small-scale farms. In fact, experience shows that large production systems also benefit from incorporating these principles and practices. Crop rotations, intercropping, cover crops, integrated pest management techniques, and green manures are the most common methods being used profitably in larger commercial systems, both in the North and in the South. These situations illustrate sustainable approaches to intensification. Examples are found in tea and coffee plantations in the tropics, and in vineyards and orchards in temperate zones. In most large-scale settings, the change from monocultural to diverse systems and practices entails transition costs, and sometimes trade-offs or profit losses for the first two or three years. However, after the initial transition, producers have found that agroecological changes are profitable as well as ecologically-sound for commercial production and that they present new valuable opportunities.

Using Participatory Approaches

The incorporation of farmers' local knowledge, practices, and experimentation is advantageous in efforts in agricultural biodiversity and sustainable agriculture. Experiences have shown that full involvement of local farming practices in agricultural R&D - through participation and leadership of local people - has had beneficial outcomes. It is also important to draw upon farmers' own informal methods of experimenting with unfamiliar cultivars and practices.

In Mexico, for example, researchers worked with the local people to re-create chinampas- multicropped, species-diverse gardens developed from reclaimed lakes which were native to the Tabasco region and part of Mexico's pre-Hispanic tradition. A similar project conducted in Veracruz also incorporated the traditional Asiatic system of mixed farming, mixing chinampas with animal husbandry, and aquaculture. These gardens also made more productive use of local resources, and integrated from plant and animal waste, as fertilizers. Yields of such systems equalled or surpassed these of conventional systems.

In Burkina Faso, on the other hand, a soil-conservation and integrated cropping project in Yatenga province was based largely on an indigenous technology of Dogon farmers in Mali for building rock bunds for preventing water run-off. The project added innovations bunds along contour lines - and revived an indigenous technique called “zai,” which is adding compost to holes in which seeds of millet, sorghum, and peanut are planted. These crops are in a multicropping system.

In such efforts, the full participation of women has significant benefits. As managers of biodiversity in and around farming systems in many areas of the world, women can make important contributions and have a promising role in research, development, and conservation of agricultural biodiversity.

In Rwanda, for example, in a plant-breeding project of CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture), scientists worked with women farmers from the early stages of a project on breeding new varieties of beans to suit local peoples' needs. Together, they identified the characteristics desired to improve beans, run experiments, manage and evaluate trials, and make decisions on the trial results. The experiments resulted in stunning outcomes: the varieties selected and tested by women farmers over four seasons performed better than the scientists' own local mixtures 64–89 per cent of the time. The women's selections also produced substantially more beans, with average production increases as high as 38 percent.

The development of participatory approaches requires deliberate measures, training, and time to change the conventional approaches of agricultural R&D.

In Rwanda, for example, in a plant-breeding project of CIAT (International Center for Tropical Agriculture), scientists worked with women farmers from the early stages of a project on breeding new varieties of beans to suit local peoples' needs. Together, they identified the characteristics desired to improve beans, run experiments, manage and evaluate trials, and make decisions on the trial results. The experiments resulted in stunning outcomes: the varieties selected and tested by women farmers over four seasons performed better than the scientists' own local mixtures 64–89 per cent of the time. The women's selections also produced substantially more beans, with average production increases as high as 38 percent.

The development of participatory approaches requires deliberate measures, training, and time to change the conventional approaches of agricultural R&D.

Policy and Institutional Changes

Although many institutions are already actively involved, more coordination work is needed at all levels to ensure effective reforms and agricultural biodiversity conservation policies that benefit the public, especially the poor. Policy changes that attack the roots of problems and ensure peoples' rights are needed. Ideas needing further attention include:

Efforts to conserve and enhance agricultural biodiversity must also address the underlying policies that accelerate its loss. Broader policies and institutional structures focussed on agricultural biodiversity conservation drive practical, field-level changes. Many policy initiatives and institutions have already been established to address these issues.

Building complementarity between agriculture and biodiversity will also require changes in agricultural research and development, land use, and breeding approaches.

Sourcebook produced by CIP-UPWARD,
in partnership with GTZ GmbH, IDRC of
Canada, IPGRI and SEARICE.
Contributed by: Lori Ann Thrupp
Adapted from: Thrupp, L. 1998. Cultivating Diversity: Agrobiodiversity and Food Security. World Resources
Institute, Washington, DC., USA.

Gender in Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation

Åsa Torkelsson (2003)

Development responses will be more equal, efficient and sustainable when gender is mainstreamed in agricultural biodiversity conservation strategies.

Gender refers to the social roles and relations between women and men which are socially constructed, and can change and vary over time and according to geographic location and social context. Gender mainstreaming is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action. It is integrating women's and men's concerns and experiences in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and social spheres so that both will participate and benefit equally.

Benefits of Gender Mainstreaming

Equality. Many United Nations (UN) systemwide mandates, and commitments of UN Member States exist to achieve gender equality and removing gender based discrimination. This has been recognized as a necessary means to reach the Millennium Development Goals of reducing to half the number of poor and hungry by the year 2015. Chapter 15 of Agenda 21 and the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) recognize that different user groups within rural societies have differential constraints and opportunities in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources

Efficiency. Societies that discriminate on the basis of gender pay a significant prize - in terms of increased poverty, slower economic growth, weaker governance and lower quality of life. For example, a World Bank review found that 74% of 54 completed agricultural projects with gender-related action were rated satisfactory for overall outcome, compared with 65% for the 81 projects that did not include gender-related action.

Sustainability. It has been noted that women are intimately linked to the environment because of concern for their communities and for future generations, and some argue that women stand at the core of the sustainability paradigm. In order to design sustainable development policies and projects it is crucial that the different roles and responsibilities of women and men are understood for sustainable implementation of activities.

Gender in Agricultural Biodiversity Conservation

Some key areas where gender makes a difference in the conservation of agricultural biodiversity are discussed below.

In the Kurichiyas community in Kerala, India, men make decisions about growing certain paddy varieties due to religious concepts (of purity and pollution) that prevent women from participating in the selection and storage of paddy seeds. Men are normally responsible for monocropping systems and women for more diversified systems such as home gardens. Such diverse systems are referred to as community “living gene banks” that are used for in situ conservation of a wide range of plant genetic resources.

Role in Seed Selection

The gender factor in seed selection varies. In some areas, men are fully responsible for crop selection, while in other areas, this task is entirely assumed by women. In other cases, shared responsibility exists.

Access to Resources

Because of their shared responsibilities, women are often responsible for subsistence (low value) crops and men for cash (high value) crops. If a “woman's crop” is added value to, it may become a “man's crop”.

When French beans became more lucrative in Kenya, men usurped either the land allocated for or the income derived from production. When the Acacia timber value increased in parts of West Africa, men started to plant Acacia trees in women's or shared gardens and cropland.

Knowledge Systems and Access to Networks

Women and men participate differently in formal and informal community-based organizations, and use different networks for exchange of seeds for agricultural biodiversity. In Nepal, for example, traditional varieties are brought into an area by the bride upon marriage. Women exchange mainly with women and men exchange mainly with men.

As a result of formal schooling and migration, indigenous knowledge among men declined in Kenya while women retained a high and widely shared level of knowledge and even acquired men's knowledge as roles and duties changed. However, the knowledge of the older generations often is no longer passed on to the younger generations.


The descriptors -or preferred traits-of local agricultural biodiversity of women and men farmers provide a productive, innovative and systematic understanding and monitoring of gender factors in agricultural biodiversity conservation. Descriptors are dynamic and may change depending on the terms of trade, cultural transformations, or overall variations in opportunities and constraints as perceived by the farmer. The quantitative and qualitative details will provide more knowledge of the men and women and the division of their labor. In addition, the descriptors will reveal the women's and men's perceived utility of the variety and its distribution.

Even if men may have the decision-making authority in most farming systems, the fact is that women may have more intimate and detailed knowledge about crops and varieties which indicate superior experience. Agro-morphological and socio-economic characteristics can be scored together with farmers. Qualitatively, the analysis can be broadened to include the descriptions used or dropped over time when describing a given variety. The level of knowledge about the characteristics of a variety is not only correlated to the experience in handling it (knowledge and division of responsibilities), but the type of descriptors chosen will also identify the perceived benefits.

Women have been found to consider many interrelated and detailed criteria including taste, color, size, texture, cooking time, crop yield, ease of processing and access, grain formation and the resistance to pests and insects. In contrast, a male farmer often looks for a more limited range of purposes related to his sphere of responsibility, such as high yield and a good market price.

SEGS data required:
  • The type and number of descriptors used for a given natural resource by women as compared to the baseline.
  • The type and number of descriptors used for a given natural resource by men as compared to the baseline.
SEGS indicators:
  • The ratio between the number of descriptors used by women for a given natural resource, as compared to the number of descriptors used by men for a given natural resource, as compared to the baseline.

Just as landraces have evolved over time and been selected on the basis of the preferred traits in the farmers' fields, in situ conservation will only succeed if women and men farmers are involved in conservation activities. Their involvement will be possible only if they benefit from the process. However, it is not easy to involve all stakeholders especially as women may have constraints which restrict their participation. One way to deal with this is to design strategies to overcome these constraints. Preparatory-conferences prior to a community workshop, provision of child-care facilities at training sessions, or the holding of trainings close to women's homes are efforts worth considering to encourage participation of all stakeholders.


Dolan, C.S. 2001. The “Good Wife”: Struggles Over Resources in the Kenyan Horticultural Sector. The Journal of Development Studies. London, England.

Eyzaguirre, P. (Ed). 2001. Growing Diversity, “Handbook for Applying Ethnobotany to Conservation and Community Development”. In:People and Plants Handbook, September 2001, Issue 7. IPGRI, Rome, Italy.

Ramprasad, V. 1999. Women Guard the Sacred Seeds of Biodiversity. In:Centre for Research and Information on Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA) Newsletter Vol. 15, No. 3/4, December 1999. The Netherlands. Available at:–34.html. expanded version in

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Contributed by: Åsa Torkelsson

Losing Ground:
Gender Relations, Commercial Horticulture, and Threats to Local Plant Diversity in Rural Mali

Stephen Wooten (2003)


In a Bamana farming community in central Mali, two male elders, Nene and Shimbon Jara, reported that their fathers were among the first people in the region to produce exotic fruits and vegetables for sale. They said that, in the early 1960s, these enterprising men began to cultivate crops such as bananas and tomatoes in the low-lying stream areas around the community. Their activities were a response to a growing demand for fresh produce on the part of elite urban dwellers in the nearby capital city, Bamako. Over the years, other young men entered into the domain by clearing and incorporating what Nene referred to as “unused areas.” Market gardening (the cultivation of fruits and vegetables for sale) has now become a key means to generate personal income in the community.

While the comments that Nene and other older men offered provide an important perspective on the development of commercial gardening activities in the community, they contrast with the historical insights provided by local women - especially when it comes to the idea that the garden lands were “unused.” Indeed, older women reported that, prior to men's development of the low-lying areas for commercial gardening activities, women had in fact cultivated traditional crops and collected wild plants in at least some of those areas. For example, Wilene Diallo, the community's oldest woman, said that she and the other village wives used these areas to cultivate traditional vegetable crops for their sauces. A middleaged contemporary market gardener, Mamari Jara, noted that big changes have occurred in the gardening domain during his lifetime. What was once a woman's activity is now largely a man's affair, and commercially valuable, largely exotic crops have eclipsed traditional garden crops and plants in gardening niches.

This chapter examines the changing nature of gardening activities in a Bamana community in rural Mali. Using ethnographic field data collected between 1992 and 1998, it describes the transformation of gardening from a production-for-use activity associated with women to a commercial enterprise in which men predominate. It documents the contours of the contemporary commercial gardening sector, showing that men are the principle actors and revealing their prevailing focus on non-local fruit and vegetable crops. The paper addresses the implications that this shift in horticultural production has on women's ability to meet household obligations in terms of sauce production, and identifies a series of potential threats to local plant diversity and overall environmental stability that are likely to arise as a result of the process.

The Setting

Niamakoroni is a farming community located on the Mande Plateau in South-central Mali, approximately 35 kilometres from Bamako. The nucleated settlement consists of a series of closely clustered adobe brick structures and associated shade trees. According to community elders, the settlement was founded at the close of the 19th century when a lineage segment from a nearby community settled there in order to gain access to new farmland. Contemporary residents of Niamakoroni, like their ancestors before them, assert a Bamana (Bambara) ethnic identity.

As is the case in most Bamana communities, the people of Niamakoroni live in a small, tightly knit rural community (Becker 1990, Lewis 1979, Toulmin 1992). During 1993 – 94, the community had a total resident population of 184. Descent in Niamakoroni is traced patrilineally and control over productive resources is generally corporate in nature. Age and sex are important characteristics in social, political, and economic contexts, with elders dominating juniors and men typically holding more power than women. Becker (1990: 315) refers to this as “a patrilineal gerontocracy.” The dominant residence pattern is patrilocal (women move to their husbands' residences upon marriage), and marriages are frequently polygynous. In the community, the primary domestic group (residential and food production and consumption unit) is called a du (duw, plural), in the Bamana language (Bamanankan).

Niamakoroni's duw are multi-generational, joint families in which junior males and their spouses and families typically live and work under the authority of the group's eldest male, the dutigi. As senior members of their lineage groups, dutigiw have access to arable uplands and the authority to direct the labour of those who live with them in the subsistence realm. The members of each du live close to one another and share meals throughout the year.

Women in the community are responsible for food processing and cooking, as well as for all household maintenance tasks. Men typically have few domestic obligations aside from building and maintaining houses (see also Creevey 1986; Thiam 1986). This clear gender division of labour characterizes the wider agrarian economy as well.

Gendered Domains in the Food Economy

Most of the relatively sparse rains (900–1200 per year) in Niamakoroni fall in a short three to four month span from June through September. People depend upon rain-fed agriculture for subsistence, and therefore work diligently during these few short months in order to meet most of their food needs. Each rainy season, the vast majority of able bodied, working-age villagers focus their productive energies on the cultivation or collection of food crops and plants, which they refer to as ka balo (for life) activities.

Very clear gender relations of production and domains of experience and knowledge mark this food production process. The men in each household work collectively in their group's main upland field (foroba), which is located in bush areas at least a few kilometres from the settlement. Here, they produce a suite of staple crops including sorghum (nyo - Sorghum bicolor), millet (sanyo - Pennisetum glaucum), corn (kaba - Zea mays), cowpeas (sho - Vigna unguiculata), peanuts (tiga -Arachis hypogaea), and Bambara groundnuts (tiganinkuru - Voandzeia subterranea). As is the case over most of the region, sorghum and millet account for the most acreage (PIRL1988).

Women, on the other hand, are responsible for the cultivation and collection of plants that make up the sauces that accent men's grain crops in the daily meals. During the rainy season, married women in each domestic group work individually in upland fields assigned to them by the dutigiw to produce nafenw, or “sauce-things.” In most cases, women intercrop peanuts (tiga - Arachis hypogaea), cowpeas, kenaf (dajan - Hibiscus cannabinus), roselle (dakumun or dabilenni -Hibiscus sabdariffa), okra (gwan -Abelmoschus (Hibiscus esculentus), and sorghum. There is a clear focus in their cropping patterns on traditional leaf and vegetable items that complement the staples produced on the forobaw. The vast majority of women's crops are destined for direct consumption although, from time to time, some items are sold to generate income that is typically used to purchase commercial sauce ingredients such as boullion cubes, vegetable oil or salt (Wooten 1997).

In addition to cultivating relish crops in upland fields during the rainy season, throughout the year women also gather various wild or semi-wild plant resources from their fields or from bush areas for use in their sauces. For example, they gather and process the leaves of the baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) to make a key sauce ingredient and use the fruit of the shea nut tree (Butryospermum parkii) to make cooking oil and lotion for skin care. As reported elsewhere in the region (Becker 2000, 2001; Gakou et al. 1994; Grisby 1996), women maintain these productive trees in their fields, and make use of species in the bush areas around the community. A wide variety of wild and semi-wild greens are regularly used for their sauces.

This general pattern of distinct gender contributions to the food economy, with men providing grains and women providing sauces, is widespread among the Bamana (e.g., Becker 1996; Thiam 1986; Toulmin 1992). However, there is another typical production activity and niche associated with Bamana women: gardening. Accounts from across the Bamana region suggest that women regularly use low-lying areas near streams to establish and maintain homegardens, and to collect wild plants for sauce ingredients (e.g., Grisby 1996, Konate 1994). Indeed, nako, the Bamana word for garden, is often translated literallyas “sauce-stream”, which relates both to the type of produce and to the production site. Considering that, for generations, women in most Bamana communities have had the responsibility to produce nafenw, an historical association between the women of Niamakoroni and nakow (sauce-streams) seems entirely logical. Yet today, they do not typically garden in such areas around their village. Instead, they grow their sauce crops in upland fields and gather wild food plants in nearby bush areas. Over the past few decades, gardening, a domain that was once closely associated with women and the food economy, has become a man's affair and a commercial venture.

Gardening for Cash: Meeting the Demands of Urban Consumers

In addition to labouring within the context of their respective duw for domestic consumption, individuals of all ages in Niamakoroni have the option to engage in independent commodity production activities that will earn them personal incomes. These are typically referred to as ka wari nyini (for cash/money) activities.

While a variety of income-generating activities occur in the community, people are uniform in viewing market gardening as the premier avenue available for income generation and potential accumulation. Men and women alike commonly identified market gardening as the preferred strategy for earning income, and note that urban consumers in Bamako, the capital city, provide the main market for the garden produce (see also Konate 1994:122).

Bamako has grown dramatically since the French set up their administrative headquarters in the city at the end of the 19th century. In 1994, it was estimated to be home to more than 800,000 people (Diarra et al. 1994: 230), and more recent estimates place the number at just over one million. Furthermore, according to Diarra and colleagues (1994: 239), only seven percent of the population of Bamako is now engaged in agriculture or livestock production. Clearly, urbanization in Bamako, as in other contexts around the world, has been associated with a major shift in production and consumption patterns. There is now a well-established regional market for cereals, and most urban consumers depend on rural producers to supply their basic staples such as sorghum and millet. Moreover, there is an increasing demand for specialized horticultural produce.

Over the decades since the French colonial forces began to consume fresh fruits and vegetables produced in the colonies, Bamako's residents have become increasingly interested in acquiring and consuming exotic fruits and vegetables (République du Mali 1992, Villien-Rossi 1966). A number of factors have contributed to this consumption shift: the expansion of governmental nutritional campaigns that highlight the nutritional value of fresh fruits and vegetables; the emergence of a middle class that considers Western dietary patterns to be a sign of culture and wealth; and the growth in the number of foreign aid workers who wish to consume fruits and vegetables native to their home countries. Together, these create strong demand for specialized non-traditional horticultural items in the capital. Communities such as Niamakoroni that are within market distance of the capital are well placed in this overall context (see also Becker 1996; Konate 1994).

Market gardening is now a central component of the local livelihood system in Niamakoroni. In the mid-1990s, there were 22 distinct market gardening operations in the community, each with a discrete garden leader (nakotigi). Married men managed the vast majority of garden operations (19 out of 22, or 86%). Each of the three women nakotigiw had the position of first wife within a polygynous unit. As such, they had all retired from direct engagement in the food production realm, and their activities were no longer managed by their respective dutigiw. Compared to other nakotigiw, these women operated relatively minor enterprises, working on small plots in peripheral locations. Most nakotigiw are helped by younger brothers or sons and daughters and, in some cases, wives. The nakotigiw establish cropping patterns, organize labour, make decisions regarding harvest and marketing, and sell the produce and distribute the proceeds as they see fit.

In the mid-1990s, Niamakoroni's 22 nakotigiw operated a total of 34 different garden plots ranging in size from 378 to 9720 m2 with an average of 3212 m2. The vast majority of these plots were located in low-lying areas immediately surrounding the community. Most were well delineated and fenced to protect them from livestock damage. The plots controlled by the three women gardeners were unfenced and were the smallest (378–650 m2). Moreover, their plots were located deep in the bush along relatively minor streams.

Market gardens produce a wide variety of vegetables and fruits, most of which are non-traditional exotics. The most common types of vegetables grown in Niamakoroni were tomatoes, bitter eggplant (Solanum incanum), common beans, hot pepper, and cabbage. Of these, tomatoes, and bitter eggplant were the most popular. Atone point or another, all 22 nakotigiw cultivated these crops. Other vegetable crops included onion, European eggplant, green pepper, squash, and okra. Fruit crops also play a major role in these gardens. Often these fruit plantings occupy a large percentage of an enclosed garden area, mainly as pure orchards or, less frequently, integrated into a diversely planted garden. Except for the plots belonging to the three women nakotigiw, all garden plots contained at least some mature (productive) fruit plantings including banana, papaya, mango, and various citrus species. In all cases, banana was the most abundant fruit crop. Papaya was the next most common and was cultivated by all nineteen male nakotigiw. All male nakotigiw also had mango (mangoro) trees. Most gardeners had citrus stock including lemons, oranges, mandarins, tangelos, and grapefruits, where lemons were the most common. With the exception of bitter eggplant, hot pepper, and mango, these crops are non-traditional garden plantings. All of the garden crops, traditional and non-traditional alike, are in high demand in the capital city.

Gardeners frequently use a range of commercial inputs. All twenty-two nakotigiw purchase commercial vegetable seed for their market gardens. In interviews, they specifically mentioned purchasing tomato, cabbage, and bitter eggplant seed. Except for traditional crops such as bitter eggplant, the seed typically originates in France or Holland. Respondents uniformly reported that they buy seed at distribution sites in the capital where vendors (street-side table merchants and storefront operators) tend to specialize in hardware and agricultural supplies. In fact, there are several shops in the area catering specifically to market gardeners. These shops supply both the fully commercial market gardening operations that exist within the city itself, as well as rural market gardeners such as those in Niamakoroni. Several of Niamakoroni's gardeners stated that they purchase seed from tubabu boutiques (European-style stores) in the Dibida area. Expatriates, including some French businessmen, run many of the specialized garden supplies operations.

In addition to purchasing vegetable seed and seedlings, Niamakoroni's nakotigiw also regularly purchase orchard stock. All nineteen male nakotigiw reported that they purchase orchard stock, banana plantings, citrus seedlings or citrus grafting stock. The Badala market along the Niger River was their main source. They also mentioned obtaining items such as banana sprouts, orange tree seedlings, and tangelo grafts from the Badala vendors. Some of the male nakotigiw noted that they also obtained such items from nakotigiw in neighbouring communities where longer-established orchards exist. The three women nakotigiw had not planted any citrus trees in their plots and the bananas that they were cultivating had been obtained locally.

All 19 male nakotigiw said that they purchase chemical fertilizer for their plots. Fourteen also stated that they purchase animal manure (mainly chicken - she nogo).A few male nakotigiw also purchase chemical pesticides from time to time. The gardeners are usually unaware of the health risks of these materials and thus fail to protect themselves.

Gardeners were unanimous when asked about their production goals. All twenty-two nakotigiw indicated that they viewed their horticultural activities as a way to earn income. They noted that all of the produce from their gardens is destined for sale. Indeed, garden produce only very rarely appeared in the local diet and, when it did, it was either damaged or deteriorating. The bulk of the produce from Niamakoroni's gardens was directed to Bamako's markets. The produce was typically brought to a suburban site where urban market traders - mostly young women - purchased it from gardeners or their helpers. There was always a stable cohort of buyers at these markets and, on some occasions, these buyers even travelled directly to the gardens to secure produce, which indicates the strong demand in the capital city.

In order to get a sense of the potential income levels from market gardening, a series of crop value estimates were made based on a systematic count of the number and assessment of the reproductive status of fruit plantings in each garden. The gross value of certain crops could be estimated by knowing how many productive trees there were, how much fruit a tree could yield in a year, and average sale prices. This analysis showed that the total value of the banana crop alone across all gardens during 1993–1994 was approximately US$35,000. The individual with the largest number of banana plantings (736) could have taken in approximately US$4,400 from this crop alone. The individual with the fewest banana plantings (36) could have earned US$216. The projected value of the total papaya crop for the year was approximately US$9,500. The individual with the most mature plantings (76) could have taken in about US$1,600 from this crop, whereas the individual with the fewest mature plantings (4) could have earned US$85.

These examples indicate that potential incomes from market gardening are relatively high for Mali, which has a very low per capita income (US$260 in the early 1990s, Imperato 1996). Based on proceeds from these two crops alone, if shared equally among all 184 Niamakoroni residents, the gross per capita income would be approximately US$244, or nearly the national average. However, figures are based on gross value and not net income. Furthermore, income generated through gardening is most definitely not distributed uniformly in the community. Rather, because the vast majority of garden leaders are married men, they are the primary benefactors of this relatively lucrative livelihood diversification strategy (Wooten 1997, n.d.).

Contrasting Views on the Development of Commercial Horticulture

Clearly, market gardening is very significant endeavour in contemporary Niamakoroni. It is also very clearly a male-dominated commercial activity and one that focuses on an array of largely exotic, non-traditional crops. However, as the commentaries provided in the introduction indicate, gardening has not always been male dominated, market-oriented, and based on exotic plants. Moreover, not all people have quietly accepted market gardening, nor is it likely to affect everyone in the same way. Indeed, men and women in the community tended to narrate the story of the development of market gardening and current garden tenure patterns in quite different ways. The juxtaposition of their accounts highlights a significant change in the nature of gardening over time.

From an elder man's perspective, garden tenure in Niamakoroni shares a characteristic with the settlement of the community: first farmers made first claims. When the initial Jara settlers began farming in Niamakoroni, male lineage heads established themselves as guardians of the land (Wooten 1997). As such, male descendants of the founding Jara patrilineages retained the right to distribute upland tracts to the community's household heads. However, it appears that the original Jara claim did not necessarily include lowlands, which men at that time did not see as being central to the food production regime. Based on the commentaries provided by Nene Jara and Shimbon Jara, the two male elders, it seems that control over these areas fell to those who opened them for cultivation, in most cases to the first generation of market gardeners: their fathers.

Others subsequently joined the first wave of gardeners in the community as they began to see the advantages of garden cultivation. Young men entered into the domain by clearing what Nene referred to as “unused areas.” In addition, over time, some young men who had worked for the original garden heads established their own operations, either by claiming “unused” land or by obtaining a section of their fathers' or elder brothers' original holding after death or retirement. Later still, some individuals obtained plots from non-related individuals. Rent was not mentioned, although short-term, non-monetized loans of plots have been made. Nene and Shimbon noted that, most recently, a few women had begun gardening activities far out in the bush on lands that they said men deemed to be too distant for serious horticulture activities. The women cleared these areas themselves in order to garden.

Women offered quite a different perspective on the development of market gardening. Various older women reported that, prior to men's development of the low-lying areas for commercial gardening activities, women had in fact cultivated crops and collected plants in some of those areas. Wilene Diallo, the community's oldest woman, said that she and the other village wives used plots in these areas during the rainy season to cultivate traditional vegetable crops for their sauces (naw). She also indicated that village women sometimes planted rice in low-lying areas during the rainy season. The rice produced was a traditional variety that was used in special meals or marketed. Wilene's assertion was echoed by a number of other senior women, and the pattern is also noted in published accounts about rural production patterns in other areas of Mali (e.g., various papers in Creevey 1986, Becker 1996).

Thus, before the first generation of market gardeners became established, it appears that women used at least some stream areas freely and without direct competition from men, and did so with the primary goal of producing local sauce crops. Such uncontested use of these areas may relate to the fact that a ready market for specialized horticultural produce had not yet developed, and that men perceived low-lying areas to be less desirable. A comment offered by one of Niamakoroni's contemporary male garden leaders supports this general position. With regard to the development of his own garden plots, Mamari Jara said that, perhaps a generation ago, he thought, some of the land was originally used by some of the village women to produce leaves and vegetables for sauces.

Mamari went on to say that, as market demand for horticultural produce grew, men in the community became more aware of the potential value of the low-lying stream areas and eventually displaced women in the cultivation of these areas. He said that they began to clear the areas and then proceeded to fence and claim them as their holdings. After all, he said, “There was money to be made!” As he finished saying this, he and his younger brother Konimba laughed and added that, after all, “Men are thieves!”

Lost Ground, Threatened Resources

Whatever the exact historical particulars, it is clear that today women are largely excluded from the community's garden spaces. To establish their commercial enterprises, men have appropriated the physical space of the lowlands as well as the garden production niche itself. In the process, the women of Niamakoroni have lost important ground. Men's movement into the gardening domain has been facilitated by broader inequalities in local gender relations of production. According to Davison (1988: 3), gender relations of production are the “socioeconomic relations between females and males that are characterized often by differential assignment of labour tasks, control over decision-making, and differential access to and control over the allocation of resources - including land and income”.

In Niamakoroni, as in most rural Africa settings, gender relations of production generally favour men. As noted above, it is a community in which descent is traced patrilineally and control over productive resources is generally corporate in nature with elders dominating juniors, and men typically holding more power than women. Married men have exploited their privileged position in this structure to establish themselves as market gardeners. They have laid claim to land where their mothers and wives once cultivated and collected plants for the household saucepot. This has important implications for women's contributions to the food economy and for their relative standing in the community.

Women's marginalization from the gardening niche in Niamakoroni limits their ability to produce traditional foodstuffs. The women endeavour to grow sufficient sauce crops on the upland fields allocated to them by their dutigiw, but their productivity there is limited. They have a wide range of domestic obligations that limit the time that they have available to cultivate these fields and, moreover, some of their traditional crops may not grow well in upland environments. The upland fields can only be cultivated during the rainy season, while sauces typically require fresh plant material throughout the year. Thus, even if the women are fortunate enough to secure a solid harvest of some sauce crops from their fields, they still need to locate additional local plant resources for their sauces. With access to the low-lying areas constrained, their ability to procure these items is hindered. Their marginalization from the gardening realm also limits their access to financial resources, which could be used to purchase some of the sauce ingredients that they are unable to secure locally.

Women's near exclusion from this important income stream may have broader implications as well. Numerous studies in Africa (e.g., Clark 1994; Fapohunda 1988; Gordon 1996) have shown that income autonomy can enhance an individual's status in various social settings. In particular, an independent income that parallels their husbands' earnings seems to provide a foundation for women's empowered negotiation within African families and communities. This certainly appears to be relevant in the Bamana context. As Turrittin (1988: 586) notes, “control over their own economic resources is an important resource for women when bargaining with men.” She goes on to show how Bamana gender relations of production constrain women's opportunities to gain access to such resources through trading activities. Like the women of Niamakoroni, the female traders in Turrittin's study were unable to establish themselves in a prized income-generating niche. In both cases, men used existing gender relations of production to lay claim to a relatively lucrative enterprise. Their actions were supported by an established institutional framework in which men, as patrilineage members, have priority access to productive resources and economic opportunities.

It should be noted that this shift has not gone unnoticed or unchallenged by the women of Niamakoroni. In the course of interviews, several women voiced clear dissatisfaction with the situation. As one woman said, “Men get all the gardens. They get all the money. Yet they don't give us anything, not even money for sauce or our babies.” Some women clearly resent the fact that what they conceive of as a traditional woman's sphere has now become part of a man's world. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind the fact that there were three female nakotigiw. Their gardens were very small and located at considerable distance from the village on relatively minor streambeds, but they had gardens nonetheless - commercially oriented gardens at that. However, unlike most married women in the community, these women gardeners were senior wives who are retired from most of the regular duties associated with the household food economy. Their accomplishments, meagre as they might be, are not likely to be widely replicated.

In addition to the emergence of a series of social and economic challenges, women's exclusion from the garden realm may lead to detrimental shifts in a number of other important domains. The shift documented here points to changes in culinary patterns and to the possibility of declines in nutritional status (see also Daniggelis, this volume), local plant diversity, and overall environmental stability. While these issues were not specifically evaluated in the study, the data presented do reveal a number of significant threats.

The expansion of men's market gardening may lead to a decrease in the availability of local plants for the diet. Men have pushed women and women's crops out of the gardening niche. In the process, many garden plants maintained by men and associated with urban consumers have replaced local plants linked with women and the saucepot in Niamakoroni gardens. Today's male market gardeners are not interested in maintaining women's sauce crops unless there is a suitable urban market for them, as is the case with bitter eggplant. Indeed, most men see most women's plants (especially traditional leaf crops and wild sauce plants) as weeds to be removed in favour income-earners such as tomatoes or bananas. The well-manicured market gardens now only very rarely contain traditional vegetables and wild or semi-domesticated plants.

In short, lacking access to traditional gardening and collecting areas, women have fewer options when it comes to making their sauces. While it is not documented as yet, a change in local culinary patterns may be underway as a result - ironically, by growing and selling garden crops, male gardeners may be contributing to a decline in the nutritional value of their own meals.

Studies from a range of contexts reveal that shifts toward commercial agriculture can result in declining nutritional standards at the local level as nutritious traditional crops are replaced by non-food items, food items of lesser nutritional value, or by items that, while quite nutritious, are sold rather than consumed (von Braun and Kennedy 1994; De Walt 1993). Specifically, in light of research that shows the nutritional significance of traditional leafy vegetables in the diet (Chweya and Eyzaguirre 1999; Nesamvuni et al. 2001; Thaman 1995), the transformation in Niamakoroni may well lead to nutrient deficiencies and related health problems. Indeed, recent work in southern Mali has documented the nutritional importance of local plant resources typically associated with women. Nordeide et al. (1996) have shown that traditionally gathered and locally produced crops contribute valuable nutrients, particularly in rural settings like Niamakoroni. This kind of decline is especially likely because so little of the “new” replacement garden produce ever finds its way into the local diet. The market gardeners view their operations as money earning endeavours and their produce strictly as a means to that end. Nor do they use their incomes to purchase food, nor do they provide their wives with cash that could be used to purchase traditional sauce ingredients or local medicinal herbs (Wooten 1997).

If studies of commercialization processes in other contexts are any indication, additional problems having both local and global repercussions are likely to arise in the longer term. In order to ensure the long-term viability of locally adapted plant resources, experts in plant genetic resource (PGR) management are calling for in situ conservation (Altieri and Merrick 1987; Qualset et al. 1997). This is seen as the most effective way to conserve genetic resources, insure their continued adaptation to local environments over time, and insure continued access to locally adapted resources. Research has shown that, while they may be small in size, women's homegardens around the globe typically hold a tremendous range of useful, locally adapted plants (Howard-Borjas 2002). Women use such spaces as experimental plots and as sites for rare plant conservation. In fact, it has been noted that African women's gardens may be one of the most significant reservoirs of local plant genetic material (Chweya and Eyzaguirre 1999). However, the potential for in situ conservation of plants traditionally linked to women in Niamakoroni is threatened by the expansion of commercial gardening. Without access to appropriate gardening niches, women lack the opportunity to maintain traditional plant resources in situ. While some of their traditional plants may be suitable for upland cultivation during the rainy season, there are many more wild or semi-domesticated plants that are adapted to the low-lying stream areas. Thus, this situation presents a challenge for the maintenance of viable locally adapted plants and, over time, to the continuity of local knowledge of these tried and true species. In short, without continuous management, it is possible that these species may erode locally.

Loss of plant genetic resources and associated knowledge at the local level would represent a significant loss to the wider realm of global plant biodiversity as well. In general, very little is known about the genetic characteristics of traditional African crops. In fact, until recently, they have been ignored by ex situ gene banks and commercial prospecting endeavours (for a discussion see Chweya and Eyzaguirre 1999). Thus, plants that slip into obscurity or become extinct at the local level run the risk of being lost completely.

The threat to local plant biodiversity is not limited to garden areas, however. There are a number of important secondary environmental effects related to the development of men's market gardening in Niamakoroni. Without access to lowlands for sauce production or other alternatives for income-generation, women are increasingly focusing their attention on the exploitation of other local, bush-based plant resources for food as well as for income generation in support of their domestic cooking obligations (Wooten 1997). Specifically, they are expanding their commercial production of charcoal, shea nut butter, and toothbrushes made from plants. In interviews, several women noted that they use the proceeds from these activities to secure sauce items for their household meals. All of these activities are dependent upon the use of wild native plant resources. Women's expanding use of such resources reveals what may represent a vicious cycle: without access to garden spaces, women may be over-exploiting bush resources to acquire income that they can use to obtain sauce ingredients that they can no longer produce locally.

Women were uniform in identifying charcoal as their primary commodity: like market garden produce, charcoal is a highly desirable product in urban Bamako. Charcoal production is an arduous process and generates relatively little in the way of returns (Wooten n.d.). However, because it is one of the very few income-generating activities open to women, charcoal pits are becoming very common. At the same time, there has been a noticeable decrease in mature woody growth around the village. Women's actions are likely to be increasing the rate of deforestation of key charcoal linked species. Indeed, women were already lamenting the fact that it was increasingly difficult to find appropriate species and volumes for charcoal production. They indicated that they were beginning to use younger and less desirable tree species in the process and to cut whole trees. A study in the region suggests that, because rural women have few durable land rights, they are not likely to invest in the long-term stability of such land-based enterprises (Grisby and Force 1993). This is ironic considering that studies in the area indicate that women are the primary users and benefactors of land-based activities (Driel 1990, Gakou et al. 1994). With increasing urban demand and few other options, it is likely that women will continue to exploit the woody resources necessary for charcoal production and that this process will contribute to deforestation in the area. In this case, it may not be long before women lose the meagre benefits of this marginal income-generating activity and become fuelwood-deprived themselves. Furthermore, with the continued loss of woody cover comes the possibility for increased soil compaction and erosion and associated environmental degradation (see official Malian reports cited in Becker 2001).

Gender, Commercialization, and Threats to Local Plant Genetic Resources

In the face of mounting evidence of the rapid and escalating loss of plant biodiversity across the globe, a wide range of individuals and organizations are now devoting attention to the twin tasks of documenting and conserving local plant genetic resources. As a result, understanding of the diversity and significance of locally adapted plants has increased considerably over the last decade. This expansion has often come through a growing appreciation for the extensive body of local or indigenous knowledge in this realm of biocomplexity. However, as research in this area has progressed, it has become clear that there is often a substantial degree of differentiation within local populations with regard to knowledge about local plant biodiversity, for example depending upon ethnicity or mode of livelihood. In short, researchers have shown that there are frequently local plant “knowledges” rather than a monolithic local plant knowledge.

Thus, in order to gain insights into these different realms of people-plant relations it is critical to identify relevant local specialists and to learn from them about the plant resources that they know best. Unfortunately, it has become increasingly apparent that a significant group of key knowledge holders have been largely ignored in this process. Despite their critical roles in various plant management arenas, women's knowledge of local plants has been sorely under-represented in research (for a review see Howard-Borjas 2002). The result is a skewed and incomplete picture of local knowledge of the plant world.

To address this lacuna, it is imperative to identify and document situations in which women have discrete responsibilities and knowledge of plant resources and to document the cases in detail. Moreover, it is critically important that close attention is paid to those cases in which women's plant resources and knowledge base are under threat. This case study offers a clear example of the type of process that can lead to the deterioration of women's access to plant resources and, subsequently, knowledge.

As women's productive spaces such as the homegardens of Niamakoroni are shifted over to commercially viable exotic crops and market garden production, traditional plant resources may decline and knowledge of these crops may be lost. This threat has been identified as a key concern by the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources and other organizations concerned with the long-term viability of locally adapted plant biodiversity. It is clear from the case of Niamakoroni that gender-linked commercialization dynamics can pose a threat to local plant biodiversity and that the loss of these resources can provoke further detrimental effects on the environment and on human welfare.


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