Anthropology of the gardens and gender in Amazonia and Melanesia

Mahbuba Kaneez Hasna 1


In ecological anthropology gardens play a major role for between plant and people relationships. Subsistence gardening is one of the most common ways of managing life and livelihood of the people of Amazonia and Melanesia. Ethnographic examples reveal that people in these societies have symbolic meaning to gardening, and ecological reasons are enmeshed in their gardening practices. People conduct garden rites and rituals, maintain exchange of garden goods and produce with neighbours, prioritise conviviality in gardening work to maintain harmony and so on. In this process they manage the loss of biodiversity and indigenous garden species.


I became interested in the topic of this paper following to my anthropological research interest in subsistence gardens for food production by urban slum dwellers of the cities of South Asia. I will begin this paper by discussing how anthropologists have approached human relationships with the environment i.e. in regard to collection and production in the context of subsistence gardens in societies of Melanesia and Amazonia. This is to establish a conceptual background to this paper. I will discuss two major analytical styles in contemporary studies of Amazonia introduced by Viveiros de Castro (1996) and will use his framework to discuss Melanesian gardens.

Gender issues are interwoven in gardening systems. This paper will reflect on various aspects of gender in garden systems in these two societies, for example labour in garden preparation, in plant selection, harvesting, replanting for conservation, as well as rituals and mythologies.

The relationship between people and plants is vital for conservation, biodiversity and plant management and also for sustainable garden based agriculture. Despite the sharp gender division of labour in garden systems, issues such as conviviality of collective work, reciprocity and gift exchange, and the symbolic cultural ecological aspects of the gardens are significant issues to consider in subsistence garden systems. Plant and humans have a complex relationship. Human interactions with plants are reciprocal in nature, humans affect and nurture plants, and use plants and entire plant communities (Balée 1994:53). The plants reciprocate by providing food, medicines, knowledge and pleasure for humans. The descriptions of subsistence gardens in both Amazonian and Melanesian anthropology demonstrate that garden plants are grown through a process of inter-dependent relationships between human and nature which hardly alter the ecosystem. Each new garden is rooted in former slash and burn agriculture systems therefore "new gardens are in fact the result of an act of predation committed on the forest"(Descola 1994:136).

Gardens and people in anthropology: an analytical framework

Anthropological studies have shown that people's interaction with their environment forms the foundation of their social practices and their understandings of their own society or social systems. Activities in the gardens connect men and women to their plants and holistically to their environment through a systemic process. In Tukanoan gardens for example, when the clearing is done and the soil is ready to be planted, a shaman arrives to say fertility spells and spit here and there in the garden, which is a symbolic act of insemination (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1996:67). Tuzin (2001:14) and Sillitoe (1999:205) also take a new approach to analyse the Melanesian ecosystem. They state that Melanesian nature is a result of a long cultural history and they argue that indigenous economies previously seen as instances of adaptive responses are in fact the historical result of a cultural transformation of nature.

Ingold prefers a phenomenological approach when describing the two ways of procuring livelihood from the natural environment, `collection' and `production'. He takes the approach of cultural ecology and connects natural surroundings of human beings to describe production - but of a different kind. He describes production and consumption are twin facets of a mutually constitutive and continually evolving field of relationships between persons and their environments. There are similarities between Baleés analysis on historical ecology and Descola and Ingold's opinions on the relationship between people and environment in cultural ecology. Their common argument suggest that this relationship is historically grounded in a continuous process of engagement supported by various "collaborative agents", such as culture and values, general vision, and ecological possibilities.

Descola takes the approach of symbolic representation of society to describe Amazonia's cultural ecology. He describes how the Achuar people's connection and relationship with nature through plants is based on a model of `consanguinal' relationship (Descola 2001:98). For example, motherhood extends to a woman's relationship with the plants she grows in the garden through a model of consanguine relations. Achuar women give birth in the garden where they daily reproduce vegetal beings, and look after the garden plants just as same as they take care of their children (ibid:268). The right of putative motherhood over cultivated plants is rooted in the gardens. Ewert (2000) and Rival (1998) have taken a slightly different stance. They argue that people connect to their gardens in their natural environment to conceptualise the growth processes within themselves and in the society they live, such as the way the Panará connect to their peanut gardens and the Hoaorani to their manioc gardens. "Symbiotic" relations between people, plants/vegetal beings and animals are integrated in this process (Rival 1998:236).

An approach of symbols and ecology in gardens:

Ideology and ecology are relevant in many ways. In the following section I will explore environmental determinism in the indigenous cosmos and the symbolic representation of gardens.

Mother manioc and biodiversity:

Rival's study on the Makushi people's manioc plant management strategies reveal their intimate as well as long term relationship with the plant. In cultural ecology this is indeed an important area of investigation. For example, the Makushi cultivators of Guyana have developed strategies against possible garden manioc loss from El Nino, drought and flood. The cultivators' environmental knowledge of utilising `germplasm bank' for manioc tuber storage is an important contribution to rare varieties conservation practice (ibid). Rather than saving the harvested roots, women protect the manioc tuber cuttings and preserve the stems in `germplasm banks' - which are naturally swampy areas and stock them in large bunches until it rains. This strategy prioritises the long-term reproductive cycle of the plants. (Rival 2001:63). Rival suggests that this conscious selection of manioc varieties acts primarily to preserve diversity, but this is more for aesthetic and recreational reasons than for food security purposes. So like collectors, driven by curiosity, they plant continuously to try out the new types, clone the manioc shoots, and make new species (ibid). In this process of planting and trying out, they protect the low yielding rare varieties by keeping them aside at a "low density" to prevent losses.

Symbolic representation of garden rites for congenial weather:

People also perform certain garden rites to please the weather spirit in order to manage weather conditions. For example, the Wola manage their extreme weather condition through garden rites to please a spirit whom they think is responsible for bad weather conditions. Although high rainfall is usual throughout the year, periods of water shortage are quite frequent in the Highlands of New Guinea. They also refrain from certain routine rituals to maintain diversity against difficult circumstances (Sillitoe 1993:173). During prolonged periods of food shortage the Wola people refrain from pig slaughtering and festive ceremonies and periodically "stay empty bellied".

When garden crops fail and famine threatens, they resort to a ritual called iyshponda; a symbolic rite of passage carried out by cult members to please the spirit of a white-skinned woman whom they believe is responsible for adverse weather. For the people, the ritual is important because they believe that the spirit is responsible for crop failure and hunger through the agency of extreme weather and the rituals serve as an effective coping mechanism given their limited technological capabilities (1993:182).

Garden mythologies and plant conservation:

Indigenous people have garden mythologies not about the prevention of adverse weather conditions but they also are intended to stimulate and protect the growth of plants. For example the Makushi believe that the manioc "thanks giving" rite is symbolic to the original "Cassava Mother" and the plants are her children therefore have to be looked after. In one Makushi myth a man spends his life looking for Cassava Mother. He finally finds her on the top of Mt. Rorama where she appears in the form of a giant manioc tree. Large quantities of manioc fruit, seeds and branches are found scattered on the ground underneath the giant plant. He collects branches and seeds, and shares them with neighbours and relatives who plant the seeds and make cuttings from the branches. This myth possibly explains why the Makushi are inspired to produce many varieties of manioc, multiply them and give each variety its own name (Rival 2001:68-70).

Growth of plants is a symbol to growth of children:

People also symbolise the growth of plants with the growth of their children and they maintain a "linguistic association" to establish the identity of substance and structure between plants and humans. This association has some influence on cultivation practices and on the social exchange of genetic material between cultivators (Rival 2001:68). For example, "...Makushi farmers talk to their manioc plants to make them grow better". In order to encourage the growth in the garden they plant a "magical plant" in the middle of the field or chew the root and spit it over the mounds. Such magical plants are symbolic for the good health of plants in the gardens and for the enhancement of the human potential (Rival 2001:68).

To the Makushi women, Cassava Mother demands from humans that they protect and nurture her children, therefore everything is done to stimulate the growth of manioc plants in the gardens. The Makushi see the stems as potentials of life therefore they plant almost all the stems including those which cannot be used in the new garden sites or are given to neighbours and relatives. Some stems are stored with extreme care and are left on garden edges where they germinate seed and remain alive (ibid.:69-70). Sponsel describes such responsible human behaviour to their world of plants as one of the significant aspects of ethnoecology, i.e. the environmental knowledge and taxonomy of indigenous societies (1986:78-79).

In gardens certain food items are identified as resources in which consumption and self-sufficiency are prohibited, for example sago is integrated in the Arapesh social relations (Tuzin 2001:28). From a cultural ecological perspective this also signifies soil conservation and plant protection. Arapesh men sometimes follow a food taboo by refraining from eating sago palm if they plant one; consuming it would be symbolically equivalent to eating their own children (1992:108). Therefore, in order to avoid planting, they would instead work on clearing a sago grove to defend the seedlings from weed encroachment. Symbolically this is similar to tending of children of mother sago (ibid).

The Panará people highly value peanut farming and only man plants the peanuts, not women. Once planted they periodically clear the areas from unwanted vegetation. The men observe some restrictions during the gestation period of the crop but such restrictions do not apply to women (Ewert 2000:332). Ewert points out that during the growth period of the peanut plants men are restricted from eating some garden plants and fruits, from hunting and fishing and they must stay away from heat and blood as not to destroy the growth of the peanuts. In both cultural and ethnoecology, certain human behaviour in environment management such as refraining from sexual activities and restricting the consumption of certain foods for a particular times of the year contributes substantially to population management and food supply (Nazarea 1999, Sponsel 1986).

An approach of moral economy of intimacy in gardens and gender

In garden based production systems the "moral economy" approach provides a picture of the social psychology and the practice of everyday sociability in both Melanesia and Amazonia . Overing and Passes describe the term `conviviality' as the "Amazonian mode of sociality", jovial social relations and interactions, a production and control of social environment through the creative and communal yet free and individually autonomous agency of its members (2000:xiii).

The concept of collective work in a moral economy:

There is indeed a sharp gender division of labour in garden work. The fact that men and women have separate tasks but maintain garden harmony through collective work which is symbolic of the success of overall work for both the Melanesian and the Amazonian people. Among the Achuar of lower Amazonia and also elsewhere in the region men, women and children of all age participate in garden clearing and they do it in a festive mood. All members of the clearing party paint their faces to ward off poisonous snake bites and start their day's work with generous supply of manioc beer provided by the head of the household whose garden will be prepared (Descola 1994:154). For the Mehinaku Indians of Central Brazil, the garden is a space for women where talking and an easy going atmosphere, coupled with the joy of being together and the "united release of their energies" is highly valued (Gregor 1977:60). Garden based gender relations thus relate to both the material and the emotional sides of life.

The aesthetics of conviviality also reflect on the social responsibility of men and women towards each other. There is a close correlation between marriage and the preparation of a garden among the Piro people of Bajo Urubamba, Peru. When a man is ready to get married and finds a partner, he builds a house and clears a garden to show that he is hardworking. This proves that the house in which a couple lives and the garden on which they depend for vegetable staples are made only for marriage. Ewert also points out that among the Panará people the garden is only owned by adult couples with children (2000:317). Only after the birth of their first child (or in some cases after the birth of second child) will they work in their own garden. In gender relations, maintaining social identity through men's and women's collaborative garden work is noteworthy (Ewert 2000:346).

Symbolic crops in garden gifts and exchanges:

Like manioc, sago plays an important role in social and subsistence practices among the Arapesh people of Papua New Guinea. Tuzin expresses the social significance of the symbolic value of sago as a garden gift. Sago is considered as a mother crop, and the Arapesh believe that it is a garden gift from Ma Sago for her children; therefore, to eat and share with neighbours will not only make Ma Sago happy but will bring joy and prosperity to the community (2001:23). But it is common for the owner of the sago plot to invite two or three other families, whether kin or neighbours, to join the task. Because of the "generalised exchange obligation among the Arapesh" (ibid), the principal behind producing varieties of sago-palm meal is also to promote diverse relationships, both within the Arapesh community as well as outside the community (ibid.:107-108).


In this paper it has been my primary concern to argue that in garden based production systems in small societies such as in Amazonia and Melanesia, conviviality in collective work, the economy of sharing and exchange, and the application of indigenous knowledge for natural resource management are vital areas for sustainable subsistence agriculture. Gender issues are important areas to consider in garden based production systems, not only to differentiate the labour processes but also to understand how women in the gardens symbolise plants and crops to a consanguine relationship and combine motherhood in their activities in the gardens, such as replanting, cutting and conservation. People nurture the plants and by their knowledge they combine their cosmologies and beliefs to sustain their plants and produce and nurture social conviviality. Women talk about their gardening on their long walks to and from their gardens. Gardens are the centre of their many socio-cultural and ecological activities. It is knowledge accumulated through life experiences, from childhood onwards as individuals come to know intimately the land resources of territories to which they have "rights of access" (Sillitoe 1999:205).


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1 The author is a post graduate student at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom.
Address for correspondence: Wolfson College, Linton Road, Oxford OX2 6UD. UK.
Email: mahbuba.hasna@wolfson.ox.ac.uk