Population People

Posted June 2000

Culture, agriculture and rural development: a view from FAO's Population Programme Service

by
Marcela Villarreal
Senior Officer (Socio-cultural research)
FAO Population Programme Service (SDWP)


Land ownership, access to other productive resources and the organization of agricultural production are influenced by cultural practices and traditions. For example, rules of land inheritance (by lineage, gender and/or other culturally determined characteristics) are core determinants of effective access to land. Cultural aspects are thus of central importance for the understanding and devising of appropriate interventions in agriculture, food security and rural development.

Cultural issues are also central to adequate nutrition given that the appropriateness of foodstuffs, food taboos and food distribution along age and gender lines are culturally determined. The organization of fisheries and the use of forests are influenced by cultural perceptions and traditions. Indigenous knowledge on specific species and use and conservation techniques are essential for the preservation of biodiversity and the sustainable use of resources.

FAO's approach to culture and development not only comprises the "full respect for various religious and ethical values, cultural backgrounds and philosophical convictions of individuals and their communities"1, but it also takes wholly into account cultural factors in order to achieve sustainable rural development and food security.

This note illustrates the latter with two examples of FAO's approach to cultural issues and then describes one of the instruments it uses to understand cultural factors and their complex relation with agriculture and development, socio-cultural research.

Gender, population and rural development2

One of the most pervasive - although frequently invisible - expressions of a society's culture is its gender system. This system has a direct influence on most aspects of human behaviour and its understanding calls for a holistic and interdisciplinary approach. In order to adequately address "gender problems" it is necessary to take into consideration the system of gender relations in which inequalities are generated, developed and reproduced. Gender is culturally ascribed through a system of social, economic, political and historic relations and these relations shape its interactions with population and development. In order to be able to fully grasp gender relations, we have to target this broader system, as illustrated in the figure below:

This system of influence on gender is as important as the gender relations themselves for interventions regarding population and development.

Example: The HIV/AIDS pandemic in rural communities3

The AIDS pandemic is not only a health problem. Among development agencies the pandemic is increasingly regarded as an important, crosscutting developmental issue that requires a multisectoral and multidisciplinary perspective to understand it and to intervene effectively. Cultural beliefs, practices and attitudes are determinants of the sexual behaviour that causes the nature and rate of its transmission.

FAO's primary work in the area of AIDS and agriculture has shown that the HIV/AIDS pandemic exacerbates existing obstacles to sustainable agricultural production and increases food insecurity, with different impacts on each gender according to its role in the household and community. The sickness and death of working adults affect the total labour available in a farm household and its division between adults and children, as well as between men and women. According to the gender system, women, who are the traditional care givers, spend a considerable amount of time taking care of the AIDS patients and the supply of agricultural labour for specific tasks is significantly reduced.

In many patrilineal African communities, the cultural custom of lÚvirat dictates that if a woman becomes a widow, she has to remarry one of her husband's brothers. This custom allows the woman to continue having access to land and food security, for otherwise she would have to leave the lineage on the death of her husband. Land inheritance patterns are intrinsically related to the gender system. With the AIDS epidemic, this custom has become a risk multiplier, given that the husband might have died of AIDS. Addressing the inequalities in the access to land by men and women (and not only the lÚvirat custom) will have a positive effect on limiting the spread of AIDS.

An appropriate response to HIV/AIDS should thus take into consideration the gender system and the specific development context in which this system is generated, which, at least partially, determines the extent and nature of the impact of the pandemic. In order to reduce the vulnerability of rural populations, and the effects of the pandemic on food security, sustainable development and rural development policies and programmes need to take into account socio-cultural and economic factors such as land tenure patterns, inheritance practices, access to, as well as use and management of, productive and non-productive resources.

Socio-cultural research at FAO

FAO's Population Programme Service provides technical assistance to national groups undertaking socio-cultural research (SCR). This kind of research is most appropriate for and understanding of culture and rural development, for it provides a holistic approach without requiring lengthy periods of study (as in ethnographic participant observation).

Source: Adapted from Edmondson and Villarreal, 1998

SCR offers an in-depth insight into why people behave as they do. It analyzes the multiple determinants of behaviour in the context in which it takes place. It looks at the way in which individuals make and implement decisions, and at the factors that influence this process in the household and the social structure (power relations, gender relations, kinship structures). It also takes into account the political and economic factors that affect particular behaviour, decisions and outcomes.

While holistic, SCR does not attempt to understand all of the social structure/social relations or culture. It examines a specific question of interest in a holistic fashion, as shown by the wedge arrow in the diagram. It allows to uncover the rationale for individual behaviour as socially constructed, and the reasons for differences in the behaviour of various groups (socio-economic classes, ages, ethnic groups, etc.). SCR combines qualitative and quantitative methodologies as needed, in order to supply in-depth and/or statistically representative information. Moreover, it is an extremely useful tool for monitoring and evaluation, for it provides an adequate baseline of relevant information.

This approach provides insight into the cultural context (social structure, including the gender system, economic, political and historic factors) of the issues that affect agriculture and rural development. An in-depth understanding of the cultural context and the factors that determine local level outcomes is crucial for the formulation and the success of policies and programmes that are acceptable, appropriate and, most importantly, sustainable over time.

Socio-cultural research is one of the tools used by FAO to design effective agricultural and rural development policy and programme interventions.


1 World Food Summit Plan of Action, paragraph 12.

2 Note: This section and the following one have been adapted from "Population and gender in rural societies from the perspective of the Population Programme Service (SDWP)", Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, 2000.

3 See also "HIV/AIDS and food security: an FAO perspective".


For further information contact:

Marcela Villarreal
Senior Officer (Socio-cultural research)
FAO Population Programme Service (SDWP)
Email: Marcela.Villarreal@fao.org

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