I write more about agriculture on this blog than just about anything else, which appears weird on the face of it, since the blog is named, and presumably therefore about, death and its power. Of course, in the disciplines where I make my home(s), this should be considered totally normal. As Maurice Bloch and Jonathan Parry write in their magisterial and sea-changing edited volume, Death and the regeneration of life,
The observation that notions of fertility and sexuality often have a considerable prominence in funeral practices excited the attention of anthropologists and their public from the very beginning of the discipline. (1)
The beginning of the discipline, like, as in, 1859. Seriously. And the connection has never left. Bloch and Parry’s more direct assertion on the connection is this:
In most cases what would seem to be revitalised in funerary practices is that resource which is culturally conceived to be most essential to the reproduction of the social order. (7)
Leaving aside the question of whether a ‘single social order’ actually exists for all people in a ‘single culture,’ this is a powerful, clear, and direct linkage between fertility, agriculture, and death. It is also why I became so deeply interested in agriculture, at the beginning. Only later did my heart catch up with my head, and force me to realize that given the near ubiquity of agriculture in the lives of Cambodians, paying attention to agriculture and its vicissitudes is a vital part of engaging with real, living, Cambodians and the issues that most centrally concern them. I’ve learned a lot on this score, most of it from supposedly uneducated and ‘ignorant’ (lngun) farmers.
But that doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything farmers say they want: when farmers say they want high-yield, sterile (i.e., it doesn’t produce new seed) seeds (which they must buy at high prices from international companies), I respectfully disagree. When they want to buy and use lots of petroleum-based pesticides, or natural-gas-based fertilizers, I disagree. I support small-scale farming, aimed primarily for subsistence instead of primarily for cash, and favor permacultural methods. So, by the way, does George Monbiot, in a nice article noted by the excellent Resource Management issues in Asia-Pacific News.
And while I have no basis on which to offer suggestions, I can draw attention to exciting projects that I think might benefit Cambodian farmers. Like this one:
The open-source tractor. Called, the Life-trac tractor, it is a cheap, open-source (meaning in collective, constant redesign and improvement, for free), and potentially a fantastic replacement for the traditional tractors which were sinking Battambang farms a few years back (farmers were buying expensive tractors to improve yields, and then couldn’t make payments on the tractors owing to increasing fuel prices, and losing their entire property). The idea comes from the excellent Open Source Ecology wiki, dedicated to improving farming and ecology-design techniques.
That said, I would only recommend the life-trac for farmers already committed to using a mechanical tractor. The traditional Cambodian tractor undoubtedly remains the best choice:
I was directed to the OSE wiki by John Robb’s Global Guerrillas page. I’ve written about his work before, but his new identification of “Resiliency” as a core concept of his analysis is an excellent move forward, and I’m really enjoying his blog anew (the focus on terrorism and war, while crucial and well-done, depresses the hell out of me; this stuff is more hopeful!). Also check out Jeff Vail’s Rhizome based blog posts, on similar issues.