Agriculture, Cooperation, and Resiliency

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.


Reading: Haunting the Buddha

DeCaroli, Robert. 2004. Haunting the Buddha: Indian popular religions and the formation of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert DeCaroli, associate Art History professor at George Mason University, has written an exciting, direct, and convincing book of great relevance to my own work. Where I have compliments, I am indeed very impressed, since he clearly and persuasively argues points with which I am already very familiar. Where I have complaints, they should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, since my complaints here tend to be in precisely the areas that I am myself working and have strong opinions.
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Paper Coffins

Every once in a while, the Phnom Penh municipal government declares its desire to close all operating crematoria in the city and move them to the countryside. The justification is almost always about air quality, but the reasoning is almost always about two different things, which I’ve blogged about before. First, crematoria are big money makers for temples, and support lots of monks at urban wats, many of whom compose the most politically radical and liberal strata of Cambodia – not exactly a group that the government (any government) wants to support. Secondly, crematoria in the city decreases property values for neighboring properties, especially for non-national Chinese investors who simply cannot, will not, build their luxury hotels near crematoria, since to do so would be to invite horrible misfortune.

Now, for those who really want to be on the cutting edge, the good folks over at BoingBoing have let me know about ‘ecopods,’ coffins made out of recycled paper. Perhaps the government would like to start sponsoring this form of corpse-disposal. Of course, this doesn’t solve the next problem – where, exactly, are they going to put the coffins once they’re full of bodies? Speaking as someone whose own apartment in Phnom Penh was full of dead bodies not too many years prior to my residence, I can’t imagine the municipality has too many good ideas on this front.


Mahaghosananda Has Completed His Time

[Mahaghosananda completing the Dhammayietra in 2003. Photo by Nirav Shah]

Ven. Mahaghosananda, a Cambodian monk of long tenure in the robes (remaining in robes through the DK period since he was in Thailand), has been given many silly names: “the Gandhi of Cambodia” is one of them. I have the utmost respect for both Gandhi and Mahaghosananda, and I think both might agree that phrases like this one do more to obscure the complex realities of individuals than they do to explain anything.

What phrases like that do get right, however, is an indication of the high esteem, tireless dedication, and deep involvement that both men shared, and the fact that for both of them, these qualities were inseparable from their religious convictions.

Mahaghosananda died a few days. My internet connection has been down, and I’ve been unable to post anything about it, which is just as well. I couldn’t do justice. And it allowed others to offer their succinct and heartfelt thoughts. My favorite so far is from Jinja, and I’m just going to quote it here:

Down the Road

Cambodia gets a bad rap on numerous scorecards – in the case of activism, I’ve heard Khmers and foreigners alike complain that Cambodians are reluctant to ‘take a stand’ for their rights. They are, however, willing to walk for them.

A great example of simple, local activism is the Dhamma Yatra – a peace march first begun in 1992, by Venerable Maha Ghosananda.

In 1994, he led the march to Pailin, still Khmer Rouge territory at the time. Further marches walked through post-Khmer Rouge strongholds. and called for peace during times of civil unrest. Some day, a book about the travels and tales of the Dhamma Yatra needs to be written. Alas, its leader has passed away.

Those who knew him and knew of him may react with sadness. I think those who knew him well might suggest that he is simply traveling further on his path.

Student Site: www.ghosananda.org
Washington Post http://tinyurl.com/2y7824
The Star http://tinyurl.com/2679bl
Buddhanet: http://www.buddhanet.net/masters/maha-gosanada.htm

I’ll continue adding links to the above, as I find them. Here’s some to begin with:

Monk who rebuilt Buddhism in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, dies [Boston.com – Registration; free if you search for the headline on Google News]

Maha Ghosananda, Buddhist leader and peace prize nominee, dies [Boston.com – Registration; free if you search for the headline on Google News]

Father of Cambodian Buddhism dies [Andy Brouwer’s Cambodian Web Page]

Cambodians regret the death of top Buddhist monk

MahaGhosananda Obituary at Danny Fisher’s Buddhist Chaplaincy Web Page

MahaGhosananda Obituary at New York Times (with several strange factual errors)

The Economist‘s Obituary of MahaGhosananda.


CamNews: Anniversary of Chea Vichea Murder

The third anniversary of the murder of beloved union organizer Chea Vichea has come and gone. From here in America, the only real symptom was that the Sam Rainsy Party seems to have coordinated a massive effort of email spam with this date, as my inbox suddenly started filling up with all sorts of stuff from them, some of which was related to the murder, much of it not.

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