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Detailed Project Description

The research group focused on contemporary South Asian experiments in agriculture and the search and struggle for agrarian alternatives in a context of agrarian and environmental crisis. Scholars of world agriculture and agro-food systems tend to describe their globalizing predicament in increasingly pessimistic and sometimes apocalyptic terms. South Asian agriculture is part and parcel of this bleak picture. Agrarian crisis manifests itself socially in declining rural livelihoods, increasing inequalities, over-indebtedness of farmers, labor migration to cities and militant unrest; and ecologically in exhausted and chemicalized soils, the effects of climate change on Monsoon fed agriculture and declining agro-biodiversity, as well as in a public-health crisis of suicide epidemics and toxins-related diseases. Hundreds of thousands of small-holders have committed suicide in the last decade, particularly in regions that had previously embraced the Green Revolution's scientific and capitalist transformations. But the 'Agrarian Alternatives' project was not about death, wastelands and despair. Instead it has been an investigation of adaptation and spaces of possibility, manifest in agrarian arenas of experimentation and innovation that have opened up in response to the current crisis.

Our premise was that the uncertainties of the on-going transformation of South Asian agriculture have activated situated, practical debates about the future of cultivation and rural livelihood. In other words, the crisis has set many farmers and other agrarian actors (scientists, NGOs, extension workers) on a path, looking for alternatives within agrarian production. The research points beyond new environmental and farmers’ movements, towards a larger variety of initiatives that seek practical alternatives within agrarian production by experimentation with new crops, organic agrarian techniques, biotechnologies, novel arrangements for trade and marketing, and the revival of agrarian heritage.

The research group worked with ethnography as an interdisciplinary method of inquiry, representation and production of theory. Ethnographic practice combines critical attention to realist 'matters of concern' with the study of a diversity of ontologies or lived understandings of how the world is.  The project has been comparative in scope, focusing on adaptive responses to agrarian crises throughout South Asia. Building on long-term fieldwork in rural settings, the problem of productive adaptation and creativity in moments of crisis and uncertainty will serve as a basis for comparison that binds these projects together.

The project’s theoretical underpinnings and research design derived from anthropology, agrarian studies (peasant studies/agrarian change), political ecology and postcolonial science studies. Theoretical impulses from these intersecting fields were helpful in ethnographically grasping agriculture as a contested and dynamic field in which knowledges, practices and materialities are constantly combined and re-negotiated. The research challenged us to develop a theoretical and methodological framework for conceptualizing innovation/experimentation in agriculture as a transcultural process, and thus contribute to the wider research agenda at the Cluster. We found that transculturality manifests itself in agriculture foremost as travel and translations of different registers of knowledge and skill (humoral agronomy, science and alternative science) between cultivators and experts located at different scales. 

The project made both an empirical and theoretical contribution to the study of agro-environmental transformation in a transcultural framework, by highlighting agriculture as one of the most important “fields” of experimentation, knowledge transfer (appropriations), and the literal “cultivation” of practical alternative modernities. Instead of searching for grand alternative models for the contemporary ecological and economic predicament in the Global South, this project ethnographically documented concrete local settings in which the search for practical alternatives has already begun. The experiments under study related to both (imagined) heritage and (imagined) techno-science and involved innovations in organic and sustainable farming, the revival and conservation of old seed varieties, experiments with information and communication technologies (ICT), genetically modified (GM) organism, and alternative cropping technologies. By including both “organic” and biotechnological experiments under the rubric of “alternatives,” this project sidestepped the conventional binary framing of agriculture in terms of a market/corporate/commercial box and a “green box” (Vandergeest 2009).  From these empirical cases the project members developped ethnographic theory for the grasp of hybridizations of practice and knowledge in agrarian experiments, the multidirectional transfer/translation between situated “indigenous” knowledges and the science(s) of agriculture (including “alternative science”), the resilience, adaptation and creativity within globalizing crises and the emerging ontologies of human/non-human relatedness in these landscapes of crisis. 


Scientific Achievements


1. C15 highlighted agro-environmental transformation in a transcultural framework, with a focus on small-holder agriculture as one of the most dynamic arenas of adaptation to global challenges.


2. Examined the emergence of hybrid or relational agrarian networks constituted by the interplay of knowledge(s), practices and socio-natures with a variety of actors such as cultivators, scientists, activists, and other experts. This drew on an analysis of cultural and material flows, transfers and translations within these networks.


3. Questioned the clear-cut division between “indigenous” and scientific, local and global, traditional and modern, mainstream and alternative practices and knowledges as well as the divides between knowledge, practice and materialities.


4. Explored the politics and ethics of agrarian alternatives in times of uncertainty. Ethics relates to the normative claim that experiments in agriculture can create “better,” more ethical relationships; no matter whether between producers and consumers, institutions and farmers or between society and nature.