A Development Paradigm for Community Well-being

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Purple pujagua variety of maize. (Source: Google Images)

Interview with Felipe Montoya Greenheck by Ortixia Dilts

This article blossomed from my continuing delightful conversations with Felipe Montoya Greenheck.  Initiated as an inquiry over the MILPA seed project as presented in Terralinguna’s publication, Biocultural Diversity Conservation: A Global Sourcebook (Earthscan, 2010), we soon diverged from our original subject and into the intent and thinking behind the MILPA projects, concluding with an inspiring model for community revitalization. 

…..tell me a little about Milpa.

I began MILPA as a project to revitalize the living connection between Costa Rican rural communities and the traditional seeds they cultivated.  Among the most memorable and enduring activities was a simple seed exchange among small farmers. Paying respects to the local seeds, traditional crops, and land races the participants brought to exchange was very important to tear down the ideology of the supremacy of “improved varieties” that had been introduced and officially promoted, displacing the traditional varieties.  Their worth was restored and from that time on (since 1997), traditional seed exchanges have continued to take place in Costa Rica, mostly linked to organic farmers markets.  MILPA also organized a conference on Cultivated Biodiversity which was declared of “national interest”.  So MILPA pushed the issue among peasant farmers, NGOs and the academia, as well.
Only recently, MILPA was offered a project to “revitalize agricultural-food traditions” among rural communities (one project with the FAO), as well as among urban and semi-urban marginal communities (the other project with UNESCO).    We have to come up with a “revitalization strategy”.  So the idea is first to understand how these traditions satisfy a number of human fundamental needs (I borrow this concept from Manfred Max-Neef, an economist from Chile). Among these needs are: Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Freedom, Understanding, Participation, Creativity, Identity, Leisure, and Transcendence. Recognizing how preparing or cultivating certain traditional foods contribute to satisfying some of these different needs, will help restore the value of these traditional practices.
The science involved here is basic social science: interviews, questionnaires, with a representative sample of the population so that the results are statistically significant.  But in our field work inquiries we also ask about the more empirical science involved in the cultivation and preparation of these traditional foods.
…and how does language fit in?
Language is probably our most sophisticated instrument not only of communicating, but of actually creating our world.  Each language creates a distinct world.  Diversity of language allows for diversity of experience, of engagement with the universe, enriching our lives.  Language creates our specific world, and hence our world vision, our identity.    When we lose a language, we lose an irreplaceable community cultural capital.  It is important that our attitude be one of celebration of diversity, rather than feel diversity to be a threat to our identity.

Figure 1. Livelihood strategies invest in capitals to satisfy needs. Capitals are the accumulated wealth of communities, the products of invested energy, from which they create the ways and means to satisfy their fundamental needs. The extent to which needs are satisfied determines the well-being of communities. Members of communities work to satisfy needs. Work and activities may be directed simultaneously at investing in community capitals and at extracting goods and services (satisfiers) from community capitals to satisfy needs. Source: Livelihoods, Community Well-Being and Species Conservation. Felipe Montoya, Carlos Drews, WWF.

Community capitals are sources of wealth that have the potential of improving wellbeing, but do not necessarily do so.  It depends on who has access to these capitals.  The more languages we know, the wealthier we are, the richer our outlooks, our experience, our lives.

In general, language diversity is a treasure that allows us windows to multiple worlds.  Language allows us to interact with the world in so many ways, almost like seeds adapted to local conditions, land races that make the best use of local conditions. Languages are to be treasured and celebrated. They are “capitals” or “accumulated work” of generations upon generations, which we inherit.  What a gift!
…could you please explain more about community capitals?
The story is quite simple.   This is the way I see it:
1. Everyone has similar fundamental needs: subsistence, protection, safety and security, affection and communication, freedom of movement and expression, learning and understanding, creativity, participation, leisure, identity and transcendence.
2. People do “stuff” all the time in their daily lives, often to satisfy these needs.  They walk, they talk, they play, they work, etc.
3.  But what they do also creates more permanent “stuff”, like houses, languages, cultivars, human relationships (social capital), landscapes, religions, skills, money, institutions (these I call community capitals, because I see “capital” as the “accumulation of work”).
4.  There is also the God-given earth and sky that some call “natural capital”, and in the sense that humans “work” to define and protect parts of it, I would agree to call it “capital”, or we might want to consider this gift as “Capital”, as the result of the Work of God, the Great Spirit, Mother Earth.
5.  Community capitals are then accessed by people to further satisfy human fundamental needs.  But not everyone has equal access to community capitals.  In fact, some capitals are “subtractive”, that is, like a pie: if I take a piece, that subtracts a piece from everyone else.  So people tend to fight over these capitals.
6.  But then, -here is the magical part- there are also “summatory” capitals, that if I take a piece, it actually sums up to become more for everyone to use.  Like “social capital” for example, if I present my friend to you, I don’t necessarily lose a friend, and you may actually gain one, so we all win.
7.  So it behoves us to invest much more in “summatory capitals” like social capital (human relationships), cultural capital (human knowledge and artefacts), human capital (skills, health, Self-confidence), political capital (organization, political representation), etc.  Where the more we share, the more we have…
Wellbeing, then is based on the satisfaction of fundamental human needs, but also on the “Equitable Access” to community capitals, to the “Sustainability” of the systems that provide us with sources of satisfaction (say, biocultural diversity), Autonomy to decide for ourselves the destiny of our lives, and Security from present and future uncertainties and dangers.
Seeds and languages are “community capitals” (the product of work accumulated down the ages), that are sources of our wellbeing.  Unfortunately, they can quickly be lost, unless we continue to care for them.  So we NEED to care for them.
They are prime examples of “Summatory Community Capitals” where the more we share them, the more we have. That was one of the reasons for MILPA to engage in seed exchanges among small farmers.  No one became poorer for sharing seeds.  Instead, they all were enriched.  (This is a good lesson for those who would promote the privatization of seeds as intellectual property rights!)
Overall, I think that the “development” paradigm needs to give way to something more integral, such as “well-being” that includes areas such as affection, creativity, spirituality, participation, security, identity, understanding, and by all means, subsistence. The multidimensional benefits of biocultural diversity fit in well with a “well-being” paradigm. I think that the “powerful” nations and their communities need to have stories told to them that will make them question their reverence for development, and make them maybe yearn more for well-being, and in this way become allies with our causes.
I know that me, for one, lost the seed of the “Chimbolo” black bean my father cultivated, when he gave me a bag of seed he had produced, and because I was so busy with my “stuff” I didn’t take time to plant them, and when I got to them, the rainy season mould had got to them.  It takes just one growing season to lose a seed that has taken millennia to create or co-create through environmental and human selection.  So we must really cherish the community capitals that we have inherited from our ancestors, recognize the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into them.  We have a great responsibility to continue nurturing the seeds and languages that accompany us, for as we save them today, they may in turn save our lives tomorrow.
Addendum: Even though they can be considered as assets and used to satisfy fundamental needs, sometimes community capitals can also turn out to be liabilities.  Leadership is a community capital and can be used to advance well being.  But contending leaders in a community can cause feuds, block life quality improvements, etc.  Natural resources can be assets, but also liabilities if they provoke invasions to take hold of these resources.  Infrastructure can be a community asset that improves wellbeing, UNLESS it is privately owned and not accessible to all alike.  So, if there is inequitable access to community capitals, this can reduce community wellbeing.  If natural capital or natural resources are exploited unsustainably, this can also reduce wellbeing. If community capitals are not under jurisdiction of the community, this lack of autonomy can convert community assets into community liabilities.  If access and usufruct of community capitals is uncertain, this can also cause unease, turning what could asets, into liabilities.  So, to summarize: community wealth does not automatically translate into community wellbeing.  For community wealth to serve to promote community wellbeing, the conditions of equity, sustainability, autonomy and security should first be guaranteed.

Felipe Montoya-Greenheck is professor of anthropology at the University of Costa Rica. He is an Environmental Anthropologist. For the last 5 years have led research project Linking Marine Turtle Conservation with Community Well-Being in coastal town of Junquillal, Costa Rica. Currently working on projects aimed at linking food traditions with community well-being in rural and urban areas of Costa Rica.

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