Integrating peasant knowledge and geographic information systems: a spatial approach to sustainable agriculture

Gerardo Bocco and Víctor M. Toledo

Starting with a discussion of the scientific versus the traditional methods of land evaluation and perception, the authors formulate a methodological framework to integrate both perspectives into a geographic-information/expert-system environment aimed at sustainable development of a rural community, and present a case study in Central Mexico.

Sustainable agriculture has been defined as the ability of a productive system to maintain its productivity over long periods of time without severe or permanent degradation of land resources or ecosystems. Sustainable agriculture depends largely on a correct use of natural resources. The optimum use of land resources or ecosystems must be based on a certain ecological rationality, i.e., the process of making correct decisions during the rural productive activities (Toledo 1990). In the final analysis, correct decision-making requires a detailed evaluation of the possibilities which the land offers for human utilization at micro-scale levels. Ecological constraints must be carefully assessed on the basis of selected spatial units.
In its discussion of the two ways of evaluating landscapes for agricultural uses, the present article takes as its starting point traditional ecological knowledge (Inglis 1993; DeWalt 1994) and its spatial representation (Tabor & Hutchinson 1994; Gonzalez 1995). It offers a methodological framework for integrating these traditional and scientific perspectives within a geographic-information/expert-system environment. The main assumption is that a spatial perspective contributes to the merging of scientific and traditional knowledge in order to arrive at sustainable agriculture at the rural community level. The test case for this assumption may well be the community of Nuevo San Juan in Central Mexico, which is highlighted in the article.

The scientific ways of defining land
At a rural community level, the discrimination, labelling and qualification of spatial units can be carried out by scientists/technicians or by local farmers. In the first case, this will involve the scientific method (knowledge). In the second case, the practical and personal experience of the rural producers (wisdom).
The scientific methods involved in defining homogeneous landscape units are well established; they make use of the geomorphic and the geopedologic (or ecological) approach (see Zonneveld 1980; Verstappen 1983; Zinck 1988), as well as techniques involving field data collection, assisted by visual and/or digital image interpretation of remotely sensed data. In addition, several decades of research efforts in disciplines such as soil science, rural geography, geomorphology, landscape ecology, and agronomy have resulted in land evaluation procedures for various agricultural production systems (see Rossiter 1990; Fresco et al. 1992). And over time geographic databases and geographic information systems (GIS) have become efficient tools for data collection, storage and analysis (see Valenzuela 1991; Poole 1995).
Up to now, most of the technical work has been aimed exclusively at land use planners, administrators and politicians. The technical or scientific approach suffers from two major limitations: scale and applications. In land evaluation, the microspatial scale has been neglected in favour of the regional and national. In addition, local producers have not been taken into consideration, either as participants or as recipients (Blaikie 1991; Box 1991). Local knowledge and local appraisals of landscape have seldom been integrated into landscape analysis and land evaluation (Wilken 1987; Bocco 1991).

Peasants' perceptions of landscape units
The second way in which landscape can be evaluated is by peasant or local producers. Their perception of landscape units can be revealed through ethno-ecological research (see, for example, table 1, where Chinanteco units formed the point of departure for the characterization and use of the land). We have defined the main objective of the ethno-ecological approach as an exploration of how nature is seen by human groups through a screen of beliefs, knowledge and purposes (corpus), and how humans use their images to manage and appropriate natural resources (praxis) (Toledo 1992). There have been a great many publications on these two subjects during the last two decades (Brokensha, Warren and Werner 1980; Klee 1980; Richards 1985). But most of the underlying research has been either devoted to compiling factual data, or restricted to only part of the phenomenon. The peasant cognitive system, for instance, was artificially separated from the intricate system formed by corpus and praxis. Or the cognitive body was only partially studied, so that the researcher dealt either with 'fractions' such as plants, animals, and soils, or the 'dimensions' of the entire system, like classification systems or utilitarian elements (Arrouays 1987; Adewole Osunade 1989; Furbee 1989).
We believe that the solution to the above mentioned conceptual and methodological problems lies in developing ethno-ecological research methods jointly with scientific landscape analysis, using GIS as a major tool. Peasant knowledge at the spatial unit level can be used and validated by comparing it with the results of landscape analysis. Micro-scale landscape assessment can be compared with the peasant's perception of his/her space and resources. This integration may indicate a way forward in the search for sustainability, by matching scientific and peasant knowledge and practices.

A framework for integrating landscape knowledge
The first step in accomplishing the aims described above is to define and map the homogeneous landscape units that will be used to analyze the landscape, followed by scientific land evaluation and peasant conceptualization of landscape units. This involves micro-scale mapping of integrated land forms and soils, and of vegetation-land use. Both levels (a-biotic and biotic) must be integrated into the databases of a GIS.
Next, a 'technical' land evaluation is performed to establish the suitability of the spatial units for selected farming systems (agriculture, forestry, grazing, and fishing) and crop suitability. In addition, standard land evaluation procedures are used to develop the corresponding decision trees of an expert system (see Rossiter 1990). The results are integrated into the GIS, to ensure a proper spatial analysis, whereby the spatial units link the expert system and the GIS.
The next step is to make an inventory of landscape units and land evaluation procedures, as conceptualized by peasants. This makes it possible to recognize the spatial units as defined and labelled by the peasant communities, and to understand how these units were conceptualized (criteria and methods). Thus local landscape knowledge has to be recorded and synthesized through formal survey questionnaires at the household level, interviews with selected informants, and participant observation.
A crucial step is the validation of the peasant landscape knowledge. This is done by scrutinizing the productive systems of the community and by constructing ethno-maps. Peasant decision trees are also drawn up, as well as a 'local' or peasant expert system. All of this information is incorporated into the GIS.
The actual integration takes place at two levels. First, the two approaches are integrated, in order to compare scientific landscape units with peasant landscape units. The comparison should answer the following questions:

-which are the landscape units defined by each of the approaches?
-what are the constituent elements of the units?
-what is the scope and practical significance of the units?

At the second level, the technical and the peasant land evaluations are compared. This comparison should tell us:

-which are the productive systems and crops selected by the respective approaches?
-how are the decision trees of the expert systems structured?

And finally, peasants and technicians will be able to collaborate in defining a strategy for a sustainable use of the natural resources of the community under study. The results obtained must be reviewed on the basis of available documents (maps and ethno-maps) and technical tools (GIS and expert systems), and will ultimately take the form of a final geo-referenced management plan at the community level, a synthesis of the joint discussions and the knowledge integration.

The case of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro
At the moment, we are testing the integrated framework sketched above in the community of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro. Nuevo San Juan is a Purepecha self-sustained forest community in the state of Michoacán, Central Mexico (Bocco et al. 1997). The community gained national and international renown because of its successful long-term forest management (Alvarez Icaza 1993).
The community was mindful of the changes in the timber market that occurred after Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect in January 1994, and was anxious to avoid dependence on a single product. Therefore it was important to draw up a management plan. This plan would have to assess the possiblities for diversifying the exploitation of resources in a sustainable manner. The community wanted the plan to encompass biodiversity and land conservation, diversified production, and sustainability. In addition, people were keen on having an opportunity to use sophisticated technology.
In applying our framework, we took care to use a co-investigation approach, in this case, a participatory approach for the geopedologic mapping and the land evaluation, as well as for drawing up the management plan. The participation of technical personnel within the community was found to be crucial, as were the training of community personnel in the automated technologies (remote sensing, GIS, expert systems), and the implementation of the GIS in the community technical office by the community itself.
Another important aspect of the project is the fact that researchers from outside the community receive training in the community's perception of landscape and landscape utilization. Existing training programmes for other indigenous forest communities will benefit from this approach.
The community of Nuevo San Juan is already using the ecological knowledge obtained through the use of the combined scientific and peasant analysis: in wildlife management, in the design of plans for ecotourism, in developing environmental education programmes, and in improved management of water resources for alternative crops. Maps of a critical drainage basin have helped to illustrate the importance of contributing to the ecological equilibrium in the vicinity of the community territory. Most of the base-flow feeding springs and drainage to crucial water courses in the community originate in an adjacent ill-managed natural reserve, with intense accelerated erosion on some of the sloping areas. Now the community has at its disposal the factual data to request--or to contribute to--a proper restoration and management of the reserve. The planting of pine trees plays an important role in this restoration.
In summary, the results of this case study indicate that a suitable combination of two major sources of knowledge, the traditional and the scientific, using GIS as an integrating tool, can contribute to the sustainable development of a peasant community.

Gerardo Bocco and Víctor M. Toledo
Researchers at Centro de Ecología
AP 27-H, Santa María Guido
58090 Michoacán, Mexico
Fax: +52-43-244305

Adewole Osunade, M.A. (1989) 'Optimisation of traditional systems of soil resources inventory to achieve increased agricultural production', Third World Perspective Review 11(1):97-108.

Alvarez Icaza, P. (1993) 'Forestry as a social enterprise', Cultural Survival 17(1):45-47.

Arrouays, D. (1987) 'Farmers' knowledge and soil survey: a multivariate treatment of agropedological data', Soil Survey and Land Evaluation 7:81-86.

Blaikie, P. (1991) 'Decentralization and participation in soil and water conservation: new opportunities and new problems', ITC- Journal 1991-4:281-285.

Bocco, G. (1991) 'Traditional knowledge for soil conservation in central Mexico', Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 46(5):346-348.

Bocco, G., A. Velásquez, F. Rosete and C. Siebe (1997) 'Geopedological knowledge for the management of indigenous natural resources. The case of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, Michoacán, Mexico', Am. Ass. Geog. 1997 Annual Meeting, Fort Worth, Texas.

Box, L. (1991) 'Mapping on a human scale: local knowledge and institutionalized ignorance in development research', ITC-Journal 1991-4:276-280.

Brokensha, D.W., D.M. Warren and O. Werner (eds) (1980) Indigenous knowledge systems and development. University Press of America.

DeWalt, B.R. (1994) 'Using indigenous knowledge to improve agriculture and natural resource management', Human Organization 53(2):123-131.

Furbee, L. (1989) 'A folk expert system: soils classification in the Colca Valley, Peru', Anthropological Quarterly 62(2):83-102.

Fresco, L.O., H.G. Huizing, H.v. Keulen, H.A. Lunning and R.A. Schipper (1992) Land evaluation and farming systems analysis for land use planning. FAO Working Document. Rome-Enschede-Wageningen: FAO-ITC-Wageningen Agricultural University.

Gonzalez, R. (1995) 'KBS, GIS and documenting indigenous knowledge', Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor 3(1):5-7.

Inglis, J. (ed.) (1993) Traditional ecological knowledge. Concepts and cases. International Program on Traditional Ecological Knowledge-International Development Research Centre. Ottawa.

Klee, G.A. (ed.) (1980) World systems of traditional resource management. New York: Halstead Press.

Poole, P. (1995) 'Land-based communities, geomatics and biodiversity conservation', Cultural Survival 18(4):74-76.

Richards, P. (1985) Indigenous agricultural revolution. Ecology and food production in West Africa. London: Hutchinson.

Rossiter, D.G. (1990) 'ALES: a framework for land evaluation using a microcomputer', Soil Use and Management 6(1):7-20.

Tabor, J. and C. Hutchinson (1994) 'Using indigenous knowledge, remote sensing and GIS for sustainable development', Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor 2(1):2-6.

Toledo, V.M. (1990) 'The ecological rationality of peasant production', pp.51-58 in Altieri, M. and S. Hecht (eds) Agroecology and small farm development. Boca Ratón: CRC Press.

Toledo, V.M. (1992) 'What is ethno-ecology? Origin, scope and implications of a rising discipline', Etnoecológica 1(1):5-21.

Valenzuela, C.R. (1991) 'The digital geographic information system as a management tool', Impact of Science on Society 156:314-323.

Verstappen, H.Th. (1983) Applied geomorphology. Geomorphological surveys for environmental development. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Wilken, G.C. (1987) Good farmers. Traditional agricultural resource management in Mexico and Central America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Zinck, J.A. (1988) Physiography and soils. Enschede: ITC.

Zonneveld, I.S. (1980) Land evaluation and landscape science. Enschede: ITC.

We would like to thank Rosa Pineda for technical support, and Alejandro Velázquez and a reviewer (ir J. de Graaff, Wageningen Agricultural University, the Netherlands -AvM) for useful comments on an earlier draft. The first author thanks DGAPA (University of Mexico, project in101196).

Up to now, most of the technical work has been aimed exclusively at land use planners, administrators and politicians

The ethno-ecological approach explores how nature is seen by human groups through a screen of beliefs, knowledge and purposes…

…and how humans use their images to manage and appropriate natural resources

The community wanted the plan to encompass biodiversity and land conservation, diversified production, and sustainability

Table 1 Landscape units and land utilization by the chinantecos of Oaxaca (Mexico)

Chinanteco unit Terrain type Geomorphic unitLand usesMain products
Huoseh Sandy soil UpperterraceRain-fedagriculture Water-melonbanana, maize
HuonehYellow soilMiddleterraceRain-fedagriculture Maize, riceand chili
HuotehWet soilLower terrace and flood-plain Rain-fed and irrigated agriculture, fishing Maize, rice, chili, bananatobacco, cocoaand fish
Huocuah Hard soilLower footslopeRain-fed agriculture andagroforestry Maize, beans, cotton, rice, sesame, tomato, coffee and orchards
Huoyin Red soil Upper footslope Grazing and agroforestryCattle andorchards
Huomah Black soil Deunudational slope Agroforestry and extractiveactivities Barbasco, tobacco nursery, orchards and timber
HuomahBlack soilDeunudational slopeAgroforestry and extractiveactivities Barbasco, tobacco nursery, orchards and timber
Huohmeh High forest Summit level Hunting, extractive and collecting activities Forest resources, game and wild fruits

(Terrain types are translations of the chinanteco names)

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