Revalorising Small Millets in Rainfed Regions of South Asia
An Action Research Project to Raise the Profile of Small Millets

project themes

Theme 4: Revitalize indigenous knowledge and socio-cultural practices

The decoding of crop diversity in any agrarian society, as Brush (2004) explains, tells the story of a place, its people and their struggle for survival, and the relationship between nature and the society. Brush’s perspective is equally applicable to small millets, which are an ancient food in South Asia. The project departs from ethno-ecological perspectives that see indigenous knowledge as collective, homogenous, timeless and ‘fossilized’ (Shiva 1993 and 2001, Vasavi 1994: 295, Maffi 2001). Rather, this study holds that indigenous knowledge is created in continuous process, subject to divergent and conflicting interpretations, and evolves through collective as well as individual efforts. Following Nyerges (1997), the project will approach indigenous knowledge systems as: (a) the ‘practice of ecology’ and (b) the ‘ecology of practice’.

Research on these two ways of understanding indigenous knowledge systems will be based on a suite of mixed social science methods (Tashakkori and Teddlie 1998) including household surveys, semi structured and in-depth interviews, focus group discussions, participatory rural appraisal, and participant observation. Participation will be assured by using dialogical and participatory methods where participants are involved in helping to direct the research process (Mayoux and Chambers, 2005; Classen et al. 2008). As women play crucial roles in many agricultural operations, including seed management, storage, processing and cooking, gender sensitive methods will be used to understand their knowledge systems (Kirby et al. 2006) and to empower them through validation of this knowledge. Since gender empowerment is increasingly recognized as a journey rather than product (Cornwall and Edwards, 2010), we will seek to document the process of change in gender roles associated with validation of local knowledge through the most significant change (Davies and Dart 2005) approach and with ethnography more generally. To understand how well indigenous knowledge related to small millets is transmitted locally across generation and gender at present, the project will hold a competition among primary school children (10-13 year olds) and village women to assess their knowledge of small millets and their usage (Shukla and Gardner 2006). This segment of the research will involve local and Canadian graduate students in collaboration with the social scientists and development professionals engaged in the project.

Practice of Ecology

This perspective emphasizes research on farmers’ practices, knowledge and skills related to farming; their natural resource management; and their food and livelihood options. The project will focus on agronomic practices, soil and water conservation, plant protection, characterization of crop varieties, conservation and improvement of crop varietal diversity, harvesting and processing of crop produce, grains storage and quality, coping mechanisms for environmental risks, nutritional qualities, and cooking and consumption of small millets. The project expects that the indigenous knowledge systems will, to a certain degree, reflect intuition, faith, and values that are difficult to translate into rational explanation or use in scientific experimentation. On the other hand, in the context of agriculture and a diversity of cultivated species, indigenous knowledge will also be based on farmers’ rational thinking and empirical experiences (Soleri et al 2002). This area of knowledge systems can be codified, explained, validated, and augmented through the application of formal sciences. Some innovative agricultural practices developed by farmers will be incorporated into project participatory varietal selection trials, on-farm experimentation, and value addition research. These activities will help bridge between formal scientific and informal indigenous knowledge systems while acknowledging the role and significance of socioeconomic and cultural factors. The outcome of documentation of indigenous practices and subsequent validation and value addition will be disseminated to farmers within and across project sites.

The ecology of practice

This dimension of the research focuses on forces shaping or driving change such as ethnicity, gender, economic conditions and livelihood options, sociocultural institutions, and politics. The project will collect data on socioeconomic variables at individual, household, and community levels. A particular focus will be to understand how the power dynamics of resource allocation, reinforced through sociocultural institutions and the state, affect the poor, women, and marginalized social groups. Quantitative socioeconomic data will be gathered to analyze trends related to topics including resource use, access to land, and the nutritional balance of food consumption, food habits and daily energy use. Understanding the sociocultural context in which knowledge is produced and reproduced will help to identify structural limitations on disseminating any changes introduced by the project. Awareness of these limitations will increase the likelihood that interventions will reach marginalized groups, especially underprivileged women. Decoding the ecology of practice requires long term research and reflection, combining insights from both external viewpoints and local positions.