Tropical Agroecosystems

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Science  21 Dec 1973:
Vol. 182, Issue 4118, pp. 1212-1219
DOI: 10.1126/science.182.4118.1212


I have listed some of the ways in which the lowland tropics are not such a warm and wonderful place for the farmer, some of the reasons why it may be unreasonable to expect him to cope with the problems, and some of the ways in which the temperate zones make his task more difficult. The tropics are very close to being a tragedy of the commons on a global scale (69, 103), and it is the temperate zone's shepherds and sheep who are among the greatest offenders (31). Given that the temperate zones have some limited amount of resources with which they are willing to repay the tropics, how can these resources best be spent? The first answer, without doubt, is education, and the incorporation of what is already known about the tropics into that education. Second should be the generation of secure psychological and physical resources for governments that show they are enthusiastic about the development of an SYTA. Third should be support of intensive research needed to generate the set of site-specific rules for specific, clearly identified SYTA's.

The subject matter of youths' cultural programming is presumably determined by what they will need during the rest of their lives. A major component of this programming should be the teaching of the socioeconomic rules of a sustained-yield, nonexpanding economy, tuned to the concept of living within the carrying capacity of the country's or region's resources. Incorporating such a process into tropical school systems will cause a major upheaval, if for no other reason than that it will involve an evaluation of the country's resources, what standard of living is to be accepted by those living on them, and who is presently harvesting them. Of even greater impact, it will have to evaluate resources in terms of their ability to raise the standard of living by Y amount for X proportion of the people in the region, rather than in terms of their cash value on the world market.

For such a change to be technologically successful, it will require a great deal of pantropical information exchange. This information exchange will cost a great deal of resource, not only in travel funds and support of on-site study, but in insurance policies for the countries that are willing to take the risk of trying to change from an exploitative agroecosystem to an SYTA. For such an experiment to be sociologically successful, it will require a complete change in tropical educational systems, from emphasizing descriptions of events as they now stand, to emphasizing analysis of why things happen the way they do. This will also be very expensive, not only in retreading the technology and mind-sets of current teaching programs, but in gathering the facts on why the tropics have met their current fate.

There is a surfeit of biological and agricultural reports dealing with ecological experiments and generalities which suggest that such and such will be the outcome if such and such form of resource harvest is attempted. It is clear that human desiderata regarding a particular site are often radically different from the needs of the "average" wild animals and plants that formed the basis for such experiments and generalities. A finely tuned SYTA will come close to providing a unique solution for each region. The generalities that will rule it are highly stochastic. The more tropical the region, the more evenly weighted the suboutcomes will be, and thus the more likely each region will be to have a unique overall outcome. For example, it is easy to imagine four different parts of the tropics, each with the same kind of soil and the same climate, with four different, successful SYTA's, one based on paddy rice, one on shelterwood forestry, one on tourism, and one on shifting maize culture.

A regional experiment station working holistically toward an SYTA is potentially one of the best solutions available. As currently structured, however, almost all tropical experiment stations are inadequate for such a mission. Most commonly they are structured around a single export crop such as coffee, sugar, rubber, cotton, cacao, or tea. A major portion of their budgets comes directly or indirectly from the industry concerned. This industry can hardly be expected to wish to see its production integrated with a sustained-yield system that charges real costs for its materials. When an experiment station is centered around a major food crop, such as rice or maize, the goal becomes one of maximizing production per acre rather than per unit of resource spent; this goal may often be translated into one of generating more people. More general experiment stations tend to be established in the most productive regions of the country and, therefore, receive the most funding. Such regions (islands, intermediate elevations, areas with severe dry seasons) need experiment stations the least because they can often be successfully farmed with only slightly modified temperate zone technologies and philosophies. The administrators of tropical experiment stations often regard their job as a hardship post and tend to orient their research toward the hand that feeds them, which is certainly not the farming communities in which they have been placed.

The tropics do not need more hard cash for tractors; they need a program that will show when, where, and how hand care should be replaced with draft animals, and draft animals with tractors. The tropics do not need more randomly gathered, esoteric or applied agricultural research: they need a means to integrate what is already known into the process of developing SYTA's. The tropics do not need more food as much as a means of evaluating the resources they have and generating social systems that will maximize the standard of living possible with those resources, whatever the size. The tropics need a realistic set of expectations.

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