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Copyright © 2003 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Coomes, O. T. 2003. Brookfield, H. 2001. Exploring agrodiversity. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA. Conservation Ecology 7(1): 4. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss1/art4/

Book Review

Brookfield, H. 2001. Exploring Agrodiversity. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Oliver T. Coomes

McGill University

Published: January 29, 2003

Harold Brookfield has written a book well worth the read. An Australian geographer, Brookfield draws on 40 yr of research experience in tropical agriculture and a talent for fine synthesis to provide us with an insightful and engaging volume. Exploring Agrodiversity, which is written in easy, fluid prose, examines the dynamics and implications of agricultural diversity among small holders in a range of tropical environments. Intended for a subgroup of geography and anthropology scholars, i.e., "cultural ecologists" or researchers who study rural livelihoods and environmental issues affecting traditional peoples, this work is also of relevance to scientists working in the fields of conservation ecology, agricultural and environmental sciences, and global land use and land cover change.

Few scholars are as well positioned as Brookfield to write about dynamic diversity in traditional agricultural systems centered on the farmer and the farm. As a geographer, he is at ease exploring subjects ranging from pedoturbation to vesicular-arbuscular mycorrhiza or apomixis to quasiagnatic subclans, often with the bracing common sense born of long, deep experience in the field. He draws on concepts/approaches not only from his own discipline, i.e., landscape and environmental history, but also from anthropology, i.e., ethnography, and from ecology, i.e., dynamic nonequilibrium and resilience. In discussing tropical agriculture, Brookfield reaches back to pan-tropical research conducted in the 1930s as comfortably as others do to the 1960s, with a wonderful knack for extracting the germane and a clear delight at setting conventional wisdom on its ear.

At the center of the book is the notion of agrodiversity and the role of small, traditional farmers as an innovative and dynamic force in agricultural change. By "agrodiversity," a term he coined and claimed in 1992, Brookfield (2001) refers to the " ... dynamic variation in cropping systems, output and management practices that occurs within and between agroecosystems." This is agrodiversity writ large, underpinned by heterogeneity in biophysical conditions, and comprising agricultural biodiversity, management diversity, and organizational diversity. Although observable at multiple scales, agrodiversity in the landscape, often the geographer's scale of choice, holds center stage. Farmers respond to variations in edaphic and microclimatic conditions to manage the land in diverse ways, from the plot or garden to the farm, hill slope, or valley; their efforts are imprinted in the land and revised over time with experimentation and responses to changing contextual conditions such as market demand. The outcomes are dynamic, i.e., nonequilibrium, agricultural change and landscape-based agricultural diversity. The bridge onward from diversity to sustainability, according to Brookfield, lies in the resilience of small farmers and their varied agricultural practices and portfolios.

The book is divided into four parts that take the reader from an initial overview of agrodiversity in Part 1 to a deeper examination of shifting cultivation systems in Part 2, the paths of agricultural change in Part 3, and speculations about the future of agrodiversity in Part 4. In the five chapters of Part 1, Brookfield introduces the reader to the landscapes of traditional farmers in different places and times to convey both diversity in land management and the historical dynamism of local land use. Through his eyes and others, we follow the changing landscapes of the Chimbu farmers of Mintima, Papau New Guinea, from 1958, when he first arrived, to 1991; of hill farmers in Ifugao, Philippines, from 1963 to 1980; of the Zande of southern Sudan from the 1920s to the 1980s; of the Quechua of southern Andean Peru during the 1970s and 1980s; and of peasant farmers around the ever expanding city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from the 1950s to the 1980s. Definitions of diversity are presented, taxonomies explored, and the main themes of the book set forth in Chapter 3. Two final chapters in this section pull through the threads of historical dynamism and the ways in which farmers use biophysical diversity in the land; one examines the (pre)history of agriculture through the lens of agrodiversity, and the other introduces soils as the "substrate" of agrodiversity, soil management, and basic soil-plant relationships.

In Part 2, which consists of four chapters, Brookfield explores agrodiversity among the most maligned of all farmers, the "slash-and-burners," who live in low to medium densities in tropical forests. Forest farmers from Borneo to Zambia and the Amazon are shown to use highly diverse farming systems, crop-fallow regimes, and approaches to land selection and rules of access. Perhaps more important, small farmers are not passive recipients of external change but rather agents who purposefully shape their landscapes through innovative practices for cropping (Chapter 6), for the management of poor soils (Chapter 7) as well as of forest plants in fallowing (Chapter 8), and for coping with problems of fertility depletion, land slips, and floods (Chapter 9).

In the three chapters of Part 3, we encounter Brookfield in full flight as he explores the roots of agricultural change, i.e., the "revolutionary" shifts in practice, sketching out the historical trajectories of farming landscapes in Spain, Japan, Java, and northwest Europe (Chapter 10) and of postcolonial Mali, Nigeria, and Kenya (Chapter 11). Highlighted here are the ways in which small farmers drive systemic change, initiating and guiding the paths of profound change in land use. Brookfield rounds out the discussion of agricultural change with the case of the Green Revolution (Chapter 12). Beginning in the 1920s rather than nominally in the 1960s, he illustrates the role of small farmers and of contingency in affecting the varied outcomes of the Green Revolution in India and Java.

In the final two chapters of Exploring Agrodiversity, Brookfield considers modern trends in agriculture, specifically the contributions of the gene revolution and of modern alternative, i.e., bio-friendly, agriculture. The treatment is fair and balanced, although perhaps less authoritative and geographically or historically sensitive as in previous chapters. On the prospects of biotechnology, Brookfield is cautiously optimistic, pointing to the role of agrodiverse practices in long-term sustainability and the need to bring together traditional farmers and the form sector to experiment with and adapt these new technologies. In the epilogue, Brookfield is likewise optimistic about the future of agrodiversity. He notes growing recognition, by both researchers and key funding institutions, of the importance of agrodiversity and the role of small holders in agricultural development and conservation. Scientists who study agrodiversity are seen as the natural allies of small farmers. In addition, Brookfield argues that the investment and adaptability of small farmers, qualities that are so evident in historical agricultural change, are likely to be even more important in the future.

Throughout the book, Brookfield pricks the favorite balloons of less critical observers of traditional farming, those guided perhaps more by the wisdom of "popular science" than by field experience. Some of the conventional misconceptions about small farmers that he addresses are that they are pervasively conservative and isolated, when in reality they are progressive, innovative, and even revolutionary; that land degradation leads inevitably to impoverishment rather than farmer innovation and recuperative land use; that slash-and-burn farming is "primitive" and the "original" farming system developed in prehistory; that traditional farmers prefer monocropping rather than rich polycropping; and that soil loss rather than the depletion of soil fertility is the primary concern of small holders. The extensive and judiciously balanced bibliography is particularly helpful for those readers who grapple with these and related issues; indeed, the list of references is recommended for all students of traditional agriculture.

Apart from its direct contributions to our understanding of traditional tropical agriculture, Brookfield's book reminds this reviewer of two key points. First, it is a testimony to the value of long-term field observations in understanding agricultural change and its implications. Return visits by researchers to their original field sites have given rise to a growing recognition of the dynamism and contingency of the processes of land use and land cover change. Insights garnered from "a field season or two" or the obligatory "one year in the field" for ethnographers pale in comparison, as Brookfield shows, to those obtained through punctual observations made over 30–40 yr. In fact, growing numbers of researchers are returning and seeking to share their insights and experience, although not always through published work. How might such efforts be furthered? And how can the duration of observation be extended beyond the career of one researcher, i.e., "intergenerationally," so that young researchers may carry on the work in these regions, providing continuity of inquiry that eventually will give rise to truly "long-term" records of agricultural change?

Second, the book suggests the need to consider the concept of agrodiversity more closely, both as an analytical construct and as a focus of inquiry. Interest in agrodiversity is reminiscent of that in ecology, i.e., biological diversity, where, as in rural economics, i.e., income diversification, much effort is devoted to taxonomic/accounting concerns, although Brookfield thankfully avoids this. In areas such as these, "more diverse" is equated with "better," and "diversity" shifts from being an analytical means and emergent property to becoming a normative end in itself. However, are more diverse traditional agricultural systems really more sustainable? How are resilience and sustainability in agrosystems linked? What types of agrodiversity matter most? Indeed, should we be focusing on diversity per se, i.e., variation or richness in crops, cropping/fallowing sequences, etc., or on the composition of agrodiversity, namely, functional diversity, and the underlying processes that give rise to those diversity outcomes that matter most to resilience and sustainability? Brookfield's work points us along the path to a better understanding of traditional farming, the dynamics of agricultural change, and the expression of change in the landscape. Others, perhaps, will explore the microfoundations of agricultural diversity and its links to sustainability.


Brookfield, H. 2001. Exploring Agrodiversity. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA. 608 pp., hardcover, U.S.$78.00, ISBN 0-231-10232-1, paperback, U.S.$36.50, ISBN 0-231-10233-X.


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Brookfield, H. 2001. Exploring agrodiversity. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Address of Correspondent:
Oliver T. Coomes
Department of Geography
McGill University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada H3A 2K6
Phone: (514) 398-4943

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