The Common Agricultural Heritage of India and Southeast Asia a different Environmental Reality



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The Common Agricultural Heritage of India and Southeast Asia

  • A Different Environmental Reality1

Lindsay Falvey2

To seek a common heritage between agriculture in India and Southeast Asia requires a broad focus. Common technologies, agricultural species, and problems may be cited as evidence of historical interrelationships across the region, but the common heritage in fact is deeper than such physical factors, for heritage itself relates to human relationships. The development of agriculture indicates common regional legacies, but it is the historical interactions between India and Southeast Asia that provide the most critical of commonalities in attitudes to nature, which incidentally contrast with attitudes of the modern West. Therefore, the following discussion firstly considers agriculture and history as preludes to comparisons with Western environmental approaches and some implications of the unique common agricultural heritage of India and Southeast Asia.
Agriculture’s Legacy

The emergence of agriculture may be simplified to show it as the source of civilisation, major religions, and the innovative characteristics that we value about being human. Agriculture did not begin at any single point or time; it was a simple, innocuous, and incremental human modification of the natural environment, which produced exceptional human benefits. The stability created by such simple innovations as mud barriers to retard receding flood waters allowed large and stable settlements, food surpluses, differentiation of labour between persons and seasons,1 and also fostered development of the unique human facility of spiritual understanding. Agriculture underpinned all this, and continues to do so, by a three-fold approach to environmental manipulation.


At its best, agricultural requires the sensitive and minimal modification of the natural environment to ensure a sustainable output. It has followed the three common paths:

  • seeking to increase the availability of a natural resource such as water, soil, or nutrients, or to increase the availability of feeds for animals, or to reduce crop and animal losses by controlling predators, diseases or weeds

  • managing the evolution of both plants and animals by selecting those genotypes which suit human needs and the environments in which the plants and animals are to be raised, and where genetic manipulation through breeding is not feasible, introducing foreign species

  • improving the efficiency of human management techniques in the areas mentioned above in order to gain higher efficiencies of utilisation of limiting resources.2

It is within this requirement of agriculture to modify the natural environment that a common legacy may be sought.
Approaches to modification of the environment for agriculture have varied between cultures as is amplified elsewhere in the text and may be summarised as follows. The Western model for agricultural development has been based on competition, technology and financial efficiency within the overall Western value system, which is necessarily derived from, or today at least influenced by, Christianity. India and Southeast Asia share, to varying degrees, a different religious history, which emphasises community, security, and integration with other values; such commonalities transcend different agricultural origins across Asia.

Agricultural Origins


The agricultures of India and Southeast Asia do not appear to share common origins, but from the first millennium BCE until about AD 1500, Indian influence in key areas of Southeast Asia fostered common views and means of communicating about agriculture and nature. The different origins are summarised from conventional historical views in the following; however, a passing reference to Vavilov might be expected at this point.
Probably the leading plant geographer of the 20th century, Vavilov’s proposition that geographical regions with the maximum diversity within a species are likely to be that species’ centre of origin, because variation increases with the time that a plant had been in a location.3 His explorations led to his definition of 8 centres of origin for crops, of which the centres 2,2a, and 3 indicated in Figure 1 are important to this discussion. Crops concerned included apple, banana, black pepper, breadfruit, carrot, chickpea, citron, coconut, cotton, cucumber, grape, mango, onion, pea, pear, radish, rice, safflower, sesame, spinach, sugarcane, and yam. An overlapping listing of rice and some other crops, and the 2-2a appellation indicate some uncertainty in the proposition of independent origins, and may therefore indicate very early human contact between Indian and Southeast Asia. However, it could also challenge Vavilov’s assumption that genetic diversity was mainly influence by time; for example, a crop introduced to another area that had indigenous variations of the species could accelerate diversity through hybridisation. In any case, such uncertainty is less critical to our current concern, and we might expect more useful data from DNA profiles in the future.
India: From such settlements as the Indus Plains and Baluchistan hills, Indian agriculture is known to date from at least 7,000 BCE, probably beginning with barley and wheat cultivation and sheep and goat herding, and by 5,000 BCE involving domesticated cattle. Such settlements expanded across the Indus system from about 3,500 BCE and eventually to the floodplains. Thereafter, wider agricultural settlements to the southeast seem to have arisen independent of the embryonic Indian cities.4 Subsequent development in India relied on its secure agricultural base, which produced the urban Harappan culture prior to immigrant Aryan pastoralists assumed dominance and expanded agriculture in conjunction with cattle grazing as they oversaw the great Vedic culture. The parallel emergence of higher levels of human consciousness provided not only records of these agricultural developments, but also retained and explained the basis for cultural awareness of humans relationships with nature.5 At least from the Vedic age, agricultural terms such as ‘krish’ (plough) are known to have been employed from Iran to India;6however, their subsequent extension into Southeast Asia, such as the related Thai word for agriculture ‘kaset’ (เกษตร), derive from a later period of Indian influence through the region that ultimately created the critical common heritage.

The early territorial states (600-332 BCE) that followed the Vedic Age were structured around landowners, slaves and labourers within a caste system and expanded trade of agricultural and other commodities. The period is referred to in Buddhist and Jain documents, and influences the moral guidelines they contain; for example, the ideal governance systems of Buddhism assume a moral and aware ruler who lives an exemplary life as an example to those born into lower status within the society.7 The Greeks were also aware of the empires being created in India in this era, some of which aligned religious evolution with governance, such as documented during the Buddhist kingdom of Ashoka.8 The small kingdoms that followed (200 BCE – AD 300) included Greek rulers who adopted Indian religions, such as Menander or Milinda, who converted to Buddhism around 150 BCE. Literature of the period indicates that the majority indigenous populace gradually adopted Aryan culture as they shifted from tribal to peasant economies where agriculture could be expanded with the maritime trading of ruling families.9


The Classical Age (AD 300-650) saw rising international contact, such as the Chinese pilgrim Fa Hsien’s search for Buddhist manuscripts. It also produced advances in astronomy, medicine, and commerce, and was the principal form of Indianisation in Southeast Asia. Indian influence was greatest along trading routes such as the Straits of Melaka and the Srivijaya kingdom of Sumatra, which in turn influenced surrounding areas. Agricultural technology followed contacts, as did religious systems, and the combination represents an essential shared heritage.

Southeast Asia: Classical Indian influence entered Southeast Asia through Brahmanical culture in Sumatra, Java, and Kalimantan, notwithstanding the subsequent replacement of Hindu and Buddhism by Islam. Indianised kingdoms reflecting Indian aesthetics, writing forms, and god-king-ruler concepts emerged in Champa (Vietnam) and Angkor (Cambodia) and spread to other parts of Indo-China with Hinduism and Buddhism, and to Ayutthaya where it expanded the previously introduced Buddhism. Of course, agriculture had developed in Southeast Asia long before this era.
Neolithic sites have been found in all regions of Southeast Asia representing periods from 4,000 to 1,000 BCE. The relatively rapid dispersal of agriculture through the archipelago from Taiwan to Timor seems to have accompanied the migration of Austronesian language speakers about 3,000 BCE. However, archaeological investigation has been limited, the most detailed being within Thailand. Agriculture appears to have evolved from hunting and gathering societies where suitable indigenous plants existed – in southern China with rice, and the New Guinea highlands with root crops, for example. However, over the majority of the area of Southeast Asia, agriculture seems to have been introduced by immigrants as they sought new and suitable environments for rice technology. Rice is the success story of the region as it was taken to new swampy and alluvial areas in preference to laborious construction of artificial flooded conditions. Taro often followed this expansion of rice. As rice spread southward from China, its utility declined due to its photoperiodic nature, severely limiting yields in the equatorial regions of Malaysia and Indonesia until it adapted to the region about a millennia later; it did not spread to the Pacific islands until even later.10
The final centuries BCE saw coastal Southeast Asia enter the metal era in a form directly related to India. This is a critical period for our discussion, even though adoption of Indian form by local elites may even not have penetrated far into local agricultural communities in the first instance. Early Indian contact is evident in Sumatra, the staging port between India and the Funan economy of the Mekong delta. Its centre in Palermbang grew, reflecting its selection not just as a convenience of transit, but also as a fertile rice growing area - indeed, local legend holds that the site was selected after comparing the silt loads of alternative river mouths.11 The Srivijaya kingdom that resulted from reliable rice surpluses attracted Indian traders who influenced areas into southern Thailand and across Java.
Indian culture provided Southeast Asian rulers with a means of demonstrating their social status. Courtly accoutrements, edifices and religions were adopted from India, although not without modification to local mores. Thus the caste system was apparently never fully implemented in Hindu Southeast Asia, and Indian gods were ascribed powers alongside continuing local gods. In agricultural terms, the complex and highly successful Javanese irrigation management systems were largely unaffected by local rulers’ adoption of Indian ways, although they appear to have been used to consolidate influence over the coalitions of water management groups that represented a ruler’s domain. Labour for temple construction was necessarily drawn from the agricultural producers who developed high skills and appear to have not had to compromise seasonal farming operations. Temples became the focus of agricultural marketing, and thus labour may well have been factored into transactions. The essentially ceremonial role of rulers encouraged further orientation to India for art and religio-cultural development, including the sponsoring of Buddhist monks from Nalanda to Srivijaya.
Sea trade routes and the narrow land connection across the Isthmus of Kra in Thailand shaped development of southern Thailand. Its agriculture combined technologies from Indian-influenced Java and Sumatra, and India itself, as well as from extensive trading connections with China. Technologies emanating from Srivijaya, are still evident today, and differ from the rest of Thailand - for example, a small rice-harvesting knife manipulated within the palm of the hand is used to cut ripened racemes rather than the usual Thai scything of rice stalks.
Indian influence is also evident in the Vietnamese Cham kingdom as a means of enhancing a leaders status, although Chinese influence was ultimately greater. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia however, the overwhelming influence was Indian, although not from migration or domination by Indian groups, but more as ready adoption of Indian ways. Traders were the vehicle of influence and came mainly from Gujerat, Malabar and Coromandel, and Bengal. Trade and its pervasive Indian influence continued until the traffic was usurped by European colonial powers.
Initially limited to the elite, Indian influence reached to the agricultural communities through the loose separation of the masses from rulers in the Southeast Asian kingdoms variously influencing religious belief and rites. Adoption of Indian religions introduced teachings and views related to agriculture, which were related to perspectives of the great era of Indian religious consciousness about 2,500 years ago. In that context, agriculture was simply an accepted critical activity of society to be performed attentively and with respect for the environment.12 Such perceptions built on earlier understandings of nature and survived long-term contact with the West.
Contact with the West

The common agricultural heritage of India and Southeast Asia is evident in differences from European influenced cultures in fundamental understandings of the context in which agriculture is practiced. Much more than simple differences in perspective, deeply entrenched cultural values in India through Southeast Asia, are evident in their resilience over more than 2,000 years in the case of India; in fact, archaeological analyses of Roman pottery and other remnants suggest trading contact with India from around 1,000 BCE.


Interaction was already active by the first two centuries of the Roman Empire through links made by Alexandrian Greeks and Egyptians, Syrians and others. While Indian ships probably did not travel west of the mouth of the Red Sea in this period, it is clear that by 25 BCE the coast-hugging trading vessels avoided the Arab states in preference to landing at Barbaricon on the Indus where they sourced Indian, Persian, Tibetan, and Chinese goods. Persians dominated the trade until Augustus coveted the spices, aromatics, and precious stones from Indian ports and entered the trade, leading to an Indian embassy to Augustus at Samos in 21 BCE. Trade of the era also included juices, pepper, spikenard, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, sugar, aloes, cotton, peaches and apricots. India also exported cereals in the form of rice – to east Africa, three breeds of millet – sorghum, spiked millet, and ragi, and wheat – in a two-way trade associated with ships’ crews. Pliny’s writings contain lists of Indian products and prices. From the Roman Empire, India imported metal, coins, and luxury items.13
After two centuries of peaceful trade, this form of contact declined with Rome, and Abyssinians, Arabs and Persians assumed control of the reduced trade. The influence of India on Rome and the West from this period appears to have been significantly underestimated in the Greco-Roman tradition of European history. Nevertheless, Indian-Greek interaction occurred on such matters as the calendar, astronomy, and art styles, particularly sculpture. Similarly the Jataka stories of experiences in the previous lives of the Buddha, as well as other Indian philosophy, influenced neo-platonic texts, although spiritual aspects of these writings have usually been subordinated in modern rational analyses. The integrated morality as lifestyle and teaching as part of a spiritual understanding as advocated in ancient Greece is consistent with Indian spiritual teachings. Abraham quotes that Pythagoras, a contemporary with Buddha in an era of intellectual interaction ‘held the soul to be immortal, … that it migrates into kinds of animals, … that events repeat themselves in a cyclical process and nothing is new in an absolute sense and … that one must regard all living beings as kindred’. That ‘these are the beliefs that Pythagoras is said to have been the first to introduce into Greece’14 may imply a source of such ideas in Indian thought. The disjuncture between the era of such shared insights and their separation in our era further defines the heritage of regions that have retained an understanding of nature different from that of the modern West.
Further indications of deep and long-term interaction may be seen in the congruity of teachings between Christianity and Indian religions, which is greater than conventional history indicates. Interaction is also indicated in such forms as;

  • the obvious mutual influence in sculpture and other art of India and Greece,

  • Alexander the Great’s wisdom in assigning his leading general to maintain the integrity of a functioning Buddhist community in India where the general lived out his life,

  • the known sea and land traffic along trade routes across the regions, and

  • the peripatetic scholars who roamed in search of spiritual knowledge, crossing through Greece, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent.

By the time of Ptolemy, the trading influence of Rome extended into Southeast Asia, where of the Malay traders it is noted - ‘a country of ‘Brigands’ in South Siam and Kambodia had one emporium called Thipinobaste (Bungpasoi near Bangkok) and one city Zabae, and two other places, while in the Great Gulf were several towns each known as a metropolis.’15


So, throughout some 2,000 years of contact, cultural separations remained between the West and India and the Southeast Asia that it had influenced. The shorthand used in this paper for those differences is religion, although variations that are exceptions to this generality are numerous.
Religion, Nature and Agriculture

The Western emphasis of values that it has ascribed or interpreted from the Semitic religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism has lead to a different understanding of human relationships to the environment than has been common among peoples of Hindu, Buddhist or other Indian religions. The difference between these is amplified in the following paragraphs. However, it is first important to clarify apparent tenuous distinctions of current espousals of national religions. Perspectives ascribed to the Semitic religions might be expected to be evident in Islamic states and post European colonial Asia. However, the inherent attitudes toward nature before the arrival Indian influence, which were congruent with and developed by the Indian religions, appear to have remained in such countries as Indonesia and Malaysia, while the more remote and less Indian influenced Philippine Islands seem to have similarly retained attitudes that differ from those of their erstwhile colonial rulers. Until our time, the relatively low levels of whole-of-society participation in Western technologies may have encouraged retention of ancient values largely forsaken in the West.


In agriculture, attitudes to nature are an obvious basis for comparison. Food may be produced within an ecosystem with minimal and considerate interference, or it may be produced by radical and permanent change to the ecosystem. In reality, all agriculture changes the natural ecosystem, and this forms the basis of cultural, or if you like, religious, examination of such an essential human activity.
Western association with Christianity has relied, particularly since the Renaissance until very recently, on a guilt-free dominance of nature including animals. It was understood that man was created with dominion over nature, and this was interpreted, together with desires for constant economic growth, as a licence for exploitation. More recently, environmental concern has caused a reinterpretation of that licence to one of stewardship on behalf of future generations, and indeed concerned theologians now appear to interpret scripture to mean that humans are earthly custodians of nature on behalf of the creator, rather than created to serve their own ends.16 This last interpretation pays tribute to original texts that share insights found in the Indian religions. However, religion is no longer a primary force of the secular West, and its influence is more clearly seen in terms of the assumed licence of earlier years and the ‘enlightened self-interest’ approach of institutional environmental approaches. This has been the force behind international development agencies accommodating environmental aspects in food production, which continue to assume that expansion of intensive technological systems of the West is essential to meet the food demand of rising populations. Expansion of subsistence agriculture, for example, has received less emphasis than introduction of commercial technologies. Thus cultural values of involvement and care of nature and wide involvement in family food production have been lost in favour of economic efficiencies. Interestingly, these legacies of Western development models do not seem to accrue to Islamic development approaches, thereby emphasising the limits to the, albeit useful and correct within its context, rhetoric of the negative environmental influence of Semitic religions.
In particular, the species specificity of the Western view of self, in religious and scientific terms, shapes its worldview. The conception of self as a sheep, human or other species is self-evident to modern secular persons, and shapes attitudes to other persons, and the environment. Buddhism, as one example of Indian influence in Southeast Asia, takes the approach of seeking to understand the conception of the self and its perpetuation, while the secular view accepts the conception fundamentally. Western environmental ethics focuses on rights of non-human species and eco-systems as an extension of human rights approaches, and founders on anthropomorphic conceptions of rights linked to responsibilities for non-human life forms. Ascribing an intrinsic value to each life form as an extension of that approach mimics the notion of autonomous self. The behavioral change expected of humans relies on self-interest arguments for species preservation being of benefit to humans, now or in a distant future. This is the advanced Western view; commerce will continue to adhere to earlier views that are based on human rights to dominate nature and all it contains, and international development represents a tension between these forces. Buddhist attitudes towards the environment assume human relations with other species are only represented as interrelational. It therefore relies less on rights and more on development of human consciousness for insight of such interdependence at all levels and times, the product of which is compassion for all life.17 This heritage, which I understand may be found in the Indian religions that share similar origins, has become the means of expressing relationships with nature across Indianised Asia, and contrasts with the Western view.
Indian religions have retained an emphasis of the interconnectedness of all life, indeed all matter, as a basis for respectful involvement with nature. From the spirits of trees, places, and animals of so called primitive religions to the insights of the great era of spiritual consciousness in India, an inherent human feeling of spirituality in nature has been retained. This may not appear to be the case among the Westernised elite of modern Asia, yet probably remains so for the other billions of persons. The understanding that humans reach their potential when they maintain a balance in material, psychological and spiritual aspects of their lives, a fundamental insight of ancient India, has been lost in Western approaches.18 Comparisons on this basis make the West under-developed, as the imbalance of these aspects is obviously greater when one factor is degraded – such as spirituality, and another emphasised – such as material development and its now self-fuelling engine of technology.
The integrated understanding, or at least feeling, of nature is the essential heritage that is shared between India and Southeast Asia and is that which will be the most critical in the coming era. It arises from the earliest forms of agriculture and before, and has been understood through mystical insight, which to us means an acceptance on the basis of faith in such insights. It is difficult for the economic development models to accommodate, and incidentally explains why sustainable agriculture cannot exist within that model. It also explains how expressions of integrated values can sometimes be misinterpreted as Luddism by Western development advocates. Nevertheless, historical observation suggests that sustainable agriculture relies stable communities sharing a worldview that includes an ecological perspective, which is commonly expressed as a reverence for all life as sacred.19
This difference can be viewed as an accident of history, rather than one of ignorance on the part of the West. To consider the differences that can emerge between an Indian-influenced culture and Western approaches, a short examination follows of Indian influence in Thai agriculture and the concept of basic rights.
Indianised’ Agriculture

The example of Buddhism and Thailand is presented here simply because I am familiar with it to an extent; the following paragraphs are summarised from a recent book on Thai Agriculture,20 extracts of which the Asian Agri-History Association has graciously presented in its journal.21 Other examples can readily be found throughout the region. The Thai experience includes a range of alternatives to intensive agriculture, and leads toward association with spiritual values found to have been omitted in the adoption of intensive agriculture.


Self-Sufficiency: Alternative agriculture is associated with low input and ecologically considerate forms of food production that incorporate essential human values including self-reliance, healthy food, and some income.22. However, it is often a Western concept, and as its name implies, concerns alternatives to intensive commercial agriculture. In Thailand, various ‘alternatives’ have been tried, but the most appropriate must be traditional approaches modified cautiously. Alternatives considered include; the Japanese Fukuoaka farming system, the Kyusei Nature Farming system,23 permaculture,24 a symbiotic agri-aqua-culture system utilizing reduced levels of industrial fertilizers and pesticides,25 ‘organic’ farming,26 and Nature Farming without deliberate killing of pests.27 Another alternative of reducing dependence on chemicals, credit, and forest encroachment accepts lower yields and leads to consideration of simply producing one’s own family food in an integrated farming system, described in Thailand as one element of self-sufficiency.28
His Majesty the King’s advocation of self-sufficiency provides hope for re-evaluation of the role of smallholder agriculture. Among the unique aspects of Thai agriculture, Buddhism has a specific role. The distinctive historical, cultural, and political aspects of Thai agriculture include such aspects as; the legal system, patronage-based relationships, assimilative social character, and acceptance of born rank. These have facilitated consideration of self-sufficiency, which is a bold initiative that would be difficult to introduce in the absence of a such a respected leader as the King, and offers hope for some traditional values residual in rural Thailand to be re-instilled more broadly as its becomes more difficult to promote the Thai identity as having one cultural base or ethnic uniformity. As in times of crisis when familiar beliefs embodied in everyday Thai Buddhism29 have resurfaced and moderated behaviour, so the authoritative and religious associations of self-sufficiency should enhance its application in Thailand.
Self-sufficiency in all aspects of Thai life draws on Thai Buddhism and common sense in advocating frugality, thrift, self-awareness, and lay precepts, which were forgotten by many through the 1980s and 1990s. Redoubled efforts to communicate the essence of self sufficiency in the wake of the economic crisis has raised general awareness, although perhaps only as lip-service across sectors of the urban elite including the civil service.30 The concept is now important to a sensible view of Thailand’s agricultural sector, and is intended to apply to all walks of life.
Application of the approach to the rural sector has been codified in recommendations that aim to produce sufficient food for a farm family on-farm, and to use limited resources, particularly water in an equitable and frugal manner. The system would use minimal external inputs and operate within the ecosystem of the present day. Farm land would be allocated, for example, 30:30:30:10 to: on-farm water conservation for irrigation, integrated poultry production, aquatic plant production and aquaculture; wet rice production; cash and other crops including perennial trees; and housing, composting and backyard production. Indicative rather than prescriptive, the approach provides a starting point within an overriding theme of sustaining a family without reliance on external assistance and without requiring credit-based links to a distant commercial chain. It further promotes cooperative action within a community, reminiscent of Buddhist teachings for self-improvement, in such areas as collective bargaining, sharing of capital items, and negotiation with outside parties, including government officials and commercial interests.31 Rights of humans and nature have similarly been considered from the earliest religious codes of India, particularly rights to food.
Rights: Human rights to food are internationally espoused in theory while denied in fact through such unfortunate acts as occur in ethnic conflicts, and more subtly though misplaced optimism in governance and legal bases, and the ability of competitive economic systems to deliver equitable outcomes. Environmental compromise arising from agriculture can be conceived as a consequence of poverty induced by global forces, as well as population pressure, which itself may arise from inequitable access to knowledge.
The ‘basic needs’ approach of international development appears to address rights, to an extent. However, Indian-derived thought that the right to eat may be the same as the right to breathe is more fundamental than paternal governance schemes. The basic needs of food, clothes, shelter and health care are drawn from at least 2,500 year-old Indian insights into human life, and directly address the essential development questions of equity, stability, and happiness. This is more far-reaching that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 25(1) which states that ‘everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food’. Critical in themselves, these moral guidelines of basic rights derive from agriculture’s success in supporting the societies that developed such insights – now an irony of history where ‘progress’ is alienating increasing numbers of poor people from food production.
The agri-history of India explains the development of agriculture, which allowed sophisticated culture and civilization to emerge. The ability to hoard grain, destroy crops, and create a social hierarchy supported military expansionism, as well as intellectual and religious development. Intellectual, and particularly spiritual, insights of nature and humans indicated the benefit of moral codes, at one level for social stability, and at another for spiritual development, which in turn also produced stability.32
The issue of basic rights in agriculture was recently recognized through the award of the Nobel Prize for Economics to Amrita Sen – and it does not seem to be coincidental that Dr. Sen is steeped in Indian thought. His conclusions that famine is associated with denial of rights to food production through inequitable economic and social policies33 incorporates the ancient wisdom that individuals first need to be assured of the their ability to provide food for their families before other sophistications can be introduced.
In addition to the rights of humans, the rights of nature, long acknowledged in peasant rituals and beliefs, are confirmed in mystical insights as the inter-related nature of all things in a manner understood as ecology by some, and as something more far-reaching by others. Acknowledgement of these rights is re-emerging in Western consciousness34 but has not penetrated development practice and remains separated from spiritual awareness, in contrast to the retention of such divine values in the Indian-influenced world. This common heritage differs from the simpler, secular and compromised attempts of development agencies to ‘introduce’ environmental concept into projects. However, the global expansion of materialist values is eroding Asia’s primary heritage – spiritual connectedness expressed here in agricultural terms; what is interpreted as successful social development to a Western-influenced government department has been touchingly described as a usurping of the power of local spirits by a community aware of the unseen aspects of its environment.35
The rights of people and nature, and an orientation to self-sufficiency that represent a common heritage of India and Southeast Asia contrasts with the secular approaches of Western-influenced nations and development agencies, as is now discussed further.
Secular Approaches

As the main source of modern technology has been the West, its separation of natural science from religion over hundreds of years has influenced the moral position of technology. Weakening influence of moral authority has revealed a relative morality emerging in Western personal life with society being governed by laws that similarly are reinterpreted as morality shifts.36 Through the period that this has occurred, the concept of stability has become associated with material comfort and the rule of law, with obvious material success. However, success is less evident in terms of non-material development, including psychological and spiritual aspects.37 For example, pressures to treat food as a traded commodity conflict with the basic right of all humans to produce food. More balanced approaches as are implied by Indian thought, while usually unthinkingly dismissed as impractical, offer the alternative paradigm of food being produced for home use, sharing and sale of any surplus, with income applied to beneficial outcomes in that community.


If a community is defined as a mutually beneficial network of interdependent persons sharing resources essential to the formation and sustenance of that network, past separation from community approaches and traditional law in the West may explain the failure of development attempts to ‘form’, rather than acknowledge, communities. Secular actions flowing from Hobbes’ 17th century rejection of humans as naturally social beings have developed into respect for the pursuit of personal interests. This in turn requires regulation of human individuality otherwise ungoverned by community moral codes. The concerns of communities, such as kinship, familial groupings, protection of offspring, preservation of lineage, and belief in the strength of the community against external dangers, contrast with national governance structures that assume homogenization of culture, rights, responsibilities, and lifestyles.38 To require that poor country farmers aspire to operate as individuals producing cash crops for income from which inputs, credit, and farm equipment can be paid before family food is purchased, acts against social integrity based on the first right of family to the food they produce. One may more easily posit that any organism from a plant (such as the tattva described by Jackson39) to a human community, or even the universe, has an essence that exceeds the sum of its components within a religio-spiritual understanding imbued through Indian tradition, than one may within a secular or Western approach.
In the relatively poorer nations that concern us here, NGO and related institutional advocacy of traditional approaches to agriculture, and the dispirited farmers earlier induced to trust commercial promises, highlight the value of such traditional values as food self-sufficiency as priorities for small farmers. Traditional community-based systems, and affinities with the natural environment echo some of the sentiments of the leaders in Western environmental philosophy, who are in turn introducing the debates that will probably modify approaches to development in the longer term. If such similarity of viewpoints continues, agricultural science may well be revealed as having neglected its responsibility to ensure food security and environmental protection when it supported commercial agriculture to the exclusion of self-sufficiency. In my opinion, the lessons of agri-history have not received sufficient acknowledgement in the technological focus of Western agricultural science and international agricultural development.
Western science now talks of environmentally sustainable agriculture, which is often mythologised as traditional peasant agriculture. Where such sustainable systems appear to have existed, integrated social, religious, and economic systems were critical to continuity, and individual motivations included some form of spiritual orientation. In more recent experiences, the Green Revolution is a frequently used example of the social and technical success of the Western approach but an environmental failure in its reliance on unsustainable water, chemical, and bio-technical interventions.40 In fact, within its narrow objectives, it was a success – and the current emphasis of technological solutions to environmental problems of new intensive agriculture is likely to lead to similar technical success. However, the narrow definition of such success is already being challenged – such as Jackson’s conclusion that conceptions based on chemical-dependent agriculture ‘fail adequately to describe and explain the structure and functioning of the natural world’ by ignoring or subordinating among other factors, the life of soil, the role of humus and even the movement of liquids.41 Thus, as highlighted in this paper, the essential difference between the Indian-influenced cultures and the Green Revolutionary approach is spiritual – and that is the basis of the common agricultural heritage of India and Southeast Asia.
Common Heritage

In the final section, I will try to suggest the implications of this common heritage as a critical influence on development. Western environmental approaches are largely reactions to the visible degradation caused by technological agriculture, and in seeking an acceptable basis for the implied costs, has used an ‘enlightened self-interest’ approach to settle on maintenance of the natural resource base to determine tolerable levels of pollution, erosion, or over-use of any resource. The resultant reduction of the current significant and widespread agricultural pollution is potentially beneficial, but is constrained by such conflicting objectives as yield or profit maximisation and poverty associated with inequitable labour rates across borders. By contrast, the common heritage of acknowledgement of the divine in nature might well have such objectives as family participation in food production, inter-planting and even indeterminate harvesting according to family food demand, or ritual respect for soil, trees and other elements of nature.


This discussion of a common heritage in agriculture will appear naïve in conventional circles. It implies that technology is better applied to the benefit of all of nature, including humans who may then be freed from the fundamental concerns about food, clothing, shelter, and health. It also implies that small-scale agriculture, with its integration of humans and nature, is a preferred approach to the technologies based on large machines and chemical inputs. One need not provide special support for large-scale the commercially orientated sector as its own objectives provide motivation for its continuance; however, the small-scale approach that is respectful of nature embodied in the common heritage will be a counter to unnecessary expansion of that free-trade commodity approach. As our secular science encounters ‘traditional’ technologies of value, it uses these to improve understanding and management of modern agriculture, as is consistent with advance of science.42 An example for the future may well prove to be improved techniques of rainfall prediction to reach the higher levels of accuracy implied from traditional astro-meteorological theories in India.43 In this way, the commercial commodity, or secular worldview relies on the ‘technological research’ cycle to solve production and environmental ‘problems’ as they impinge on future ‘sustained’ output, conducted within a faith that all such matters are ultimately controllable by humans. As I have argued elsewhere,44 such an approach represents a self-inflicted cycle of disappointment, as each ‘sustained’ scenario encounters ‘problems’ which the continuing ‘technological research’ effort must solve in its constant search for a ‘sustainable’ scenario.
The common heritage of India and Southeast Asia provides a basis for re-orienting research to serve small-scale agriculture in its own right, rather than through adaptations of technologies developed for commercial applications. It is a means of balancing the essence of being human through retaining cultural values that are easily eroded from by some of the less-positive aspects of globalisation. In terms of agri-history, it allows the reinstatement or the retention of the circle of spiritual understanding that developed with the stability provided by agriculture and informed agriculturists of means of operating within nature.



1 Paper prepared for the Asian Agri-History Conference, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India in February 2002.

2 Professor Lindsay Falvey, Chair of Agriculture, University of Melbourne 3010, Australia.

1References:

 Falvey, L. (2000) Thai Agriculture: Golden Cradle of Millennia. Kasetsart University Press, Bangkok. 451pp.

2 Falvey, L. (1996) Food Environment Education: Agricultural Education in Natural Resource Management. Crawford Fund for International Agricultural Research and Institute for International Development, Melbourne. Pp280.

3 Vavilov, N. (1926) Origin and Geography of Cultivated Plants. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK.

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