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Ecological Approaches to Rural Development

Reprinted from Proceedings of the International Conference on Forest Biology and Conservation in Borneo, July 30 - August 3, 1990, edited by Ghazally Ismail, Murtedza Mohamed, and Siraj Omar. Center for Borneo Studies Publication No. 2. Kota Kinabalu: Yayasan Sabah.
G. N. Appell
Borneo Research Council


A rural village community is enmeshed in a complex web of exchanges with its environment and its population. This trophic web, including the population and its organization, is simplified by development. Agricultural by development. Agricultural simplification eliminates the various ecological baffles and adaptive resources that insulate the community against perturbations in the environment. Development also brings the community into the world economic system. Thus, development requires building support institutions at the national level to insulate the community from both environmental disasters and perturbations in the world economic system. Reliance on the national level can be minimized if agricultural diversity is encouraged with mixed cropping and preservation of forest reserves for continued use. Thus, to minimize external costs it is advantageous to build onto the provisioning practices of the rural community, taking advantage of their complex ecosystem exchanges. Local religious beliefs serve as indicators of fragile links in the trophic web. The religious system also justifies the redistributive system in the population, which if destroyed requires the involvement of support and maintenance from the national level. Development also results in loss of indigenous knowledge, loss of cultivars, loss of wild species. Assessments of what is to be lost should be considered to ascertain their value to humankind. The education system also disarticulates the population from its ecosystem. Schools should consider incorporating into their curricula resources of the local community and education by known masters of knowledge and skills to prevent the loss of community knowledge and resources. An explanation is advanced for why development agents ignore the local community resources, both social and ecological, that would facilitate change and make it more successful. Social change also produces health consequences as a community is disarticulated from its local ecosystem. A model of a rural community is presented and the costs analysed to develop such a community into irrigation or plantation agriculture. One of the resources of the community is its medical system. Medical facilities re recommended to minimize the health consequences of development, but is also import to support the local medical system rather than devalue it, for belief in the efficacy of medicine cures in 20 to 70 percent of the cases.


Development has ecological ramifications that we are just beginning to understand. And these ramifications spread out to include regions remote from where such acts of rural development actually occur. For example, the development of the northern forest in the U.S.S.R. and North America has resulted in dioxin flowing into the Arctic Sea. It has then been brought into the food chain by the fish and arctic sea mammals that the Eskimo live on. As a result, now, in the most remote areas of the world, along the almost vacant arctic coast, Eskimo women can no longer breast feed their children because of the high levels of dioxin in their milk.

Examples such as these are rapidly accumulating, and they show the complex interlinkages of our world ecosystem. However, rather than discussing these world-wide impacts of rural development, I want to start at the beginning of this chain of interlinkages and focus on the village level to see how such ecological ramifications are set in motion. Perhaps this way we can design better approaches that minimize the spread of ecological consequences, that prevent environmental degradation, and most importantly that provide benefits to the local village itself. These benefits can then grow to aid the surrounding region, and eventually the nation itself, which in turn influences the world-wide environments.

For example, while the cutting of the tropical forest may result in atmospheric damage, affecting us all, there is evidence now that it can cause a shift in local weather regimes so that there is a decrease in precipitation and a longer dry season. This in turn can have major local agricultural consequences (Shukla, Nobre, and Sellers 1990). Furthermore, a consideration of these ecological aspects at the local level might make development action more successful. And when I refer to the local level village, I will use the term community to refer to the village, as this is the more frequently used term in anthropology, sociology, and development literature.


I would like to present a model to help us understand the ecological consequences of development. And from this I would hope that we might draw some general conclusions that are applicable to other situations of development. However, in considering ecological approaches to development we must consider the flow of energy throughout the total ecosystem, which includes the human population. Critical to this is the social organization that the population uses for making extractions from its environment, that is its cultural ecology. In other words, we are going to ask how a community provisions itself, what are the ecological interlinkages in this, what steps can be taken to minimize these consequences and make development more successful ecologically and economically.

The model that I am interested in exploring here is that of a relatively self-sustaining agricultural community, with a minimum of interlinkage to the world or national economy, and I want to examine the processes involved by which such a community is converted into one that is integrated with the world economic system, at least through its national integration. The type of self-sustaining community I will use is a swidden agricultural community, and we will follow its development into either a plantation economy or an irrigated rice economy.

Let me add here that these processes we are analyzing are universal both in time and place. The integration of peripheral populations into a larger socioeconomic system has been going on since the first growth of urban areas thousands of years ago. But the fundamental questions are: (i) Can we improve on the process? And (ii) since the whole world environment seems to be in danger, is there any way that this process can proceed with a minimum of destruction to ecologically valuable assets?

Confrontation of Differing Cultural Ecologies.

Before we begin, I must draw your attention to another universal phenomenon intimately linked with the first. When individuals from a society that is interlinked with a national or world-wide economic system come into contact with members of a community that has a locally based cultural ecology, they frequently refer to such members of the local community as dirty, stupid, and sexually profligate. I first found this somewhat puzzling when I heard these statements made with regard to the Rungus many years ago by people from urban centers and members of the colonial government. They just did not apply to the Rungus I knew. Then we worked among the Bulusu’ in East Kalimantan, also swidden agriculturalists. And we found the Bulusu’ talking about their upcountry neighbours, the hunting and gathering Punan, in this same fashion. But then people living in the commercial centres where the Bulusu’ traded talked about the Bulusu’ in this same way. I did not tumble to this universal phenomenon until I found people from the cities who holiday in rural Maine, where I live, talking about the local people in the very same way, people with whom my children were going to school. So I began to realize that there must be some latent function in this form of dehumanization (see Appell 1985a).

First, when people of all cultures find matter out of place, they refer to it as dirt (Douglas 1966). So when individuals from one cultural ecology meet up with a strange cultural ecology based on a different organization of matter, they do indeed find matter out of place, different from their form of organization and so to them it is “dirty”. More cosmopolitan peoples do this constantly to their more rural compatriots.

But there is also something else happening. Almost universally we project our fears and anxieties onto members of other cultures. So frequently a negative valuation of the members of another cultural ecology tells us more about those making the evaluation than about those being evaluated. And finally derogatory statements about another culture is one way of affirming the value of ourselves. By putting the others down we rise in our own self-esteem, even if reality itself is violated (Appell 1985a).

But if this is true, does it have any relevance for our discussions here? Let me give two brief examples.

Many years ago I was doing research with the Rungus, and enjoying the produce from their many groves of fruit trees that were scattered across the countryside. A Swiss agricultural worker came to our house and told me that he was going to teach the Rungus how to plant fruit trees; they did not have any. I was astounded since you could see these fruit groves all around the hillside from our porch. And I wondered what was the purpose of this other than attempting to present himself and his work in a favorable light, and what this form of development would accomplish.

Some years later we were working with another group, and along came a worker from the agricultural department. She complained that the local people did not know how to grow vegetables, and she was to teach them how. Again, I was somewhat astounded as the local community did indeed grow many vegetables rather successfully. One chap was composting his vegetable plots heavily and was selling his produce through a number of local markets, making a rather nice income.

So this brings me to my first generalization. Don’t devalue the ecological knowledge of the members of a local community or their methods of agriculture and provisioning of their society until you have had a chance to evaluate them. This only hinders development in the service of self-aggrandizement and alleviation of anxieties over dealing with a strange cultural ecology. Instead, as I will give example after example, the knowledge and techniques of the local community may be of considerable use and importance to the development process (Posey 1983, Warren et al., 1989, Richards et al., 1989). After all, their methods have been tried and proven true for generations.

Community Swidden Systems.

To turn to an analysis of a swidden-based society, our model for discussion, the first characteristic of such a society is that it depends on a diverse number of crops for its provisioning. For example, the Hanunoo of the Philippines cultivate 413 varieties of plants. This includes 53 varieties of vegetables and 188 varieties of starch crops. Why such a diverse number of crops? The argument is that the diversity of crops protects the community from ecological disasters. In other words, it insulates the community from perturbations of the ecological cycles of weather, pests, and other natural disasters which may impact one or several crops, but not all. Dependence on a wide variety insures that there will at least be some food. That this works successfully is shown by the fact that such communities have existed for hundreds and even thousands of years in Southeast Asia.

But cultivar diversity is not the only characteristic. These crops are also planted within the community’s boundaries in scattered plots. No strain of rice, for example, is planted in one area alone; it is put in several microecological niches to minimize the chance of total failure in response to environmental perturbations. Furthermore, wet places, stream banks, household yards, swidden fields are all utilized for planting different cultivars according to their needs. Diversity of crops, diversity of microecologies are thus major characteristics of such a system to buffer it from perturbations in the environment.

The domestic family is critical in this, as it is the primary production and consumption unit. And it is important to look at how its economy is managed. For it is the first level in the complex interlinkage of the various microecosystems occurring at different levels which constitute the community and which are affected by development.

Each domestic family in the swidden systems of Borneo also has growing near its house a variety of fruit trees, vegetables, and spices. The domestic family also raises dogs, chickens, pigs, and sometimes cattle or water buffalo (kerbau). This forms a very complex first level ecosystem that is densely interlinked. Pigs, chickens and dogs eat rubbish and detritus from the family’s activities and provide in return a certain amount of fertilizer. Most importantly, with the exception of dogs, they provide protein for the household.

I have seen development projects in several regions of Borneo where the complex microecosystem on which the domestic family depends for its provisioning has been ignored. As a result, the projects have not reached their full potential. For example, in two projects I have observed the domestic families were not permitted to grow their own fruit trees or plant gardens next to their houses. As a result, few fruits and vegetables were grown. The houses also were considered hot, because they did not have the protection of their usual fruit tree cover. Water was scarce. Such projects did not fit in with local needs and perceptions. The local people need crop diversity, as they cannot buy all the variety that they themselves grow. And crop diversity also protects them from changes in economic markets beyond their control. In one of these resettlement projects in Kalimantan, those who had moved into the resettlement area were obviously having a harder time provisioning their society than those who remained outside the development area. Individual women from the development projects were markedly thinner and undernourished in comparison to those females from upcountry.

Another characteristic of such swidden communities is that there is a complex division of labor, which supplies support and aid to the co-members. There are midwives and other specialists who provide emotional support in times of disease and death. And there are kin living close by that supply various labor services from child sitting, so that parents can work in the fields, to help when the household is faced with illness or scarcity.

Thus, the simplification of the agricultural interlinkages with the domestic family and the simplification of the division of labor in such development projects results in these not being acceptable to the local people. And it also lowers the community’s capacity to adapt to new challenges.


Let us look further at what ecological consequences arise from bringing such communities into a greater level of integration and exchange with the regional, national, and world economic systems. The primary effect is a trend to monoculture. That is, the number of cultivars on which the community depends for its provisioning is simplified. This has several consequences. First, there can be a decline in community nutrition (Dewey 1985). Second, the community is more vulnerable. Diversity provides, as we have shown, many baffles to environmental perturbations. Thus, ecosystems with greater diversity are less vulnerable. But growing a commercial crop not only puts the community at greater risk to environmental perturbations, it brings the community into the world economic system and exposes it to the perturbations in this economic system which are beyond the community’s control. Thus, the community loses control over its own destiny.

Eder (1985) reports that in his survey of upland villages in the Philippines, he found that those villages that were dependent on one or a couple of crops were much more vulnerable, less adaptive, and poorer than those communities that maintained a diversity of cultivars (Burch n.d.).

A further consequence of the movement towards monocropping is that it requires that the nation step in at the local level to provide the support functions that were originally provided by the community in order to buffer it against both the environmental and economic perturbations.

Then, most such projects require fertilizer and insecticide inputs, as monoculture is more susceptible to disease and pests. And this in turn has its effects in producing insects that are tolerant to pesticides. This creates an ever increasing spiral--new insecticides for new pests, and so on, as Indonesia has found. They are now turning to natural pest controls and minimizing the input of insecticides.

Simplification of the cultural ecology of a community towards commercial cropping, or even the introduction of improved varieties, has other effects. There is a loss of indigenous cultivars. I expect that some day in the future I will read about a book for Borneo that is the equivalent of what the National Research Council of the United States has produced for Peru: The Lost Crops of the Inca. Not only are many of these commercially useful, but they are critical for purposes of interbreeding to develop new and better crops. The loss of genetic material selected over generations by local communities is a loss that effects all mankind.

As the community’s ecological system is simplified, there is also the loss of useful knowledge about the original ecosystem. This can include wild and cultivated plants that have medical potency. Intensification of the agricultural system may also result in the loss of wild places in the community’s boundaries where important species of wild plants are found that have not yet been assayed for their economic and medical values and which the community is dependent on. In many instances, the products from these wild places produce substantial income, frequently more than realized from their destruction (see Gentry and Blaney 1990, Peters et al., 1989).


Before we go on let me review some of the ecological generalizations that we have reached on processes of development. First, development involves the process of disarticulating the local ecosystem. Second, development thus produces a simplification of the ecosystem of the local community. Third, the local community is moved towards greater integration into the world-wide economic system, with a loss of buffers to perturbations in the environment and the world-wide economy. Fourth, the community organization is simplified as well so that many of its support functions are lost.

In ecological perspective, all of these mean that the community loses its resilience to challenges in the environment and the world-wide economy (Holling 1973). As a result of losing many of its support networks and buffers, new supports and buffers have to be built in from the national level.

Fifth, the cultural ecology and social organization of the community are usually foreign to change agents. As a result, they respond to this with the feelings of dirt, matter out of place, and they may also project their own anxieties on the community. Thus, the methods of initiating development by change agents often involve devaluing the local cultural ecology and community traditions to achieve their purposes (Appell 1985a). This is the more common procedure rather than presenting the new ideas in terms that fit in with the perceptions and needs of the community. But this latter approach, positive rather than negative, would require that the strengths of the local community be assessed first to see what they can contribute to the development process. Furthermore, attacking a community’s culture in negative terms lowers the self-esteem of its members, so that they are less capable of coping with change.

Sixth, every society has its own redistributive system. This is usually supported by religious sanctions. For example, the idea of giving during the Christmas season is a method of redistribution of goods. Local communities that are the focus of change also have their own redistributive system. Yet it is almost universal for agents of change to devalue the indigenous redistributive system as wasteful, a loss of economic value, and so on. The local community, it is argued, should change its thinking to one with the emphasis on private property, assuming that the modern world system is based on private property and the traditional world on communal property. The first assumption is only a half truth; the latter is completely false. So with the destruction of the redistribution system of the local community, the change agent can go home to his own redistributive system which provides all sorts of support, while the local community lies in limbo with no replacement. In other words, destruction of the local systems of redistribution may impoverish certain segments of the local population, creating social stratification with its built-in inequalities, and requiring that new support systems be introduced from the national level (Tibbles 1957).

Seventh, the disarticulation of the local community from its ecosystem is continued in the local schools. Local knowledge is devalued. Instead the children are frequently told how dirty, or bad, or stupid, their own cultural traditions are. The children also are given instruction on how to move into an urbanized economy. Yet not all can. Nor can the urban centers of Borneo absorb all the rural population. Seldom does local education encourage the children of farmers to stay and farm.


I now want to turn to religious and other symbol systems in the local community that integrate it with the ecosystem and organize its redistributive system.

I have previously alluded to the function of religion in supporting the redistribution system within any community. But the religious system also maintains to community’s links to its ecosystem. Let us briefly look at the various metaphors that religion provides to help maintain the exchanges with the local ecosystem without destroying the environment.

Specifically, local religion rather than being devaluated as superstition instead should be looked at for clues to the vulnerabilities of the local ecosystem. For the vulnerable links between the environment and the human population are protected by religious sanctions. And these thus serve as valuable indicators.

Let me illustrate this with the example of sacred groves.

Managing the Water Table and the Destruction of Sacred Groves.

One of the consequences of the spread of world religions has been the destruction of sacred groves. Prior to the Christian era the Mediterranean basin was full of such sacred groves protecting the environment. In Borneo the indigenous peoples have had sacred groves that they believe are inhabited by potentially dangerous spirits who could cause illness to those people who cut these groves down. The groves are found around wet places, springs, and along river banks. They protect the water table. They slow down the run off of rain. They transpire moisture to be returned again as rain. They keep springs from being silted in. They protect river pools from drying up in the dry season, both by shade from the sun and by preventing these pools from silting in. They prevent erosion. And the members of one local society we studied argued that if these sacred groves were cut the environment would dry up. They understood the function of their religion; they understood their metaphoric system better than others.

Missionaries on the other hand argued that if a person became a Christian these localized spirits could not hurt the person who cut these groves down; and since the earth in them was very fertile, a significant agricultural profit could be made.

However, it has been our observation that the local people were right. Now since these sacred groves have disappeared, the environment has indeed become drier. A colleague of mine working in Pakistan found a similar assessment by the local communities. Therefore, local religions, in addition to managing the redistribution within the society, are powerful indicators of the weak links in any ecosystem. It is important not to ignore local religious belief.


Every population is engaged in a series of energy exchanges with its biosocial environment. Social change may disrupt both the quantity and quality of these exchanges, causing health impairment. Cutting the jungle in certain sections of Africa and Malaysia has meant greater exposure to malaria. Introducing irrigation agriculture has produced a greater incidence of schistosomiasis. In one resettlement area I found that the local people were brought together in greater density than their usual sanitation system could handle, yet no provisions were made for this. As a result, as one bathed in the river you had to watch out for floating feces. There was an epidemic just waiting to happen there.

Thus, for every change in the system of energy exchanges of a population, there is a reaction. It is better to find out what might be the consequences of this before rather than afterwards.

Also, every rural population in the process of adaptation to its environment develops defenses against predators, parasites, and pathogens in the environment. Social change can destroy or invalidate these defense mechanisms or present new challenges for which there are no defenses, precipitating an increase in disease and disability.

Then there is the problem of the social stress of change. From the study of Life Change Events it was discovered that among subjects who had between 150 and 300 Life Change Units within a year, about half would become ill or impaired during the following year. Life Change Events include, loss of job, death of a parent or spouse, and so on. To change a swidden community to one based on irrigation, I have estimated that this produces 251 Life Change Units (Appell 1986). Or in terms of adaptation load, about half of the community within the following year will have some sort of health impairment. And this materially reduces the ability of the community to provision itself. Social change does indeed produce health impairments (Appell 1986).


1. Be aware of the dangers and consequences of monocropping.

2. Disrupt the web of ecological relations between the community and its environment as little as possible.

3. Inventory what is valuable in the natural environment prior to destroying it, including potential pharmacopoeia.

4. Assess the exchange system of the population with its environment. In other words, study how the society provisions itself and use this as a basis for development.

5. Collect the indigenous cultivars and preserve their genetic resources.

6. Record the local indigenous knowledge about crops, their uses of the ecosystem, including their uses of wild plants. Let me say that the realization of the importance of indigenous knowledge and its value for sustainable rural development is becoming more and more widespread. There are a number of institutions involved in this, such as the Center for Indigenous Knowledge for Agriculture and Rural Development (CIKARD) at Iowa State University; the African Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge, which has been established at the Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research; the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction in the Philippines, which has developed the Regional Program for the Promotion of Indigenous Knowledge in Asia (RPPIKA); the Information Center for the Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Development Cooperation). Each year there are more and more symposia being organized and monographs being published on this important subject.

7. Prepare for the stress and health consequences of social change by providing good medical services and at the same time utilize native medicine and practitioners. All too often modern medicine means deriding the local medical system. This destruction of belief endangers health, as we know belief cures in 20% to 70% of the cases (Appell 1986).

8. Build on the local social organization and the land tenure system. There are adaptive reasons for the local system of land tenure and social organization so that they function well in that environment (Appell 1971, ms.).

9. Destroy nothing that cannot be saved. For example, if there is a tradition of native weaving, do not replace this with modern western handicraft classes producing crafts of lesser value. Build on what is there.

10. Involve the older generation in the schools so that they can pass on their knowledge to their children. To position what is learned in schools against parental wisdom and knowledge only creates division and eventually antisocial behavior by the young. In this regard Japan has made a significant innovation in terms of their program to designate master artists, craftsman, and performers. This program could be well extended to states in Borneo.

11. Do not disturb the redistributive system of the community, for this will result in the necessary support and maintenance to prevent the local community from becoming poorer.

12. Use the local religious beliefs as clues to what are the critical ecological links and social links in the community.

13. In sum, minimize the destruction of the local ecosystems and the integration of the local population to it so that the community does not become more vulnerable to environmental and economic perturbations. You cannot substitute or replace as fast as you can destroy institutions. So move slowly and build on what is there. Otherwise rural communities may become poorer than before.


Finally, I would like to conclude with a brief mention of one other ethical issue. I have argued that in rural development the cultural ecology of the community must be taken into consideration before development proceeds. This is to prevent the loss of any valuable knowledge and those genetic resources produced by the community through selective breeding. This will make development more successful, and will minimize the deterioration of the local environment. Furthermore, it has been shown by recent research that members of the local community make wise decisions in terms of economizing for their own benefit (Barlett 1980, Gladwin and Murtaugh 1980, Hoben 1980, Johnson 1980). Thus development from the ground up rather than from the top down is more productive.

But the ethical question is this. Who owns the knowledge of the local ecosystem, the strains of cultivars, and the local pharmacopoeias? Who should benefit from their commercialization? Only the corporations that do the commercialization, not the original discoverers? This is not an idle question. For example, look at economic value that has accrued to the cosmopolitan world from quinine and curare? Those who discovered their uses have certainly not been compensated.

This question was raised at the First International Congress of Ethnobiology in what became known as the Declaration of Belem (Borneo Research Bulletin 21:149-50, 1989). The argument in this is that native peoples have been the stewards of 99% of the world’s genetic resources. And the Congress urged that procedures be developed to compensate native peoples for the utilization of their knowledge and biological resources. But that will not be an easy or simple matter.


I am indebted to Carol-Carmen Burch for very fruitful discussions on resilience and stability in tropical subsistance systems.


1. The thrust of these recommendations is that resettlement as a means of rural development can indeed have pernicious effects and should be avoided if at all possible. It uproots the community from its web of ecological exchanges with its environment. It destroys the local environment of the resettlement area. It usually involves movement to a monocropping economy with the associated consequences discussed here (Appell 1985b, 1985c, 1985d, 1985e). It lowers the capacity of the community to adapt to new challenges. And finally, it has associated with it significant health impairments.


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