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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Relative influence of cultural identity and market access on agricultural biodiversity in swidden-fallow landscapes of eastern Panama Kirby, Kathryn R.


Agricultural biodiversity is essential to local and global food security, yet is being rapidly eroded world-wide. The increasing reach of global transportation and trade networks is predicted to homogenize agriculture at regional scales. However, relatively little is known about how cultural values and norms, as reflected in local farmer decision-making, will interact with market forces to sustain or erode agricultural biodiversity. Working with farmers from three ethnic backgrounds — Black, Emberá or Kuna — in a region of Panama undergoing rapid landscape change, I determined the relative influence of farmer cultural identity and market access on several indicators of agrobiodiversity. Twelve villages were chosen to minimize environmental differences while maximizing differences in access. Villages were classified as “highway” or “remote” based on time and cost of travel to Panama City markets, with each ethnic group represented by two highway and two remote villages. From 2007-2009, a combination of crop inventories and land-use mapping (for 645 fields) as well as interviews with > 130 farmers were conducted. Diversity of staple food crop varieties, agroforest trees and shrubs, and the spatial and temporal dynamics of shifting cultivation were compared among villages. Farmer cultural identity had a stronger impact on agrobiodiversity indicators than did access. For staple food crops (e.g., maize, rice, yam, cassava, bananas, and taro), ethnicity explained 2.5 to 8.5 times more variation in assemblages than access. Distinct assemblages of staple crop landraces (varieties) and agroforest trees and shrubs were associated with different ethnic groups, even where access was high, reflecting culturally patterned dietary preferences, ceremonial or customary uses, and culturally-bounded seed-exchange networks. Mean number, size, and types of fields maintained (homegardens, outfield agroforests, annual fields, pastures), as well as their management (e.g., forest felling, herbicide use), also varied among ethnic groups. These differences reflected culturally-based crop preferences, values of land, traditional settlement patterns, and contemporary relationships to other actors, including the Panamanian government. Together, the distinct agricultural practices of individual ethnic groups combined to create diversity across many levels of biotic organization: from landrace, to species, to patch, to landscape. These findings strongly suggest that new approaches to conservation that support and respect heterogeneous socio-cultural systems will be critical to global efforts to maintain agrobiodiversity.

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