Selected Publications - Abstract

Cleveland, David A. (1998) Indian Agriculture, United States Agriculture, and Sustainable Agriculture: Science and Advocacy. American Indian Culture and Research Journal 22(3):13-29


"Sustainability" is the inescapable focus of almost any discussion of agriculture today, and Indian agriculture is no exception. An important focus in discussions of sustainable agriculture is the relative sustainability of conventional industrial agriculture, often promoted in Indian country by agencies of the US government, compared with that of indigenous or traditional agriculture based on Native American agriculture before the European invasion. Environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable agriculture can be broadly defined as agriculture that provides adequate food and income equitably for present generations while conserving natural resources for future generations. However, there are many possible ways to interpret such a broad definition in specific situations, based on different assumptions which are often unexamined, and proponents of sustainability often emphasize either the environmental, economic, or social aspect. Defining sustainable agriculture is the same as defining the goal of an agricultural system, and therefore any definition is based on values, and thus arbitrary. However, once a definition is agreed on, empirical data can be used to test the sustainability of a given agricultural system or system component. As a non-Indian agricultural anthropologist who has worked with Hopi and Zuni farmers, as well as with indigenous farmers in other parts of the world, I am particularly interested in how outsiders might be able to contribute to the development of sustainable Indian agriculture. This paper is based primarily on examples from my experience working with the Hopi and Zuni, as well as my experience working with other farmers and agricultural scientists, and on my understanding of the literature in this area. I make the following conclusions, which are presented to stimulate discussion and to suggest ideas or hypotheses for testing in other contexts:

a) Current US Indian agriculture policy continues the tradition of promoting replacement of indigenous Indian agriculture by modern Western agriculture. It increasingly couches its discussion in terms of sustainability, emphasizing economic, and secondarily environmental, aspects. It frequently assumes, along with conventional agriculture, that economic and environmental goals can be unambiguously defined by applying objective science, and thus confuses science and advocacy.

b) Advocates of indigenous Indian agriculture often emphasize social sustainability, and assume that it is inherently environmentally sustainable, and this also confuses science and advocacy. They tend to define social sustainability in terms of the rights of Indian people and Tribes to practice traditionally-based agriculture.

c) Achieving sustainable Indian agriculture may, therefore, depend on combining advocacy based on values to define sustainable agriculture, and science using empirical data to test sustainability based on these definitions. This may provide a useful but difficult role for outsiders in helping to bring Indian farmers together with the BIA, USDA, and other federal agencies, to discuss the value-based goals of agriculture, and how best to measure them empirically. This could both assist Indian farmers to achieve their own goals, while informing policy making at the federal level that includes Indians as decision makers.