Pastoralism, Local Knowledge, and Biodiversity in Post-Soviet Republics


Pastoralism and the Limits of Local Knowledge: Mapping Biodiversity Preservation in Post-Soviet Republics

During this past August of 2014, many became aware of the plight of the Yazidi community in Northern Iraq, trapped on Mount Sinjar after fleeing attack by the Islamic State (ISIS), a jihadist group with territorial aims in Syria and Iraq. Numbering perhaps half a million, the Yazidi are centered in Iraqi Kurdistan, with diaspora populations in Syria, Turkey, Armenia, and Germany. An ethnically Kurdish minority whose religion blends elements of Islam, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism, Yazidi people have struggled even prior to the recent attacks, displaced in turn by exclusion, alienation, and outright violence.

Courtney Fullilove is completing a book about nineteenth-century U.S. agricultural development emphasizing the transplantation and reconfiguration of global seeds and environmental knowledge.

I first encountered Yazidi communities in the very different context of my fieldwork with biodiversity preservation initiatives. In Armenian villages near Mt. Ararat, the expedition team I accompanied met a Yazidi herder who took us on a tour of the fields and ultimately explained to us the entomology behind an obsolete dyestuff. This unlikely antiquarian exchange provoked more immediate questions: we regard plants as endangered and make rearguard attempts at their preservation, but how do we regard the people who subsist among them? In what respects does displacing people entail losing knowledge, and vice versa? What is the relationship between biological and cultural diversity?

Since 2009, I have accompanied plant breeders and plant genetic resource specialists based in Syria, Australia, Russia, and New Zealand, collecting traditional varieties of cereal crops and their wild relatives for nationally and internationally managed gene banks. Together we have traveled to mountainous areas of the North and South Caucasus and Central Asia, visiting the post-Soviet republics of Armenia, Georgia, and Tajikistan and the semi-autonomous Russian republics of Karachai-Cherkessia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Adygea. After collection, the seeds scatter to gene banks in Syria, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan, Russia, Norway, and New Zealand, where they remain freely available to researchers worldwide. They provide material for ongoing breeding programs targeting pest resistance and climate hardiness in cereal crops. They also represent part of an ambitious program to preserve world biodiversity against the encroachments of modern agricultural methods, development, climate change, and conflict. The history of these complex and at times contradictory efforts is the subject of my wider research.

But here I want to talk about the Yazidi cattleman and his animals, and how it came to be that we discussed the qualities of medieval dyes in the shadow of a nuclear plant.

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Knowledge about where to collect seeds comes largely from within target regions, not outside of them. For example: because plants that can withstand salty soil may fare well in a warming climate, investigators of climate-hardy crops seek samples from saline areas. But local people may identify target areas more efficiently than researchers armed with geographic and climatic data. In seeking varied plants, one naturally encounters varied people, without whom these expeditions would be impossible. In our travels, we have relied on the hospitality of Armenian, Georgian, Tajik, Pamiri, Balkar, Karachai, and Adygean hosts, guides, and strangers.

The Yazidi herder was such a stranger. Bound for salty soil, we traveled to marshy lands in the Aras River Valley, twenty miles west of Yerevan, Armenia, and ten miles from the Turkish border. The land is agriculturally rich but also earthquake-prone, situated on a major fault line eerily flanked by Mt. Ararat on one side and the Medzamor Nuclear Power Plant on the other. For its cooling operations the latter draws water from the Aras River, which also marks the Turkish-Armenian border. Control of water resources is a major point of contention for pastoralists and farmers near the border.

Cattle grazing near Medzamor Nuclear Power Plant, Armenia, innocent of their surroundings
Cattle grazing near Medzamor Nuclear Power Plant, Armenia, innocent of their surroundings

It was the cows, however, that obliged us to stop the van and collect, uninterested as they were in clearing the road for traffic. As we collected, we met the man responsible for the cattle, meandering in the field nearby with his dog, Tonic. An infectiously curious person with an easygoing demeanor, the herder readily engaged us in conversation about our work, wondering who we were, why we were there, and what we hoped to accomplish by gathering local flora. Amiable as he was, he wore his difference clearly. He told us he trained the dog to understand only Yazidi, not Armenian, in an effort to prevent trickery and theft. It was a defensive measure born of experience. He had taught Tonic’s mother, Gin, to sniff out mushrooms, extending her value well beyond her cattle wrangling abilities; but jealous neighbors had lured and ultimately poisoned her, leaving Tonic an orphan, too young to have acquired the skills of his mother.

Tonic, son of Gin

 Hearing of our interest in local flora, the herder took us on an impromptu tour of the fields, pointing with the switch he carried toward a nondescript clearing beneath Mt. Ararat, which loomed on the horizon across the Turkish border.

Yezidi cattle herder in Armenia, facing Mt. Ararat
Yezidi cattle herder in Armenia, facing Mt. Ararat

In the fall, he told us, the field would be red, stained with the blood of worms that had fed on the grass there. He first noticed the place because Tonic would come back from the field with his paws dyed crimson. No one paid attention to the spot anymore, but it used to be worth something. The blood was of a type similar to that harvested for Ararat cochineal dye, also sometimes referred to as Armenian Red, which illuminated manuscripts lavishly displayed at the nearby Holy See of Echmiadzin. What the herder found important was that most people thought the worms fed on only one kind of plant, but the one in this region was a slightly different variety about which nobody knew. If we were interested in valuable plants, he suggested we collect it and cultivate it.

Sixteenth-century manuscript illustrating the life of Jesus, Holy See of Echmiadzin, Armenia
Sixteenth-century manuscript illustrating the life of Jesus, Holy See of Echmiadzin, Armenia

But we were interested in wheat, not dyestuffs, and people had long since ceased to produce the dye in any case: now its only purpose was to decorate Tonic’s paws as he traversed the fields. For that matter, few remember the location or function of the worms’ blood, so it was left to the herder to think about this lost knowledge as he wandered between Ararat and the nuclear plant. As our team wound north through the mountains to the Georgian border, I thought about the cattleman and his dog walking through the countryside, and about what sorts of knowledge about mushrooms and dyes they accumulated along the way.

In a vocabulary increasingly shared by international development theory, history of science, and environmental studies, this is “local knowledge” – or mētis in James C. Scott’s usage: experiential knowledge inseparable from practical skills, particular to local cultures and environments, and apparently common to people in a given community (see, for example, the working definition provided by the Economic and Social Development Department of the Food and Agriculture Organization [FAO] of the United Nations, and James C. Scott. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 6-7). Importantly, the category of the local is not restricted to indigenous people, nor is this category of knowledge properly defined by the traditional, isolated, or unchanging. Rather, it embraces perceptions, practices, and ideas possessed by any social group, acknowledging the possibility of exchange within or among communities. The openness of this formulation challenges the notion that rural, agro-ecological, or craft knowledges are endemic to native people bearing them changelessly across time.

But such a capacious term runs the risk of becoming glib catch-all, or worse, obscuring the very processes of knowledge-making, communication, and appropriation that allow for “research and development” to take place. Fixing local knowledge as a product of human intelligence, however collaborative or fluid, renders it an object of collection. In the practice of biodiversity preservation, the seeds themselves signify knowledge, becoming material proxies for the labor required to identify, select, and reproduce them over time. As a practical proposition, collecting works better when people stay still, cultivating traditional varieties of crops reproduced using simple mass selection, referred to as “landraces.” Modern “cultivars,” in contrast, are genetically uniform, increasing yield and quality at the cost of eroding biological diversity. For collectors, a farmer patiently stewarding a field of landraces is the holy grail of agro-biodiversity.

But what about people on the move: willing and unwilling migrants, displaced people, pastoralists, and nomads? Anthropologists have identified these as people resistant to governance, perhaps sharing tactics for evasion and autonomy from the state with peasants worldwide. (On defiance, see James C. Scott, most recently: The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. On pastoralism as a flexible continuum of economic strategies, see Anatoly Khazanov. Nomads and the Outside World. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.) In the pastiche of tourist literature, these traits form part of a romance of mountain people, spiritually independent and defiant of rule, yet ultimately facing destruction or assimilation: the endangerment of the pastoralist is part and parcel of his appeal. Preservation derives both its drama and its moral force from this imaginary.

Yet such fairy tales sidestep questions that are at once more ambiguous and more pointed. Who or what endangers? Development? Conflict? Commerce? Government? Who or what is endangered? Biodiversity? Culture? Ecology? Humanity? Rather than capitulating to the romance of endangerment, we should ask how plants and knowledge about them are transformed by the more quotidian business of daily life.

What is local knowledge in a post-Soviet context, in which so many of the populations of target regions are ethnic minorities exiled, settled, and resettled by the Russian imperial and Soviet states over the course of centuries? To provide a single example: the Balkar pastoralists we met in the North Caucasus are descendants of Mongol-Turco nomads of the thirteenth century, embattled by Russian conquest and imperial expansion from the sixteenth century, ultimately exiled by Stalin to Kazakhstan, and resettled under Khrushchev with territorial autonomy but no reparations. While Kabardino-Balkaria has experienced less political violence than neighboring republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Northern Ossetia, their people share a history in which displacement rather than indigeneity is a primary aspect of collective experience and the knowledge accumulated from it.

Plant genetic resource specialists, policymakers, and development professionals are often keenly aware of these issues. There is ongoing dispute among agronomists, breeders, and genetic resource curators about the extent to which provenance matters, and implicitly, whether the preservation of biodiversity requires any historical consciousness. These considerations veil a grittier debate over credit and benefits-sharing in the development of improved varieties. Who has the authority to give? How are improvers compensated?

Many aim to improve the existing treaties and legal machinery in order better to represent people outside the metropolitan centers of scientific and industrial research. The most recent development in intellectual property law is the proliferation of categories such as traditional, indigenous, and local knowledge intended to attribute value to expertise of subaltern actors by converting it into property.

Yet the current modes of biodiversity collection and intellectual property protection can scarcely represent the people from whom seeds and knowledge are acquired. Many populations one encounters while collecting seeds, as with the Yazidi and Kurds more broadly, are not so much traditional or indigenous as itinerant. They may have claims to territory but be persistently threatened by displacement; and they are poorly represented in contemporary genetic resource policies, which concede authority to the state rather than the embattled minorities it may harbor.

Precisely because displaced people have been wrenched from their homelands, these groups may lack political voice at national and international levels. The Kurds provide a case in point. In 1948, the USDA agronomist Jack Harlan collected wheat from Kurdish farmers who had migrated from Northern Iraq to Eastern Turkey, taking their seeds with them. (This transfer is documented by D. Vaver. Intellectual Property Rights: Critical Concepts in Law Volume I. Taylor & Francis, 2006, p. 266). The improved variety that made use of this landrace became the most widespread variety in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. But, as the Yazidi herder would be the first to observe, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey did not officially recognize their Kurdish populations. And today each country still retains its own genetic resource policy. The vocabularies of biodiversity, biotechnology, and development employed at national and international levels regularly fail to describe the improvisational, incremental, ephemeral, and migratory qualities of knowledge across time.

This brings us full circle to the Yazidi herder and his knowledge of an obsolete dyestuff. It is tempting to regard the pastoralist as a source of tradition or indigenous knowledge, but in fact the very opposite is true. This man didn’t have knowledge because he was indigenous or traditional. He had knowledge because he was a traveler.

The area around the Jrarat and Arazap villages in the Vagharshapat region of Yerevan are indeed home to Ararat cochineal (Porphyrophora hammelii), an endemic insect species producing carmine dyes found near the foot of Mt. Ararat in Armenia and Turkey. The dye insect grain cochineal (Porphyrophora tritici), in contrast, was native to central Anatolia until likely being eradicated by the DDT used to protect the Turkish wheat crop from decimation by the insect in the 1960s. Scarlet textiles from Ararat probably using these dyes are present as early as the eighth century B.C. in inventories of the Assyrian king Sargon II’s plunder from his defeat of the Urartean Kingdom. First- and second-century Roman textiles in Palmyra contain carminic acid found in these insects, and Armenian literary sources from the fifth century onwards describe their use in silk dyeing and miniature painting. Several contemporary Armenian institutions have attempted to revive the production of the dyes, and these sites are visited in the fall by small eco-tours organized in Yerevan, which also visit nearby cathedrals dating from the fourth through seventh centuries. (For this and other detail on the entomology of Ararat cochineal, see Harald Böhmer. “Natural Dyes in the Near Middle East and India,” in Daniel S. Walker, Flowers Underfoot: Indian Carpets of the Mughal Era. Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997, pp. 155-157, and R. Sarkisov, L. Mkrtchyan, V. Zakharyan, A. Sevumyan. Ararat Cochineal. Yerevan: Gitutyun, 2010.)

There is no reason to doubt that Tonic discovered the dye for himself, wandering the fields; and so perhaps an orphaned dog deserves all credit in the matter rather than any human. On the other hand, Tonic’s Yazidi guardian may have learned as much about these insects from chemists and tourists as from his dog’s initial collection of the worms’ blood.

What happens to local knowledge on the move? How do collecting expeditions and the research associated with them rely on, challenge, or circumvent geopolitical networks and relationships? Who benefits from multilateral treaties for sharing plant genetic resources, and in what respects? Who resists them, and why? What would a plant genetic resource policy look like that was oriented toward producers rather than nation states? Or that abandoned its romance with tradition in favor of a more pragmatic and realist orientation towards change over time?

These are questions that require us to look beyond old frameworks of national histories and area studies, towards new geographies that recognize networks of research capital as primary. Existing orders may be products of empire; yet they are not identical to their antecedents, and understanding their operations requires approaches that eschew the nation state and its archives as primary movers. Post-Soviet political geography also requires us to abandon old categories of center and periphery, attending to new networks of exchange intertwined with imperial legacies of removal and settlement.

But following the money gets us only so far. We must also think critically about resource politics and the making of borders. To collectors, the entire landscape seems stitched in jagged seams. Waterways are sites of conflict, with hydroelectric projects threatening to reduce the Aras (or the Tigris and Euphrates) to a trickle. Meanwhile, plants separated by several meters and a national border may be regarded as global commons on one side and national patrimony on the other, with the latter restricting collection according to national and international accords protecting endangered species. Environmental studies, bioethics, and the history of science, among other fields, provide approaches to the production of knowledge as a collaborative project with willing and unwilling participants. What constitutes community consent at a time when even matters of state sovereignty are in question in Eurasia and beyond? Who has the authority to give or take? Can the parsing of knowledge according to conventions of research and development, tradition, indigeneity, or locality answer these questions?

Courtney Fullilove
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Wesleyan University

Image: Yezidi cattle herder in Armenia, facing Mt. Ararat. Photograph by Author.

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