Date of Degree

2-2016

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Anthropology

Advisor(s)

Vincent Crapanzano

Marc Edelman

Committee Members

Marc Edelman

Kandice Chuh

Kate Crehan

Subject Categories

Asian Studies | Environmental Studies | Human Geography | Nature and Society Relations | Social and Cultural Anthropology

Keywords

food and biodiversity, finger millet or eleusine coracana, climate change, globalization of agriculture in South Asia, critiques of nature, feminization of rural poverty

Abstract

Millets from the Margins: Value, Knowledge and the Subaltern Practice of Biodiversity in Uttarakhand, India analyzes what is at stake for small-scale, predominantly women, farmers as local varieties of rainfed food grains such as finger millet are being newly commodified and valued as a biodiversity resource. With support from a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation, I conducted seventeen months of ethnographic research with farmers, activists, scientists, NGO leaders, government officials, transnational functionaries and agribusiness representatives in segregated yet interconnected realms ranging from a village in the Himalayan foothills to transnational institutions in Rome.

This work demonstrates how, as environmental conditions like drought become more generalized and publicized, crops cultivated to meet the changing needs of agrarian producers long deemed “unproductive” to capitalist agriculture are being recognized as necessary for humanity’s survival. In other words, plant life once categorized as primitive, coarse and unfit for human consumption is now imbued with the potential to drive human “progress” and secure human futures. Though the marginalized grains in my study – known in Uttarakhand as mandua/koda and madhira/janghora (barnyard millet) – are also becoming nationally and globally visible, they still grow at the periphery of these processes. Geographically, this “periphery” is rural Kumaon and Garhwal, the two ethno-linguistic sides of the small and mountainous north Indian state. Economically, it is a place of compounded marginality. This region has been cast as feminine and unproductive, a reservoir of “natural” resources and a place where small-scale farm work has long been perceived to be of little consequence. For precisely these reasons, it is among the many places where the externalized costs of capitalist accumulation strategies onto the dual realms of the environment and the household converge.

Moving from an examination of the trifecta marginalization of particular plants, people and places, I problematize the concept of “biodiversity” and theorize the “subaltern practice of biodiversity” as a multi-scalar human and interspecies relation in which power and uncertainty are always at play. By doing so, I disrupt the idea that grains and seeds have “genetic material,” “nutritional attributes” or “climate resilience” distinct from the human contribution to these qualities. The subaltern practice of biodiversity calls attention to aesthetics, temporality and everyday life, understanding these as vital to democratic and sustainable human futures. If an analysis of millets from the margins complicates narratives of capitalist development and commodification, it also challenges assumptions that only things that have been or can be "scaled up," mapped or listed on GDP graphs matter in a national or global frame.

The ethnography of this work conforms to the life it depicts, emulating forms of receptivity, open-endedness and sensory attunement. Through the narrative, I aim to cultivate a manner of thinking that problematizes commodity logic and “inevitable” refrains of history or “progress” and to enter into spaces of nonlinear logic, extended family ways of relating and temporal attunement to multiple species. I attend to “messy” and noneconomic aspects of everyday life, which are often out-framed or rendered “unnecessary” by capitalist ideologies but which are in fact fundamental to socio-environmental relations. In each chapter, the narrative form reflects (and has emerged out of) aspects of the social relations that underpin its content. Thus, each chapter engages differently with ethnographic material, time and space. As the argument of this work does not follow a linear trajectory, this work invites the reader to participate in a shared labor.

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