Thursday, April 28, 2011

Going Fungal for Functionality

It generally seems that incorporating multifunctionality into agricultural and rural policies provides agriculturalists with the opportunity to legitimize their off-farm income-generating activities in the eyes of those who create policy.  Ironically, although not to diminish the importance of “multifunctionality” as a policy movement, multifunctionality has existed in agriculture nearly as far back as we can trace agriculture in history.  It wasn’t until the industrialization of agriculture a few decades past that policy was shaped to support those farmers involved in high-yield production schemes, subsequently ignoring those agriculturists who still relied on economic support livelihoods  from outside the farm.  But the fact remains that agriculturists have been involved in multifunctional schemes long before multifunctionality became a recognized term in the political sphere.  Furthermore, most discussions of multifunctionality involve the concept as is applies to agriculture in western countries—very few attempts have been made to apply multifunctionality to the global South.  I find this particularly interesting, as I would argue multifunctionality perhaps is more prevalent among agriculturists in the developing world than it is among those in the developed. 

I came across this article yesterday on the National Geographic website and at once recognized it as a unique example of multifunctionality.  
At first I was reminded of the truffles market so eloquently described by de La Pradelle in Market Day in Provence.  The fungi harvested on the Tibetan Plateau appear to be in high demand much like the truffles sold by the harvesters in southern France.  I was amazed by the change in the lifestyles of the rural harvesters—the ability to purchase motorbikes, pay for their children’s education, buy additional real estate in the city, etc.  With this rise in living standards comes an element of danger, as explained through the shooting deaths that occurred over the rights to prime harvesting grounds.  It appears as if this multifunctional element in rural agriculturalists lives has been introducing components of human life generally associated with urban lifestyles, especially where the element of danger is concerned.  (And I suppose this could be contradicted by citing stories such as the “gunfight at the OK Corral,” but turf wars typically seem to occur between gangs in urban areas not rural.)  Interestingly, the article claims that future livelihood support is not endangered should the fungi harvest ebb or market prices fall over the next few years.  Apparently it is assumed that the decline will be gradual enough that rural harvesters will have time to adapt new livelihood strategies, but I feel that perhaps this is a little naïve.  The article suggests that the increase in household income rose dramatically in recent years due to the sudden increase in demand for the fungi in the market.  While this demand has arguably led to an overall positive change in rural livelihoods, the change was nevertheless abrupt and sudden.  I cannot help but feel that a reversal of this change would be difficult for rural agriculturalists to adjust to, no matter if it was rapid or gradual.  The difference between this fungi harvest as a multifunctional activity and other multifunctional activities is that it has arguably become the primary source of income for most of the harvesters.  In this case, it appears as if a multifunctional activity might actually dominate over traditional agricultural activity, and this leads me to wonder to what extent does multifunctional framework allow for the redefinition of primary livelihoods?  And beyond multifunctionality…how does and will this new economic activity continue to alter rural livelihoods in the Tibetan Plateau, and will it ultimately prove beneficial or detrimental to the rural economy and culture?

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