Non-traditional, non-indigenous knowledge is important

by Jeremy Cherfas on March 12, 2012

When I first came to Rome, I grew potfuls of Lantana (probably L. camara, but not sure precisely what species). Sure, it’s an invasive, noxious weed, but nobody’s perfect, and I liked the succession of flowers and that strange, almost catty scent of the crushed leaves. And in the autumn, I noticed a strange thing. Unlike all the other plant pots, there was nary a single weed growing beneath the Lantanas. That was an observation odd enough to make me check, and discover that Lantana is allelopathic; it makes life hard for anything growing underneath it.

An article by Professor Anil Gupta reminded me of this. The article was partly about Auta Gravetas, a Ugandan farmer who noticed that sweet potatoes at the edge of a field bordered by Lantana had fewer pests than plants near the centre of the plot. He experimented with putting lantana leaves between layers of dried slices of sweet potato, which extended their shelf-life by six weeks or more, an important consideration for very poor farmers. In 2000, this discovery won Auta Gravetas1 first prize in a competition organised by IFAD. As Gupta observes:

The weed became a resource. … Neither lantana camara was indigenous nor had the knowledge been transferred by one generation to another over centuries. The way of knowing was traditional — by observing an odd phenomenon, discriminating, abstracting, hypothesising, testing and developing a robust rule or technology.

There’s probably a lot more that Lantana could be used for; given its anti-microbial (and other) properties. Gupta has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about this story, and writes about it often. But the point is well taken. Farmers can innovate in unexpected ways, and it requires all parties to be alert to the possibilities if those innovations are to be spread. And quite by coincidence, I’m sure, BBC News Africa reports today on a Cameroonian innovator and entrepreneur who also transformed his local food system.

Footnotes:
  1. Strangely, this contemporary report calls him Avta Deogratias, which might make him easier to find in future. []

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