This week’s Tufts Environmental Studies Lunch & Learn was a presentation by Boston University anthropologist Joanna Davidson on her work in rice farming communities in Guinea Bissau. Her book, Sacred Rice, looks at the intricacies of economic and environmental conditions affecting the Jola people. Davidson spent over ten years studying rice cultivation in rural Guinea Bissau and the way rice has shaped the worldview and way of life of the people there.
Guinea Bissau is a nation of 1.5 million people and 23-27 different ethnic groups. The geography of the country is mostly flat mangrove swampland. There isn’t even a word for mountain in the Jola language. This terrain has made it ideal for palm oil forests and rice paddies. Cultivation of the Oryza glaberrima species began in West Africa, distinct from the rice species grown in Asia, with a higher protein content. Rice gave rise to many of the precolonial African kingdoms, and it is thought that American rice cultivation began only after the slave trade brought rice farmers to the Americas. Since the earliest times, Jola life has depended on rice. The people believe that they were created to farm rice, and their hard work in the rice paddies is part of a covenant with their supreme deity for which they are rewarded with rain. Since the mid 90s, however, the long June to October rainy season that they depend on has shortened to one or two months. As a result, many Jola families don’t have enough rice to last them through the year.
The blame can be laid partially on climate change, but is also the result of centuries of shifting lifeways. During the colonial era, Europeans forced farmers to switch to cash crops like sugar and tobacco for international trade rather than domestic subsistence. More recently, shifts toward urbanization mean that there are fewer people farming rice. Jola farmers have largely responded by simply working harder and longer. According to Davidson, much of this burden falls on Jola women. Seeing rice farming as a dead end long-term, families now send their children to be schooled in the capital city rather than train them in cultivation.
The Gates Foundation is funding a program called AGRA: the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. The hope is that this African-led movement can improve agricultural and market infrastructure. According to Davidson, this program is “not particularly hopeful.”
In a society which defines itself through rice, it is important to consider the effects of climate change beyond the environment or the economy. It becomes an existential issue for the Jola people, who eat rice at every meal. In an anecdote from Davidson’s research, she cooked a spaghetti dinner for the family she was staying with. After the meal, the family asked “So now, where is the food?”