CHAPTER 18. LIVELIHOODS OF RURAL PEOPLES
All humans engage in some form of activity to provide food, clothing, shelter and the other amenities of life, but the varied activities of today owe their success to decisions of the past. The development of agri culture may well be the single most important development in human history. Its success supported both rural and urban populations. With the combination of agriculture and technology lies the ability to provide food and security for all humanity. How, and if, this challenge is met will determine the future of our species.
Economic activities range from simple to complex, from ancient to modem. One way to classic, these activities is to distinguish among different types of activities. For many years three basic types of economic activities were recognized: primary, the extractive sector, secondary, the production or manufacturing sector, and tertiary, the service sector.Rural life has long been dominated by primary economic activities, hunting and gather ing (ancient means of survival), farming of all kinds, livestock herding, fishing, forestry and lumbering. Here workers and the natural environment come into direct contact and the environment sometimes suffers.
The deliberate tending of crops and livestock in order t9 produce food and fiber is properly called agri culture, an activity that may be less than 12,000 years old and emerged sequentially in several regions of the world. When humans embraced agriculture they changed the world and human culture forever. Food supplies became more dependable and quantities increased. This in turn led to population increases and, eventually, permanent settlements. Agriculture changes more of the Earth’s surface than any other human activity and thus a cultural landscape that is reflective of the numbers, cultivation practices, settlement patterns, and other cultural characteristics of the population. It is the reason why huge numbers of humans can successfully occupy Earth today.
Agriculture actually developed in several stages, referred to as revolutions because of the changes in the way it was practiced. The First Agricultural Revolution achieved plant domestication, a gradual process that was global, often including duplicate domestication of certain plants in different parts of the world, and extending over a period of several thousand years. Humans learned about such things as plant selection, primitive methods of cultivation, and irrigation. Early agriculture was undoubtedly combined with gathering and some hunting as well as animal domestication.
The Second Agricultural Revolution, beginning in the latter part of the so-called Middle Ages, in volved improved methods of cultivation, production, and storage. Exact points of origin are unknown but it seems certain that the process was gradual and centered in Europe. The hallmark of this revolution was improved production and organization. Without these changes, the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible and it in turn sustained the changes that were taking place in agriculture.
The Third Agriculture Revolution (still in progress and sometimes called the Green Revolution) is based on research and technology in plant genetics. It occurred at a time when the population explosion seemed to threaten the global food supply in the manner that Malthus had predicted two centuries earlier. The laboratory-developed new, higher yielding strains of grains and other crops seemed to suggest that the threat of global famine was a thing of the past. However, the race between population growth and food production is not over, and it remains to be seen whether or not the Third Agricultural Revolution can continue to overcome the challenge.
Subsistence agriculture, which produces little or no surplus and involves hundreds of millions of people in a struggle for survival, still prevails in large regions of tropical Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Here far mers grow food only to survive. Very likely they do not even own the soil that they till. Some subsistence farmers may, in fact, practice shifting cultivation, a method of tillage where plots are farmed until the soil is depleted and then the farmers move on and clear a new field. As many as 200 million people still subsist in this manner in tropical regions of Africa, Middle America, and South America, using methods that have not changed in thousands of years.
Sedentary or shifting, subsistence farming is not only a way of life but a state of mind for those who practice it. Experience has taught these farmers and their families that times of comparative plenty will be followed by times of scarcity. It should also serve to remind us that the security of plentiful food supplies in the technically advanced, wealthier countries is not shared by many of the Earth’s population.