The introduction and demise of Mahmoudi and Atoi seeds
The high-input intervention style of improved seed varieties, fertilizers and other agro-chemicals that were introduced to the Pamirs by development agencies were intended to make up for the loss of Soviet inputs (Lerman et al. 2003) and are typical of disaster relief interventions (Scoones and Thompson 2011). The following quote from the NGO describes the intentions behind introducing Mahmoudi and Atoi:
We knew it [the introduction of Mahmoudi] would fail on the level of sustainability. But this is what was needed in a time of emergency, of humanitarian crisis. The goal was food security, and we achieved this, which also provided confidence from people and the government to trust us. There were a lot of plusses in this early stage of development (Interview N1).
The seeds were introduced in the mid-1990s to address a period of crisis (famine as a result of the civil war). However, their introduction was shrouded by conflict. An official from the main NGO implementing the seed introduction programme at the time recalls:
I remember that I had huge debates with that scientist at PBI [Pamir Biological Institute] at the time. I was head at the time, and pushed to have these seeds brought in. Mahmoudi, but also Atoi. It was so beautiful. The harvest was so high! In Porchinev [village], 4.5 tons per ha. The local seed, it was 2 or 2.5 tons/ha. But then after 2 years the hybridFootnote 6 seed turned to zero. I remember all the debate at this time. People telling me that this is wrong, that things are not good, hybrid is not good. But that was my agenda: I need to feed the people. I need 4.5 tonnes ha. People were starving, I don’t care about your old seeds and seedbanks, keep it for yourself but give me the opportunity to help you grow more. I had to feed them. I had the opportunity to get them fertilizer and seeds (Interview N2).
On the other side of this debate, the scientist at PBI says he did not believe that the improved varieties of seed could produce higher yields, and says it was distributed despite being susceptible to disease.
When I went to go check on the 7 ha [trial plot of Mahmoudi seed], I saw the wheat had a disease: black rust. Mahmoud brought the rust. Mahmoudi had the disease and they still distributed it everywhere. They put it in the lorry and distributed to all (Interview P1).
Both the seeds and fertilizers were widely distributed for free in 1994. For a few seasons Mahmoudi and Atoi grew well, and people recall high yields. After the second season however, the limitations of this seed became more apparent and a well-known poem in the Pamirs goes: “Khisht Kardam Atoi, adjab kar atoi, pagam …” which can be translated from Tajik as: “Today we grow Atoi, we made a mistake, tomorrow we must go begging” (Interview N3).
The reasons for the failure of Mahmoudi and Atoi are manifold. As the PBI wheat expert claims, the seed was plagued with disease. Farmers recall that the improved varieties had very small awns on the seedhead, which made them susceptible to being eaten by birds before harvest. During harvest, the grains rotted when left to dry on the fields in the traditional way, and would have required machine harvesting which is impossible on the steep slopes and narrow fields of the Pamirs. As a ‘combined mountain agriculture’ system (Kreutzmann 2017), most Pamiri farmers practice agricultural as well as pastoral livelihoods. As such, farmers prefer grains with a long stalk that provide both food for human consumption as well as fodder for livestock feed. The new varieties were short, and farmers struggled to cope with the reduction of grain stalks as a fodder source (Interview N4). Moreover, the improved varieties required external fertilizers, which farmers could not afford after the initial free distribution ran out. Perhaps most importantly, the improved seeds could not be saved, and needed to be replaced year after year; a practice foreign to the traditional sharing and barter economy of the Pamirs, and even the collective farming practices of the Soviet regime.
The effects of the intervention on changing practices
The effects of the introduced seeds on the ritual of Baht and biocultural diversity varied among different communities. While Village A maintained its traditional seeds (including Rashtak) throughout and after the intervention, Village B lost them. In Bartang valley, valley-dwelling villages (like Village B) retrieved lost varieties from relatives in more remote villages (like Village A) who only tried the introduced seeds on a limited amount of land, whilst still cultivating traditional varieties. Respondents were unclear about the history of when precisely Rashtak disappeared and re-appeared but in Village B in the late 1990s a few elders re-seeded Rashtak. In the following section, changing practices in response to the seed introduction are represented through the three sets of practices that together comprise the ritual as introduced above: sowing, harvesting and celebration. We present and analyse these changes from introduction of the introduced seeds (Technologies) on Rashtak (Environment) as a reconfiguration of coevolutionary relationships between Environment (E), Values (V), Knowledge (K), Organisation (O) and Technologies (T) using Norgaard’s framework. Table 1 presents the main results of our inquiry with regards to these observed changes. More detailed examples of quotations that guided the content of Table 1 can be found in Supplementary Material Appendix B.
Village A—the Pamirs as a coevolving biocultural system
The remoteness and altitude of Village A made the adoption of the improved seeds more difficult than for the lower lying communities. Farmers tried the improved seeds but they required fertilisers which they did not have. Fertiliser was initially provided by the NGO, but did not work well because of the steepness of most of the fields and subsequent surface run-off. Farmers in Village A also did not give up the cultivation of their traditional varieties in part because these are “seeds from our ancestors” and farmers describe a deep respect for, and sense of responsibility to conserve traditional varieties. In this manner, Village A can be viewed as a biocultural refuge, and therefore useful as a reference point for a tightly-coupled biocultural system, which is how much of the Bartang valley would have looked in the late 1990s (see Table 1A)
Approximately 20 days before Nawruz, the Rashtak seed (E) which has been set aside to sow (Table 1, column Ai) is taken from the zidön (traditional stilted grain storage) and neighbours gather at an elder’s house for keryar (collective work) to prepare the lands and sow the seeds (E-O). The Khalifa (local religious leader) blesses the seeds and the land with a prayer. A farmer in Village A explained the importance of this prayer because:
We have a lot of respect for the land. We need to say nice things to the land and respect it, otherwise we won’t get good yield. Our ancestors said that if you say bad things to the land it won’t provide good yield (E-V) (Interview VA1).
Oxen plough the fields with harnesses and tools made by the local blacksmith (V-O). In Village A, Rashtak is rotated with makh (Pisum sativum L. or the common pea) for nutrient cycling (E-K). “Our local varieties are the most beautiful. We rotate lands with makh and wheat so that the nutrients can be given back to the soil” (Interview VA1). A few weeks later, everyone will come together again for hashar (communal irrigation) to clear the channels and set up the irrigation system (Delogwhod), a system for equal water-sharing (V-T, O-T). Farmers say they continue to grow Rashtak because “Betereen khizmat … kori deqoni buwad,” translated as the “best service in the world is to work the land” (E-V) (Interview VA4).
Rashtak ripens early for an early harvest (Table 1, column Aii) and is therefore a favoured seed in higher and harsh climates (E-K). The grains are harvested using scythes made by the local blacksmith, khorga (E-T), and left to dry on the field. Once dried, the harvest keryar (collective work) begins and the stalks are threshed by communally owned oxen, and de-husked and winnowed using the tools kalbez and galberr. A schedule is set up to bring the grains to the mill and the rest is stored in the zidön (E-V) which is situated beside the holy shrine. Various respondents said that the khorga, the blacksmith, was the best thing about Village A because it helped to make them more self-sufficient. To be a khorga is a spiritual calling (V-T) and the knowledge is passed through generations (K-V). People say it is merosee (hereditary) and the current blacksmith who took over from his father, who had taken over from his grandfather, hopes that his sons will continue (Interview VA6). Tools are not sold, but are given or traded for other goods (O-T).
The blacksmith in Village A is also the miller. Rasthak grains which have been set aside for Baht-ayom (Table 1, column Aiii) are taken from the zidön and taken to him to be milled on a special setting (more space between the millstones) which can better grind the soft, sticky grain (K-T). For Baht-ayom, the celebration of the second day of Nawruz, elders slowly stir a mixture of Rashtak flour and water over a single low fire through the night (E-O, K-O), adding shaved ice to the simmering porridge, to symbolize the end of winter and the coming of spring. The porridge must be stirred slowly to release the characteristic sweetness of the Rashtak seed (E-K). As a farmer in Village A explained: “Baht is very important for us spiritually, to prepare it gives respect to the land. The taste of Rashtak is the most delicious for Baht” (E-V) (Interview VA1). Some Baht is saved to decorate Nasrak, bread animals, which children bring to mountain caves the following day as offerings in prayer for fertility for the coming agricultural season.
The introduction of the seeds did not have a visible effect on the existing relations between seeds, culture or language and the traditional seeds in Village A. Farmers tried some of the introduced seeds in some lower-lying areas of the village, but when they failed, returned to their traditional crops. Respect for ancestry, and traditional knowledge played a big part in the maintenance of traditional seeds: that these seeds were created by ancestors over hundreds of years and are recognised as seeds that can resist natural disasters and different weather events. The situation is changing, however. Village A is one of the poorest communities in the Pamirs and is food insecure, and like maany other. Villages, dependent on food aid from the World Food Programme and Red Cross, according to whom, local regional production accounts for only 30 percent of basic caloric needs. Since the road opened in 2015 they have stopped growing millet and barley. They receive white flour either as humanitarian aid (each family receives 50 kg bag per season), or they buy it from valley-lying shops. Many valley dwelling villages also receive food aid. Village A continues growing Rashtak mostly because of its spiritual importance. Young people in Village A still largely work in agriculture and also take over professions from their parents and grandparents (such as the blacksmith and miller). The knowledge and management systems of irrigation continue to exist, as does communal work. In a visioning exercise done as part of a separate study, community members from Village A envisioned a future where their shared values of hospitality and sharing were still at the core of community life and activities, but opportunities for alternative livelhoods, renewable energy production and better infrastructure also featured (see Fig. 4).
Village B—“…spiritually it is not that Baht”
Before and even through Soviet times, farmers in Village B also grew Rashtak, but land-use today is dominated by fodder production (Alfalfa (Medicago sativa) and Esparcet (Onobrychis sibirica)) and kitchen gardens and grains are no longer sown (Table 1, Column B). Mahmoudi and Atoi were introduced to Village B as a new seed technology (T) and sowed by many farmers (Table 1, Column Bi).
We thought it was an improved seed, it gave better yield than [the] local one, and so we took Mahmoudi and over three years it decreased and decreased and by that time we lost it and the local seed, both (VB4).
An NGO official said that the famers did not have the “right knowledge” for sowing the new seed (K-T) (Interview N4). Since then, Village B has shifted from a subsistence agricultural system to a system of minimal land-use (growing only fodder crops) in order to keep a few small livestock (goats) per family. Despite not sowing grain (Table 1, column Bi), the khalifa (religious leader) still gathers many members of the community during Nawruz to announce when it will be time to sow fodder seed and bless the land for fertility with a prayer (K-V; V-O). A local schoolteacher is worried about the knowledge that young people are losing, and started to celebrate Taomhoi Meli or ‘national foods day’ where children ask their parents and grandparents for their favourite recipes and prepare them together, including Baht. Another teacher has choreographed an entirely new dance to help maintain the traditional knowledge (Fig. 2; E-K):
The role of dance is that people should not forget their traditions. They should understand the purpose of weeding, harvesting, cooking. This is the dance for working the land. Start by making furrows, then planting the seeds, then weeding… (Interview VB4).
The dancer continues (Table 1, column Bii), explaining every movement for harvesting grain (E-K):
… the cutting, the bundling, and threshing, winnowing, and gathering into sachets. Then the girls hold the bags open and the boys pour the seeds in the bags, and pick up the bags and take it to the zidön. They will take this grain to make flour and bring it to the mill (Interview VB4).
The knowledge of how to cultivate Rashtak for Baht continues to exist in part due to this dance. Nobody harvests grain anymore since it is not economical: flour for the year can be bought from one-month’s worth of remittances sent home from Moscow. Besides the remittances, only the harvest of fodder remains, which is done mostly in family units, and fed to livestock which are kept in corrals managed by tabaks. Livestock are brought to pasture on rotation within the tabak structure (K-O), which they use for daily milk and occasional meat when it can be afforded. Baht-ayom is still celebrated in Village B (Table 1, column Biii), despite Rashtak no longer being grown (E-V).
Now we keep the tradition and prepare baht from flour from the shop. The taste is not the same, there are different properties. Physically we keep it, but spiritually it is not that baht (Interview VB4).
The recipe for Baht has been modified, to include oil and sugar to make up for the poorer taste of imported flour (E-K). In this way, baht and other recipes continue to be celebrated, either at the school or in the communal tabaks. The communal structure of the tabaks remains very important (V-O).
The people within these tabaks naturally become close friends/almost family. Since you see them every day, multiple times a day for various chores. The structure is from ancient times, and it should be like this. I don’t know what I would do without the tabaks. We must do everything we can to preserve this system (VB1).
The coevolutionary relationships in Village B (Fig. 3a) demonstrate how despite the disappearance of sowing and harvesting of Rashtak, the celebration of Baht-ayom maintains previous social relationships which continue to coevolve (K-V-O), but in separation from the ecological aspects of the system. This is not to say that social–ecological relationships have become disconnected, but rather that the introduction of the new seed may have influenced a shift in values (Fig. 3b). Given that the improved seed varieties failed after only 2 years, the technology (the seed itself) disappeared, but an alternative value system continued to be shaped long after the seed stopped being planted (Fig. 3b). The improved seed disappeared (T), but the relations that had co-evolved with this technology remained. Many other factors, such as the availability of cheap flour from shops, set in motion an alternative pathway of development.