China, Latin America And The Benefits Of Traditional Farming

Ancestral agricultural practices can provide a sustainable and creative way to boost rural economies in Latin America. And China could help.

Summer farming in Jiangsu Province, eastern China
Patrice dos Santos and Enrique Fernández Flores

SANTIAGO — Since the Green Revolution began in the 1970s, integration policies in Latin America have to a large extent focused on meeting the basic needs of more vulnerable populations, most of whom live in the countryside and far from large cities.

In the meantime, in several Latin American countries, China has financed projects — and made decisions — aimed at transforming impoverished areas into productive or extractive zones. But in doing so it is helping perpetuate a development model that relies on sales of raw materials and ignores sustainable alternatives represented, for example, by our ancestral farming methods.

Indeed, traditional or ancestral farming practices that combine the use of inherited techniques with the potential to evolve with the cultural environment are one of the most important alternatives for improving, in a holistic way, the quality of life of many peasant communities. And unfortunately, they don't receive full and due recognition.

In the case of Peru, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has named Andean farming practices as one of its Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). In Chile, the so-called Chiloé system — an agro-biodiversity approach to farming used on Chiloé Island — is another example of efficiency both in terms of productivity and the environmental considerations inherent in its activities.

Unfortunately, beside lacking suitable financial backing, these systems are vulnerable to the effects of human-induced climate change and are threatened by increased pressures on resources, both locally and globally. This exacerbates competition for natural spaces and resources, and without sustainable management, can lead to the uncontrolled imbalances we can already see in parts of the planet, and especially in Latin American regions where China is investing.

The idea of expanding farmlands or intensifying farming to maintain or "improve" production should not predominate in a world with finite resources, and where a good deal of unconsumed food products is wasted. Trade in agricultural products increased 2.3% in 2015, and 1.8% in 2016, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The increase helped meed global demand but also boosted greenhouse emissions. To improve food security worldwide, we need to better consider the complex dynamics of food production processes, and not think only in terms of volume.

Farming in Chile

China helped fund agricultural projects in Chile and the rest of South America — Photo: VW Pics/ZUMA

Within the framework of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and World Agricultural Heritage, multifunctional and sustainable productive processes inside countries can be key to boosting yields without irreparably harming nature. This requires analysis not just of the work and responsibilities of producers, but of consumers as well.

In recent decades, food production systems have focused on creating commercially attractive and sellable products for consumers. As our countries develop, be they in the northern or southern hemispheres, we have lost sight of where and how our food is produced, of the effort that goes into it. And, despite such supportive mechanisms as Fair Trade or organic labels, we prioritize the consumer at the expense of the producer.

We believe that ancestral farming practices and other systems that recognize the value of the producer and environment deserve better support and promotion. These systems don't just favor equality; they can also be a model for technological innovations in Latin American's farming future. What's more, they're replicable in other regions.

More products from ancestral practices could be introduced into local food production systems today, and the different actors involved should improve communication with small and medium-sized Latin American firms that have already begun to commercialize and promote ancestral or traditional products. We can also use trading networks in our emerging economies as a basis to help introduce such products into the Chinese market.

In conclusion, we believe Latin America needs to insert itself in holistic and sustainable value chains, and abandon the present system of supplying raw materials or mass-scale farming commodities.

Reviving ancestral practices as part of a sustainable strategy is not just efficient and responsible, but also shows the importance of keeping close ties, in the past, present and future, with our territories and culture. And China, which itself has 11 GIAHS sites (such as the Fuzhou Jasmine and Tea Culture System or the Xinhua and other rice terraces systems), could use its extensive experience to aid the sustainable transformation in Latin America.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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