Rural Agricultural Traditions and Cultural Heritage: Crete and Bangladesh

Theme: Heritage Preservation and Rural Communities

by Ms. Reema Islam
HeritageForAll Intern (Call 2019) from Dhaka, Bangladesh
Internship Program “Rural Heritage and Traditional Food”
M.A. in Heritage Management, Kent University (UK) and Athens University of Economics and Business

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Cultural heritage extends into all realms of living systems, including agriculture. Rural practices, norms, cultural traditions permeate to activities such as agriculture, especially if it is a country that is dependent on agriculture as a huge contributor to its GDP. However, this trend also allows for local traditions to extend in the modern-day scenario as cultural heritage, which results in the effective use of local knowledge and high-end tactics to grow crops. Agricultural land itself plays a significant role in defining the cultural heritage of a country, not only in the fact that it could be preserving an ancient strand of product such as wheat or rice or some ancient species of corn, but also as a habitat for biodiversity. [1]

In the more recent spate of climatic change affected regions, local knowledge of agricultural systems has been of immense value in trying to mitigate the debilitating affects while involving locals in salvaging their own environment. Cultural heritage in agriculture thus helps towards sustainability, innovations and also, involving locals in a bottom-up approach.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has thus recognized 14 systems which are worthy of being preserved for their heritage values, though not as museums but as living, dynamic systems. These systems or Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), are found in countries with an active culture of mingling traditional and modern systems, like the Philippines, Peru and Morocco. These systems have mainly been formulated in order to alleviate poverty and hunger issues by striking a balance between conservation, sustainable adaptation and socioeconomic development. [2] In Bangladesh mainly, hydroponic systems of agriculture have been lauded for their efforts at utilizing the current resource base, using innovative ways, leading to an end result of being efficient at providing food for millions. This form of agriculture in the South-central and Southern regions makes use of Bangladesh being the largest delta and floodplain in the world, using the excessive flood waters of monsoon for growing crops on plant-based beds. These floating gardens are gaining popularity but also because it facilitates a process which had a bottom-up approach, where local knowledge was used to grow crops. Local plants such as hyacinths are used as the base and popular vegetables like pumpkins or beans are grown, that require little care and grow naturally in this environment.[3] These gardens have been a great way to combat climate change, where loss of agricultural land has affected local livelihoods also. But these gardens have provided an alternative means of generating income, harnessing local knowledge to contribute in the local economy and food availability. This form of agriculture also offers the scope of multifunctionality [4], as various fish can be farmed in the waters, in between the floating beds and crops. Rice can also be grown in slightly shallow waters, so a range of agricultural actions can take place, based on this use of traditional, local knowledge.

Figure 1 Floating Beds

Agricultural practices like slash and burn have also had a major impact on the hill tract regions of Bangladesh, where local, indigenous communities have been practicing this norm for centuries now. The Jhum cultivation or slash and burn, involves clearing a piece of land by setting fire or clear felling, and using the area for growing crops of agricultural significance such as upland rice, vegetables or fruits. The idea stems from the fact that ash helps the soil replenish its lost nutrients at the end of an agricultural cycle so after a few times of burning a particular area, a new one is chosen.[5] This not only helps the soil to regenerate its mineral capacity but also looks towards sustainable agricultural practices. Jhum cultivation [6] is carried out in many countries worldwide but in Bangladesh, it was initially thought to have some downsides to it, moreso as issues of land claiming is rampant in the South-eastern (Chittagong Hill Tracts or CHT) parts of the country. But this ancient technique of using land to grow crops continues and the locals have not adopted any other ways because above all, it is a major part of their cultural identity. These communities in any case suffer from a lot of marginalization and collective neglect from the government in terms of getting their rights recognized, so jhum cultivation offers them a way to continue a tradition that has shaped their way of living and makes them unique.

Figure 2 Slash & Burn in CHT [7]

On a similar note, the Greeks also have a tradition that has been practiced since times immemorial and not only lends them a very rustic image but also fuels their collective sense of cultural identity. Sheep shearing or Kouraes, normally happens in the summers as sheep need their wooly coats sheared in order to feel less hot, while diminishing any accumulation of bacteria etc. This activity is carried out with the help of mechanized tools or electric shearers the world over but in Greece, especially the island of Crete, locals manually shear their sheep to shave off the excessive wool. The Kouraesis often a celebratory event as the shepherd of the village invites everyone to join him and help him sheer his sheep, while food (mainly goat meat) is cooked on large skewer. Additionally, large pots of steaming porridge and cooked vegetables accompany the meat and all the youth gather to play music and drink till the wee hours. The shepherd basically invites the entire village and any visiting guests for a party and people also take tokens of appreciation in the form of some home-made wine or honey or in modern times, desserts from the bakery. Women are generally not involved in the laborious shearing, but they have a specific role to play nonetheless. In the older days, the shepherd would get enough wool to provide his family with clothes for the winters but now, due to more modern forms of making warm clothes, the wool is practically useless. Yet, it was the task of the women to collect this wool and make a huge pile of it. The oleic acids found within wool provided with a soft after effect as skin glows and feels softer. Various other rituals are also performed such as the reading of the sheep shoulder blade or koutala by an expert, where markings on the sheep’s bone are deciphered as signs for the future of the shepherd and his family.

Figure 3 Manual Sheep Shearing or Kouraes in Crete

Even today, locals believe in the portent qualities of koutala reading and in most cases, they will not read it, to avoid any ill omens. One of the main reasons for manually shearing sheep is to maintain traditions and a rural identity that is very dear to the locals living in the mountains of Crete. They pride in their rustic roots and have always felt that shearing sheep manually not just helps them bond better but also contributes towards maintaining a cultural heritage that is a common practice throughout Greece. According to personal experience, the Greeks are embedded in cultural practices and the slightest excuse is used to revert back to the age-old ways of doing things. [8]

However, in activities like olive picking, where the number of olives is huge, and Greece is one of the largest olive oil producers in the world, mechanized shakers are used to pick the olives, using diesel powered engines. These tools are necessary to help finish the task faster, as many private land owners also grow olive trees. They get enough yield for their personal use, so they also invite friends and relatives for this task and again there is food and music involved! These private land owners mostly have day jobs and their families joining them will be similarly occupied so weekends are best chosen for this communal activity. Crete being an agriculture rich island with the mountains constituting to a major segment of products, harvesting rituals have been carried down from ancient times and despite a modern way of living, people still drive back to their villages to participate in these customs that brings the community closer.

Figure 4 Olive picking in Crete

The date of the harvesting is picked after consulting with the volunteers and then food and other forms of entertainment are organized. However olive picking has less of anything other than sheer hard work. As women are also involved in shaking the trees of their olives and bundling them up in stacks. Earlier olives were hand picked and the mechanized shakers saves time but the process of tackling trees and laying a net under them to catch the falling olives, have changed little for many centuries now. The Cretans, whether modern from the cities or those seeped in their rural lifestyle in the village, all get their hands dirty to acquire the olives. This could also be a great way to encourage sustainable usage of the olive oil produced through such a laborious way. These people have a personal relationship with the food they eat thus helping them waste less and be more grateful and understanding of how the agricultural system works.

Coming back to Bangladesh on the topic of agricultural customs, the Bon Bibi is a forest deity from the Sundarbans mangrove forest (a World Heritage Site) and offers the unique culture where both Muslim and Hindu locals, worship the same deity. [9] She is a goddess and has a long and interesting story where she hails from Mecca and an ensemble cast of characters makes her story endearing and one, that establishes her as the true guardian of the forest. In most cases, it is the honey collectors who travel into the depths of the forest for 2 months every year, during honey collecting season and bring back honey, riddled with fear of attack by the Bengal Tiger. [10] Locals pray to the goddess before venturing in and rely on her to save them from the wrath of the Bengal Tiger, a deadly predator. The Sundarbans WHS is a network of rivers and fisheries is a major source of livelihood, as is the annual honey collecting and some licensed wood cutting. The locals are dependent on the yield and sale of these agricultural products, making them ever more reliant on the Bon Bibi’s watchful eye and blessings. This deity loved throughout the region, is a veritable example of how cultural heritage seeps into agricultural norms and allows for people to mix their cultural identity with that of a subsistence process.

Figure 5 Bon Bibi enacted to recount her story

This paper showed some examples from Bangladesh and Greece on ways that heritage is preserved through rural communities and their rituals and customs that keep it alive. 11(“HuffPost is now a part of Verizon Media”, 2019). Communities co-existing with nature till date follow the changing nuances of their environment and try to incorporate this into their daily activities. The reverence towards Bon-bibi, manually shearing sheep in Greece or even innovations like floating gardens that maintain the balance of the cultural and environmental ecosystems is possibly what will help these communities thrive with a rich cultural heritage. Where agricultural sustainability is a growing cause for concern, these examples give hope that cultural norms can help sustain a balance and aid in finding innovations and an inclusive method of practicing beneficial rituals for the preservation of heritage and rural activities through our daily lives.

Bibliography

  1. Rakib, M., & Anwar, S. M. H. (2016). Farmers Perception and Knowledge of Climate Change in Bangladesh an Empirical Analysis. Research in Agriculture Livestock and Fisheries, 3(1), 27-35.
  2. FAO (2019). Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems: Combining Agricultural Biodiversity, Resilient Ecosystems, Traditional Farming Practices and Cultural Identity. Retrieved 25 November 2019, from www.fao.org/3/i9187en/I9187EN.pdf
  3. Deutsche Welle (2019). Bangladesh Builds Floating Gardens to Fight Climate Change. Retrieved 24 November 2019, from www.dw.com/en/bangladesh-builds-floating-gardens-to-fight-climate-change/g-18912481
  4. Slámová, M., & Belčáková, I. (2019). The Role of Small Farm Activities for the Sustainable Management of Agricultural Landscapes: Case Studies from Europe. Sustainability, 11(21), 5966.
  5. Bashu Das, S. (2019) Jhum cultivation brings out robust paddy output in Bandarban. Retrieved 24 November 2019, from http://www.dhakatribune.com/business/2019/10/17/jhum-cultivation-brings-out-robust-paddy-output-in-bandarban
  6. Nath, T. K., Inoue, M., & Chakma, S. (2005). Shifting Cultivation (Jhum) in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh: Examining its Sustainability, Rural Livelihood and Policy Implications. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 3(2), 130-142.
  7. The Sangai Express (n.d.), Javadekar Espouses Alternatives to Jhum Cultivation. Retrieved 25 November 2019, from http://e-pao.net/GP.asp?src=4..090116.jan16
  8. Green Within (2014). Crete-Sheep Shearing. Retrieved 24 November 2019, from www.greecewithin.com/articles/254-crete-sheep-shearing
  9. Mousumi Mandal, M. (2017). Bonbibi-r Palagaan: Tradition, History and Performance. Retrieved 24 November 2019, from www.sahapedia.org/bonbibi-r-palagaan-tradition-history-and-performance
  10. বন অধিদপ্তর-গণপ্রজাতন্ত্রী বাংলাদেশ সরকার. Retrieved 24 November 2019, from www.bforest.gov.bd
  11. Field, T. & Bell, B. (2013). Putting the Culture Back in Agriculture: Reviving Native Food and Farming Traditions. Retrieved 27 November 2019, from www.huffpost.com/entry/putting-the-culture-back-_b_3384507

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