Ngäbe explanations of agroculinary transitions in southern Conte-Burica, Costa Rica

Ugo D'Ambrosio (PhD Candidate, University of Kent)

In Costa Rica, the manifold effects of multimillionaire conservation and development programs such as payments for environmental services and public schooling, have been chiefly analysed in socioeconomic terms, or in the majority of cases merely overlooked. This is even more so in relation to their unintended consequences in nature-culture relations amongst indigenous and other rural communities, for instance in their ethnobiological, agricultural, or culinary lore. Aiming to fill this gap, I conducted research to examine local agroculinary transitions in the context of increased conservation and development programs, accelerated market and State intrusion, augmented internal and external political interests, changes in attitudes and biocultural values, and a considerable influx of large amounts of money and material artefacts since the 1980s. Given such a complex and multi-scaled context, these transitions were best understood using a political ecology approach.

Ethnobotanical fieldwork to document changing foodways was conducted over 12 months during the period 2010-2012, with the collaboration of 72 Ngäbe participants from 35 different households in Southern Conte-Burica. Emic and etic perspectives were used to describe current "knowledge, practice and belief (KPB)" systems, relating to food plant production, processing, preservation, storage, cooking, and exchange, as well as in relation to the understanding of perceived changes that have taken place over the past quarter century. Mixed methods included successive free listings (for cultural domain analysis of food plants); unstructured, semi-structured and structured interviews, participant and non-participant observation, as well as store, botanical, and culinary inventories (for past and present foodways description and understanding); along with a selection of time budgets, diet surveys, and life stories (to characterize current activities, food consumption features, and additional perceived foodways' transformations).

Results show a significant socioeconomic, agricultural and culinary change, especially being experienced in the last 25 years. Amongst foodways provisioning processes, a considerable decrease in hunting, fishing, cropping area, and household selfproduction of staples is detected, as well as in the diversity of species, varieties and agroecosystems used. Preparation of food plants shows a significant transformation in storage, processing and cooking methods and recipes. Consumption patterns have changed in relation to the quality, quantity and seasonality of foods/drinks, with an increase in the use and dependency on store-bought products. Food distribution and exchange systems are perceived to have moved from considerably communitarian, reciprocal and internally driven, to increasingly individualistic, cash-based and externally-dependant. For Conteburicans, these agroculinary transitions are mostly attributed to socioeconomic and political transformations including: a considerable improvement of the financial situation of some of the individuals, families and communities linked to a myriad of conservation and development programs, a disruption in the biocultural and linguistic learning in younger generations, an augmented State and nongovernmental presence, an increase in sedentarism and major livelihood transformations, new motivations and patterns of consumption, along with a greater dependence on outside markets and on conservation or poverty alleviation subsidies.

The research findings are significant to debates at all levels on the impacts of current conservation policy, sustainable development discourses and welfare aid in food systems. The research demonstrates that a political and historical ecology approach that pays attention to local conceptions is absolutely necessary to uncover the dense web of relationships that interconnect contemporary constructions and representations surrounding ethnicity, poverty, culture, nature or sustainable development to agroculinary practices, beliefs and transitions. In addition, the research shows that foodways are ideally suited for raising public awareness of the significance of diversity in agricultural and culinary contexts; yet they are a part of cultural, linguistic and biological heritage and processes, and thus similarly susceptible to internal and external drivers of change affecting all biocultural diversity. As shown here, these transitions, require further research especially from the insider’s point of view, to be fully described and understood.