Horticultural Societies Research Paper

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A horticultural society is one in which people’s livelihoods depend on the cultivation of small plots, commonly called gardens. These frequently support a wide range of crops and meet staple subsistence needs. The proportion of produce sold on the market varies, to finance the purchase of commodities manufactured elsewhere (e.g., clothing, processed food, hardware, etc.). The scale of society and its organization may vary widely too, from small tribal groups to large peasant populations.

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1. The Term ‘Horticulture’

Horticulture is distinguished from agriculture by scale of production, specialization, and commercialization. Agriculture features in industrialized societies supplying food to large urban populations. It is, in some regards, the reverse of horticulture. It involves the farming of large fields, usually under a monocrop (all wheat, potatoes, beans, etc.), whereas the gardens of horticulturists usually feature intercropping, the mixing up of several different crops, as opposed to their segregation in separate rows or plots, for which there are sound ecological reasons (e.g., pest and disease control, maximizing nutrient and water availability, increasing photosynthetic efficiency, exploiting microenvironmental variations to best effect, and so on). Agriculture features highly mechanized production techniques, whereas horticultural societies rely more on human labor and animal drought power. Farmers in agricultural systems meet few of their own subsistence requirements, specializing in the large-scale production of a few foodstuffs for sale on the market. They engage in agribusiness, intensive production making wide use of inputs to boost yields, frequently obtained from off-farm and industrially manufactured (inorganic fertilizers, biocides, etc.). The term horticulture has a quite different meaning in urbanindustrial societies, which can confuse the unwary. It refers to the intensive production, often under artificial glasshouse conditions, of high-value crops, such as early vegetables, salads, and flowers by commercial growers.

Other food production regimes from which horticultural societies are distinguished include gatherer-hunters and pastoralists, which support lower population densities (Forde 1934), industrialized urban ones having higher densities. These categories were bequeathed to us by Victorian scholars who thought of them comprising an evolutionary hierarchy, putting horticultural societies somewhere in the middle of the range between the gatherer-hunter and industrial poles. This scheme continues to inform thinking to the current day, and underpins notions of development conceived as facilitating the passage of communities to the urban-industrial pole. Anthropologists continue to use it, although unhappy with the continued evolutionary implications, arguing that we should not judge urban-industrial life, notably liberal market democracy, as the superior socioeconomic order to which all human beings should aspire. It is an approximate classification scheme. At some ill-defined point, populations are thought to manage their natural resources sufficiently closely to move beyond gathererhunting to farming, this is accompanied by a more sedentary lifestyle. They qualify as horticultural societies when they emphasize crop cultivation over animal herding, although mixed arable and livestock farming is common. The label horticultural society covers a wide range of different subsistence regimes and sociocultural orders. The term is more commonly used in North America than Europe, where instead of lumping these societies together, it is more usual to distinguish the different agronomic regimes that comprise horticultural orders.

2. Agronomic Regimes

We find varying degrees of sedentariness among people who depend largely on cultivation to supply them with their food. The variation informs a preliminary distinction between different horticultural strategies. There is also some correlation with increasing population densities.

Where we find the least permanent settlement and physically most direct technologies, we have cultivation systems that fallow the land not by rotating crops but by rotating land use. We call this type of horticulture shifting cultivation, because after people have grown crops, and fertility declines, and yields start to fall (these cultivators not using any fertilizer to supplement the soil’s nutrients), they abandon the plot to the forest and move elsewhere to clear a new garden on fresh land. Secondary regrowth, meanwhile, recolonizes the abandoned area, which is left fallow for tens of years to allow nature to restore its fertility; following which it may be cleared and planted again in the next generation. Shifting cultivation is labor intensive, featuring hand tools, such as axes, machetes, hoes, and pointed digging sticks. We find a sexual division of labor, orchestrated into a joint effort. Men usually do the heavy axe-related work. They fell the trees and clear the forest. They also enclose the area to be gardened with rough fencing if this is necessary to keep out animals. The subsequent burning off of the dry and dead vegetation cleared from the plot is often done by both men and women working together. This burning is an important step, reducing standing vegetation to ash, which is readily mixed with the soil, liberating locked up nutrients in a form more available to planted crops. The release of nutrients (such as nitrogen, potash, phosphorus, and so on) through burning has led to the coining of the term ‘swidden’ to describe this type of cultivation. (Swidden is an Old English word meaning to burn.) Following clearing and burning off, women usually take over and are responsible for breaking up the soil, planting crops, weeding, and finally, harvesting the plot. People living around the world in Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and Latin America grow a large variety of crops using this cultivation technique: for example, grains such as corn, millet, and sorghum; roots such as manioc, yams, and sweet potato; and fruits such as bananas, pawpaws, and melons.

Many Amazonian Indian populations practice shifting cultivation, horticultural crops supplying the bulk of their food regardless of the time spent gathering and hunting in the surrounding forest (Watters 1971). Among the Yanomamo, plantains and bananas are the staple crop. They select welldrained sites, relatively clear of thorny underbrush. They do not attempt to burn large tree trunks, left strewing plots in a jumble, serving as boundaries between patches, the crops planted there belong to those who cultivate them. Newly established gardens yield crops in cycles, the rapidly growing ones such as maize coming first, followed by others including manioc, taro, sweet potato, and mapuey. The Yanomamo also grow chewing tobacco, cotton for hammock yarn, drugs for shamanistic rituals, and many fruits including papaya, avocados, gourds, and hot peppers. A garden produces constantly as it matures, but a regular supply of food demands careful management. Gardens have direction, moving little by little as people gradually abandon older areas as thorny underbrush encroaches. They constantly clear adjacent land and transplant secondary plantain suckers as they appear. Sometimes villages are obliged to establish new gardens elsewhere. This is usually a political decision, communities moving when threatened by raids from enemy villages. It requires a large effort to establish a new garden some way off, to transport needed cuttings and seeds. New gardens also produce sporadically at first, and people may face hunger, whereas established ‘rolling gardens’ offer predictable subsistence.

At some ill-defined point, agronomists distinguish bush fallow systems. These are broadly similar to shifting systems with regard to technology and cropping strategies, but with a reduced fallow interval and longer periods under cultivation. Instead of one or two years under cultivation followed by two or more decades under fallow forest, these horticulturists may farm land for 5–10 years with a fallow interval of similar duration under bush or savanna vegetation. Stock may graze on the fallow, cattle, goats, sheep, and so on. Settlement is increasingly stationary, and land holdings are usually more clearly defined with agreed field boundaries. These fallow systems sometimes evolve from shifting regimes with increasing population densities. They may demand management of soil fertility through the application of manure or fertilizer, otherwise yields will decline over time. Degradation of the natural resource base may occur with increasing population pressure and demand to grow cash crops.

Again, at some ill-defined point, we distinguish ley systems. These are ones in which farmers systematically use the land to pasture livestock during the non-arable phase. At one end are unregulated leys where people agist their animals on unmanipulated natural regrowth of grasses and herbs. They have communal grazing rights, and practice little pasture management. At the other end are regulated leys where farmers manage the grazing vegetation, frequently putting down grasses and legumes as fodder. They maintain individual pastures which they may fence off. They may graze meadows directly or use them to produce hay or silage. At this point we usually think they have evolved into agricultural regimes.

Bush fallows and unregulated leys are common in interlacustrine East Africa (Allan 1967). Lugbaraland, for example, comprises fields and homesteads scattered across open upland country. Homesteads comprise compounds, clusters of family huts and granaries, under which are ghost shrines and magical plants. Fields surround them. Each homestead cultivates three types of fields. Men do the heavy work of opening the land, women weed and harvest. Both sow, depending on the crop, men handling more cash crops. They intercrop in all. Postharvest care and use of crops is the responsibility of women. The ‘riverine fields’, irrigated by channels from streams, are highly fertile and need only short fallows, they support sweet potato, maize, sugar cane, and bananas. The ‘home fields’, fertilized with ashes and manure, support nutrient-demanding crops such as beer-brewing white sorghums. The ‘outside fields’ support stap-Leveleusine, together with sorghum, simsim, and pigeon pea, cultivated for two or three years, after which they are left under bush fallow to restore fertility. People allow unregulated grazing of cattle and goats on fallow. They recognize different fallows: from recent and regaining fertility; a few years old, the presence of certain plants showing restored fertility; cleared land left for a few months before hoeing; through to uncultivated land. Each woman in a homestead should have areas in all fields, of equal fertility. If not, quarrelling is likely. The fields of a homestead are likely to be scattered, due to differences in soil and water. This sets a limit on the maximum size of farming groups. A household short of certain farmland may move and take up residence with kinsmen elsewhere, usually a wife’s or mother’s brother.

It is generally agreed that with the invention of the plough we approach the realm of agriculture. The plough allows people to harness either the strength and energy of draught animals or engine-powered machines to assist in their preparation of land for the planting of crops. The result is that one person, together with their team of oxen or whatever, can accomplish considerably more work alone, releasing others to follow different occupations. We have the emergence of increasingly specialized labor, a move from so-called organic to mechanical solidarity. We find the practice of crop rotation and occasional fallowing to maintain soil fertility with the plough and associated agricultural machinery, together with the increasing use of amendments such as manure, fertilizer, biocides, etc.. In regions that suffer water deficits, people may have irrigation technologies. In some places they may have plantations of perennial commercial tree crops. The upshot is permanent farming, with clearly demarcated fields. While it is inappropriate to go into the growth of the first civilizations among the early cultivators of the fertile crescent in the Middle East, of Mesoamerica and of the Far East, we should note some of the consequences of these developments, founded on a settled agricultural way of life (Sauer 1969). They allowed for greater population densities, which, combined with the relative permanence of settlement that results with agriculture, led to the emergence of wider-scale political groups than those based on the family or tribe. These developments opened the way over millennia to the evolution of industrial-urban societies, sometimes with associated peasantries.

Before turning from the agronomic aspects of horticultural societies to consider the social orders associated with them, it needs to be stressed that while the foregoing regimes have been presented with an evolutionary dimension, it would be wrong to consider them as discrete steps leading from shifting cultivation to mechanized agriculture. This typology is no more than a low-level generalization by which we can usefully classify cultures. When we look closely we find that many societies do not fit comfortably into any one category, but span two or more, as the previous East Uganda example illustrates. In the Baliem valley of New Guinea too, where sweet potato is the staple and people herd pigs, we find three sorts of cultivations. The largest are the permanent plots on the valley floor, some of which the Dani recultivate immediately upon harvest and others they leave fallow for months, even years. These gardens feature elaborate ditch systems which drain away store water, delineate and protect cultivations from pigs, and serve as mulching basins supplying organic rich mud for slopping over beds to ensure continued fertility. Other gardens men clear in a classic shifting mode on the mountain slopes, burning off plots and planting for a year or two. The third and smallest are kitchen gardens maintained adjacent to houses, supporting a wide range of valuable crops such as tobacco, sugar cane, and bananas, continually fertilized with household waste. Households commonly have several different widely separated fields at different stages.

3. Sociocultural Orders

We now turn briefly to look at the gross nature of the social orders found associated with horticulturists. It is difficult to distinguish between horticultural regimes according to political economy (how people distribute resources, etc.). They occur in one of three broad categories: egalitarian with balanced reciprocity, chiefdoms with redistribution systems, or peasantries in nations with markets. There is some correlation between permanence of settlement, cultivation regime, and polity, with shifting cultivators frequently living in egalitarian orders and ley farmers in chiefdoms.

The egalitarian societies featuring balanced reciprocity are characterized by groupings commonly called tribes. These are relatively large groups of people (that is, in comparison to hunter-gatherer bands), who occupy demarcated territories, to which resources they lay specific claim and rights. Characteristically these societies recognize all individuals as equals and place no persons above others, with authority and power to rule over them. They are what we call stateless or acephalous, and have evolved various strategies to maintain social order without formal government, judiciary, and so on; employing, for instance, descent and age in Africa, and ceremonial exchange in Melanesia. The productive group is not the tribe, but usually the family, with some help from extra kin in occasional large cooperative ventures. Under this household mode of production farmers consume most of their produce, although they distribute some to others. The formal distribution of food and goods is likely to be significant, taking place predominantly in reciprocal transactions. Relatives and friends who give things to one another keep a careful account. They give, not with the expectation of receiving an immediate return gift (or payment), but with the expectation of an equal return sometime later. There is often a competitive element in these transactions, those doing best winning higher status. They sometimes constitute grand institutions and are attended with some ceremony. Exchange is a facet of social and political relations and may exist independently of material wants and needs. This takes us away from subsistence and horticulture towards sociopolitical issues.

In Melanesia, ceremonial exchanges of balanced reciprocity are central to the maintenance of social order. New Guinea highlanders live in an egalitarian society. Each family supplies its own food and provides its own shelter. It occupies a compound often comprising several related families and friends, with men’s and women’s houses, and pig sty. Sometimes friends and neighbors make up a cooperative work party to garden or build a house. But there are no leaders. The Dani combine for conviviality, each person doing the same thing, the output comprising the sum total of their efforts (it is more fun mudding gardens together, for example, even though this is a one-man job). Feuding is common, clans fighting with bows and arrows and spears. Social order is promoted through exchange, primarily of pigs, which are only killed on ceremonial occasions. The giving and receiving of pigs constantly refurbishes the social network, people are bound to one another through their lifetimes by the exchange of hundreds, even thousands, of pigs. Clan affiliation determines access to land, all have equal rights. These are rights of usufruct, not land ownership. Men do the heavy, spasmodic garden and construction work, and are more involved in public activities such as politics, warfare, and rituals. Women undertake routine cultivation work and domestic responsibilities, herding pigs, and tending family needs. There is little call for distribution of goods with this minimal sexual division of labor. There is some trade with peopLevelsewhere for a few imported goods.

The chiefdoms with redistribution systems are hierarchically organized societies, where members are ranked one above the other. In the top rank are the rulers, commonly called chiefs. These persons have authority vested in them, often sanctioned by some supernatural connection, and govern those living in their chiefdom, kingdom, tribe, or whatever. Everyday rule is usually delegated to lower rank persons, who are locally responsible for day-to-day government, administration of justice, and so on. These chiefdoms are often feudal in nature, with these local leaders owing allegiance to the chief and supplying a military force if required by him. Societies organized in this way exploit raw materials on a larger scale. They do this, for example, by territorial conquests (as epitomized by the Zulu under their king Shaka) and through extensive trading networks (for example, the Aztecs controlled mining activities as far away as northern Mexico). These societies can also organize larger productive groups through the authority of their rulers, who by so doing not only assist people but also provide some sort of rationale for the existence of their power (for example, the farming terraces, irrigation works, storehouses for produce, and so on, constructed by the Inca). Redistributive systems predominate in these societies, where those of lower rank give food and goods to those of higher rank in the form of tribute. The chief will rearrange everything he receives and then redistribute it to his subjects (usually via local-level officers in his government). He may add to it any surplus goods which his probably superior productive position supplies (i.e., from his large, communally-worked gardens).

The chiefdoms of South Africa are good examples of this political order. The horticulture practiced is broadly similar to East Africa, the main crops being maize and millet, together with ground nuts, gourds, sugar cane, and pumpkins. Farming is seasonal, dependent on the summer rains. One source of rulers’ political authority is the belief that they can control the advent of the rains. People may have a precarious existence, food supplies fluctuating annually between plenty and scarcity bordering on famine. The Swazi, for example, talk of lean summer months as the time ‘to swallow the pickings of the teeth.’ Horticulture is not a prestigious occupation and is left primarily to women, whose main tool is the iron hoe. Except, that is, for ploughing, which involves highly valued oxen handled by men, and the cultivation of cash crops, notably tobacco and cotton. Households cultivate large fields using ox-drawn ploughs. The power rulers wield also relates to their right to allocate land to their subjects, who depend on it for their livelihood. The Swazi say that their political overlords ‘serve’ them the land, securing their rights by allegiance and usage. Women are allocated garden areas by their husbands on their marriage. Homestead plot size depends primarily on supply of resident labor. People use grazing lands communally. They value pastoralism highly, having the so-called African ‘cattle complex’: these animals have great symbolic value, being exchanged to ratify marriage, sacrificed to propitiate ancestors, and paid in tribute to rulers. They call the king the ‘Bull’ of the nation, and the royal herd far exceeds any other, supplying animals redistributed to subjects at national events and sacrifices. In addition to sex and age, pedigree also structures the division of labor. Men and women cooperate in agriculture, man’s work is heavier and more spasmodic, woman’s routine and more continuous. Aristocrats do not engage in manual labor to the same extent as their subjects, they are responsible for successfully organizing their efforts, supervising work parties and arranging for specialists to doctor land and seed. The rulers have several ‘gardens of kingship’ in different localities, of which local headmen arrange communal cultivation. Homesteads rely on kinsmen and neighbors to assist at bottlenecks, customarily organized into two competitive work parties they spur each other on in songs, rhythmically coordinating their work through music. The size of communal work parties reflects status: they enhance prestige, being rewarded with beer and food at the host’s home.

The peasantries associated with markets are also incorporated into hierarchically organized societies. They are usually encapsulated within nation states where they occupy marginal and low positions, relatively powerless and commonly exploited. These are horticultural communities in peripheral, under-privileged situations, frequently taken advantage of, even abused by the dominant society. They usually feature extensive poverty. The larger political formations which rule significant aspects of their lives may supply them with certain services. Peasants depend in some regards on economic and political institutions beyond their local control. They may maintain informal reciprocal exchange networks within their communities, but outside they are obliged to participate in impersonal commodity markets. While they supply their own subsistence needs (similar to tribespeople, from whom many of the Third World’s peasants have descended in recent times), they are obliged also to cultivate a surplus to sell on outside markets to earn needed cash. In addition to using this money to purchase goods manufactured elsewhere, they need some cash to pay the taxes levied on them by the colonial national governments to which they are subject. They may also need to purchase outside inputs, such as inorganic fertilizers and biocides, to maintain their yields, especially if their farming system is under increasing demographic pressure, perhaps resulting in increasing environmental degradation. This may contribute to growing poverty. What peasants receive financially in return for their surplus horticultural produce is on the whole unfair, the elite higher up the social hierarchy, controlling access to imperfect markets and the arrangements for the distribution of produce, make a disproportionate profit to maintain their privileged position and lifestyle.

The Mayan Indians of Mexico have occupied a peasant status increasingly since the Spanish conquest (Wilken 1987). They sell crops surplus to their subsistence needs, largely maize and beans, and trade salt from the Ixtapa works at fiesta day markets. In turn they purchase goods such as coffee, sugar, fish, liquor, and bread from markets. They have been involved in marketing for centuries, historical evidence showing that they traded with Aztecs in prehispanic times. Maize is their staple, believed to have an ‘inner soul’ in the ear, together with beans, squashes, chillies, chayotes, and fruits such as peaches. They keep chickens and pigs, sheep for wool woven into chamarras, blankets and shawls, and mules for carrying heavy loads. The Mayans cultivate three types of land. Small, individually owned garden plots located near highland homes, their ancestral patrimony. Larger ejido plots acquired during the 1940s agrarian reform program, allocated by local committees to households. And plots in the lowlands rented from wealthy Ladino landowners by patrilineal groups, which they divide equally among themselves. They use centuries’ old swidden techniques, working with axes, machetes, bill hooks, and hoes. After cutting and burning vegetation, they plant using pointed digging sticks. In old fields they cut and rake maize stubble into piles for burning, and then hoe sheep manure into the turned topsoil. They prepare fields for planting at the onset of the rainy season. Ritual attends planting, a critical task in which a shaman offers candles, incense, liquor, and prayers to the Earth Owner, who controls wind and clouds. People cultivate fields for varying periods of time, depending on elevation and soil quality, before allowing brush to grow again. They store threshed maize in granaries or indoor grain bins prior to sale.

Again this sociocultural typology, like the previous agronomic one, is only gross, the elements constituting approximate cultural sets which have proved useful in organizing our ideas over many years. It continues to structure our thoughts in a preliminary fashion. There is some broad correlation between peoples’ horticultural arrangements, that is how they produce food and other items necessary for life, and how they are socially organized, both to effect production and to achieve distribution of its fruits. But this is not to imply, as some writers argue, that mode of production determines the nature of social arrangements.

4. Future Directions

Several questions remain to be answered about horticultural societies. Many aspects are still poorly understood, and insight sometimes blinkered by orthodoxies. The Baliem Valley, for example, supports one of the highest population densities in New Guinea ( 160 persons per km ), with no evidence that it is pushing against the environmental limits. How can the region’s intensive horticulture system support such a high population density without any outside fertilizer amendments? The accepted shifting cultivation model which pertains to this part of the world predicts evidence of environmental strain, of the kind commonly associated with overpopulation. Yet the sophisticated horticultural regime does not seem to exhaust the soil (Sillitoe 1996).

A major contributor to our understanding of horticultural societies has been ‘farming systems research’ conducted under the aegis of international development agencies (Shaner et al. 1982). This involves multidisciplinary terms, using survey techniques largely, to detail the ecological, technical, and socioeconomic aspects of horticultural regimes and identify constraints on production amenable to scientific research. It was initially associated with ‘modernization,’ research intended to advance the development of horticultural societies into agricultural ones, to enmesh them in commercial farming and specialized production for the market place. It was thought that this would alleviate poverty, leading to increased production of a food surplus necessary to support increasingly urban populations specializing in industrial, administrative, and service sectors. To this end, agricultural research institutes worldwide embarked on programs to breed new ‘high-yielding varieties’ of crops and develop associated technologies to increase production. The scientifically resoundingly successful ‘green revolution’ diminished the threat of famine. Nonetheless, it increasingly became evident that while the ‘revolution’ had benefited resource-rich and wealthy landowners, it had largely passed poor farmers by, increasing wealth differentials. It also worryingly increased dependency on outside manufactured inputs (inorganic fertilizers, fossil-fueled machinery, chemical pesticides, and herbicides) and gave rise to concern about long-term sustainability with evidence of increasing environmental pollution, susceptibility to mutated pathogens, insecure supply of needed inputs, and so on. The move towards cash cropping also put farmers at the mercy of market fluctuations, sometimes causing their families considerable hardship, further increasing resistance to modernization and adoption of commercial production. We become aware that ‘modernization’ not only scarcely helped poor households farming in marginal and fragile, resource-poor environments, but may have made some wealthier ones vulnerable too.

The realization that not only were some small-scale subsistence-focused horticultural societies proving very resistant to change as envisioned by modernization, but that other communities were increasingly exposed to serious perturbations beyond their control in attempting to accommodate its interventions, prompted a rethink of development priorities in the 1980s. It was increasingly acknowledged that poor people need to be involved in the planning and implementation of any development interventions intended to assist them, with the consequences of what international bankers euphemistically called economic restructuring taking effect (a dramatic instance of outside market forces impacting negatively on farmers’ fragile commercial enterprises, as their nations’ burgeoning debts were rescheduled). The ‘participation’ approach to development came of age. This promises to advance understanding and the interests of horticultural societies in the future, particularly with the concomitant emergence of ‘indigenous knowledge’ research, which represents the coming together of applied farming systems research and academic disciplines such as anthropology, geography, and ecology which have long esteemed understanding of horticultural societies (Warren et al. 1995). The assumption is that any development assistance needs to be sympathetic to local sociocultural and environmental contexts and to accommodate peoples’ aspirations. Understanding these implies their cooperation. It also furthers meaningful appreciation of the complex relations that inform natural resources management, as understood by local farmers, those who contend daily with them—the collapse of many interventions has been attributed to a failure to comprehend the complexity of their livelihood systems. These changes in research and development agendas bode well for furthering understanding in the future, and promoting the interests of horticultural societies along their own lines.


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