Knowledge for better food systems

Traditional beliefs promote sustainability in West Africa

Researchers involved in this 18-month study examined the traditional agriculture of specific Liberian communities where farmers do not use industrial farming practices or artificial fertilisers.  The study found that sacred forests and ancestral lands were valued more than short-term economic gain through increasing food production.


The need for sustainable alternatives to industrial farming has led to a revival of interest in traditional agro-ecosystems. Whilst it is well recognised that traditional agro-ecosystems are both social and physical-technical – few case studies have examined interactions between both these dimensions in a single system. For a system to be considered sustainable it needs to be shown to have retained key characteristics over several generations. Case studies therefore demand a location where intergenerational transmission of agro-ecological knowledge and practice is ongoing. This paper examines the intergenerational transmission of social and physical–technical dimensions of a traditional agro-ecosystem of the Loma people in NW Liberia. We engage an innovative interdisciplinary combination of methodologies in analyzing interactions between: (i) energy efficiencies (yield to labour) in 3 different Loma food production systems, using longitudinal quantitative surveys, and, (ii) the social institutions that mediate food production practice, using qualitative methods. Our energy efficiency calculations show that AfDE cultivation is more than twice as efficient at producing calories as either shifting cultivation or forest and river extractivism, yet GPS mapping demonstrates that AfDE cultivation is highly spatially restricted despite clear opportunities for expansion and optimisation. This raises an important question: why have the Loma not expanded AfDE cultivation? We propose that despite being fully aware of the opportunities AfDEs present, a Loma ‘ancestral habitus’ and substantive economic rationality restrict areal expansion and optimisation of AfDE cultivation, curtailing growth and structuring a social-ecological system in dynamic equilibrium. Our findings underline that sustainability is not simply a physio-technical issue; social and belief issues appear to be far more important in framing behaviour in traditional agro-ecosystems.


James Angus Fraser, Victoria Frausin, Andrew Jarvis. An intergenerational transmission of sustainability? Ancestral habitus and food production in a traditional agro-ecosystem of the Upper Guinea Forest, West Africa. Global Environmental Change, 2015; 31: 226 DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.01.013

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The 54 countries in Africa – from the dry northern African nations, through those in deserts and rainforests, all the way to the temperate parts of South Africa – are hugely varied in their ethnic, cultural, climatic, geographic, and economic aspects. The continent’s population of over a billion inhabitants, with a median age of 19.7 years, is the youngest in the world. Due to both its localised epidemics of hunger and its huge untapped agricultural potential, Sub-Saharan Africa specifically is a key focus area for many NGOs and development agencies interested in food production and security.

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