Rolex Awards Laureates Anabel Ford (winner in 2000) and Ilse Köhler-Rollefson (2002) have very different backgrounds. Ford, from the United States, is by training an archaeologist; German Köhler-Rollefson, a veterinary surgeon. But they realized after meeting in Los Angeles in 2016 at the Rolex Awards’ 40th anniversary celebration that their projects have much in common. Ford is renowned for protecting and promoting El Pilar, the 2,000-hectare archaeological site she found on the Guatemala-Belize border. She has researched and developed a model for conservation based on the methods of ancient Maya farmers. Köhler-Rollefson’s award-winning project is based in India, where she is saving Rajasthan’s camel herds and the Raika people’s traditional way of life. Her vision has grown to include pastoralist peoples and their animals worldwide, defending them against modern methods of mass livestock production, which she describes as “one of the socially and ecologically most disastrous trends globally”.
The two Laureates met again recently when Dr Ford travelled to Rajasthan after attending events in India for National Geographic, the Archaeological Survey of India and the Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology. “After my other commitments in India,” she explained, “I travelled overland three hours to Sadir to see Ilse and understand her work with small camel herders who are feeding their community and producing healthy milk for the world at the nexus of culture and nature. Her lens is a complement to my work on the Maya forest garden.”
The two Laureates were interviewed for the Rolex Awards.
Rolex Awards: What do your projects have in common?
ANABEL FORD: “Both projects consider the interaction between traditional land use and people. And both consider traditional knowledge of medicinal and other plants as they relate to local land management and human interactions.
“[On my visit to Rajasthan] I learned about camel herding, and the challenges with new laws that limit mobility, disregard local needs, and impose state ideals without considering local dimensions. I can see that the local herders of Rajasthan face the same challenges that could obliterate their way of life and, with that, eliminate the language of the landscape that they live in.”
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “Both of our projects respect traditional knowledge, as it is something that has developed over hundreds of years and been tried and tested and adapted in multiple ways. This traditional knowledge is not something that is static; it evolves continuously. It is based on experience and ground realities, in contrast to the ‘advice’ and ‘scientific’ knowledge that comes from outside, but has not been put into practice before.”
Rolex Awards: Were you surprised to find that a project half way around the world had so much in common with your own?
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “Not really. But I was excited about the Maya garden as we are in the process of setting up [in Rajasthan] a garden of the 36 medicinal plants that camels graze on and that contribute to making camel milk so healthy.”
FORD: “Working in the New World [El Pilar], where traditional land use was not with animals, this project was a revelation to me on the interactions between human herding and land use. The imposition of what I call ecological imperialism impacts both areas where there is little understanding of the importance of the human-land relationship.”
Rolex Awards: Are there similar threats to traditional agriculture/cultures worldwide? For example, loss of terrain, new agricultural methods, the arrival of modern technology, climate change and the Western way of life.
FORD: “Yes. Both areas are losing traditional knowledge because of land use changes, land tenure development – what is called ‘seeing like a state’. Lands that were used for herding have been constrained and subjected to legislation. In the Maya area, there has been a strong prejudice against the traditional Milpa forest garden cycle slash and burn. This leaves the perennial elements of the cycle unnoticed, abandoned, a grave misunderstanding of the Maya system. Capitalism, mobile phones – these are things that could be integrated if there was respect for and incorporation of the traditional and local ways of life. Losing these connections between land use and humans that are native to the place is a tragedy.”
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “Yes, a similar situation prevails worldwide. I don’t think the arrival of modern technology – TV, mobile phones, etc. – are bad at all. What is bad is that there is no monetary value associated with traditional agricultural cultures. Small farmers the world over are having a tough time and find it impossible to survive on the economic returns they receive. The camel breeders of Rajasthan are in an especially tough position and that’s why my team and I are devoting most of our energies to getting a camel milk market going. And it is working. Especially since our recent Marwar Camel Culture Festival, which significantly increased public interest in camel milk.
Are some elements of modern life – the Internet and communication, for example – going to help traditional cultures survive?
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “Yes, absolutely, because they provide a platform and forum for these perspectives to reach a large audience.”
FORD: “It is evident that contemporary communication is important, even critical. And being part of global events is important, but not with the exclusion of [some forms of] knowledge. Efforts to record knowledge do not recognize knowledge that is unwritten and is in practice. We must be conscious that change is inevitable, but a wealth of knowledge that is not recorded in writing and reliant on practice is ignored. Practice over centuries, if not millennia, is the result of experimentation, trial and error, the heart of the scientific method.
In both your projects there is a key link between traditional culture and agriculture. Is traditional agriculture, grown out of local traditions, disregarded or downgraded by modern science and agriculture?
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “It is. There is lip service to respecting traditional knowledge, but in the end, it is disregarded and ignored.”
FORD: “Yes. Without the inclusion of traditional and local strategies learned across ages, we will not succeed in developing workable agricultural and land-use strategies that will sustain us into the next decades, let alone centuries. The strategies native to the place are tried and true.”
What do we risk losing if we lose ancient agricultural traditions and knowledge?
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “It’s like losing a library that has stored ancient texts and historical documents.”
What is the best way to ensure that traditional agricultural methods and knowledge are retained and used?
FORD: “First we need to acknowledge the contribution of traditional strategies, rather than malign them as primitive and undeveloped. Far from primitive, we are rejecting the simple and the sophisticated with an intimate knowledge that is vital to the future of the local landscape. With acknowledgement comes the value of the traditional strategies that expose the nuances of the strategies and practices.”
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “To make it remunerative and ensure that the people who produce healthy food that way can make a decent living. Social entrepreneurs need to get involved.”
How did the Rolex Award help each of your projects?
FORD: “The Rolex Award brought the initial recognition of my efforts, linking with the local area and building the forward practice – with the clear value and inclusion of local knowledge. We need the top-down recognition and the bottom-up implementation of practice.”
KOHLER-ROLLEFSON: “The Rolex Award made a tremendous difference. An article about my project recently appeared in National Geographic and garnered the attention of the Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Also, the moral support and attending the Awards functions, and meeting like-minded people, like Anabel. Those are the highlights that compensate for the hard times one has to go through.”