New Varieties, Agricultural Experts, and Native Farmers: The Politics and Power of Recognition in British Colonial Gambia
This paper traces the circulation of knowledge, germplasm, and credit within the rise of colonial plant breeding in early twentieth century Gambia as a way to consider how plant transfers and differential practices of recognition shaped ideas about novelty, expertise, and creative agency in colonial agricultural science. Drawing on two years of archival and ethnographic research, I explore how varietal naming, differential acknowledgements in plant transactions, and contests over agricultural knowledge within the colonial ranks worked to lend some plants distinctions of novelty and some people distinctions of expertise. In the early 1920s, after a bout of renaming and a series of selections made from two landrace peanut varieties, the Director of Agriculture in the British colony developed three “new” varieties. Along with a number of other introductions and locally prospected cultivars, these came to form the basis of crop improvement efforts in the young Department. This work unfolded within a social milieu marked not only by the unequal relations of empire but also by the growing tensions between traditional colonial administrators and an emerging class of elite agricultural “experts.” Here, I argue that differential recognition practices for varietal work within these plant breeding networks repositioned Gambian farmers as mere recipients of “improved” germplasm, ultimately lending credence to claims of “ownership” of some germplasm by the colonial state. In doing so, I reflect on some of the social and political practices that shaped claims to germplasm prior to the emergence of plant patents and plant variety protection.
Susannah Chapman, T C Beirne School of Law, The University of Queensland