Gleaning As a Way of Life
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Gleaning As a Way of Life

Facts about gleaning as a way of life in the tropics.

There are many ways by which poor people struggle to live life decently. Among those ways they engage in to satisfy their hunger is gleaning, an age old practice that is even discussed in the bible. According to the Holiness Code and the Deuteronomic Code of the Torah, farmers should leave the corners of their fields unharvested, and they should not attempt to harvest any left-overs after they had harvested the majority of a field (Wikipedia).

What is Gleaning?

Gleaning is a term used to denote marginal folk’s food gathering activity mainly for subsistence purposes. It is commonly used to describe the act of collecting leftovers from farmers’ fields or the gathering of shells and other edible aquatic organisms at low tide in the coastal areas.

Who are the Gleaners?

Gleaning is practiced mostly by women and children because the activity is relatively lighter compared to major livelihood activities like fishing or farming which are mostly engaged in by men as these require greater physical strength.

Gleaning is usually done by the poor, the widow, orphans, or those whose occupations are not sufficient enough to provide them their day’s meal. Gleaning can also be considered a coping mechanism to adapt to the effects of climate change (see Climate Change Impact on the Way of Life of Indigenous Peoples of Palawan).

How Long do Gleaners Engage in This Activity?

The answer to this question relies heavily on the circumstances where gleaning is performed. If gleaned material is readily available, then it would take less time to gather what folks need to feed their family. Weather condition may also influence their decision to engage in gleaning.

How is Gleaning Practiced in the Farmlands?

Gleaning in the farmlands involves picking up excess grains left out after harvest or wind winnowing off full grains from a heap of grain-laden chaff. A round or square woven tray of bamboo or similar material is usually used to winnow the grains from the husk. The heavy grains are left behind as the grains are tossed up and the lighter husks are blown away. The grains are then removed from the bran by using large versions of wooden mortar and pestle called “lusong” and “bayo” respectively in one of the dialects in the Philippines (Fig. 1).

removing bran from rice grain

Figure 1. Removing bran from rice grains using large wooden mortar and pestle (Image Source)

How is Gleaning Practiced in the Coastal Areas?

This author examined the practice of gleaning in San Rafael, a coastal community where gleaners can typically be found gathering along the beach at low tide in early to late afternoon. As described above, gleaners in this coastal community consist mostly of old women and children.

Gleaners have different approaches in collecting the shells. Some dig out the shells in the sand with their bare hands, some create a pool of water where they feel around for the shells, while some turn the rocks and pebbles. All these activities are mainly performed along the edge of the seawater. This could be the point where aquatic organisms congregate to keep their bodies wet as the water recedes. Failure to keep up with the receding tide will cause death to the organism (Fig. 2).

dried up jellyfish on sand

Figure 2. Jellyfish stranded on land after the tide has receded.

One particular woman caught his attention. The woman, in her senior years, digs out shells using a spoon. She may have found the method effective because her hands, particularly the nails, are no longer effective in gathering the shells embedded among the sand and pebbles.

She dug for more than two hours under the cover of a cloudy day until sign of ominous rain is evident in the horizon. She paused and headed home with about ¾ liter of shells (Fig. 3).

gleaning collection of shells

Figure 3. Shells collected by the gleaner after more than two hours.

Gleaning as a way of life is an important activity even at this modern age. This way of life is highly dependent on the health of the ecosystem where it is performed. A polluted beach can no longer allow this major source of livelihood to happen. It is thus fitting and proper that efforts must be done to protect the coasts and ensure that people, especially the poor, are able to meet their basic need to survive.

© 2011 September 11 Patrick A. Regoniel Gleaning as a Way of Life


Wikipedia on Gleaning

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Comments (8)

This breaks my heart while reading. This is very informative and thought-provoking...

Nice article.But modern technology especially the harvesting machines have simply washed away gleaning since there is no scope for left overs in the fields.Even birds could not be seen in the fields.Such is the atrocity committed by the modern technology.Really a pathetic end for the gleaners.What to do? A nice, thought provoking article.Thanks.

Have you ever heard of the term "pag-pag"? Here in Manila, I consider these people the poorest people, or like scavengers, just to meet their basic needs to survive - they are people who who collects left-overs from food chains like Jolibee or McDonalds and other restaurants and re-heat the left-overs, they're the "modern gleaners" I suppose, prolific article Patrick.

Thanks P. Guims, Rama and Ron for enriching information on the gleaners as well as encouraging comments.

Excellent presentation, Patrick. Our culture has taught most of our parents this method and those who remained at the provinces are still indulged in this activity.

I have a totally different take on this. While I understand your points (and the article is good), gleaning can be quite lucrative, especially today. @Rama lingam - in my experience, modern harvesting methods leave much more waste in the fields. I am not poor and those I was with was not poor, but I have gleaned enough carrots in a harvested field in 10 minutes to do my family all year. I dragged a gunny sack across a harvested cornfield and gleaned enough wasted corn to feed out three enormous turkeys. One doesn't have to be poor to take advantage of waste. It just makes good sense to use what would otherwise be lost forever.

That's good insight Pat. Thanks for the added perspective.

This behavior is occured in birds and contrasted with hawking insects from the air or chasing after moving insects such as ants. Gleaning, in birds, does not refer to foraging for seeds or fruit. Nevertheless these are very nice analytical essays!