by Keith Addison
Book review published in African Business, August, 1986
"Indigenous Agricultural Revolution -- Ecology and Food Production in West Africa", by Paul Richards. Published by Hutchison University Library, London, 192pp. £7.50 ISBN 0 09 161320 5
Dr Richards holds that agricultural research in developing countries is generally out of touch with the needs of the majority of farmers, and can do more harm than good. While not an original view, it's refreshing to hear it from an agricultural researcher.
Richards delivers a damning critique of the agricultural scientist's whole approach to development: ethnocentric bias, elitism, blindness to the inappropriateness of temperate-region techniques to the tropics, ignorance or disregard of local ecological and sociological conditions, inadequate field research and a lack of feedback.
All lead to hopelessly inappropriate research goals or, worse, imposing preconceived and simplistic ideals disregarding complex and diverse ecological interactions, with disastrous results.
The ill-founded attempt to eradicate tsetse fly so that stable, mixed farms (the European model) could replace the "wasteful" and "primitive" shifting agriculture preferred by peasant smallholders is a case in point, and Richards provides a good analysis of this.
Similarly, the drive to mechanize has proved an expensive white elephant, and, often, so has irrigation -- one scheme saw rice yields declining to a third of the levels the peasants had achieved before the scheme was built.
Richards casts serious doubt on the prospects of current research initiatives such as the attempts to impose an Asian-style Green Revolution on West Africa, with its "standard packages" of high-yielding (or rather high-response) varieties plus chemicals: here research is even more centralized, even less concerned with local conditions, and his analysis helps to explain why the scheme has gained so little ground.
His main thrust, however, is not merely a negative criticism of the scientific establishment, but rather that the capabilities of the peasants themselves have been grossly underrated.
He shows them to be ecologically aware, with sound reasons behind most of their techniques, and much given to experiment and innovation. Often they have been ahead of the scientists: Richards details several cases where scientific studies have "re-invented" techniques already widespread among peasants.
He presents a convincing case that, viewed in its full ecological context, shifting cultivation, rather than a primitive stage in agricultural development and thus in dire need of "modernizing", could be the best option for farmers with an excess of land and a chronic labour shortage.
The cultivators' "sloppy" land clearance emerges as an anti-erosion device, while their "undisciplined" and "unhygienic" intercropping practises (from 30 to 60 different crops per farm, with infinite local variations) spread the risk of failure and confer benefits of pest-resistance, soil conservation, a varied diet and, indeed, productive efficiency, without the insoluble labour bottlenecks that the more specialized approach the researchers generally advocate would involve.
The shifting system itself is ecologically educational in exposing farmers to a variety of conditions -- demonstrated in the way peasants adapt themselves to the tropical environment, so different in its local variations and ecological complexity from the temperate regions the researchers are more used to.
Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles
Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations | Contact us
© Copyright of all original material on this website is the property of Keith Addison, unless otherwise stated. It may not be copied or distributed without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. All material is provided "as is" without guarantees or warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied.