Leave the farmers alone
by Keith Addison
Book review published in African Business, August, 1986

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Leave the farmers alone
Book review of "Indigenous Agricultural Revolution -- Ecology and Food Production in West Africa", by Paul Richards

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"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.

With nature

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.

Lacking the population pressure and labour resources behind, say, Asia's terracing and irrigation systems, West African peasants work with nature, capitalizing on local diversity rather than trying to impose greater uniformity and control on the farming environment.

Two case studies corroborate Richards' view that the peasants' ecological sense and innovative talents are "one of the most significant of rural Africa's resources", which development and educational agencies must learn to tap.

However, poor communications in the rural hinterland exacerbate the "invisibilility" of peasant initiative -- and the peasants themselves, from long experience of taxes, demanding politicians and inequitable relations with the towns, often mislead outsiders about their productivity, preferring the low profile of a "subsistence backwater".

Farmers are thus excluded from the process of research design, find the results irrelevant to their problems and continue to "rely on their own systems of knowledge and research procedures -- systems and procedures of which scientists in the 'formal' sector are often quite unaware. At best the two systems pass each other like ships in the night. At worst they duplicate effort, or compete destructively."

It is possible that Richards errs in the opposite direction to his peers in his admiration for the peasants. For instance, a common criticism of the shifting cultivators' "slash-and-burn" methods is that they fail to return the organic matter to the soil, and Richards is not entirely convincing in countering this.

He seems to see humus merely as a provider of nutrients for plant growth, ignoring its considerable role in increasing the stability and water retention of soils, both problems the peasants acknowledge.

He argues that composting is too slow and laborious, but finished compost can be produced in a few weeks in tropical conditions (the farmers leave cut brush for several weeks to dry before burning), and less laborious methods should not be beyond the capacities of these inventive farmers, accustomed to integrating nature's diversity and to smoothing out labour needs. Composting would also avoid the vulnerability of the "burn" to early rains.

Richards offers many useful suggestions, first among which is to abandon the "top-down" approach. One of the best sections of the book is his model Field Survey, a thoughtful, practical and thorough approach to how development should be tackled if projects are not only to "work" but to provide satisfactory answers to the questions "who benefits?" and "at whose expense?".

He advocates "sideways extension" -- formal-sector assistance in spreading the best local agricultural innovations -- and "participatory research", where problem definition and much of the research work itself are handled by groups of farmers, with scientists serving as collaborators and consultants. The training of investigators needs to involve far more fieldwork and participation if they are to fulfill the more useful role of "catalysts and facilitators" rather than experts.

Richards is not blind to the obstacles on the path he proposes, but it is the correct one if real development is to take place.

-- Keith Addison

African Business
August, 1986

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