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To Keith Addison

Handmade Projects
Journey to Forever

Rural development

If it's not broken, don't fix it

Journey to Forever covers an interesting range of technologies. We'll be using the latest high-tech communications equipment, powerful computers, digital cameras and high-speed satellite communications units that come in chic little magic boxes stuffed to the brim with microscopic wizardry.

Yet they're tough and rugged, very well built, which is just as well because if they broke we sure wouldn't know how to fix them.

For the rest of the project, that's a prime consideration: can you fix it yourself? Better still: can you make it yourself? Important questions for us when we'll be spending so much time far from anywhere, and even more so for the villages we work in when our main aim is to help increase local self-reliance wherever possible, and decrease dependence on outside resources. So we tend towards low-tech solutions. Small is beautiful.

The project vehicles will be as low-tech as possible -- there won't be million-dollar workshops full of electronic equipment in most of the places we'll be visiting. The vehicles must be tough, capable, built to last, and fixable.

The core of the project is even lower-tech -- the ancient traditional farming methods still used by villagers in many remote areas.

These old farming systems are also tough, very capable and built to last, and they've withstood the test of time -- some, like China's, have fed growing populations for thousands of years without ruining either the soil or the environment, by following Nature's ways and obeying her rules.

Such farming systems can be highly productive, and they're sustainable -- they can last forever. According to Agenda 21, the action plan agreed at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and many other authorities, these traditional methods and skills are a vital element in the environmental management of the future.

But the old ways are everywhere under threat by the modern world -- much accumulated wisdom and many skills are already lost.

Agenda 21 calls on governments to "foster traditional methods and knowledge of indigenous people and their communities" (Agenda 21, Section II, Chapter 15).

Related documents state: "Sustainable agriculture respects the ecological principles of diversity and interdependence and uses the insights of modern science to improve rather than displace the traditional wisdom accumulated over centuries by innumerable farmers around the world."

Other resolutions are to "recognize the value and encourage the use of traditional sustainable knowledge; encourage local capacity to develop appropriate technology adapted to local skills, needs and environment".

Agenda 21:

We don't aim to "modernize" old methods, merely to help strengthen them where needed, and whether by modern means or old, or a happy combination of both, along with old techniques borrowed from other traditional systems elsewhere, or new ones developed by appropriate technology groups, depends on what works best and what fits well, with the community and with the environment.

Local people will be involved at all stages -- they're the ones to decide what's good for them. (See Community development.)

Fixing what's broken

The local context is all-important in environment and development work. Basically it is ecological work, and the one and only Law of Ecology applies: everything is connected to everything else.

This is why ready-made, pre-conceived, one-size-fits-all, "best" solutions designed somewhere else so seldom work well. They take little account of all the interconnections, which are different in each new context, and the resulting rash of unforeseen side-effects soon adds up to worse problems than the ones they set out to solve in the first place.

We'll have some powerful tools with us -- things like power saws can do a week's work in half a day. But should we use them? In the wrong context, they could be disruptive, even destructive. We'll also have hand saws, ancient tools like hoes, sickles, scythes -- and even the high efficiency of a scythe can be disruptive.

Learning the local context takes time -- time we won't have. We're planning to make dozens of stops along the route, stopping for a month at a time and more to work on small-scale development projects. But, to avoid the context trap, we'll always be working with and for local NGOs on their projects.

We'll rely on the NGOs for their vital local knowledge. We'll also have access to sound advice and information on a case-by-case basis from online collaborators worldwide, via the Internet.

Where practical, we'll always prefer low-tech solutions that rely on local skills and local resources, cutting down on imported inputs and keeping innovations to a necessary minimum.

Much of our work will be less sensitive, such as general repairs and maintenance to tools, walls and fences, paths, drains and ditches, livestock pens, housing, food storage. The repairman's always welcome!

We hope to gather long-term support for the NGOs we work with through media and other exposure as we record the journey and our projects (the team includes professional journalists). We'll link them with each other and put them in touch with international resources, and we'll maintain our links with them after we leave.

These are the areas we'll be focusing on:

  • Soil management and erosion control
  • Fertility improvement
  • Pest and weed management
  • Yield and crop-quality improvement
  • Livestock management
  • Crop-livestock integration
  • Tree farming -- people's forestry
  • Family nutrition
  • Women's issues
  • Water conservation
  • Energy
  • Waste recycling

Our route between stops will be more flexible, with many shorter stops and detours for investigation and reporting as we continue our environmental health check of the land and its people.

We'll also foster community-based projects in market towns and urban centres along the route, such as community gardens and urban farms, waste recycling and biofuels projects, establishing ongoing information-sharing networks between different centres. This will include both local schools and our schools network.


China's farming system: See the classic "Farmers of Forty Centuries, or Permanent Agriculture in China, Korea and Japan", by Prof. F.H. King, Chief of the Soil Management Division, US Department of Agriculture, 1911, Dover Publications, 2004, 464 pages, photographs. King was a brilliant agricultural researcher and the record of his journey through China, Japan and Korea a hundred years ago makes fascinating reading, both for its agricultural history and as a travelogue. Read the complete book online at Cornell's Core Historical Literature of Agriculture library:;idno=2917542
Buy the book at Farmers of Forty Centuries

City farms: "Because of the pivotal role of women as food producers, investing in women farmers in cities is more likely to improve the nutrition and health of their families than investing in male farmers. Urban agriculture in the hands of women is a powerful tool to uplift women's social position as well as to improve their families' diets, incomes and food security" -- "City Women Farm for Food and Cash", International Ag-Sieve, Volume VI, No 2, 1993, Rodale Institute.
International Ag-Sieve -- all back issues:

"Leave the farmers alone" -- a review of
"Indigenous Agricultural Revolution -- Ecology and Food Production in West Africa", by agricultural researcher Paul Richards (1985). Richards delivers a damning critique of agricultural scientists' research in developing countries as out of touch with the needs of the majority of farmers. He says the capabilities of the peasants themselves have been grossly underrated, showing them to be ecologically aware, with sound reasons behind most of their techniques, and much given to experiment and innovation. Richards details several cases where scientific studies have "re-invented" techniques already widespread among peasants. 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?". Buy the book at Indigenous Agricultural Revolution

"Farmer First: Farmer innovation and agricultural research" edited by Robert Chambers, Arnold Pacey and Lori Ann Thrupp, 1989, 1998, Practical Action, ISBN 1853390070
This book argues that farmers in resource-poor areas are innovators and adaptors, and that agricultural research must take the farmers' own agendas and priorities into account. Robert Chambers is one of the champions of indigenous agricultural development and the people-oriented approach. The "Farmer First" movement was at first dismissed by mainstream development workers as "naive populism", but most of them have since had to change their tune about that. Buy at Farmer First: Farmer innovation and agricultural research

"Two Ears of Corn: A Guide to People-Centered Agricultural Improvement", by Roland Bunch, 1982, 3rd edition 1997
Bunch makes a similar point to that of Paul Richards (above). He worked with World Neighbors, a small private voluntary agency cooperating with a wide variety of local, national, and international organizations to improve the productivity of small farmers. A combination of widely varying experience and in-depth feedback helped World Neighbors select and refine a set of techniques that greatly increased the impact of many of its programs: People-Centered Agricultural Improvement, the subject of this book. Now in its third edition, with its techniques taken up and being used all over the world. Download from the CD3WD 3rd World online library (30Mb pdf):
Buy at Two Ears of Corn

"Recording and Using Indigenous Knowledge: A manual", International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), 1996, ISBN 0-942717-70-8 -- Rural people have an intimate knowledge of many aspects of their surroundings and their daily lives. Over centuries, people have learned how to grow food and to survive in a sometimes difficult environment. They know what varieties of crops to plant, when to sow and weed, which plants are poisonous and which can be used for medicine, how to cure diseases and how to maintain their environment in a state of equilibrium. This "indigenous knowledge" -- "IK" for short -- is a valuable resource for development: it can be equal to or superior to the scientific know-how introduced by outsiders. This manual provides rural development workers with the information and tools they need to integrate IK into their development work. It focuses on IK in People-Centered Agricultural Development. Buy from the IIRR:

"Indigenous practises are sometimes not very spectacular. Despite their effectiveness, they can easily be overlooked.

"For example, a traditional irrigation system consisting of mud canals and bamboo pipes looks less impressive than an introduced system of neat, straight, and cemented canals. Nevertheless the local system can effectively distribute water to the fields. In the long run, it might even conserve water better than the cement canals. Research in Nepal has shown that farmer-managed irrigation systems based on indigenous knowledge resulted in higher agricultural productivity than systems built and managed by government agencies.

"IK is often overlooked because it seems 'messy' and so is not obvious to outsiders. For example, people in some places do not weed their plots in order to reduce soil erosion. An outsider might get the wrong idea and assume nobody is tending the fields." -- From "Recording and Using Indigenous Knowledge", IIRR

Village Earth Model for Sustainable Village-Based Development: Poverty is a crushing weight for most of the rural poor as they search in vain for opportunities that continually elude their grasp. They live out their lives isolated from the resources which the rest of society enjoys. The Village Earth Model is designed to address global poverty. It is based on a synthesis of the best development practices pioneered and tested over the past 50 years. The model is founded on the premise that lack of access to resources is the primary obstacle to building a better life, and that poverty is the symptom rather than cause of the problem. It holds that villagers already possess the seeds of their own development. Unlike traditional methods, it employs a bottom-up approach to development. It listens rather than dictates. It provides access to resources rather than aid. Pilot projects are underway in India and Indonesia. More:
Download the Complete Village Earth Model (pdf, 128kb):

Database of best practices on indigenous knowledge established by the Netherlands Organization for International Cooperation in Higher Education / Indigenous Knowledge and UNESCO's Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST)

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