Leave the farmers alone

by Keith Addison <http://www.journeytoforever.org/keith_paul.html>

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

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


Project Home Farm

Trevor Batten
 <trevor at tebatt dot net>
 Baclayon 2013