Draft version – the published version was never made available
The paper argues that indigenous agricultural practices in semi–arid West Africa
must be seen as dynamic operations
that serve different ends. These ends are not only agricultural, but symbolic.
By highlighting how farmers in the Central Plateau region of
organize their farming
strategies, the paper begins to challenge and to extend the ‘agriculture as performance’
arguments developed by Richards(1987, 1993) for the humid forest zone of West
Africa. Farmers, it is argued, are also keen ‘planners’; in order to meet their
goals they invest considerable effort in overcoming ecological constraints, and
also spend time forging links with various institutions working for
agricultural development. Technologies and ideas from multiple sources –
including those from some innovative development institutions – are
incorporated in agricultural planning and practices in different ways, by
different farmers, and for different reasons. The prospect of locally initiated
and managed agricultural change emerging on the Central Plateau is explored,
against this backdrop of project assistance and continued experimentation by farmers.
The paper begins with a
short overview of institutional activity on the Central Plateau. Next, an image
of dryland management is proposed which accentuates the strategic decisions
made by Mossi farmers, and highlights the need to focus on both the differences
and continuities between this case and indigenous agricultural strategies
elsewhere in West
Lastly, by looking at a) the ‘construction’ of agricultural systems and of
resource management activities, and b) how information from multiple sources is
assimilated and put to use, some conclusions are offered on the form that
should be taken in future relationships between development projects and
agricultural extension services, supported in part by international donors and,
inmost cases, employing 'Training and Visit' methodologies (Asche 1994:58).
These services now devote
less time than previously to the introduction of improved dry-grain varieties
and inorganic fertilizers, today combining these with the promotion of
composting techniques and low-input farming methods. Crop protection and
veterinary services operate on a smaller scale and with financial constraints.
Projects of various types promoting Gestion des Terroirs Villageois
(village land use management) approaches to
natural resource management. These agencies cut across the above domains and often
involve both NGOs and government services. Gestion des Terroirs Villageois
(GTV) projects assist village organizations
to take control of and oversee the territory over which they enjoy traditional
land rights, and may help them towards soil and water conservation and other
improvements on this land (Batterbury, 1994). A national GTV programme is
funded by World Bank and bilateral aid (Asche 1994: 71; Atampugre,
1993:154–160; Monimart et al, 1994).
The existence of this unique set of rural
actors on the Central Plateau has opened up significant opportunities for
farmers, and their own organizations, to extend the reach of their environmental
management activities in new ways, for example by requesting training
programmes from projects or by gaining assistance with the expensive, non-local
materials required for land rehabilitation. Local people who are aware of the
limitations of their resource base have their own agendas for change, and
increasingly treat development projects as a resource to aid their own
self–development. In return, local knowledge is both broadened and altered.
Several studies (e.g. Bebbington, 1992; Uphoff, 1992) have noted this process
and looked at its concrete implications for the empowerment of farmer organizations.
Here, however, I focus on a further
dimension of the debate surrounding alternative forms of development assistance
- how projects may conceptualize, learn from and use farmers' changing indigenous
II. The Construction and Management of Dryland Farming Systems
The expansion of rural development programmes in parts of sub-Saharan
has generated wide ranging
debate on policy frameworks for sustainable agricultural change, and forced a
fundamental reappraisal of the role of both projects and extension services in
this process. The impacts on farming communities have been far–reaching. In the
near–subsistence communities of the Central Plateau region of northern Burkina
Faso (see Box 1), farmers now deal with a diversity of institutional actors
involved in natural resource management interventions. This range of actors includes:
A range of projects for soil and water conservation, most small in scale,
promoting low cost techniques for land rehabilitation that have been developed
over the last decade. These techniques have been spread by
the work of European volunteer services, NGOs
and various government and bilateral programmes. Key techniques, notably
contour stone lines, have now been widely adopted by local communities and
individuals. Government community forestry programmes, bilaterally supported by
Dutch and Swiss funds and personnel. In recent years these have promoted
agroforestry systems and techniques to manage natural forest areas, and involve
the training of 'peasant foresters' (Kessler & Boni, 1990).
The anthropologist Paul
Richards is well known for his studies of farming and indigenous knowledge
systems in the Mende rice–growing zones of
, and has published two
widely read volumes which highlight the achievements of these African farmers
(Richards 1985, 1986). There are two aspects
of Richard’s work in particular which have been taken up by researchers and
policy makers. Firstly, Richards has suggested that shifting rice cultivators
attempt to hitch a ride upon, rather than to override and forcibly control,
processes observed in 'nature'
(1989:51). In carving out a farm from the forest, Mende farmers employ
their detailed agro–ecological knowledge, seldom needing to create enduring and
managed landscapes in order to grow their crops. They work with, and help
preserve, ecological diversity. This has become a most common image of West
African farmers in the literature on 'indigenous
knowledge' (Floquet, 1992; Fairhead & Leach, 1994:76), and has been taken
up and extended in other studies of West African farming systems which stress
improvisational skill, and the success of local agricultural techniques (Leach,
1992; Brouwers, 1993).
Secondly, Richards suggests
(1987,1993) this process of 'hitching a ride' upon ecological systems, and the
improvisation in this and other aspects of farming, can best be compared to
that of a freely interpreted musical performance by a talented musician. Little
of such a ‘performance’ is preplanned - rather, crop mixes and farming
operations are strung together and modified with inventiveness and opportunism.
Successive attempts by colonial regimes and agricultural research organizations
to ‘improve’ African agriculture have failed to appreciate how farmer
performances are well adapted to
environmental and labor constraints. Richards
constantly stresses the practical, everyday problem–solving abilities of rice
cultivators, and his work is regarded as a benchmark in the recovery of an
overdue assertion of African populism which directly challenges ‘top–down’
models of agricultural research and extension
(Bebbington, 1994; Scoones & Thompson, 1994; Watts, 1989).
While highly sympathetic to
Richard’s notions, my concern here is to demonstrate that further north in the
dryland regions of the sub-continent,
'hitching a ride' in the less diverse agro–ecologies which prevail there
is unlikely to get one to a chosen destination. It is self–evident that forms
of indigenous knowledge, technologies, institutions and ecological
characteristics are different in the
and Sudano–Sahel belt of
to those described for
. To begin with, the farming
enterprise in regions of poor soil quality or low soil fertility demands
different labor inputs and techniques than short-fallow shifting or rotational
cultivation widely used in the humid tropics. In northern Burkina Faso (Marchal,
1983) and southwestern Niger, it has become less and less common to see
traditional long–fallow agriculture initiated with bush clearance, even where
population densities are relatively modest; the availability of good quality
land for farming is declining. By contrast, I believe dryland farming in the
Sudano–Sahelian belt requires land users to marshal considerable labor and land
resources, and to invest scarce capital, to obtain what are sometimes meager
harvests from unyielding or exhausted soil. For example, a young male farmer in
the Mossi regions of
Burkina Faso must "build" his farm, from the moment he
leaves the family plot and commences cultivation on his own account, in order to
meet regular subsistence needs through the years. As Chris Reij (1992) has
suggested for the Yatenga Mossi
region in Burkina Faso, it appears that, where fertile land is scarce, young
men lacking private land access and income may choose to "carve out"
a farm from the barren, crusted soils of marginal land (termed zipelle)previously abandoned to agriculture. Similar processes can be observed
elsewhere on the Plateau, for example in the close-settled zone around
Kongoussi in Bam
. These actions require not
the "clearing of vegetation from rich soils before cultivation, as in the
Sierra Leone case - but the painstaking construction of planting pits
(zai) by men and women, and the collection
and transport of manure to the site; compost, manure or local rock phosphate is
thrown into the pits in order to restore some basic fertility to the rooting
zone and to encourage termite activity. Reij suggests the treatment of 1ha of
land - barely enough to nourish a farmer and a small family for a season - may
take up to 100 person–days of backbreaking labor. Similar examples of highly
intensive regenerative schemes can be found in southwest and central Niger,
where degraded land is now being traded for its unrealized productive potential
and considerable investments are being made in reclamation by various
conservation techniques (Reij, 1992).Frequently, planting pits are supplemented
by semi-permeable stone contour bunds, to aid the infiltration of scarce runoff
and brake the erosion of topsoil (Batterbury, 1994; Reij, 1994).
This process of land
rehabilitation - increasingly common since now encouraged by some of the numerous
extension services and development projects mentioned in section 1 - has much
in common with the laborious process of building a house for one’s own
occupation. The analogy (or metaphor, as will be shown) is an interesting one,
although we should be wary of overextending it; as Salmond (1982:71) and Porter
(1995) note, explanatory metaphors also have power to generate a certain form
of thinking and to exclude or marginalize others. They do, however, allow us to
‘ground’ our analyses in the real world, and this is my purpose here.
A family wishing to build a home, let us say
in an African city, must make many hard decisions about its location, its cost,
its dimensions, and its design. Many possible variables, from personal
preferences to financial constraints and difficulties encountered over land
rights and access, may influence the final outcome of such an endeavor. Like
the farmer, the builder must assemble scarce resources, call in favors, and set
aside time. A farm, as Richards (1987) points out, is never 'finished'. But the
actions required to farm in dryland regions are much like those involved in the
process of local house construction. The house builder must undertake a certain
amount of initial work to raise the roof of a house; equally, the farmer will never
obtain his or her first harvest from a formerly unproductive or low–yielding
plot without sizeable initial investments of time and labor.
This metaphor of ‘building’
is not designed to usurp a visualization of agriculture as rich in the
‘performance elements’ noted by Richards. Rather, my intention is to highlight
the need to consider the structured and planned elements of dryland farming
alongside the myriad performances, and processes of experimentation, enacted by
farmers. It is this revised perspective, not the abstract metaphor itself (cf
Richards1993) which matters. One could quite easily substitute the everyday
practice of cooking a meal (improvisation and performance, but built around a
basic recipe?) for the construction analogies used here. Salmond (1982)
provides a fascinating account of the power of metaphor in shaping
anthropological accounts (see also Porter 1995).
Once constructed, a dwelling
benefits its inhabitants in two distinct ways, which can be referred to as material
and symbolic. A) The Material: satisfaction and basic needs. a home
offers security; a base where the regular activities of the day are performed
and where one can both work and relax. It is tinkered with, adapted, repaired
and maintained not just to please neighborhood
gossips and busybodies, but to maintain the household's own needs for warmth
(or shade), protection from the elements and shelter. It is a lived environment
which slips into unconscious acceptance, like a favorite pair of well-worn
shoes. A 'home builder' is someone who creates a home for the pleasure of doing
so, using skills learned through trial, error and experience, and reaps his/her
rewards through the pleasure of living within this personally structured
environment. He/she feels pride. B) The
Symbolic: status and appearance. A
dwelling is an expression of ones' persona: it says who the owner is, as well
as telling the observer something about the social and economic status of its
occupiers. It is filled with personal objects, embellishments and decorated in
a style which sets it apart from one's neighbors. It is "lived in".
It is a place to offer hospitality, to teach offspring the basics of household
management and how they themselves must behave when they set up home themselves.
Over the year, specific tasks must be carried out both to maintain appearances
and to prepare for seasonal weather conditions. Leaving the compound upswept,
or a hole in the roof unrepaired after a storm, invites neighborly censure.
The parallels to dryland
farming are hopefully clear. Both the process of constructing or adapting a
house, faced with multiple constraints, and the worldview and status-sense of
its occupier(s), have parallels in the way a dryland agricultural system is
imagined, constructed and 'lived through'. The analogy is an important one; it
helps to interpret a particular aspect of farming systems in the Mossi region
and this in turn lead into a critique of project and programme interventions
that I will outline in the last section of the paper.
Mossi efforts to reclaim degraded or less fertile land can be likened to the
builder preparing a site, staking boundaries, wheeling and dealing to procure
the necessary materials, and then keeping costs down by doing the bulk of the
work him/herself. Tapping affective kin networks or friendships, he/she might
perhaps borrow or rent a donkey cart, picks and shovels from a friend. Unlike
the case of the shifting cultivator in the Sierra Leone rice farming zone, this
young Mossi farmer's goal is not to steal a living on a plot destined to return
to the natural forest from which it came - rather, the savings that went into
his (or her) initial investment demands the farmer abstracts a return from
his/her labor in terms of adequate food crop yields for several seasons. In
so–doing, a successfully reclaimed and productive field may inspire admiration
and perhaps jealously from his/her peers. This could apply equally to the main
millet plots of the household, as it could to the smaller and less permanent
personal fields of Mossi women (Compaore ,1993). It
would not be too sweeping a statement to suggest that those who ‘build’ their
own habitats in this way will tailor them to their own requirements, material
and symbolic, and generally wish to stay put for quite a while. In creating
their livelihood systems, farmers apply their knowledge in ways which make the
origins of particular practices or techniques hard to discern and classify, but
nonetheless illustrate their diversity. Knowledge comes from multiple sources
(including development projects and extension workers), and it is impossible to
freeze it in time or space for documentation and classification (Salmond,
1982:68). Working on knowledge transmission and farmer-project 'interfaces'
(Long, 1992:6) in a region of the Central Plateau where reliance on staple food
crops is still very great Department de
Rollo, Bam Province, revealed a
staggering range of traditional agricultural practices and erosion control
techniques among Mossi, Yarsé) and Peulh cultivators. These include the
construction of bunds and barriers from sticks, andropogon grasses and stones,
micro-variations in planting densities and spacing taking into account soil
fertility and water supply, these of millet-stalk or straw mulches to encourage
termite activity in hardened soils, and
selective cutting of forest areas to encourage natural regeneration of certain
woody species (Batterbury, 1994; Reij, 1994).Larger-scale, labor-intensive
practices such as the digging of zai, the construction of extensive contour
bunds (more appropriate for the reclamation of very unproductive land), and
growing use of compost pits, are techniques promoted by project and extension
services, and were rarely practiced before the arrival of volunteer services
and NGOs in the late 1970s. These improved and improvised techniques are of relatively
recent origin. Reij (1992) dates the first improved zai techniques to the late
1970s; the first 'digue filtrante'(permeable rock dam) on the Central Plateau
is thought to date from 1981/2 and was initiated by a French volunteer in
Rissiam, Bam Province (Reij, 1994; Vlaar & Wessenlink, 1990). Today, such
techniques are widespread (Atampugre, 1993). Some farmers in the study area had
learned of these techniques from neighboring villages, not from project
personnel, and adapted them to their own individual requirements. It would
appear, then, that traditional agricultural practices have been supplemented by
introduced (but locally developed) soil and water conservation techniques, and
that the latter are appropriate where in–situ degradation is well advanced (for
example on severely indurated zipelle) soils) where the farmer is forced to
consciously build up a functioning and sustainable production system. Mossi
farmers are engaged in carving out new agro-ecologies necessary to coax tired
soils back into productive use; they are building for the future with new
III. The Self, Design Choice and Learning in Mossi Communities
This use of ideas and
techniques from external agents is itself an instance of a far more general
phenomenon: the continuing incorporation of new ideas from a range of sources
in the process of farm planning and management. This incorporation of new ideas
occurs within certain constraints, but within these demonstrates much diversity
reflecting individual farmers’ choices and world–views. This can be illustrated
by looking at the varying ways in which farmers piece together livelihood strategies
incorporating natural resource management. Like a house, a Mossi farm must be
built to withstand all weathers. It must be resilient to extremes of rainfall
and wind, yet versatile enough to provide for changing family needs over a
period of years. Historically, the Mossi
have assured the resilience of their farms in several ways;
By exploiting micro-environments,
notably soil type differences. Soil characteristics are broadly correlated
with position on a catenary sequence running from eroded, iron-rich
escarpments ( tanga) to clay-rich valley bottoms
(baogho), and each is farmed with a varying crop mix and seasonal
calendar. Where two or more plots are cultivated, these are commonly
dispersed spatially across different ecological zones.
By varying planting and weeding dates to
balance labor availability and to reflect uncertainty over rainfall
By increasing efficiency of rainwater
use and runoff collection, as described above; mainly through the use of
stone and earth bunds, built across the land contours.
By increasing animal ownership. While not
a major part of traditional Mossi farming systems, cattle, sheep and goats
provide saleable assets yielding cash income when required. Great
attention is also given to the collection and dispersal of animal manures
and compound sweepings (Reij, 1994).
By diversifying the production base,
through off–farm activities, and so increasing the household’s ability to
absorb the costs of a poor farming year. The production of coarse-weave
cloth, panniers and roofing materials are common (Fiske, 1990: 338–342).
By using of donkey ploughs (but not
ox–ploughs), appropriate only to certain soil types and field locations.
Around 30% of households in the two villages studied by the author
operated ploughs in 1992, and others had access
to ploughs through village associations.
If the aim of farming is to
first to insure basic subsistence needs, this can still be done in a staggering
multitude of ways, even in remote Mossi villages in areas marginal for rainfed
agriculture (cf Netting, 1993). Around Rollo in northern Bam Province,
communities of Peulh pastoralists coexist with both Mossi agriculturalists and
settled traders known as Yarsé); each group shows a
tendency to adopt a favoured livelihood strategy biased towards agriculture,
herding or commerce, and each group 'makes a living' more or less successfully.
Nonetheless individuals within these communities sometime diverge widely from
the 'cultural norms' of the group. Some of the most successful farmers are Yarsé),
not Mossi, for example, and of these some are relatively new to farming or even
recently–settled returnee migrants. A Yarsé) ex–migrant farmer interviewed in
1993 near Rollo, Bam Province, had adapted techniques he had seen in plantation
agriculture and on research stations in Cote d’Ivoire; these include
surrounding’ squares’ of perhaps one hundred maize plants with concentric
ridged lines of sorghum and beans. This planting design, unique in the region,
was efficient at encouraging maize cross–pollination, limiting species specific
pests, and may have had other benefits for soil fertility and moisture
retention since it heeded contours and micro–topography. If the primary aim of
a farm is to meet family needs and objectives, this can equally be achieved by
any number of designs: the possibilities are numerous. The reason underlying
this architectural (or agricultural) diversity is not just individual whim or
personal aesthetics; today, a farmer in northern Burkina can design his/her
farming system based on multiple networks of information about practices, tools
and techniques (cf Biggs, 1989). Knowledge, then, ‘is built upon the
accumulated social experience, commitments and culturally–acquired dispositions
of the actors involved...’ it is ‘fragmentary and diffuse’ and, of course,
‘differentiated’ (Long & Villareal, 1994: 42–43). Important sources of
knowledge are other family and neighbors; to see what they have done, learn
from their experiences, and adapt their strengths to one's own situation and
needs. Secondly, as explained above, government extension workers and rural
development projects have achieved almost 100% coverage on the Central Plateau and
most communities, should they choose, can participate in some other programme
of field visits from agriculture and forestry extensionists. Furthermore if they
demonstrate sufficient cohesion, community spirit and capacity for hard work,
they may also tap into project funds for environmental protection, health
or maternity care, water supply or primary schooling. Regretfully, women's
cropping practices are less frequently addressed by these services (Birba 1993
,Compaore 1993). Travel and migration provides a third route
to new ideas; see what other villages have done, what crop varieties they use,
how their stone lines are constructed or what tree species thrive and protect
fragile soils. Exploration of the ‘interfaces’ – the points at which different life
worlds and social fields intersect – tells as much about how knowledge is
transmitted and transformed by the different actors in this process (Long &
Villareal, 1994). As Norgaard (1994) and Long & Villareal (1994) point out,
this process of knowledge acquisition is not one–way, but restructures the
worldviews and practices of the disseminators, producers and users of ideas and
It should again be stressed
that none of these information channels by which agricultural and other forms
of knowledge are received determine the design of an individual farm; they are
a contingent set of factors influencing farming practice, and deeply embedded
in the rhythm and flow of personal and local social relations (Bourdieu, 1990).
For example, adapting a 'foreign' technique, even the relatively accepted
contour stone bund, for local use can be a hazardous business, not one to be
accepted without question. Upon questioning farmers in one Mossi community, I
was told that they did not care for one farmer’s efforts at constructing such
bunds across his fields because the "shape was not right" - an act of
critique, but also of learning, because
this set of bunds was later washed out at the onset of heavy rains and
later had to be rebuilt. Here, the use of bunds can be explained by reference
to the farmer’s perceptions of erosion and its possible treatment (a ‘plan’);
but the way in which this technique is used or ‘performed’ (and especially
understanding why it might fail) requires deeper analysis of personal
world–views and local power relations.
IV. Planned Performances and Farmer Status
The list could be greatly extended (see Ford, 1982) and compared to those used
in similar ecological zones elsewhere in West Africa . For example, many Mossi
practices mirror those identified in detail by Watts (1983) and Mortimore (1989) for the Hausa on the Nigeria–Niger border,
by Netting (1993) for Kofyar farmers, and by Toulmin (1992) in southern
. The end result of farmer's
efforts is a working farm modified to the flux of the seasons (alongside the
means to provide small amounts of cash income). The farm may never be finished,
as a house can be, but it provides for basic needs. These and other practices
and design criteria form the architecture - the shape, the form, or design - of
a farming system. Local ecology and environment - temperature and precipitation
regimes for example, and soil types - limit the design possibilities, as do
community sanctions, land tenure rules, and labor availability. They do not,
however, disturb individual choice and creativity of the cultivator or the household.
As I have been suggesting, diversity in Mossi dryland farming systems is also
an outcome of subjective and symbolic concerns, and it is important to raise
these before drawing out their implications for research and development
practice in the final section. The use of the farm as a symbol of social status
and power is an important factor influencing the outcome of the design process.
Farmers sharing a common traditional knowledge base and a history of sequential
occupation (an ‘epistemic community’, in academic language) admire a good
design. A design, in the Mossi case, is a one-off; there are no identical
plots. It will incorporate the essential motif, millet or white sorghum,
somewhere but there may also be various cash crops, experiments with garden
crops, fruit trees and plantations as well. To apply Richard's metaphor in
another sense, (1987 ,1993), the farm is a
'performance' to be appreciated by others as well as an object of personal accomplishment
and satisfaction. It has both temporal and spatial components; examples could be
the fluctuations in millet vigor during the growing season, as well as the size
and shape of the fields themselves. I am keen to suggest that, while
performance elements are certainly present in Mossi cultivation systems,
working newly reclaimed plots in dryland systems requires that there most
certainly is a plan involved, and moreover an entirely conscious one. The plan
is to achieve a subsistence base by overcoming the soil fertility constraints
of bare and hardened earth. But it is also a plan to convey a particular message
about the farmer to the rest of the community (Fiske, 1990).
For instance, farmers’
conscious efforts at land improvement and rehabilitation, while being instrumental,
do not diminish the fact that a farm is a symbol (cf Bebbington, 1992; Busch,
1979). It is not necessary to pursue agricultural symbolism to the lengths
attained by some western–trained academics (
, forthcoming), in order to
appreciate that the suite of performances embedded in a farm signals to a wider
audience something about its owner in the same way a dwelling does. It may say
"I am rich, and have money for ploughs and fertilizer" or "I can
do all this, on my own", or "I have perseverance - my crops, through
careful planting, survived the drought". Equally, a field of withered
plants may broadcast message of despair and failure, or simply a confirmation
of a "bad year" for all. Stunted millet plants, yielding less than
200-250 kg/ha, indicate low available nitrogen and phosphorus, and may provoke the
comment from neighbors that it is "about time he/she moved" to land
fallowed and richer in nutrients. Farmers exhibit considerable curiosity about
each other's abilities, notably about the extent to which an individual is able
to second-guess rainfall patterns and manage planting, weeding and harvest operations
successfully. In 1992, freak late rains ruined unharvested millet plants in the
Bam region; those fortunate enough to have harvested early were viewed with a
mixture of jealousy and appreciation by others. The sporadic rains of 1993, and
the torrential downpours of 1994, also provided ample opportunities for
exhibitions of agricultural versatility. The messages sent out by farming
practice and by fortune inscribe the individual or household in particular
cultural networks, and can therefore be viewed as forms of symbolic capital
These messages have
occasionally been studied by anthropologists and ethnographers concerned with ‘performance’
in rituals, dance, and theater. However as Richards (1993:63) and Fabian (1990)
stress, the ’anthropology of performances’ is a rather different enterprise to
the analysis of agricultural practices discussed here, and merits separate
treatment. The farming space provides clues as to the character, status, wealth
and labor power of its creator (Leach, 1992:83) because messages are embedded
in the events, actions and temporal and spatial elements of agriculture. Agricultural
and technical diversity also fosters innovation, discussion and learning in the
community. Gossip about the successes and misfortunes of other people is
universal (Fairhead & Leach, 1994:78); the Mossi are no exception, and farms
inspire great comment, derision and sometimes jealousy. One might
even grasp Scott's (1985) central concept of ‘passive resistance’ here, and
extend this to the agricultural milieu; some planting strategies or farm designs
run directly counter to prevailing practice, cutting across status roles and
expectations, and are intended by the farmer as a means of questioning status
roles and expectations. My favourite example is an oblique one; where one's cropping
strategy is used to dispute traditional authority and present a subtle image of
rebelliousness. One of the most successful farmers in a village just south of
lives in a traditional,
near-subsistence Mossi community. He is young, recently married, well-liked by
his own age-set but - due to basic schooling and time spent in
Cote D'Ivoire - a little stifled by the hierarchical and
deferential Mossi social structure of his village. Wishing, however, to remain
in the community and to farm, he signals to the elders his sense of difference
and individuality. Firstly, he built a rectangular house - a different but not
startling departure from the norm. Secondly, his main field is split equally
between groundnuts and short-variety millet - the only farm in the village to
deliberately place reliance on cash income from groundnuts in this way, and to
de–emphasize the ubiquitous subsistence crop (which he sometimes sells - a very
rare practice). Brush, pitta
grass (andropogon) and stone lines protect the crop from overland flow and aid
moisture infiltration; aubergines and tobacco are grown under shady hangars.
These individualistic practices - which, not coincidentally, seem to work - set
him aside from his neighbours and especially from the zero-input, millet stands
of elder's bush fields, whose censure he has not escaped! He has,
nonetheless, presented the community with anew technical option, one which may
find its way to other households and other farms in the future. Pursuing this
theme, the 'wealthy' farmer will be gauged as much by the quality and quantity
of his or her agricultural assets as by the money he or she has in the bank (the
former are more visible, for one thing, the latter merely a subject of
speculation); as would, equally, a well off businessperson display a house and
car more or less overtly as symbols of financial security and wellbeing. A
successful farmer can, once his 'estate' is secure, afford to relax a little and
enjoy the security that it brings. Rich Mossi farmers rarely forego all manual
labor on their fields, but may frequently hire certain forms of labor to
complete specific tasks (youthful work 'teams' or itinerant laborers, both
working for cash, are now working alongside more traditional age-sets who were
paid in food and in kind). Visiting kin are offered the chance to comment
favourably on the productivity of the land, or the fullness of the granary, and
feast at his/her expense. Just as some British house owners discovered recently
to their cost (due to an unforeseen and dramatic slump in residential house
prices in the late 1980s), the rich can still overextend themselves - too much
hospitality or purchases in lean years can leave one short on money to pay the
mortgage or bank loan ( ie, to meet subsistence needs)
and can lead to cutbacks (house repossessions, or borrowing to buy grain). The
theft of a herd of cattle, for example, can bankrupt a rich farmer overnight.
An unwise individual, who overextend shim/herself in order to gain prestige and
status, runs risks in any society.
the truly rich attempt to disguise the extent of their assets to avoid the
undue attention of hangers-on and demanding kin.
The richest men in two
villages studied in detail for this paper both ride old bicycles when in the
village, and repeatedly deny the real value of their assets. Yet one owns a
truck for animal commerce; the other has at least 16 prime cattle in addition
to numerous goats and sheep, making him a rich man by local standards. Coincidentally,
the two maintain modest dwellings indistinguishable from the village norm,
although I was unable to discover if this was by personal choice or design.
V. Conclusions -
Recognizing Multiple Sources of Change in Indigenous Technical Knowledge
The lineaments of agricultural knowledge in West Africa have been subjected to
extensive and in many cases profound critique, not only by farmers by themselves
but by colonial officials, extension workers andthe
occasional social scientist. There are some grounds to believe this
concentration of activity and reflection is beginning to yield rewards in terms
of understanding, and has even filtered through to underpin the design of more
effective, locally based and participatory interventions by rural development programmes
(Booth, 1993:55–56). The major mistakes of the past are repeated less often
these days. The pioneering critiques of Richards (1985, 1986, 1993:67) and
colleagues - that agricultural research and extension has largely misread the
map of peasant agriculture and promoted inflexible and inappropriate packages
of marginal value to farmers - have been taken on board. For example, Northern
Burkina Faso, ironically one of the poorest rainfed farming environments in
West Africa, now hosts a multitude of nongovernmental and other initiatives, of
the types mentioned in Section 1, moving forward slowly and with the relatively
modest aim of assisting farmers to achieve marginal increments in food security
through locally managed environmental management initiatives (notably soil and
water conservation). This is a strategy for rural development, and agrarian
change, which is more fully cognizant of ecological and social diversity than
past efforts, and frequently involves local land users and their organizations
in setting research and programme agendas, at least in part. It is time that
these fruits of conscious planning and experimentation were recognized (Reij,
While it is not appropriate to make hard and
fast conclusions pertinent to this new policy agenda from an interpretive essay
such as this, the following issues present themselves as important to the continued
development of locally based environmental management.
To conclude, while
recognizing the value of indigenous local knowledge as a basis for carrying out
agricultural tasks and making a living, it is also vital to acknowledge that
farmers are equally capable of designing a plan of action and sticking to it,
and of assimilating and valorizing new knowledge from external sources. To
return to the ‘construction’ analogy, the farm needs to be seen as consciously
planned to meet the material and symbolic needs of its creator, especially in
the sorts of dryland systems presented here. Indeed the most valuable lesson
learned through reflecting on this process with Mossi farmers was that they
organize their labor schedules not just to 'farm' but to undertake a host of
activities requiring deadlines and forward thinking. These included building
protection works, improve tracks leading to the village, raising and planting
saplings in visible locations, welcoming visitors and engaging in a host of activities
requiring sometimes considerable and costly planning. These operations vary by
season and between years. Farmers in one particularly dynamic village near
Rollo, recently involved in gestion des terroirs planning with a large
environmental program, have designed their own land rehabilitation measures from
scratch, discussed these in village meetings (both men and women present) and
continue to adjudicate between multiple criteria (material, and ‘symbolic’)
when deciding how to best get the work done; consideration is given to land
tenure around the areas to be treated, complaints of non-beneficiaries are
discussed, local environmental considerations such as existing ravines and
gullies examined, and responsibilities divided up.
The outsider's role may
ultimately be to step back and provide a level of support necessary to allow
this process of planning and inventiveness to take place, not to introduce
blueprints; a point raised repeatedly by Paul Richards (1985). Yet if we are
really serious about turning over environmental management to local people, we
need to recognize farmers as planners, not simply performers acting out their
repertoire of indigenous technical skills. The final issue, then, is what
building materials, and what tools, and what outside help will be needed to
build up and maintain the new agro-ecologies which the Mossi, and farmers in other
dryland situations, are slowly developing? A role does exist for modest
external support to village organizations, in the form of both technical
assistance and practical help and advice (
, 1986). This particular
form of low–level, flexible support is even more urgent in marginal farming
environments like the Central Plateau, where intensive and permanent cropping
systems are still rare. But the challenge is to allow farmers to identify and
create space for their own interests (Long & Villareal 1994), and to leave decision
making where it really belongs - in the village.
The paper is based on intensive fieldwork in two Mossi and Yarse
communities in northern Bam Province
Burkina Faso in 1992 and 1993. I am grateful for funding
from a Social Science Research Council/American Council of Learned Societies
‘FTDR’ doctoral fellowship, and the support of GTZ’s PATECORE project in Kongoussi. A concise version
appeared as Overseas Development Institute Agricultural Administration
(Research & Extension) Network Paper No. 42, in July 1993. Tony Bebbington,
James Fairhead, Susannah Friedberg, Patricia Meono– Picado, Paul Sillitoe, and Judy
Tice provided helpful comments.
Dryland farming can be planned, in the
way that a builder is involved in multiple processes of reflection and
action on the route to home construction and ownership. Building, and
farming, requires conscious, sustained and physically strenuous effort
over long time periods, with heavy initial investments. No farmer in
northern Burkina is able to justify a labor investment in bush-clearing
and rehabilitation of a plot which is later destined to be abandoned in
the short term; many do not have the luxury of access to land suitable for
traditional fallow-based cultivation, and thus their work must count
towards meeting future needs. The sort of ‘planning’ involved in technical
assistance to these farmers has little or nothing to do with the dubious
'social engineering' agendas which Richards (1993:71–2) seems to see in
most externally-imposed development work and agricultural research, even
if the activities of some projects can be misguided or partial. Staff involved
in local level environmental activities need not be conducting their work
with reprehensible goals (Cernea, 1990:29), and farmer’s skills and
curiosity can guide their efforts (Batterbury, 1994).
If anything it is harsh ecological
reality (alongside, of course, important and changing population–resource
relationships and market opportunities) – more than the advice of trained
extension agents or project staff – which fuels agricultural change in
some parts of the Central Plateau. Changing how agriculture is carried out
in the face of pressures on agricultural systems requires forward thinking
by farmers, the marshalling of resources, and the overcoming of- not just
the working with - natural ecological constraints and environmental
problems (see Netting, 1993:28 for an argument which reaches a similar
Indigenous agricultural knowledge, long sidelined
by development programmes, has consistently altered (and evolved with these
programmes) to reflect the new demands placed upon dryland farmers.
Farmers have incorporated useable techniques such as stone contour bunds
that have been developed in parallel environments, and have largely
rejected inappropriate packages including chemical fertilizers (which are
expensive, and poorly adapted to Sahelian infertility), 'improved' cereal
varieties(appropriate, perhaps, to better soils and valley-bottoms only),
and expensive ox–drawn ploughs.
To suggest this process of selection and
adaptation has somehow corrupted and weakened’ indigenous’ capacities is
unhelpful, even misguided. I would argue that much of the success of techniques
such as permeable stone bunds, now adopted and widely diffused on the
Central Plateau, can be attributed to the fact that farmers there are
already familiar with such major investments of time and labor - and the
need to work together in a communal fashion to get them built - as a
result of previous efforts to make a living in conditions which are by any
measure marginal for subsistence agriculture and which always required a
measure of forward planning. The stone bund technique, whose importance to
current farming systems cannot be underestimated - has both emerged from
and forms part of present-day indigenous agricultural knowledge.
Nonetheless, understanding such natural
resource improvements by Mossi farmers and related groups is a complex
affair and the nuances of knowledge transmission and interpretation by diverse
actors should not be overlooked. In the early years of experimentation
with soil and water conservation systems (notably the early 1980s),
project staff in several Central Plateau locations believed farmers were
embracing the stone bund technique and busied themselves building them because
they were interested in environmental protection. This may have been true
in part, but only later did it become clear that some of the status and
performance issues discussed above (Section IV) came into play. For
example a treated and visibly productive farm may help assure an individual
farmer’s agricultural needs, but it also speaks volumes about its owner's
potential to manage and attract resources to the village.
the construction/building analogy presented in this paper may say more
about the structural components of dryland farming than that the widely
used metaphor of ecological inventiveness and performance. This is because
the former incorporates a motif of purposeful behavior, and also
recognizes the symbolic and social ends (Leach, 1992) served by
The same duality of purposeful and
symbolic aims applies when looking at village groups and farmer
organizations. Building anything - including stone lines, new dwellings
and communal buildings - can elevate community status. Projects involved
in environmental improvements and basic rural development activities need
to recognize that such activities are undertaken for reasons of prestige
as well as for their more obvious benefits to crops and material welfare.
A well-managed village centre shows superiority to neighboring communities
and to local government officials, as does a tidy woodlot or a new well
built with external assistance. Perversely, the act of working together in
order to present this image to outsiders can lead to internal village
conflict and power struggles, being ignored, overcome, or at least
temporarily set aside. Completed 'works' can be consciously undertaken to
present a particular image of diligence to potential donors and projects
-see how organized and hard working we are". Again, the literature on
indigenous knowledge often skims over this aspect of conscious,
goals–oriented forward planning, and it is particularly important that
development projects and extension agents probe deep enough to uncover its
workings. Indigenous knowledge is
instrumental as well as improvisational - it is put to work in personal
and community activities, not left in the bank to accumulate interest.
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Box 1 : Study Region: the Central Plateau of Burkina Faso
The Central Plateau
(latitude 11¡$ to 14¡$N, longitude 3¡$W to 1¡$E) is a region of low hills and
gentle slopes falling to valley bottoms or bas–fonds.
Annual rainfall has most recently fluctuated
between 450-800mm per annum, but line-squall patterns mean rainfall events can be
extremely localized, and seasonal rainfall distribution is highly erratic.
Around 80% of the
population are Mossi farmers, practicing rainfed agriculture
using traditional methods and local crop varieties. The Mossi live in nucleated
villages, with decision making traditionally falling to strong local chiefs.
Peulh herders also traverse the area; these are less numerous than the Mossi,
and compete with them for agricultural land in some areas.
, the area studied for this
paper, has a population density of around 50 persons/km2.
Population has grown since
the early twentieth century, although this was strongly checked by labor
extraction by the French colonial authorities (Gervais 1987) and by more recent
outmigration to seek paid work on the West African coast. Remittances from
migrants in Cote d’Ivoire and
are significant in the
local economy and are used mainly to meet customary obligations and immediate
Every household cultivates
millet or sorghum on extensive bush fields, weeded by daba hoe and usually
without the benefit of organic residues. Cowpeas and okra are intercropped with
millet with some peanuts, Bambara groundnut and other minor crops, sometimes on
separate plots. The in-fields close to dwellings are also farmed, often put to
early maize, using animal residues and household sweepings where available.
Married women may have separate fields, but lack security of use rights over
these. Labor shortages can exist at periods of peak demand in the agricultural
cycle. In the study villages sosoaga, or work groups, are engaged by a few
richer cultivators to prepare and weed their fields. All other labor is carried
out by household members, or by exchange arrangements between neighbors.
Animal ownership, mainly of
sheep and goats, is common in households having sufficient time, labor and
capital to manage them. Animal traction is still rarely used, although donkey
drawn ploughs are increasingly popular. Off-farm incomes are increasingly
important to the rural economy. Cash and bartered goods come from dry season
activities such as petty commerce, moped and bicycle repairs, weaving, and work
in local gold mines. The most commonly
farmed soils are ferruginous, often with a hard pan at depth, and are poor in
nitrogen and phosphorus. Sensitivity to sheet wash and channel erosion is high,
and wide areas suffer surface crusting. Strong overland flow from summer storms
can strip unprotected topsoil leaving a characteristic patchwork of bare,
hardened soil between 'hummocks' of vegetation. These zipelle) areas are
completely infertile and can spread to form wide unproductive swathes. Dramatic
ravines and gullies form under such conditions, dependent on soil type and
slope (Roose & Piot 1984). Contour stone bunds built by farmers and
consisting of lines of stones and rocks
placed across the land contour, are cheap and popular erosion control methods
and are much publicized by development projects, ………………………………(rest missing)