Batterbury, S.P.J. 1996. Planners or performers? Reflections on indigenous dryland farming in northern Burkina Faso. Agriculture and Human Values 13 (3): 12-22

Simon P.J. Batterbury, Geography & Regional Development, University of Arizona .


Draft version – the published version was never made available electronically.


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 Burkina Faso 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 Africa. 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 farmers.

I. Introduction

The expansion of rural development programmes in parts of sub-Saharan West Africa 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).


Government-run 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 technical knowledge.


II. The Construction and Management of Dryland Farming Systems

The anthropologist Paul Richards is well known for his studies of farming and indigenous knowledge systems in the Mende rice–growing zones of Sierra Leone , 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 Sahel and Sudano–Sahel belt of West Africa to those described for Sierra Leone and Guinea . 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  Province . 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 materials.

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 regimes.
  • 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.

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 Mali . 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.

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 techniques.


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

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 ( Hobart , 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 (Bourdieu, 1990:112–120).


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 Rollo, Bam  Province 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.


Sometimes, 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, 1994:13).


 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.


  • 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 conclusion).
  • 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.
  • Therefore, 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 agricultural practices. 
  • 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.    

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 ( Dumont , 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.

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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. Bam Province , 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 Ouagadougou are significant in the local economy and are used mainly to meet customary obligations and immediate cash needs.

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)