PNG again: airlifting oxen trained to plough
Traditional cultivation and planting techniques in PNG were based around the digging stick and heaped seedbeds to stop soil erosion. In some of the flatter lowlands, however, ox ploughing had become common and locally made ploughs as well as imported simple iron ploughs from India were being used. Much of PNG, however, consists of settlements that are very far apart from each other, and although most of these settlements are on mountains, it is not unusual to find areas of flat land or plateaus on the mountain tops which are very suitable for ox ploughing.
A local agricultural training centre called Yangpela Didiman (NeoMelanesian for Young Farmer) provided agricultural training to many young men from the hills at their centre in Banz. A big part of their training was teaching ox-drawn ploughing and cultivation. Many of the young men from the mountains were envious and wanted to get oxen back up to their homes, but the jagged territory and distances meant that oxen could not walk to such settlements.
In PNG, many high and isolated settlements have small bush airstrips, put in originally at the request of the missionaries who wanted to bring in bibles and preachers to convert the PNG people. There was a well-organised system of airplane communication called MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship), which had small planes, intrepid pilots and the infrastructure to link the planes on the lower areas to the airstrips in the high mountain villages. Putting it all together, Yangpela Didiman helped mountain farmers choose and train an ox for their own village and then transport it in a small plane to the high and isolated villages, where it could live and help develop sustainable and increased food production.
Biogas all over the place
Many institutions experimented with producing methane from the anaerobic digestion of vegetable material, often dung, slurry or human waste. I saw attempts at this in Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and PNG. The reputation of Gobar Gas plants from India was very' high, but the construction (they needed well-sealed components to make them anaerobic), management (they needed the correct proportions of organic material and water to produce useable amounts of gas) and burners (which had to be “tuned” to the correct air/methane mixture) often meant that their performance belied their reputation. It sounded so satisfactory - producing gas for cooking from waste and saving on firewood or charcoal, with the additional benefit of reducing health hazards of bums and lung problems for the women cooks - and yet at that time it was not so easy to establish a working and sustainable system.
Micro-hydro – also all over the place
Channelling falling water into a turbine which could then produce electricity was another idea that had many adherents but did not live up to people’s dreams, particularly in PNG where there were many isolated communities with strong streams and waterfalls, but not too many ideas about what to do with the electricity generated. In some
South Pacific, 1979-80 61 cases, watermills were used for direct power to grind corn or other agricultural produce, but once the idea was extended to produce electricity, then the turbine, even if taken from a recycled car, and the requirements for bearings and power distribution from the turbine to the settlements meant that the micro-hydro experiments provided opportunities for the burgeoning number of AT centres to practise their ideas but did not result in many improvements in the lives of the people. I remember an amazing water turbine harnessing power from a powerful canalised river in a remote part of PNG, but in the end all it did was produce hot water. This was enjoyed by the locals, but fell short of the ambitions of the AT ideologues.
What did Ilearn from the coalface?
For me, the most important aspect of encouraging and supporting AT, at that time, was that it encouraged and allowed ordinary' citizens to have a transformational change in their thinking. Technology was not just something that came from towns and from imports - ordinary' people could learn how to make substantial changes in their lives, using ideas that they would rarely have dreamed of. The ideology of AT was a powerful one that was empowering to many in the South — even though it was often taken up by overenthusiastic mavericks and eccentrics from outside the communities that would use the results of the technology. Schumacher’s words were prophetic — cranks produce revolutions - but there were, in my experience, too many cranks, and the revolution was still far in the future.