The Relevance of Traditional Technologies

Traditional technologies are approaches to problems that have been used by people for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They can be thought of as having “stood the test of time.” Examples range from scarecrows to sophisticated home garden systems. Some have clearly worked and still work today; for others, there is no scientific evidence that they are effective.

One ubiquitous practice is the cultivation of traditional crop varieties or of “wild” plants. Their origins may lie in the early days of agriculture. They may be domesticated to an extent and improved by farmer selection but usually retain their essential characteristics. Examples include the local rices of northern Thailand (Box 7.3).

The Development of Intermediate Technologies

Intermediate technologies have been defined in a number of ways, but fundamentally they are traditional technologies improved in appropriate respects by their integration with modern conventional technologies. The most effective are those combining the best of conventional and traditional technology.

Box 7.3 Local Rices in Northern Thailand

Although rice is a self-pollinating crop, it experiences 0 to 1 percent out-crossing.12 As a result, many areas of Asia maintain a rich genetic diversity of rice that can be utilized by farmers, for example to counter pest or disease outbreaks, providing outcomes that do not involve a trade-off between conservation and yield or quality or profit.13 Most of the rice lands of East and Southeast Asia are now under modern varieties, but local varieties remain important in rural areas isolated from national or international breed-

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ing programs.

In northern Thailand, the local varieties and landraces are largely sticky (or glutinous) rices preferred by consumers in the region. The genetic diversity present in the landraces allows farmers considerable potential for selection, in part icular, against the rice gall midge (Orseolia oryzae), a serious pest that deforms the growing point on the rice plant, making it unable to develop a panicle and thus produce grain. There is a growing incidence of gall midge infestations at elevations higher than their normal range (400m to 800m) which may be connected to climate change.15 The best local varieties can yield twice as much as modern varieties that are not resistant to gall midge.16

Such landraces can exhibit a high degree of plasticity that permits them to adapt to new challenges.17 Farmers cultivating these varieties aim to increase production and the returns from farming while maintaining high in situ genetic diversity.18

Such technologies also comprise a wide range of applications, extending from the various ecologically based systems of intercropping (described in Chapter 6) to mechanical devices; some are simple, others more sophisticated.

A good example of a relatively simple intermediate technology is the development of an affordable and reliable treadle pump. For many years, engineers have been developing pumps that allow farmers to replace the arduous task of lifting irrigation water from shallow wells by bucket. Oil-driven pumps are expensive to purchase and to run. The modern treadle pump is ideal in many respects; it is efficient and easy for farmers to use and maintain and is virtually fool-proof. It relies on human rather than oil or electric power and is also relatively cheap due to a combination of public subsidies with private manufacture and servicing, and community involvement (Box 7.4).

Box 7.4 The Treadle Pump19

First innovated by local people in Bangladesh in the early 1980s, the treadle pump is a simple machine that a farmer can stand on and pump with his or her feet to irrigate a field. The pump produces the suction or pressure needed to raise water from a natural source or dug well.

The technology has been improved on by a number of enterprising engineers, producing a variety of effective and easy-to-maintain designs that can be used to irrigate up to 2 acres of land without any motor or fuel. International Development Enterprises (IDE) began in 1984 by refining the pump design they encountered in Bangladesh. After successfully creating a market and supply-chain for the product there, they have expanded the approach to countries across Africa and Asia.20

Another design, known as the “Super MoneyMaker” pump, was designed in 1998 by the NGO KickStart for farmers in Kenya who needed a device that could pump water uphill, useful when water sources are at the bottom of a hilly plot or for filling overhead tanks. As of 2011 the pump has been sold to over 189,000 farmers in Kenya, Tanzania, and Mali.21

Pumps like these help farmers by extending the traditional growing season and expanding the number of crops that they can cultivate. For example, Nazrul Islam, a farmer in Bangladesh, applied for a microloan of about $20 to cover the costs of digging a well and buying a treadle pump. He was able to repay the loan and buy additional land and livestock within the first year of use.22

 
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