|GATE - 1/84 - Wind Energy (GTZ GATE, 1984, 56 p.)|
Popularity and unpopularity of "popular" technologists
by Detlef Ullrich
I would like to introduce you to Luis Zambrano, who lives in the Venezuelan Andes and has spent his life designing and constructing machines. During the past 40 years he has built, among other things, over 30 mini hydro-electric power stations with turbines of his own design, built in his own workshop. Despite his merits, Luis Zambrano was practically unknown until recently.
He is by no means the only "popular" technologist in Venezuela. There are many more like him, even though their achievements may not be so important as his. But as hardly anybody took an interest in them until recently, they remained unknown outside their rural spheres of influence. Yet even here, in their own provincial surroundings, their talents are not generally recognized. They are looked upon as rather odd characters, as Don Quixotes. So firm is their belief in their own inability, so deep rooted is the self-contempt of the simple rural population that one of their number who refuses to conform to the prescribed image runs the risk of being branded as an outsider. Luis Zambrano has avoided this by putting his abilities at the community's disposal and thus becoming a true "popular" technologist- a man of the people. But although he is valued by all and even revered by some, he is still not understood. No one in his region has followed the example he set.
Luis Zambrano is by no means a modern phenomenon. There have long been people who, despite their lowly social origins, despite their lack of academic training and the modest means at their disposal, have given astonishing proof of their inventiveness. In his book "South American Journey", Alexander van Humboldt relates one such unusual instance. "At Calabozo, in the middle of the Llanos, we found an electrostatic machine with large discs, electrophoruses, batteries, electrometers - in short a piece of apparatus almost as complete as those used by our physicists in Europe. Nor had all this equipment been purchased in the United States: it was the work of a man who had never seen such an instrument, who had had nobody to advise him, who only knew of the electrical phenomenon from Franklin's memoirs."
Then as now, such individuals were social outsiders, which is the main reason why- even if there may be as many as one hundred of them - they are bound to remain the exceptions rather than the rule in a country like Venezuela. Industrialization policies force them onto the sidelines of a society that accepts the technological standards of the capitalist metropolises without question. They have to be "re-discovered" and "rehabilitated", so to speak, by alternative groups. It is not by chance that people like the 80-years-old Luis Zambrano are at present being "discovered". He is living evidence of an argument being voiced more and more openly: that the cultural capabilities of the Venezuelan people are far greater than the prevalent ideology and social self-estimation are prepared to admit. Personalities like him strengthen the self-confidence of a people still in search of its identity.
International discussions on appropriate technology for the Third World have, however, also favoured Zambrano's "rise to fame". The mini hydro-electric power-stations created by him for an under-developed region like the Andes are the best example for "alternative" technologies of this kind. Luis Zambrano's personality shows that tradition and progress need not present an irreconcilable conflict. He has thus become something of a symbolic figure for critics of modern science and technology. His significance extends far beyond the technical artefacts he makes. He has provoked nationwide discussion, the first concrete result of which was the establishment of a foundation named after him. The task of this foundation is to be the discovery, publicity and promotion of the existing "popular" technology potential aimed at ensuring that its contribution should, in future, be used for autonomous, selfdetermined development.