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close this bookSPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 57 - June 1995 (CTA - Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, 1995)
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View the documentPutting the zebu to the plough

Putting the zebu to the plough

In Madagascar, where 85% of the working population earn their living through agriculture and livestock farming, farmers produce mainly rice and zebu cattle. But the country is neither able to produce enough food for its 12 million inhabitants nor able to earn enough foreign exchange to import rice and the cattle are not used widely as draught animals. In order to increase agricultural production, the zebu should be harnessed to the plough.

Food self-sufficiency is a national priority, to be attained either by intensifying crop production or by increasing the area of land under cultivation. The first option, to increase yield per hectare, has attracted considerable attention and extension services have been established to promote the use of fertilizer, manure, pesticides, better quality seeds and improved techniques. But this has proved to be an expensive exercise that has failed to achieve convincing results. In fact in areas where intensified farming practices have been tried over the last few years, per capita rice production has actually decreased. However, extending the area under cultivation could lead to food self-sufficiency.

At the present time, only 5% of the island of Madagascar is cultivated. The limiting factor to increased agricultural production is neither a shortage of land nor an unsuitable climate. Madagascar's climate is such that practically any type of crop can be cultivated. Farmers are willing, intelligent and ingenious, as can be seen from the terraced paddy fields that they have developed. The major constraint to increasing the area of land under cultivation is the lack of muscle power: hands to cultivate and to weed. Unfortunately, increasing the number of working hands also increases the number of hungry mouths and only by increasing the productivity of the existing workforce will the vicious circle be broken. This means increasing production per unit of time worked, not increasing the size of workforce.

Malagasy farmers work hard but their principal farming tool, the angady, limits what they can produce. The angady is a metal blade set into a wooden handle and it is used to turn over the soil and break down large clods of earth. Every farmer owns at least one and swears by it since survival depends upon it. But while the angady is an excellent gardening implement, it is not suitable for agriculture. In fact to be using this prehistoric hand ploughing tool in today's age of mechanization is agriculturally disastrous.

It takes at least 60 days to cultivate one hectare using an angady, by which time not only does the most favourable time for sowing seed pass, but weeds destroyed when work began start to regrow. No matter how much farmers may wish to produce more, this laborious way of working means that they can cultivate no more than one hectare, sufficient only to feed a family and survive.

Mechanization could improve this low productivity, but unfortunately people tend to think that mechanization invariably means tractors. However, tractors are only successful where there is a commitment to maintenance and where money, spare parts and skilled mechanics are available to ensure regular servicing and repair. Few people think of animal draught power as an alternative and, remarkably, of the hundreds of projects in Madagascar, none has been devoted solely to its development. Nevertheless, using animal traction for ploughing produces good results since it takes only six days to plough one hectare instead of 60 using the angady. A farmer can therefore cultivate four or five hectares during the best sowing season and prepare land on the hillsides as well as paddies along the valley floor. Implements and harness equipment can, for the most part, be maintained and repaired by the owner himself, by the local blacksmith or at the local market.

Although zebus are plentiful in Madagascar (there are almost as many zebus as there are people), developing animal traction is not easy. It is the dream of every farmer to own a zebu and, when his dream comes true, he becomes the animal's slave as he strives to feed and care for it. The zebu also becomes a form of savings bank because it is easy to sell if the need arises. In effect, farmers are happy just to feed their cattle and keep them to a great age. Yet one solution to the challenge of achieving food self-sufficiency in Madagascar could be to improve the productivity of farmers by making some of their zebu cattle work for their living.

'Operation Plough' schemes have been tried before in Madagascar, but they failed. Sometimes this was because ploughs were acquired by farmers who had no zebu to draw them, and sometimes because zebus were acquired by farmers who neither knew how to feed nor look after them. It was a case of "putting the plough before the ox". It would have been better to have begun by training the animals and targeting only those farmers who already owned zebus and knew how to look after them.

In the thirties, near Lake Alaotra, in a region known as the 'rice bowl' of Madagascar, a training centre was established to which farmers could bring their zebus. The incentive was the opportunity to buy a plough at a very favourable price. And now no-one in the region works his paddy field with an angady. Draught cultivation is widespread and it is the only region of Madagascar where a commercial surplus of rice is produced. This proves the viability of animal draught power in Madagascar.

In the future, animal traction should not remain merely a secondary project component. It should be the principal component in all rural development projects where the major constraint is the human muscle power involved.