|SPORE Bulletin of the CTA No. 35 (CTA Spore, 1991, 16 p.)|
The spectacular contribution that science has made to agricultural production during the last century-and-a-half has tended to obscure our appreciation of the indigenous knowledge of farming communities. For instance, in the 1940s and 1950s many agricultural officers encouraged, and even forced, traditional farmers to abandon age-old practices such as inter-planting groundnuts with cassava, or beans with maize, in favour of growing one crop in a single field. After independence their successors, trained in the Western system, tended to follow their example. Now we find an interest in the International Agricultural Research Centres in "crop geometry", which is simply mixed cropping. Such changes of attitude have come about largely as a result of increased interest in on-farm research.
In the case of mixed cropping, scientists now accept that several different crops at various stages of growth and of varying canopy levels can enrich the soil with nitrogen and humus and protect it from erosion. They accept also that crop pests and pathogens can be less devastating in mixed cropping.
Traditional farmers reveal their understanding of agricultural problems in many ways. For instance, they are aware of the inherent qualities of crops to resist pests. They have selected varieties of millet with long awns that birds find difficult to eat. In addition to such obvious physical deterrents they know of other characteristics which render crops less vulnerable to pest attack.
Many traditional tillage practices, such as raised beds for sweet potato cultivation and conical soil mounds for yams, help to conserve soil and create and optimum crop environment, which explains why farmers expend so much energy on these practices.
Research agronomists have long pursued the goal of maximum yield per unit area of land. This might not always be the priority of the small-scale producer. His, or her, principal aim is often to ensure survival and security in an unstable and fluctuating environment.
To this end farmers have developed several local varieties of staple crops. Where food is in short supply a rapidly maturing crop, tolerant of short-term water stress, is as important as a heavy yield. In the African Sahel, "souna" millet is such a variety, producing food for human consumption in 70-90 days. "Souna" cultivation is coupled with that of "sanyo", a heavier-yielding variety but with a maturity period of 120 or even 150 days; it is less drought tolerant than "Souna" and so it is not planted until the rainy season is well set. In addition to improving the stability of the food supply, these two varieties help spread the labour demand at all cultural stages and at harvest.
In some favourable sites in dry areas a type of "falling flood" agriculture is practiced with varieties that germinate, grow and ripen on residual soil moisture even after the rains have ceased.
Sustaining a living from livestock
Traditional livestock husbandry practices also reflect the extent of indigenous knowledge. For instance, farmers understanding of the mineral needs of their livestock is as much responsible for migration as the need for feed and water in some pastoral areas. Camels are taken for hundreds of kilometres for a "salt cure" in Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan They are taken to an area where the soil is a kind of natural mineral block, to water the' is high in dissolved salts, or to pasture with a mineral content that differs from regularly grazed areas.
Even problems associated with in-breeding and uncontrolled mating are understood by traditional livestock owners. Traditional practices developed to mitigate these effect. do not increase the need for labour, which would be required if the sexes had to be separated, and do not trespass on religious beliefs about castration. In East Africa, for example the Masai attach an apron to ram. and bucks, while in Muslim North Africa in the Sahel and in the Middle East a cord known as a "kunan" in Arabic, is attached to the scrotum and the sheath of the penis to prevent successful mating.
Traditional and modern knowledge needed
Local knowledge about the chemical properties of plants is put to use in traditional pharmacopoeia all over the world. Man, species of plants have long been used i, human and animal medicine, or to protect stored crops from insects and fungi. These products, and their industrially of synthesized equivalents, continue to serve our needs.
The research community is belated, recognizing that traditional knowledge and practices have much to contribute. Farming and livestock systems research, in which farmers and pastoralists partner scientists in research and development, have creates an awareness of the benefits of consultation. Iowa State University in the United States has even established a Center for Indigenous Knowledge for Agriculture and Rural Development (CIKARD). The Center which was established in 1987, seeks to promote the study of indigenous knowledge and welcomes cooperation.
For further information, contact:
CIKARD, 318 Curtiss Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, IA 50011, USA