REPORT #451 December 2001

Produced by the Belize Development Trust

Practical, Ethical, and Social Issues in Technology Transfer
(taken from the Belize Culture Listserve)

Richard R. WILK


A poignant example can be found in a file I have accumulated, which documents over twenty five separate feasibility studies, project proposals, implementation plans, and project assessments over more than a century. All are devoted to a single project; the commercializing the production of edible oil from the seeds of a palm tree (Orbignya cohune) which is native to the Belizean rainforest. Attracted by the high yield of seeds per tree, and easy access to dense stands, entrepreneurs, companies, governments, and NGOs have all planned and conducted numerous projects to extract the oil, using imported cracking and rendering technologies developed in tropical palm-oil industries in other countries. One company even built a railroad and a pressing plant employing over 600 people. Every single scheme based on imported technology has failed, even those directly subsidized by the government, often with drastic economic consequences. In contrast, while imported projects come and go, household-level production by indigenous people using a variety of simple local technologies has never stopped.

If we recognize that sustainable technological solutions must be local, does this mean that they must be indigenous (in the meaning of locally generated within an existing cultural/social tradition using local tools and knowledge)? Some of the earlier writings on "Indigenous Technical Knowledge" (ITK) suggested that indeed, in the long term, only local indigenous technologies could be sustainable, practical, maintainable and equitable.(8) There was a definite utopian vision behind the idea of each society having its own local science, building a sustainable future on the foundation of indigenous techniques, which were themselves uniformly sustainable, productive, and environmentally benign.

While the early promise of the ITK approach has only been partially realized, experience suggests certain aspects of indigenous technologies that contribute to their sustainability. These can also be used as guidelines in generating new technologies. The characteristics of indigenous technologies which contribute to sustainability are:

  • low capital inputs --
  • use of locally available materials, skills, and tools --
  • availability of spare parts, fuels, or ingredients in local market channels --
  • can be maintained by existing organizations --
  • closely adapted to local physical environment --
  • driven by demand and perceived needs, not systems models or external analysis --
  • do not challenge or contradict fundamental cultural beliefs --
  • fit existing systems of ownership, obligation, and authority
Just as the fall of modernization theory has led to a rethinking of modernity and the unique power of highly technological science to solve problems, so it has also led to a dethroning of the "traditional" and primitive, from its position of primal purity and harmony with nature. This development has taken many forms within the social sciences, not least of which is a rethinking of colonial history, and the mythos that all so-called primitive people live in simple balance with their natural environment. Throughout the world most "traditional" cultures are now recognized as the products of long-term, complex, historical encounters between diverse local groups and colonial powers, who can barely be considered in any way isolated, uniform, or functionally integrated (this should not be taken as in any way attacking their rights to self-determination, or stewardship over their own resources).(9) Without denigrating the creativity, originality, and appropriateness of local and indigenous technologies, it is still necessary to openly discuss the limitations of those technologies, if only to challenge the increasingly common perspective that only local and indigenous technologies can be sustainable, appropriate, and suited to indigenous social and economic environments.(10) In Belize, for example, there are now several organizations that argue against any sort of foreign agricultural technological assistance, on the grounds that local farmers know best, and that foreign research always undercuts local self-reliance (given the poor record of technology transfer, and the destructive nature of so much imported technology, these sentiments are quite understandable).

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