I begin this paper with a brief story about my first experience with the problems of sustainable development and indigenous technology. In 1978 I began fieldwork in the rainforest of Belize, in Central America, with a group of indigenous swidden farmers, the Kekchi Maya.(1) During about one hundred years in the area they had developed a very productive, and sustainable agricultural system which depended on long-fallow swidden farming during the wet season, and permanent flood-water recessional farming of seasonally-inundated riverbanks during the dry season. To use the riverbanks, they had developed a slash-and-mulch agricultural technology. Each year as the floodwaters receded, they cut the undergrowth by hand, creating a thick bed of green mulch, into which they planted a variety of crops. The method sustained fertility, stabilized the soil by preventing erosion, reduced weed competition, and used little capital, while producing consistently high yields.
While I was working in the area, population pressure and increasing needs for cash income were putting strains on this complex subsistence system. Suitable long-fallowed forest land for wet-season swidden was becoming more limited and yields in that system were declining. The indigenous response was to experiment with new ways of intensifying production on the dry-season riverbank fields. Using seeds obtained from Maya farmers in other areas, they tried planting different mulch and cover crops during the growing season, and extending the area of permanent cultivation. One crop in particular, the velvet bean (Mucuna spp.), proved extremely useful, crowding out weeds, managing a number of pests, and improving soil fertility without the use of chemical fertilizers.
During this same time period, concerned by the poverty of the area, and a national need for increased agricultural production, the British government funded a large rural development project, establishing a large experimental farm about 8 km from the village where I was working. Their goal was to modernize and mechanize local farming systems, and they began trials on five different mechanized cropping regimes, testing a wide variety of cultigens and agrochemicals. Five years, five hundred hectares, and five million dollars later, they admitted defeat and closed up shop, having demonstrated that with high production costs and low market prices, there was no effective way to make even short-term profits farming basic grains on the local soils. In their last year they had discovered the velvet bean that local farmers were using, but by then they were running out of funding and it was too late to do more than a few experiments with it.
Much to my surprise I later found that the velvet bean, originally from south Asia, had once been a major cover and feed crop in North American agriculture, with over a million hectares planted in the southern United States in 1921 (it was displaced later by soybean). During the 1980s, without foreign help, farmers all over Central and South America learned about the plant, and found ways to adapt it in a wide variety of cropping systems, including some that were entirely commercial.(2) At the same time that farmers were making their own innovations, agronomists and researchers finally discovered green mulching as a "sustainable" technology, and began widespread experiments with the technique, as part of agro-forestry, alley-cropping, and reduced-tillage systems.
This example makes a number of graphic points. First, that "traditional" technology is itself not a static system passed unchanged from the past. It is instead dynamic, sustained through constant innovation and experimentation. Second, that efforts at technology transfer that ignore local circumstances, local technologies, and local systems of knowledge are often doomed to waste enormous amounts of time and resources. And third, that truly sustainable technologies and systems can emerge eventually as accidental or intentional "hybrids" that incorporate and mix both traditional and scientific technologies through collaboration. I will discuss some alternative models for this collaboration based on my experience and knowledge of projects and programs in Latin America and the Caribbean. But first, given that the goal of technology transfer itself has shifted from simply increased income to "sustainability," I will take some time to unpack the meaning of that term and its implications for the practice of technological development.