In with the old and with the new: Meeting mountain farmers’ technological needs

By Filippo Barbera, Professor of Economic Sociology at University of Turin and member of Forum on Inequality and Diversity

In 53 countries of the world, mountainous areas cover more than 50% of national surface, in another 46, they cover between 25% and 50%. And in many other countries they play key roles, like serving as water reserves. In agriculture, modernisation has whittled away at the scale of assets held by individual farmers or local communities, such as land, labour and local knowledge. The voices of marginal mountain farmers have not been able to find space in this process. However, by combining traditional methods with modern tools and techniques, technology that is place-based and socially embedded can help meet mountain farmers’ needs and make governance more inclusive of mountain areas.

The process of modernisation in agriculture has led to an organisational dominance of the institutional and technological environment, and governance decisions have shifted from farm to industries that produce technological inputs. Consequently, farms have had to reorganise in ways more suitable for development models based on economies of scale. At best, these models serve the needs of lowland agribusiness.  

Moreover, mountain farmers suffer from severe physical and morphological limitations on land use that make it impossible to increase the surface of arable land. In fact, these difficulties, which increase production costs and limit productivity, compound the impact of climate and weather conditions in shortening the growing season. Against this backdrop, technology can be helpful to mountain agriculture on two conditions: (i) if it is place-based and (ii) if it is framed as a “socio-technical” system. Technologies per se are inert tools that need to be “converted” to enhance well-being: a latest generation smart-phone does not help a deaf person hear better, as much as a latest-generation tractor does not help a small-scale farmer working in mountainous areas.

Related to the first condition, the needs of small-scale mountain agriculture can be met through the so-called ‘appropriate technologies’ or ‘intermediate technologies’ approach, which aims at developing relatively simple and energy efficient small-scale tools, using materials that are readily available in their intended setting. The appropriate technologies movement hinges on a distinct form of innovation referred to as retro-innovation: i.e., re-introducing elements and practices from the past into a new context, thus hybridising traditional knowledge and new technological solutions. This means robust, low-cost machinery that requires little maintenance and can thus be properly managed by its target community. Agricultural machines can encourage innovative approaches to farming techniques, making processes both environmentally and economically sustainable. They can also help convert unarable into arable land, make farmers’ work less tiring, and reduce the use of dangerous substances on crops.

Designing appropriate technologies – namely “place-based” technologies for mountain areas and family-based micro farm enterprises – forces us to rethink the notion of technological evolution. Technology should not be understood as a replacement of the old by the new, but as recombining the old with the new. Technologies not only appear, they also disappear and reappear, and mix and match across centuries: technological evolution is not built on the ruins of the past but with the ruins of it.

An important dimension of this approach is that many different actors must participate in the design of these machines: end users, machine manufacturers, university research hubs and other local stakeholders. Open Source Ecology, for example, is a network of engineers, farmers and activists from all over the world who actively collaborate to design and build construction sets, or plans, for agricultural and industrial machines, which are modular, recyclable, repairable and available online. Similar examples of open source platforms include Farm Hack, Rural Hack and L’Atelier Paysan, gathering co-operatives of farmers, workers and organisations that support organic farmers in reclaiming agricultural skills.

Another widespread practice is the use of historical solutions. In fact, the experience gained over hundreds of years of mountain farming has shaped the tools and small manually-operated machines that stood agriculture in good stead until the post-war period. Where this cultural heritage has been preserved, traditional methods are sometimes still effective.

The recovery of historical technical knowledge can thus contribute significantly to innovation in mountain farming machinery and equipment. Considering that one of the aims of appropriate technology is to involve communities and encourage a sustainable self-driven process at the local level, machinery needs to be simple, ergonomic and easy to implement using locally available tools (e.g. circular metal saws, angle grinders, welding machines, drills, etc.). In Haiti for instance, a press tool was created to produce straw bales for the construction of a warehouse and several houses, resulting in a clear improvement of people’s quality of life. Straw bale buildings can improve housing conditions, since straw is a sustainable, low-cost, renewable, and readily available construction material. The same press is currently being replicated and used in different areas of India.

Appropriate technologies thus require a “user-centred” and systemic approach, hybridising practical and technical knowledge to solve a user problem. In this vein, engineering and design need to be understood – as science and technologies studies have painstakingly illustrated – as increasingly intertwined with society, institutions, laws, and procedures. The “social” features of technology and design should be considered as place-based tools, useful to calibrate and adapt the most effective design solutions to diverse needs. Mountain areas are certainly not able to influence public policies, as they are demographically weak and do not serve the mechanisms of political consensus for the ruling class. Moreover, interest groups tend to defend lowland farmers “needs” and the development of technologies unsuited to the productive structure of mountain family farming. Appropriate technologies – if framed from a place-based standpoint – can serve as key entry points to making governance more inclusive for these areas.

Source: High land agriculture and intermediate technologies, (W. Franco, F. Barbera, L. Bartolucci, T. Felizia and F. Focanti, Development Engineering, 5,