Sustainable Development: Practical, Ethical, and Social Issues in Technology Transfer

pp. 206-218 in Traditional Technology for Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Asian-Pacific Region

Proceedings of the UNESCO - University of Tsukuba International Seminar on Traditional Technology for Environmental Conservation and Sustainable Development in the Asian-Pacific Region, held in Tsukuba Science City, Japan, 11-14 December, 1995.

Editors: Kozo Ishizuka, D. Sc. , Shigeru Hisajima, D. Sc. , Darryl R.J. Macer, Ph.D.

Copyright 1996 Masters Program in Environmental Sciences, University of Tsukuba. Commercial rights are reserved, but this book may be reproduced for limited educational purposes. Published by the Master's Program in Environmental Science and Master's Program in Biosystem Studies, University of Tsukuba, 1996.

Richard R. WILK
Anthropology Department, SB130, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA


This paper will discuss some of the contradictions and possibilities encompassed within the concept of "sustainability." It identifies some of the key variables that affect the outcome of technology transfer, and addresses ethical and political issues that affect the sustainability of both indigenous and innovative technologies. The paper argues that the social context of the introduction and use of a technology is as important as the physical and economic characteristics of the technology itself. A collaborative methodology for generation of new technologies based on both indigenous and scientific knowledge is discussed. Building on older concepts of appropriate technology, the concept of "hybrid technology" is proposed and developed through a series of examples.

Key Words: Sustainability, technology, ethics, development, remote sensing


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.

Unpacking "Sustainability"

The very use of the term sustainability in reference to technology begs the question of what is it we are trying to sustain, and what role technology should play in the process. A quick tour of the literature on sustainable development reveals that the term covers a wide variety of objectives, many of which remain unclear, unvoiced, or poorly articulated. These include stability, equity, self-sufficiency, appropriateness, accountability, frugality, efficiency...

This list could go on. Taken together the terms may present different aspects of an underlying consensus that development can no longer be assessed purely in terms of economic growth, but must incorporate other goals that are consistent with the long-term stability of global ecosystems, especially in the light of the strong evidence of serious perturbation in the global carbon, water, and nitrogen cycles, and the rapid decline and depletion of stocks of renewable resources, especially fisheries and forestry. The question is to what extent technological innovation and development, clearly part of the process that has caused these dramatic changes, can also be part of the process that finds solutions to them (3).

Prevailing models of technological change are deeply rooted in the "modernization theory" pioneered by figures like Myrdal and Rostow in the 1960s. Modernization depicts the world on a temporal/geographic continuum from traditional to modern societies. In such a scheme, the goal of development was subsumed under the general term of "progress" which was equated with the simple pattern of historical development of industrialization, the growth of consumer society, and the ever-greater spread of affluence. Within this paradigm there was room for a great deal of difference of opinion on how to achieve these goals, but there was little dissension from the goals themselves, and there was widespread agreement that progress could therefore be measured by imperfect yet robust measures like GDP per capita, or purchasing power (4).

There is now good reason to question whether the goals of modernization theory are physically possible on a global scale; it does not appear that the planet could sustain a population of over five billion consuming at the rate of those in the presently developed North (5). The issue of sustainability therefore forces us to reconsider and question the goals of development, and to search for alternative means of measuring those goals beyond GDP or levels of consumption. While it is easy to think of alternative measures, such as longevity and health, it is not at all clear that people in different cultures and nations agree on very many of the basics; the good life and the goals of life are still quite different from place to place even in this increasingly globalized world of electronic communication. But the notion of sustainability implies that whatever our cultural goals, we all pursue them with resources from the same global resource pool. Sustainability therefore implies the balancing of different goals and values, of autonomy against the common good, of individual, local, ethnic, national, regional and global priorities against each other. For this reason, sustainable development as a concept is inevitably an ethical issue, for it requires balancing different values, ends, and goals. It demands that we deal with delicate conflicts between local and global priorities, with common resources that are not equally shared. There is no simple or even complex technological answer to these ethical problems.

Modernization theory offered a simple model of progress as technology transfer from developed to developing countries leading to income growth and affluence, but sustainable development gives a much more problematic and difficult role to technology. The concept of development now requires us to think about long term consequences of technological choices and policies. Under a simple modernization paradigm, values and ethics could be excluded from the technology policy debate, by substituting instead notions of economic efficiency. If a technology made short-term economic sense, it was an acceptable choice. The doctrines of appropriate and intermediate technology argued that what made economic sense for developing countries was different from what was accepted in the developed world, but they never made a sustained attack on the suitability of short-term economic efficiency (as profitability, cost/benefit, or internal rate of return) as a criterion for selecting technologies.

A major theme in the debate about sustainable development has been a shift of emphasis from top-down models, which mandate policy and direction from above and conceive major infrastructural programs, to a devolution of decision making and authority to more local levels. There has been a new emphasis on small-scale projects carried out by local agencies, which involve significant public participation (6). While there are many different ideological and practical positions behind the shift towards local-level decision making, there is widespread recognition that technologies for sustainable development must be highly local , reflecting the diversity of human adaptations, economies, and cultures. Each setting will have its own sustainable technologies, which may have a great deal in common with those present in other places, but which will also have unique localized institutional and cultural aspects. This is very far from the "one technology fits all" approach of the modernization paradigm. Like the earlier movement towards "appropriate technology," it recognizes that foreign technologies are rarely directly transplantable; they lack the social infrastructure that makes them sustainable in the long-term, or even maintainable in the short term. As a consequence, the developing world is littered with ill-suited, non-functioning, ruined, and abandoned technology, an enormous waste of resources (7).

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).

A more balanced perspective requires that we recognize the limitations and strengths of both indigenous technologies developed in the course of practice and those produced by trained technological specialists in the laboratory or in formal experimental field trials. Typically, the limitations of indigenous technologies (aside from the obvious biases in knowledge and training) flow from poverty, disruption of traditional cultural institutions for conservation of traditional knowledge, and the increasing factionalization and fragmentation of indigenous communities. Once, tradition may have provided all the answers that were needed, but it no longer does so. Because of poverty, indigenous peoples often do not have the time and the resource to engage in experimentation and innovation; when they do, they often lack the social organizations that can develop, disseminate, or market their technology. Also because of poverty, they must often take opportunities for short-term gain, even when they know the consequence will be destructive or dangerous in the long term.

Clearly, the goal of sustainable technological development must therefore be to combine the strengths of both "modern" and "traditional" technologies, to achieve development that is locally adapted, economically viable, and socially and ecologically sound in the long term, supported by collaboration between both indigenous and foreign scientist/practitioners. The last few years have seen a number of new models for this kind of hybrid technology, examples of which I will discuss later in this paper. But experience with hybrid approaches to technological development have demonstrated clearly that the main obstacles to success are not technical, but social and economic .

The most serious problem has been to find social institutions where hybrid technologies can be developed and tested, where scientists and indigenous people can interact productively in ways that develop, articulate, and then meet common goals in an economically feasible fashion. The issues of power and control continually arise during such attempted collaborations; some social scientists have now concluded as a result that if technologies are to be truly sustainable in local contexts, they must be developed under the control of local people, and must be firmly embedded in a local social matrix. This view of sustainability places the social group in which technology is developed, used, and maintained at the center rather than the periphery of our attention. If it is to be sustainable in the long term, a technology must therefore meet both ecological and social objectives. Before discussing hybrid technology, I will further discuss ecological and social definitions of sustainability, asking the question, "what is it we are trying to sustain?"

Ecological Sustainability

As with the ecology of non-human species, in human ecology our concern is with inputs and outputs, population/resource balances, and cycles of exchange and transformation. What is sustained is biomass, population and a gene pool. By external measures, if we look at the archaeological and historical record, no human cultural adaptation has proven strictly sustainable during the Holocene era. Even the lowest density hunter-gatherers have, in the long run, modified their natural environments, producing unanticipated long-term instability. The archaeological record shows human populations burning forests to create open grasslands, extinguishing competing predators, and destroying megafauna with drastic long-term results. Robert Hackenburg defines this general process as "ecosystem channeling;" people progressively modify their natural environment in ways that limit their future options, sometimes leading to disaster or decline (11). Even in the most stable places (for example the Nile valley or the Basin of Mexico), prehistoric populations rose and fell quickly, and there was a variable and high rate of technological and social innovation.

Any external measure of the sustainability of human ecosystems will therefore be a relative one. We have to ask how long a term to use to measure stability, complexity, and resource flows. A strict energy-cycle analysis would find few human population on the planet living "sustainably" on a 200-year time horizon. The analysis is complicated because there are no clear boundaries between human ecosystems (they are all "open" to a greater or lesser degree), and ultimately we all depend to some degree on nonrenewable resources.

This is not to say that an external analysis of sustainability is useless. Archaeological data in particular can give us important clues to the attributes of human cultures that increase long-term stability. Prehistorians suggest that stability is related to diversity and flexibility in systems of production, local-level management of basic natural resources, a web of interpenetrating local and long-distance exchange systems, and a cultural order grounded in a widely shared cosmology. Meddling by governments and elites, in an attempt to promote uniformity and achieve greater control, may have been responsible for the economic and ecological catastrophes that accompanied the collapse of great civilizations (12).

Comparative ethnology tends to confirm the importance of these variables, though most studies lack the necessary time depth. Robert Netting's study of the alpine village of Torbel is an important exception. In this work, and a cross-cultural study of smallholder agriculture, Netting argues that long-term stability is a product of local control of land and labor, a productive regime based on agrarian households that can provide both the bulk of their own diet and a surplus for trade, and a stable political and legal order that permits local solutions for common-pool resource management and use. Left to themselves, even very dense populations of smallholding farmers have proven to be remarkably effective stewards of sustainability (13).

An important problem that still needs to be addressed, however, is that of limiting consumption and demand. Ethnographically and historically there is a clear division between social systems in which consumption is regulated, controlled and constrained, and those where consumption of all sorts of goods becomes an open contest with constantly escalating standards of living. Almost by definition, systems that show long-term stability must constrain demand and channel surplus into consumption that does not destabilize the subsistence system. Clearly this takes us far beyond simple external measures of sustainability, and forces us to look at the sustainable aspects of social systems themselves.

Social Sustainability

The technology that sustains any particular human adaptation does not exist in isolation from a social network of relationships and roles. When looking at technology in sustainable development we have to ask, who developed or introduced it? Who owns and controls and maintains it? Who makes management decisions? Technology cannot be said to contribute to sustainable development, whatever its direct environmental impact and implication, unless it also contributes to the social and cultural autonomy, the local-level management, and the social infrastructure required for long-term sustainable development.

When we apply the term "sustainable" to a development project or planned innovation, we are no longer speaking purely to ecological externalities or economic viability. Instead, sustainability in development projects is usually evaluated within an institutional framework. A sustainable development project is one where the activities, organizations or technology that are introduced or encouraged become locally institutionalized, self-sustaining, and continue without external support after the formal project activities end. Defined in this way, a sustainable project is simply a successful one by most final project evaluation standards. Above and beyond the actual project targets, the number of trees planted, kilometers of roads built, houses hooked up to potable water, we have to ask if organizations and institutions capable of continuing the project, and maintaining what has been done have been created.

As a number of academic critics have argued, there is a contradiction involved in this institutional definition of a "sustainable project." The paradox is, how can you create self-sufficiency through intervention? Many argue that by their nature, development projects create dependency, clientage, opportunism, instability and short-term planning. An underlying theme in a lot of historical ecology is that farmers can achieve sustainable development if we just leave them alone and give them time. How, then, can we justify intervention at all?

My experience in Belize is indeed that the communities that have received the most development assistance are often the ones that are least capable of autonomous, self-generating sustainable development. There are abundant case studies of projects that achieved their short-term technical goals, but which failed to build the institutions that could sustain or maintain the effort. On the other hand, governments, markets and corporations are not about to leave small farmers alone, so we often have no choice but to intervene. Organizations like World Neighbors and the Schumacher Society address this problem through an approach that self-consciously builds local institutional autonomy as the first priority of development (14).

In order to work on this model, the technical and economic feasibility of a proposed project cannot be decided in advance; it is a product of the interaction and empowerment that is part of local institution building. We now have some good practical guidelines for building the kinds of organizations that will be capable, in the long term, of sustainable development in organizational, cultural and ecological terms. Unfortunately, this approach is expensive and time consuming, and itself carries no promise of immediate increases in output or production. Nevertheless, I think there is good evidence that organizational sustainability must be given high priority in selecting and evaluating sustainable development projects and technologies. Simply put, if there is no workable organization, there is no possibility of a sustainable project, only a sort of temporary employment for local people. We need not even begin to evaluate a project's economic and environmental sustainability if there is no social infrastructure.

The Institutional Link in Sustainable Technology

Research by the Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at Indiana University focuses on finding institutional structures that allow people to effectively manage resources in their own long-term interests. The goal is to find out how people can manage common resources and maintain infrastructure themselves, if they have control over resources, a system of monitoring, and effective tools for enforcing sanctions on free riders, and for distributing the benefits of cooperation relatively fairly. Research has focused on indigenous management systems that work effectively in a variety of ecological settings, such as in forestry, fisheries, and irrigation management (15).

Most of the Workshop's projects have been in areas where there are already strong indigenous institutions for property management and cooperative production. Sustainable social solutions in these situations are often found in returning control to local institutions, or adapting and extending indigenous institutions to new purposes. In many parts of the developing world, however, the problem is often that community institutions are few and fragile. Indigenous associations, clans, and communities may have been severely disrupted by colonial economic policies, post-colonial centralization and bureaucracy, ethnic factionalism, or national politics based on patronage that undercuts local self reliance. New cooperatives, management groups, or other organizations must be built from scratch. This often significantly boosts the transaction costs of adopting new technologies and techniques. Some innovations fail because they cannot overcome deeply entrenched political, social and economic divisions (16).

In the Caribbean region where I have the most experience, most communities lack even the most rudimentary institutions for group consultation and decision making. Patron-clientage and kinship ties are the only relationships that bind people together beyond short-term exchanges based on self-interest. There is simply little trust between community members that could be used as a basis for institution building. Those projects that have been sustainable beyond the period when direct benefits were being handed out to participants, are those that have adapted local social infrastructures. Among the Kekchi, several successful partially mechanized rice cooperatives have been built through traditional labor-exchange groups. In urban Creole communities, church congregations were the basis for successful credit unions that have become major sources of investment capital for small-scale entrepreneurs. The Garifuna (Afro-Amerindian) communities initially built small organizations around an annual festival, groups that gradually built a consensus for other kinds of ethnic and civic action. In the meantime, literally hundreds of other development organizations, cooperatives, foundations, committees, community groups, boards, projects and programs have come and gone, leaving no trace (though the long-term result is a kind of "project-fatigue"). The surviving sustainable institutions are the only practical setting for the development of new hybrid technologies that can be tested and implemented in the long term (17).

This analysis suggests that the best place to start in choosing projects is with an historical analysis of local institutions, and a close look at the existing management of land, forest, water and infrastructure. Local control--oversight, regulation, monitoring and enforcement--through councils, meetings, committees or any other institution, is the basic positive indicator. The more evidence we can find for relationships of trust built on ties other than kinship and clientage, the greater the likelihood that sustainable development will be possible in the near future. The more success a project developing technologies has in building social capital, the more likely it is to continue to generate autonomous, sustainable development. The implication is that the social process of generating technologies may itself be as important as the physical properties of technology itself, if the goal is truly sustainable development rather than just demonstrating technical feasibility. What then are some of the ways that technology can be generated through sustainable social processes?

Hybrid Technologies

The extremes of technology development are easy to define. On one end of the scale is the familiar engineering R&D approach. Here formal specifications are developed, and a process of technical research leads to prototypes, which can then be field tested. There are both formal and informal channels for getting information back and forth between a technical community, and the beneficiaries of the technology, the "end users." These channels include market and academic researchers, extensionists, and various bureaucratic agencies, all of which pass information back and forth between developers and users, with varying degrees of accuracy, speed, and efficacy. Often this indirect channel leads to the development of poorly adapted technologies. My research on residential energy saving technologies in California found that engineers and product developers had little understanding of what consumers wanted or needed, how their products were being used, or why some were accepted while others were rejected. Consumers were often frustrated with products, had poor information on how to use them, and had no input during the design process (18).

The other extreme is the process of indigenous technical development, in which outsiders and technical experts play no part at all. Local people carry out their own experiments using indigenous technology as a starting point, perhaps stimulated by observations they have made elsewhere, by the availability of new materials, or by new problems and challenges. A good deal of rural technology in developing countries is the result of exactly this process, and there have been dramatic indigenous successes, including the famous bamboo tubewell. There are also obvious limitations on the technical sophistication of such efforts, given low levels of education, and there is evidence that the pace of indigenous technical development may not keep up with recent rapid changes in markets and demographic increase (19).

The middle ground between these extremes can be divided up in a number of ways. One is to divide the process of technological development into a series of stages, and to specify different participant groups at each stage, from defining needs, through development, into testing, implementation, and extension. The variety of such models is especially rich in the area of agricultural research, where a number of varieties of farmer-participatory research have been elaborated in recent years (20). The tendency, however, has been to include local people only during the experimentation and implementation phases of projects; the scientifically-trained technicians are still responsible for the development of the technology itself. Farmers in the field are only consulted at the beginning of the process, and at the end during on-farm trials and testing. They have little input, control, or knowledge of the crucial phases of technological development.

While the idea of including local participation and input in particular stages of technological development has many attractions, it has been generally disappointing in practice, and has rarely generated truly sustainable technologies. In the development of new pest control techniques, for example, this "stage model" has led to

...a major waste of scarce resources. [It is not] an effective approach to use where agroecosystems are heterogeneous because generally, it is impossible for researchers to understand the complex realities confronting farmers and to adjust technologies for all these complexities, repeating the process in each ever-changing agroecological and socioeconomic domain. This model will fail if researchers do not take into consideration all key factors as they carry out their research; unfortunately, many of these factors (especially socioeconomic ones) fall outside the biological control researchers' area of expertise and interest (21).

The authors call for an approach that is truly collaborative, which shifts greater responsibility for technological development directly into the hands of end users. They find mainly institutional and cultural barriers to this form of collaboration; researchers and farmers do not speak the same language, come from different class backgrounds and cultures, and do not equally respect each others' skills and knowledge. Participation by local people is often only token and superficial; instead of being partners, the local users are often treated as guinea pigs (22).

To move away from the "stage models" of technology development and transfer, it is important to rethink the issue of the locus of control in the process. Truly collaborative sustainable local technologies must be generated through a process which keeps attention on local needs, but uses a full variety of imported technical expertise. The goal must be a true hybrid , not a foreign technology dressed in local clothes, or a Frankenstein monster composed of bits of local and foreign, hastily sewn together from spare parts.

There are several good examples from the Americas that can provide models for different kinds of hybrid technology. I divide them into two categories; the first takes an indigenous base of knowledge and makes strategic additions of modern technology and/or training. The second provides a more collaborative program of research and development in developing new indigenous technologies; both keep the center of control firmly in the hands of local people.

Additive Hybrids

An increasingly widespread practice of hybrid technology promotion acts indirectly by training members of indigenous groups in particular methods of investigation. One example is a project carried out by Kuna Indians in Panama, an indigenous group who have a long history of concern with environmental degradation and loss of biotic diversity in their rainforest environment. With funding from a number of foreign agencies as well as local sources, several Kuna have been trained as field biologists, and have returned to their homeland to conduct biotic inventories and research on sustainable development. One result is the recent publication by the University of Texas Press of the book "Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna," by three Kuna scientists, illustrated by Kuna artists, with wide collaboration of other Kuna (23). This book provides a basic biotic inventory, identifies sensitive habitats and endangered resources, and discusses possibilities for sustainable development as well as areas where regulation is needed.

Techniques of map-making have proven especially important additive technologies for sustainable development planning in the Americas. A recent issue of "Cultural Survival Quarterly" (Winter 1995) discusses the growing field of "Geomatics," which involves indigenous people learning to make their own maps for resource inventory, natural resource and land use planning, boundary monitoring, and impact assessment. Many groups have not been able to effectively claim and manage resources because they have lacked adequate maps; earlier mapping techniques were simply too complex and expensive. Now, with cheap GPS (Global Positioning System) receivers, many communities have found it practical to make their own resource maps. Examples are given of projects currently underway in Thailand, Nepal, and Kenya, as well as numerous locations in North, Central, and South America. In addition, some communities are using computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to inventory resources, collect indigenous and traditional knowledge, and monitor the impacts of mining, tourism, hunting, and other resource use. In Canada, more than 60 indigenous communities are now using GIS technology for resource management (24). In the process, they are developing new software and analysis techniques that are adapted to their local situation.

In just the last three years, a practical technology for image analysis of satellite remote-sensing data in the field, using laptop computers has emerged. This has great potential to become another additive hybrid, if it can become a resource in the hands of those with a direct interest in sustainable development. With this in mind I have recently received funding for a pilot project to train a group of indigenous fishermen in Belize to use Landsat remote imagery for resource planning.

The community where I will work depends on a unique inland lagoon system for a large part of its livelihood. Part of the lagoon system has already been designated as a wildlife refuge, as part of a program to encourage ecotourism for sustainable local economic development. The village also depends on the lagoon system for both subsistence and commercial fishing. This is the most productive freshwater system in the country, but it has never been mapped or studied in detail. It is an extremely complex network of waterways, seasonally-inundated lagoons, and mangrove and logwood swamps, directly connected to two major rivers and the Caribbean sea. In recent years some habitat destruction, and selective over-fishing, has led to a drastic decline in the local commercial and subsistence fishery. There is much local interest in regulating fishing and protecting habitat, but there is no formal documentation or survey that could be used to designate critical areas or resources. Local fishermen have a deep and detailed knowledge of the spawning and feeding territories of the four major commercial fish species, but this knowledge has not been collected or formalized, so it has not been used for resource management decisions. Most management plans have been externally generated, and have failed because of a lack of community participation in decision making (25).

This project will combine the remote-sensing technology developed by Emilio Moran at Indiana University and Geomatic to help local fishermen and women to map their resource base. Existing maps do not include most of the crucial waterways, nor can they show the seasonal fluctuations in water level that are so critical to understanding the local ecosystem. The goal is to permit identification of crucial seasonal habitats, to identify areas where management efforts can be focused. Traditional methods of fishing can then be maintained, despite increased commercial pressure on the resource. The crucial technological input is the high-technology computer, remote-sensing apparatus, and handheld GPS, but they are being put in the control of local people, in the social context of existing institutions, in ways that can help in sustainable long-term resource management. The hybrid nature of the technology is its implementation and context, not its design and manufacture.

Collaborative Hybrids

A collaborative hybrid technology differs from an additive one in having much more feedback between different interest groups and parties; the result is a new technology that is neither traditional or purely modern. My two examples illustrate differences in the locus of control. In the first, a Multidisciplinary team conducted the actual testing and development of new technologies. In the second a team of scientists provided only crucial scientific information.

The International Potato Center in Peru has long involved social scientists in developing improved crops varieties, moving gradually from a traditional research & extension method towards more collaborative approaches. In several areas of the country new high-yield varieties had been enthusiastically accepted by small farmers, but they suffered high post-harvest losses because the new potatos tended to sprout when stored in the dark inside houses, in the traditional manner (26). At first foreign technicians designed and demonstrated the economic feasibility of several new low-cost storage buildings that eliminated the sprouting problem by permitting diffused lighting to fall on the tubers. But farmers did not adopt these innovations, for a variety of cultural, economic, and social reasons. What they did adopt, after they had seen it demonstrated, was the idea of storing seed potatos in diffused light. They also adopted some of the low-cost materials that had been used to build storage racks, though they did not use them in the ways they were taught.

Within three years of being exposed to the demonstration units, farmers had developed many variants of their own traditional storage techniques that incorporated diffused lighting and new materials, and cooperatives had even built some large-scale storage units of their own design. The scientific team, learning from the rejection of their initial designs, then worked further with farmers, using their designs as the basis for further improvements. They learned which local ecological and social characteristics led people to adopt different variants, and used this knowledge as a basis for further extension of new designs to different parts of the Andean region.

Rhoades used this experience as the basis for a model of technological development called "farmer-back-to-farmer," based on the idea that successful adaptive and innovative research must both begin and end with the farm community. In each stage, farmers and scientists have to work together to achieve common definitions of problems, common understanding of possible solutions, and consensus on the results of tests and experiments. Whatever the technical elegance or theoretical practicality of new techniques, if they do not meet farmers' criteria for success, they will not be adopted. The result is the mutual education of both scientists and local communities.

My last example is provided by recent work on Integrated Pest Management techniques, at the Escuela Agricola Panamericana in Honduras (27). The goal was to develop new technologies for pest management, in an environment where historically high level of pesticide use were no longer economically feasible or environmentally sound. Instead of developing their own packages of possible solutions, the team decided first to find out what the farmers already knew about plant pests and other insect fauna. They found that the rural population had a very detailed and complex folk taxonomy of pests, and a great deal of knowledge about seasonal and environmental influences on pest populations. This study allowed the scientists to find out exactly what crucial data and understanding was lacking in the local knowledge system. They found that farmers did not connect the larval and adult life stages of several pests, and therefore did not know which insects were killing pests by preying on their larval stages. Farmers also did not know about other crucial aspects of insect ecology and biology, including pheromone attractants and odor trails. They tended to confuse some insect damage with diseases, overestimated the damage done by highly visible pests, and were overly attracted by pesticides that offer a quick and highly visible kill (much like farmers in North America).

The members of the integrated pest management team recognized that they could provide the crucial missing links in local knowledge quickly and effectively. 500 farmers were trained directly in the basics of insect life cycles and predator-prey relationships in a single season, and single-sheet publications were widely disseminated. That year, collaborative field trials of several alternative pest-management techniques, including some suggested by farmers were initiated. Before the trials were finished, the team began to hear of new inventions by farmers who were not involved in the trials. The dividing line between the scientific and local research processes began to break down; the results so far include several simple insect traps, and cheap techniques for attracting beneficial insect pests, all of which were successfully disseminated. None of the technologies are complex to manufacture, and their suitability is a result of their close match with the needs and resources of small farmers. Farmers in the area now organize seminars to train agricultural scientists in collaborative techniques for pest management.


The developing world has a great diversity of ecological, social, and economic settings, each with highly specific needs for development. There will never be enough intensive long-term scientific research on sustainable technology to meet all these diverse needs. The research that is done on new technologies has historically tended to benefit rather small and privileged groups, and the long term effects on social and ecological sustainability, even of a technically beneficial innovation, can still be negative.

In this paper I have suggested ways to solve some of these problems is to move away from a top-down approach to technological change and innovation. One goal must be to strengthen the local-level institutions and organizations which are capable of trying out new technologies and techniques, supporting innovation, and indigenous forms of extension. Social capital, the very fabric that holds families and communities together, is therefore an essential ingredient in sustainable technology.

With or without technical assistance, traditional people have always experimented with new technologies, and they will continue to do so. As an alternative to the external development of autonomous technologies, it is possible for researchers to get more directly involved in the local, traditional research and development process. In this paper I have suggested several models through which collaborative hybrid technologies can be developed, by adding crucial enabling technologies, or by collaboration in research, testing, and extension. The key element that makes a difference in this hybrid strategy is that the ultimate control of the technology remains on the hands of those who will use it. If the users are not involved in the planning and design of new technologies, technologies cannot be socially sustainable in the long term, because the process of development will undermine the self-reliance and social capital that is the crucial ingredient in sustainable development.

I do not think that anything I have said here is new. The best agronomists I knew in Belize all had healthy respect for traditional farmers, knew many of them, and spent a great deal of time listening to what they had to say. The involvement of technology users in the process of product design and testing is well known and appreciated in some industries in developing countries. Yet in many developing countries the communication (and social) gap between those the public and the community of technological experts seems to be growing instead of closing, to the detriment of sustainable technologies that will benefit the majority of the world's population. So perhaps old lessons can bear repetition.


1. This work is discussed in my Household Ecology: Economic Change and Domestic Life Among the Kekchi Maya in Belize. Tucson: University of Arizona Press (1991). The Kekchi agricultural system is discussed in more detail in my "Dry Season Riverbank Agriculture Among the Kekchi Maya, and its Implications for Prehistory. " in Prehistoric Lowland Maya Environment and Subsistence Economy, Mary Pohl (ed.), Papers of the Peabody Museum, Vol. 77, pp. 47-58 (1985).

2. D. Thurston, "Slash/Mulch Systems: Neglected Sustainable Tropical Ecosystems. " Paper presented at the Workshop on Sustainable Agriculture in Central America, University of Pittsburgh, April 1994. The adaptation of slash/mulch to commercial crop production is described by B. Dewalt and C. Dewalt in "Sistemas de cultivo en Pespire, sur de Honduras. " Instituto Hondureno de Antropologia y Historia y Programa Internacional de Sorgo y Mijo. INTSORMIL & University of Kentucky (1984). A simple description of the technology can be found in M. Flores, "Velvetbeans: an alternative to improve small farmer's agriculture. " Informationcentre for Low External Input Agriculture Newsletter 5(2):8-9 (1989).

3. A number of the general issues are discussed in R. Costanza (ed.) Ecological Economics: The Science and Management of Sustainability . New York: Columbia University Press (1991). A framework for discussing the interactions between technology, population, and society in creating environmental damage is presented by T. Dietz and E. Rosa in "Rethinking the Environmental Impacts of Population, Affluence, and Technology. " Human Ecology Review 1:277-300 (1994).

4. There is of course now a fairly substantial literature that questions the adequacy of GDP as a measure of anything at all, well summarized in C. Cobb, T. Halstead, and J. Rowe "If the GDP is up, Why is America down? " The Atlantic Monthly, October:59-78 (1995). A more serious and measured critique is M. Nusbaum and A. Sen, "The Quality of Life. " Oxford: Oxford University Press(1993).

5. See D. Barkin, "Wealth, Poverty and Sustainable Development. " Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Latin American Studies Association, Atlanta, Georgia, 1994. Also L. Schipper, "People, Energy Use, and CO2: Where We Are and Where We're Going. " Paper presented at a U.S. National Academy of Sciences Workshop on the Impacts of Consumption on the Global Environment, Washington D.C., 1995.

6. On the importance of local participation and local control of resources in successful sustainable development has been a major theme in recent work in Central America; see M. Chapin "Travels with Eucario: In Search of Ecodevelopment. " Orion, Spring:49-58 (1991), S. Annis, ed., "Poverty, Natural Resources, and Public Policy in Central America. " New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers (1992), and W. Morehouse, ed., "Building Sustainable Communities: Tools and Concepts for Self-Reliant Economic Change. " New York: Bootstrap Press (1989).

7. Much of my discussion here is based on A. Herrera, "The Generation of Technologies in Rural Areas. " World Development, 9(1):21-34 (1981). The issue of maintenance of introduced technology is discussed by W. Ramsay and E. Shue, "Infrastructure Problems for Rural New and Renewable Energy Systems. " The Journal of Energy and Development, 14:232-250 (1981).

8. D. Brokensha, D. Martin & O. Werner, eds., "Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Development ." Washington D.C.: University Press of America (1980). See also B. DeWalt, "Antecedents and Consequences of an Indigenous Peasant Innovation. " Technology and Culture 19:32-52 (1978).

9. The literature rethinking the nature of indigenous society is huge and diverse, as is that which considers the myth that traditional people are always environmentally benign conservationists. A good entry into this debate is E. Wolf's "Europe and the People Without History ." Berkeley: University of California Press (1984).

10. For an early example see T. Binder, "The Right of the Third World to Develop in Its Own Way and Remarks on the Idea of "Change." " in E. Casas, ed., Western Expansion and Indigenous Peoples. The Hague: Mouton (1977). Recent work on indigenous technical knowledge has been mainly concerned with the issue of property rights; see for example D. Posey, "Intellectual Property Rights and Just Compensation for Indigenous Knowledge. " Anthropology Today 6(4):13-16 (1990).

11. R. Hackenburg, "Ecosystemic Channeling: Cultural Ecology from the Viewpoint of Aerial Photography. " in E. Vogt, ed., Aerial Photography in Anthropological Field Research. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1974).

12. A. Pyburn, "The Political Economy of Ancient Maya Land Use: The Road to Ruin. " in S. Fedick, ed., Ancient Maya Agriculture and Resource Management. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press (1995).

13. R. Netting, "Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community. " Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1981), and "Smallholders, Householders: Farm Households and the Ecology of Intensive Sustainable Agriculture. " Stanford: Stanford University Press (1993).

14. Morehouse 1989, op.cit. , B. Redclift "Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions. " London: Routledge (1989), D. Korten and R. Klauss, "People Centered Development. " London: Kumarian Press (1984).

15. E. Ostrum, "Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. " New York: Cambridge University Press (1990), E. Ostrum, L. Schroeder and S. Wynne, "Institutional Incentives and Sustainable Development: Issues, Alternatives and Choices. " Boulder: Westview (1993).

16. For examples, see J. Tendler, "What to Think About Cooperatives: A Guide From Bolivia. " Grassroots Development 7(2):19-38 (1983), and D. Bray "Defiance and the Search for Sustainable Small Farmer Organizations. " Human Organization 50:125-135 (1991).

17. The institutional elements that will best predict sustainable development relate directly to the level of what can be called "Social Capital." This is the trust, expectation and solidarity that makes it possible for people to find ways to work together. We know that a history of local control of resources, local management and local regulation (even if illegal or informal) are highly correlated with this kind of social capital. We also know that dramatic social inequality, paternalism, insecurity and administrative intervention all inhibit the growth of social capital and community management institutions.

18. R. Wilk and H. Wilhite, "Why Don't People Weatherstrip their Homes? An Ethnographic Solution. " Energy, 10(5):621-631 (1985).

19. R. Rhoades, "Farmers and Experimentation. " London: Overseas Development Institute (1987), H. Brammer, "Some Innovations Don't Wait for Experts: A Report on Applied Research by Bangladeshi Peasants. " Ceres 13:24-28 (1980), and A. Dommen, "The Bamboo Tubewell: A Note on an Example of Indigenous Technology. " Economic Development and Cultural Change, 23(3):183-187 (1975).

20. J. Farrington and A. Martin, "Farmer Participatory Research: A Review of Concepts and Practice. " London: Overseas Development Institute (1987).

21. Page 435 in K. Andrews, J. Bentley and R. Cave, "Enhancing Biological Control's Contributions to Integrated Pest Management Through Appropriate Levels of Farmer Participation. " Florida Entomologist 75(4):429-439 (1992).

22. J. Bentley "Facts, Fantasies, and Failures of Farmer Participatory Research. " Agriculture and Human Values, 11(2&3):140-150 (1994).

23. J. Ventocilla, H. Herrera, and V. Nunez, "Plants and Animals in the Life of the Kuna. " Austin: University of Texas Press (1995).

24. B. Bird, "The EAGLE Project: Re-mapping Canada from an Indigenous Perspective. " Cultural Survival Quarterly 18(4):23-24 (1995).

25. M. Johnson, "People's Participation in Belize: A View from the Field of Conservation. " Paper presented at the IX Studies on Belize Conference, Belize City (1995).

26. This case study is concisely summarized in R. Rhoades, "Breaking New Ground: Agricultural Anthropology. " Lima: International Potato Center (1984).

27. Andrews et al. op. cit. 1992; J. Bentley, "Alternatives to Pesticides in Central America: Applied Studies of Local Knowledge. " Culture and Agriculture 44:10-13 (1992).

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