The use of work animals began long before humankind started to practice agriculture and contributed greatly to the geographical expansion of ancient cultures. The use of animal power is now considered by many people to be archaic and inefficient, however; today, agricultural development is equated with the use of machines. But despite the more than 50 years spent promoting tractorization in developing countries, the development gap between highly industrialized, rich countries and those with weak, highly dependent economies has increased.
The oil crisis during the mid-1970s renewed some interest in the use of work animals. But to industrialists this technology remained of little interest, and in developing countries government services continued to consider it as a "last resort" technology, giving it very low priority. Most unfortunately. the few field projects that tried to promote better use of work animals usually followed a non-integrated implementation approach with overall farming activities that was inappropriate and that made opportunistic use of animals during a very reduced number of days per year. The results of such ill-conceived efforts were very discouraging.
The mistakes of the past should be studied and the technological options should now be examined objectively so that. through experience, more realistic approaches may be elaborated. The use of high-input/high-output production models, which are more critically dependent on fossil fuel, cannot be considered universally feasible. Not only are they economically inaccessible to many small-scale farmers, but global oil supplies cannot sustain any proposed extension of intensive mechanization to all agricultural producers throughout the world. Alternative energy sources such as the effective use of work animals must urgently be established.
Animals as providers of power and numerous other economic outputs make an essential contribution to millions of subsistence farmers, herders and pastoralists throughout the developing world and are crucial to survival in vast regions of low agricultural potential and harsh environments. Considering all the different types of farm animals, the number used worldwide as work animals is estimated at no less than 250 million and may well be over 300 million. Their exploitation is not limited to small-scale farmers; large and very complex agro-industrial estates have also recognized that, in appropriate situations, their use is economically justified. For example, in the Caribbean, on one of the largest sugar plantations in the world, animals and machines have been used together very effectively and continuously over the last 75 years. In 1994, more than 8 000 oxen were employed continuously for six to seven months to transport one-third of the sugarcane harvest. Similar cases can be cited from West Africa and from Southeast Asia.
Although no reliable statistical data are available, cursory estimates indicate that the total world population of work animals provides a very large annual work contribution. It has been suggested that the global animal energy output could be as much as 140x 109 kWh, with 90 percent of this total coming from work animals in developing countries. This amount of energy is equivalent to 239X106 barrels of diesel fuel, and may be graphically illustrated by well over 150 marine oil tankers each carrying 200 000 tonnes of oil! The annual economic contribution of animals, therefore, is enormous; at US$16 per barrel of oil, it would amount to US$3 824 million.
Animals not only provide the means by which millions of families make a living, but they also contribute to ecologically and socially acceptable production systems. Moreover, the efficiency of their energy inputs into crop production is higher than that of machines. In terms of the output/input energy ratio [Chirgwin, 1995, World Animal Review, 84/85 (3-4): 54-66], highly mechanized, modern maize crop production systems can be far less efficient (2: 1) than both hand tillage (10: 1, slash and burn) and systems that combine the use of human labour with animal power and are augmented by minimal amounts of commercial fertilizers (almost 4: 1). This inefficiency of mechanized agriculture is further illustrated by comparing amounts of fossil fuel used in food production. The quantities of diesel fuel required to produce 1 tonne of maize are 2.3 litres for slash and-burn systems, 37.6 litres for human/animal/limited fertilizer models, and 153 litres for fully mechanized systems.
This illustrates the enormous potential of working animals, not only to accelerate sustainable development itself, but also to contribute to the ecological stability necessary to effectively attain these goals. In order to optimize this potential, animals must be utilized in all on-farm and associated activities throughout the year. Domestic animals provide a multitude of outputs, such as energy, milk, meat, fibre, manure, hides and skins, which are all derived from feeding on local resources, including pasture, crop residues, fodder trees and shrubs, as well as on by-products from such village industries as oil extraction and cane-crushing. This reduces waste by recycling products within the farming system and thereby not only creates gainful employment, but also contributes to improved soil texture and fertility, reducing soil compaction and stimulating an economic incentive in rearing multipurpose animals [Sansoucy, 1995, World Animal Review, 84/85 (3-4): 5-17].
Integrated livestock/crop/tree farming also provides economic opportunities for local artisans, such as blacksmiths, cobblers, carpenters, weavers and tanners, who, in turn, will increase the supply of locally manufactured goods, fostering the development of a viable and independent rural economy.
Such initiatives require the support of specific and practical training programmes and readily available village-based mini-credit and loan facilities. Instruction on the use of work animals, to be effective at this level, requires trainers with some select theoretical knowledge and, more important, considerable practical experience. They also need to be receptive and keen to accept technological changes which make better use of work animals and improve farming efficiency.
What is needed now are ways and means of informing and advising rural communities of the simple but effective techniques that can be applied readily in order to convert their livestock into a multipurpose resource. An effective participatory programme for rural communities is also required to deliver appropriate training courses and to ensure the exchange of practical experiences.
The major challenge faced by rural communities is to produce technical innovations, based on their own practical experience with work animals, that are suitable to local conditions. With external assistance from government institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other voluntary organizations, integrated implementation strategies to promote more profitable and sustainable use of work animals could then be developed and adopted. This would strengthen the technical cohesion of local farming systems and help boost both the production and trade components of rural economies, thus enhancing the social and economic conditions of rural communities.
The rational use of work animals has the potential to contribute significantly to economic and sustainable development and, particularly, to improve the living conditions and security of small-scale subsistence farmers. Within its overall goal of hunger alleviation and increased food security, FAO is committed to assisting rural communities in realizing and optimizing this potential of work animals.
The author is Animal Production Officer (Large Ruminants),
Livestock Production Systems Group, Animal Production and Health Division,
FAO, Rome, Italy.