|2. The systems|
The word "system" corresponds to an intuitive concept, the meaning of which is not always clear. A system is a co-ordinated combination of "elements" which can be, or sometimes should be, in equilibrium, that is to say in a static condition, while sometimes a dynamic or evolving situation is desirable. Very frequently only the technical component is considered as a whole system, supposing that improving the technical component will produce a new and more advanced equilibrium and, of course, if equilibrium is achieved, it will be intrinsically sustainable. This is not always true because socio-economic, cultural and political factors can play a decisive role.
Nowadays the stress is rightly put on sustainability. In fact it was realised that the simple transfer of a technology from one country to another must require particular conditions. If those are lacking, negative effects can be produced, capable of nullifying the intervention. For instance, natural ecosystems are formed in specific areas where soil, flora, fauna and human activity are in equilibrium (static condition). An ecosystem is considered degraded when the original equilibrium is lost and a new static condition is produced through a phase where negative dynamic conditions prevailed. A project to protect an ecosystem should be able to reverse the direction of change, aiming to restore the original condition. Schiere and Grasman (1997) have keenly developed a theoretical approach to this problem.
While analysing systems, it is possible to split them into subsystems or to assemble them into hyper-systems. For instance, raising animals in backyards is part of the family agricultural production system but it may only be a part of all the income sources (handcraft activities, commerce, and employment) that together form a larger system. This must be taken into account, because the activity in the backyard is conditioned by the other adjacent sub-systems.
Assuming two identically organised backyards, it makes a big difference whether the families have other income sources or not. In fact, if there are other incomes, some factors become favourable (example: disposal of monetary inputs can favour a move to semi-industrial production), but others become negative (example: less time available can impair the care of the animals or reduce the amount of feed harvested to supply them). If an important part of the production is sold, the market must be included in a more extended system analysis. In the market, other products of different origin and nature can compete with the ones produced in the backyard. Thus, the other production systems must also be included in a wider hyper-system. Only the analysis of the hyper-system, including all the systems competing for the market, can give the necessary information. This will avoid the risk of producing something that is incapable of competing with cheaper or better commodities.
A small backyard unit can also be split into subsystems. Species have different characteristics. They may be in competition for feed or space. In other cases, they may usefully integrate. As a consequence, the keeping of any species must be analysed separately and considered as a subsystem of the backyard system. The same happens with different breeds. They have distinct input requirements and different outputs, and must be considered as subsystems of the same species-keeping system. It is easy to understand that, if local and exotic chickens are kept together in a village, their performance can differ compared with keeping each species in isolation. To forecast the result, the interaction of the two subsystems must be studied relative to the proportion, cost and output of each of them.
Systems also overlap: for example, a plant production system may provide some by-products utilised to feed different animal species. If the by-product finds a more convenient destination, this newly formed system may impair the efficiency of the first one. For instance, chickens and rabbits compete for vegetable wastes from the kitchen. If a piglet to be fattened is introduced into the backyard, feeding of both chickens and rabbits will be impaired because they are competing for the same food. Another possibility is that a newly developed system enters into competition with a previous one and ensures its demise, even if it was previously well integrated and sustainable in its original area.
Since each system can be classified as a part of a hyper-system and can be analysed at the level of subsystems, which can also overlap, it is obvious that all systems are more or less directly interrelated by a continuous flow of reciprocal influences. This does not refer only to contiguous systems but those that may be quite unconnected. Some important examples of remote influences, and hence beyond any technical possibility of control, are considered later on. A system is thus an abstract concept used to divide reality into discrete units that are easier to study and understand. The more we are able to analyse all the elements, how all of them interact and how they receive inputs and produce outputs, the more we will be able to interpret and utilise them in a proper manner. Though it is intuitively easy to understand what a system is, it is much more difficult to define it, including all the factors upon which it depends and by which it is influenced. A systems analysis discussion will contribute to clarification of this unavoidable problem.
2.1. Dynamics of animal production systems
The exploitation of animals by man began with their domestication, thousands of years before the historic age. It slowly evolved, favouring the passage from the hunter-gatherer stage to pastoralism and agriculture. In the historic age, when Greeks and Romans began to describe it, animal keeping had already been established for many centuries in its many sustainable forms. Nowadays these forms seem obsolete, but they are not, and must be positively considered in relation to production methods that, in many areas of the world, have not substantially evolved from that age. And when dealing with poor rural areas in developing countries, it is easier to find useful ideas in the old treatises on agriculture by the Romans: Varro, Columella and Pliny the Elder, or the ancient Greeks Polybe and Strabo (Sandford, 1992; Saltini, 1995), than in modern manuals of industrial production.
Two main types of animal keeping have been developed since then. One model presents people moving with their animals in search of pastures and water sources, establishing the complex cultural system of knowledge of geography, seasons, vegetation periods, grazing and animal exploitation, with the inherent social and economic values pertaining to pastoralism. Large species were involved, forming cattle or camel herds and sheep or goat flocks. The second model developed later near the dwellings and was managed mainly by women keeping a limited number of small species. Large animals also represent a status symbol while small animals mainly contribute to family welfare. The two systems are completely separate and utilise different animal species which, in the beginning, were probably sheep and chickens in the Old World and llamas and guinea pigs in the New World. But, with the development of modern agriculture, surpluses and by-products became locally available in sufficient quantities, allowing the development of the landless industrial animal production of both small and big species. Only small animals are considered here, but it is not always easy to find appropriate and significant examples that refer particularly to small species raised by the households of low-food, no-income people. Therefore, examples are borrowed from all the animal production systems. They help us to understand the logic of static and dynamic, or evolving, systems. They also help us to understand how varied are the factors that can influence the final result of the undertaking. If the aim of a project is to improve local economies, it is necessary to remember that "improving" means changing something inside a system, and this means breaking the previous internal equilibrium. An effort must be made to foresee the secondary internal consequences of the action, as well as the external ones, to evaluate in advance the final balance of positive and negative effects. It happens only too frequently that projects are formulated without taking into account possible negative results or a possible overall negative balance. Any action that ensures minimal change within the system may provide only small but assured improvements. When profound changes are introduced, it is much more difficult to control all the parameters involved and the risk of negative effects is increased.
Avoiding failures is important because they induce frustration and loss of trust in the people involved in the project as well as those conversant with it. This would impair any future action. On the other hand, small improvements permit rapid correction when something goes wrong. In addition, they can attain an important outcome thanks to the cumulative effects of small consecutive improvements, and the multiplicative effect when these spontaneously spread through hundreds and thousands of families. These points will be considered later in Chapters 3.1 (Backyard conditions and development goals) and 3.2 (Traditional versus industrialised systems). But let us begin by offering some examples to make the above mentioned concepts clearer.
As can be seen, local pig keeping had the proper technology and management and was perfectly sustainable. All the local units formed a hyper-system which was also sustainable, enriching the national economy. The new industrial farm was not sustainable because it was too big relative to the local market. The new hyper-system had therefore also become unsustainable and the local economy was exposed to the risk of being artificially destroyed by a detrimental project, undertaken without considering the negative impact on the pre-existing situation.
In this case, the negative effects could have been avoided by a proper system analysis in the same way as the analysis of the new hyper-system avoided the mistake of starting up the small piggery at the school in the wrong local economic climate. But sometimes the influencing factors can come from far a field and are completely beyond one's control, so that their final effect cannot be avoided.
After the takeover of angora wool production by the Asiatic countries, all attempts to sustain or restore production in Europe and South America have failed. (Figure 2.1.1.). This was simply because the technicians appointed to the projects were not able to understand that the parameters of the system had radically changed in relation to the fibre market and spinning technology. A new hyper-system had been created. It was no longer sufficient to produce high quality wool with advanced housing, feeding and management. It was necessary to compete on the world market where Asiatic merchants were able to sell at lower prices. In fact, they were able to buy in the villages at very low prices and only needed to reduce their profits to establish a monopoly and push out of the market all European or South American competition.
The same thing can be said with reference to silkworm production. It is strange then that some Asiatic countries still propose development programmes in South America, based on silkworm production. If nothing new is found, these projects are destined to fail, despite the introduction of appropriate technologies. Competition from synthetic fibres, high production costs and the difficulty of reaching the critical amount that permits entry into the international market all conspire against commercial success. A simple new factor, i.e. the formation of an international market for animal fibres, which placed all the national production systems in direct competition, caused the closure of all those with higher labour costs. It is easy to see that there is sometimes no way to avoid the undesired result.
The lesson teaches us not to invest in projects simply because they look good and are successfully managed in another country. It also teaches us that factors can come from far away, suddenly increasing the number of elements within the system to be considered. They can have a negative influence, as in the case mentioned above, but they may also act positively, as happened when alfalfa cultivation was introduced to substitute weeds in North African oases. Rabbit keeping was then very much improved, notwithstanding the very adverse environmental conditions.
These examples, though involving great economic effects, are relatively simple. It is surprising how mistakes that could easily be avoided from the beginning, continue to be repeated when experience and analysis should teach more prudent behaviour. But things can be much more complicated when productive economic systems are involved. In these, human, social, cultural, commercial and sometimes political factors, play their roles and create a very intricate balance or imbalance of forces whose result cannot be foreseen in advance, even in cases which look very simple. Raising guinea pigs is a good example of a simple system, much simpler anyhow than raising rabbits. Guinea pigs do not have problems such as pregnancy diagnosis or preparing the nest and, consequently, there is no need to elaborate on husbandry operations. In the most common management form, guinea pigs simply move around in the kitchen, eating vegetable wastes and grass. The owners, who normally are women, have only to catch them when they need something to eat or to sell.
But guinea pigs have a long history in the Andean area, where they were first domesticated. Together with coca and fermented maize (chicha), they are still offered in sacrifice to Pachamama (Mother-Earth) and other ancient Gods; they are used in traditional medicine to cure some sicknesses and to diagnose them; they are elements of magical rites; they receive special affection as small household pets; in childrens stories they are the heroes always cheating the stupid fox; they provide excellent meat to offer to important guests or to be served at religious and civil feasts and are the most expensive dish in typical restaurants; they are used as symbolic gifts of thanks for some favour received; they represent, together with spinning wool, the participation of women in the economy of the family; they are frequently the main, and even the only no-cost source of animal protein in the local diet; they are the ready reserve of income for small immediate needs, such as to buy medicines or exercise books for children when school begins.
Trying to substitute rabbits for guinea pigs because they are bigger and more productive is an initiative prone to failure. Besides the many social functions that are lost, there are management complications connected with the new species and monetary inputs, imprudently proposed, to build housing and cages.
It is not surprising that a sociologist was able to write a 167-page essay on the cultural aspects of keeping guinea pigs (Archetti, 1992), and even local and expert specialised technicians should not ignore socio-cultural aspects. The system must be sufficiently analysed, avoiding the prejudice that raising a few guinea pigs in the kitchen is a very simple system that can be understood at a glance.
A clever, prudent and experienced technician never thinks he or she can understand a production system at first glance. They patiently look and look, ask and ask, live as much as possible with the target people, eat with them and possibly work with them according to their own competence and using the same tools. They try to understand the meaning of any small particular aspect that is not clear to them. At the end, something unexpected happens. What looked like a poor, primitive, inefficient production system starts to appear logical and able to deal with specific constraints that initially passed unobserved. In short, it shows its rationality. Then, and only then, is the moment to start thinking if the system can be improved, how, how much and under what conditions.
Raising poultry (as with other species) also has specific socio-cultural traits in the villages, and its function as a financial reserve and beginning of a chain-process of accumulation must be considered (Bonfoh, 1997). The cultural values associated with a few animals raised in the dwellings are nowadays completely lost in the industrialised countries and are not taught in technical schools and universities. Only some fading aspects are still present in the rural areas. But they are the rule where animals are still in close contact with people. They should not be considered either right or wrong; they must be considered as existing and unavoidable, at least in the short and medium term. They must be respected and, when projects are formulated, considered as part of the system within which they should remain harmoniously included, providing they do not seriously constrain any possible improvement.
Help-to-development programmes aim to interact with pre-existing systems. They aim to improve their efficiency, and not to substitute them with new systems supposed to fit better into the existing socio-economic situation. But two things have to be remembered and carefully taken into consideration before beginning any project:
1 - Local production systems are frequently very old; this shows that they are sustainable, perfectly integrated and in equilibrium with all the other systems in the area. But any change, which is intended to improve the system can also impair it, and the positive or negative effects can increase progressively and become wide-ranging. Anyhow, the situation, even after a small change, will not be as it was before. A change in one part of the system affects the system elsewhere (Schiere and Grasman, 1997; Schiere et al., 1999). To use the words of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca: "Still the diminutive banquet of the spider is sufficient to break the equilibrium of the entire world". It looks like a paradox; nevertheless it is the truth, even though no perceivable practical effects can be identified. This concept must always be considered, because changes produced by development programmes have a far greater impact than a spider eating a fly. Projects should aim at reaching a more advanced equilibrium through modification or substitution of a pre-existing one. Although it is easy to break equilibrium, it may be very difficult to restore it. It is necessary to be as sure as possible in advance that the new system will be profitable, sustainable and will not induce negative effects on the related systems.
2 - The easiest way to foresee negative effects is to look at the market, and try to evaluate in advance the consequences of the project, not only on itself, but also on related or similar enterprises.
To illustrate these points the best example refers to cattle.
This is the reason why, beginning in the seventies, it became more and more difficult, even impossible, to find fresh milk in many African towns, notwithstanding the many efforts to develop milk production. Only recently has the problem started to be resolved with the progressive introduction of cold-chains.
This is a good example of a correct and successful analysis of a system, which also took into account the factors that do not pertain directly to the system itself, but can influence it from outside.
2.2. Technical and para-technical factors
Factors that influence production but are not directly determined or controlled by producers are called here "para-technical". It is very common for them not to be considered in the framework of the analysis of small systems, but it is necessary to remember and identify them in advance. As can be seen from the above-mentioned examples, there are factors that are not intrinsic to the production system, but whose influence is very significant. They can also come from afar, frequently cannot be foreseen and are sometimes very difficult to identify. When analysing a system, it is therefore necessary to distinguish between technical and para-technical factors. Both the idea of installing a milk-treatment plant and of accepting powdered milk as aid is political decisions, but they are different in nature. The milk plant is still a technical factor and can be considered in itself as a system capable of influencing (negatively or positively) the local milk producing system. Powdered milk importation is a para-technical factor, depending only on the decision of politicians. They have to decide if it is convenient to accept humanitarian aid and to distribute the milk freely and directly to populations hit by famine and too poor to have access to the market. In this case, the market should not be negatively affected and help should be utilised properly. But the decision to use the help to market powdered milk at a very low price is a choice whose destructive effect will be paid for over many years by the local production structures. Unluckily, the wrong decision is also the easiest and the more politically promising.
The technical factors depend strictly on the capability and experience of technicians in analysing systems and projecting appropriate and viable interventions. Para-technical factors are not involved with production, though they are frequently decisive in determining the success of a project. More appropriately, they should be under the control of national and international organisations. Since some para-technical factors can also emerge at local level, and can be identified and taken into account, another example must be considered.
Problems with customs are frequent para-technical factors that impair projects. Important equipment can be blocked in customs offices for months, interfering with the development of dependent activities. It is surprising that, after years of co-operation, assisted countries have not removed this constraint. It is therefore imperative that in any cooperative project, the first agreement with the recipient country should be to renounce its import duties and ensure that no superficial problem will be raised by customs or by any other tax office (for instance road tolls). It should be clearly stated that after a short time (say a week), if the problem is not resolved, the project will be considered suspended and the funds transferred to other projects.
Being strong and looking very confident is a way of getting out of trouble. In the case of transporting live animals, for example chicks blocked in the airport for counting, it would probably have been possible to say: "Well, it will be up to you to explain to your Government why all the chicks offered by the international co-operation died during your process of investigation. I expect you will have to pay for the losses. In the meantime, I am going to the police to report the abuse". It is very difficult for an officer to take on such a responsibility if he is not absolutely sure his action will be judged correct. Moreover, he cant be sure that it is correct to deny that 10% of excess chicks is only to guarantee the buyer that he will receive no fewer animals than the ones he has paid for. In many cases, duty payments depend on how the duty officer interprets the law.
2.3. Developing sustainable production systems
Raising small animals in the backyard is an activity based on traditional practices, which is proof of its sustainability. It can be more or less developed, according to the means of production, genetics, nutritional level, sanitary conditions, management and para-technical factors, such as the presence of predators. But it must be efficient and sustainable in some way, otherwise it will not survive.
To improve backyard production is probably possible at any level, but conditions are different according to the objective. Maybe the goal is to produce for self-consumption, or self-consumption and occasional selling, or the main interest may be commercial. In the first case, the interest is the nutritional welfare of the family, in the second the interest is directed towards monetary income. It is obvious that the passage from self-consumption to commerce is possible only when a market is available (figure 2.3.1.).
Another difference is the monetary input which is needed when commercial production requires the use of feed concentrates and can no longer relyon scavenging birds or small mammals fed on freely available roughage . Shelter and cages also become necessary together with other equipment.
The more profoundly an innovation changes the original equilibrium, the more difficult it is to maintain sustainability through a new equilibrium. Maybe this is the reason that Latin people said: "Quieta non movere" (don't move what is still). But in those times, profound changes were not technically possible. In the move from self-consumption to commercial goals, new factors must be included in the analysis of a widened system. They are: market, monetary inputs and amortisation on the economic side (Table 2.3.1.) and breed efficiency vs. fitness on the biological side. As a general rule, these factors are not present in the villages but they can become favourable in the peri-urban areas where the market is wider and nearly always receptive. People generally have some remunerative activity and can afford the monetary input needed to build structures and to buy feed and medical or prophylactic treatments. Furthermore, the cultural level of townspeople is generally enriched and it is easier to find the management competence to run a more complex production system that can also be based on the exploitation of exotic breeds. The logic of the new system and the need to amortise loans on structures is more easily understood and accepted.
Many other elements can emerge during an accurate in situ analysis. They should be properly considered so that the favourable elements are properly exploited and those that appear as constraints treated prudently. A very important factor is the level of acceptance of the project. This point will be discussed in Chapter 12 (Promoting the interest).
To promote development means to modify a production system, which was previously sustained. In the transitional phase, the system becomes vulnerable and care should be taken to avoid problems. Frequently, the characteristics of the market are not considered (figure 2.3.2.). But it may happen that later it will be impossible to sell the products. The market may be too far away or intermediaries may control it; similar products may be cheaper; production costs may become excessive in comparison with selling prices.
The opportunity to judge the consequences of ignoring the market in the project formulation stage is shown by the venture of an architect in a South American Country.
This sad anecdote teaches: 1) never forget to analyse the market before starting a commercial enterprise, particularly if it is new to the country; 2) never rely only on books. Look first at what other people do, according to tradition, and test if innovations are sustainable. No technical book will ever say that it is teaching the best way to lose all your money! However, in effect it does do this if it fails to advise that technology alone is not sufficient to be successful, and that other conditioning factors must be considered. This raises the question, how does a poor illiterate woman, raising a few guinea pigs, provide for her family, while the educated architect loses all his money raising thousands? The difference is that the woman collects free grasses and kitchen waste to give to her animals. Whatever she obtains is gratis, except her work. She shares the rationality of sustainable traditions. In the industrial system this is not possible; the system to be analysed becomes wider, including production costs and selling opportunities. Unfortunately, not only architects but also animal husbandry technicians frequently think that technology is all that is needed. But this is not enough to be successful.
Another factor infrequently considered is the capability of people to set aside money to replace the equipment that was originally provided for the project when it begins to break down. Only after some years when no money is available to replace failing equipment doesit become evident that the project had never been viable. Introduction of exotic breeds can also be a mistake. Generally, these animals are less suited to the environment; they need balanced feed, which can make the costs rise over the market level; animal density is higher and this encourages the spread of disease. Prophylactic treatments are generally introduced initially but may later be unavailable or too expensive.
When a system is made dynamic, it is often forgotten that traditional thinking is not always useful or sufficient and new skills must be acquired. These can be obtained through specific research, but also by looking around for new technologies in equipment or management that have been spontaneously developed. Sometimes clever and easily sustainable systems have been developed locally, which need only to be disseminated. Many examples will be given in the Chapters from 7 to 11.
The stress is frequently put on housing and controlling disease; managerial aspects are frequently not given enough consideration and may scarcely be understood, even by properly trained people (Fig. 2.3.3.).
Not only is an appropriate culture required, but also the will to learn is needed to avoid common errors such as failure to cull old stock and unproductive animals or avoid wasting feed. The first two are also common mistakes in rural systems, but their consequences are not as harmful as when poor management impairs industrial production. Among the various causes of unsuccessful projects, it must be remembered that many of them rely on inducing co-operation. Collaboration for seasonal works is common, some kind of farmer association is possible, but a true co-operation is seldom lasting when artificially induced, unless supported by subsidies (SFGA, 1998).