FAO's Agricultural Engineering Branch (AGSE) reports that in sub-Saharan Africa, in particular, the use of work animals for agriculture and rural transport is increasing every year. In countries that are rapidly urbanizing and industrializing - such as India, Mexico, Brazil and South Africa - large-scale farms may use tractors and trucks, but many small-scale farmers and local transporters continue to use animals. "This pattern of mechanized large farms and animal-powered small farms is common worldwide," the AGSE report says. "Even in the highly developed European Union, animal power remains important in Spain, Portugal and Greece, where farms are of small size. In the USA, Amish farmers run their farms profitably using only animal power."
Gleaming tractors. But draught animals have an "image problem". Over the past fifty years, books on farming - whether for school children or agricultural students - have presented gleaming new tractors, rather than sturdy buffalo and hardy donkeys, as the solution to on-farm power needs. Result: most teachers, extension agents, researchers and decision-makers have never studied animal power in detail. Their ignorance is compounded by popular media, which portray animal power as an old - and inherently poor - technology.
AGSE recommends a fresh look at the benefits of draught animals: "Animal power is generally affordable and accessible to the smallholder farmers, who are responsible for much of the world's food production. Studies show that individual tractor ownership is seldom possible for farmers with small areas of cultivation, unless they have high-value crops, irrigation and/or multiple cropping (e.g., irrigated rice production). Tractor hire is seldom viable for smallholders in rain-fed food production systems. While tractors are better adapted for power-intensive operations, such as ploughing, and for large areas of land, animals may be more appropriate and affordable for control-intensive operations (e.g., weeding) and on small areas of land."
The use of draught animals carries economic benefits well beyond the farm gate. Animal power requires little or no foreign exchange - money invested in animal power circulates within rural areas, helping to revitalise rural economies. Pack animals and carts facilitate the marketing of produce, stimulating local trade. Animals can also provide important local "feeder" transport between farms and roads, thus complementing motorized road transport systems.
Finally, animal power is sustainable and environmentally friendly. "It is a renewable energy source that can be sustained with little external input," AGSE notes. "The use of animal power in mixed farming systems encourages crop-livestock integration and sustainable farming practices. Not only do work animals produce their own organic manure, they provide transport to the fields of manure of other livestock, which enhances the fertility and structure of the soil."
Impact statements. To fully harness the benefits of animal power, says the AGSE report, it should be seen as an integral component of rural development and agricultural mechanization strategies. "In recent years, it has become common to include environmental and gender impact statements in development strategy documents," AGSE says. "In a similar way, animal power options need to be considered in plans relating to food security, rural infrastructure and services and transport." At present, transport ministries seldom deal with animal power, even though pack animals or carts are often the mainstay of rural transport systems. Similarly, using animals for labour-intensive road construction can be highly cost-effective, but engineers are usually trained to plan capital-intensive projects.
Experience of many countries shows that animal power can be developed and sustained by small-scale private sector enterprises, provided there is a critical mass of users. Governments and development agencies should ensure, therefore, a policy environment that enables private sector support services to continue and expand. "Legislation or development processes should not isolate animal power users or support services, either directly or indirectly," AGSE cautions. "Recent examples of marginalization include subsidies on alternative power sources (notably tractors and imported equipment), exclusion of animal-powered transport, and laws more favourable to factories than village blacksmiths." While the public sector should avoid direct competition with private sector services, some strategic input may be desirable to promote the formation of that critical mass of users. Rural transport , for instance, can often be assisted with a combination of credit and supply of locally produced cart axles.
Finally, AGSE says, it's time to polish the popular image of those hard-working cattle, buffaloes, horses, mules, donkeys and camels: "Increasingly, the constraints to animal power development are psychological or social rather than technical or economic. There is need to counteract existing negative and outmoded media coverage if people are to consider animal power as a realistic option. Animal traction needs to be portrayed as a renewable, environmentally friendly technology that enhances the quality of community life and is relevant to the modern world."
Published September 2000