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Trends in traction

How long does it take for a fashion to become a trend and for a trend to become a tradition? Not as long as one might suppose. Forty years ago there were fewer than 1,000 donkey carts in Mauritania even though donkeys have been used as pack animals for centuries. Now there are over 75,000 donkey carts and they are used for transporting forage, agricultural produce, building materials, water and, of course, people. In many parts of the world, but especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the use of animal power looks likely to increase. In the cotton production area of Ghana, for example, the tractors that were introduced in the 1960s and 1970s are falling into disuse and are being replaced by animal power. More cotton farmers will be using animals in future.

Dual purpose providers

Women weeding with donkeys in Tanzania
credit: Paul Starkey
Cows ploughing in Mexico
credit: Paul Starkey

Also noticeable is the trend to replace oxen with other animals. In most regions of the world, oxen have traditionally been used for draught power on farm but oxen are now very expensive - often in the order of $200-$800 per animal - and people cannot afford to tie up that amount of capital for seasonal work. Oxen are also prone to theft, being easily and quickly converted to anonymous meat. Farmers are turning instead to making dual use of their transport animals - horses and donkeys - and putting them to work behind the plough. Donkeys are leading the trend, being cheaper and easier to manage; they may also be more socially appropriate for women to use. Dual purpose is also behind another trend, that of replacing male animals with females. In Indonesia, for example, 80% of working buffaloes and cattle are females. In Bangladesh and on the high plateau of Bolivia, the proportion is 50%. In Europe (eg, in Romania, Switzerland or Spain) working cattle are more likely to be cows than oxen. In Portugal, whereas farmers use cows, some fishermen employ oxen for pulling their boats down the beach to the water's edge. Fishing nets are then towed by boat to form a large arc and oxen, with their exceptional strength and their ability to work all year round, pull in the nets twice a day and, hopefully, each time full of fish.

Where the work is not excessive, cows work well. Extension experts may argue against their use but it is difficult to refute the argument that whereas an ox can pull a cart or a plough, a cow can do this and also produce a calf and milk. The point is that it makes sense to maximise productivity from a given resource. This is particularly important where forage is limited, a factor that is becoming increasingly significant where land is under population pressure. Provided that cows are well fed, any drop in the fertility of a working cow is small, and more than compensated by the overall higher output. Again, for animals in good condition, the overall pattern of milk production is not affected by light work (although a cow may give slightly less on working days). Research in several countries has concluded that poor feeding influences reproduction and milk production much more than light work: so it pays to use cows for light work, and give them the feed that oxen would have eaten.

Drought resistant donkeys

Their ability to adapt to arid conditions is a major factor in the increasing popularity of donkeys. They are mainly found in highlands or areas with less than 800 mm of annual rainfall. In West Africa, for example, the 'donkey line' has moved southwards as bush is cleared, rainfall drops and disease is less of a threat. There are now several million donkeys being used in 'new' areas, introduced by farmers and traders without any government intervention or support. And the great advantage of donkeys is that women, who do the major share of the walking and carrying, can use them easily whereas larger and more prestigious animals are traditionally handled by men.

If just one person tries something 'new' - perhaps adapting an implement or harness, or maybe using animal traction for a field operation normally done by hand - it may set a fashion or it may not. What is certain is that traditions depend on innovation.

For further information, see:
ATNESA (Animal Traction Network for Eastern and Southern Africa)
Draught Animal News: power.htm
Local Transport Solutions: Papers/SSATPWP56.pdf

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1st July 2003