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Liutprand - Associazione Culturale

Liutprand - Associazione Culturale


di Alberto Arecchi


The author is an Italian architect and urban planner with extensive teaching and research experience in Somalia, Mozambique and Algeria in the problems of development and precarious settlements: slums, shantytowns, rural environments, and at Environment and Development in the Third World. This article is based on an extensive study by the author and Mohamed Arkoun, in French, in Villages Socialistes en Afrique, published by ENDA - Tiers Monde, nr. 76-82, Série Etudes et Recherches, Dakar, Oct. 1982, and in Italian: L’Utopia del villaggio socialista, Terzo Mondo, Milano, 1983.

Agricultural development and nomadism
A number of governments, and not only in the Third World, are concerned with the establishment of new farming population nuclei. The examples are many: the drying out of swamps, the agrarian reforms in the fifties, the Cassa del Mezzogiorno in Italy, the settlement of groups of American Indians in Western Canada or groups of nomads in the eastern part of the Soviet Union. But, obviously, preconditions and problems differ in different parts of the world.
Socio-economic differences are determined by whether the aim is to densify the population for natural or historical reasons or to establish fixed settlement areas for a nomadic society. Fixed settlement areas can be for the simple provision of services gravitating about specific wells and commercial centres to forced settlement.
It is clear that the difficulties involved in changing from a nomadic to a settled existence ere enormous and that several generations must pass to overcome thousand year old customs, rivalries and prejudices which divide the world of nomads from that of those who “toil by the sweat of their brow and live imprisoned in their individual boxes.”
In Africa, the most notable example of conversion from nomadic life to settled cattle farming took place in Libya, in the oasis of Kufrah. Special techniques involving a fossil water table made it possible to introduce a system of fodder crop rotation by which cattle could then be raised commercially and the oasis population doubled in size. It was however a very costly operation, made possible only by Libya’s wealth and motivated by the need for stability along the Jamahiriya’s frontiers. In other Saharan countries, especially along the Sahel belt, the situation is much more complex.
Since 1974, drought has affected the nomads in the Sahel region. The numerous relief operations have resulted in the nomads settling down, either voluntarily and permanently or temporarily. Such temporary settlements swelled the peripheral city populations. Ouagadougou, Upper Volta, for instance, grew from nearly 130,000 to 350,000.
When nomads become urbanised, a specific kind of society, a culture, is destroyed. Furthermore, the cities, already suffering from pathological peripheral growth for which there is no adequate development alternative in the hinterland, are confronted with yet another series of practically insoluble problems. Such has been the case in Somalia, whose capital town, Mogadishu, the only city in a world of nomads, houses some 20 percent of the country’s population. Mogadishu leads an existence apart, and its links with the rest of Somalia consist only of kinship relations between its inhabitants and the nomads in the interior.
Somalia also furnishes an example of development action with the best of intentions, but whose effects have been the opposite of those planned. In the sixties, United Nations aid was used to sink a number of new wells in pastoral areas, in an effort to create centres of attraction and encouragement for the nomadic tribes. The result was disastrous. Heads of families, encouraged by the ready availability of water, dramatically increased their herds - their only form of wealth - but no one used the water to irrigate grazing lands. When the drought set in, disproportionate numbers of cattle invaded the areas surrounding the wells and completely destroyed all grazing land within range of each watering‑place. Once all pasture circles around the wells had been completely denuded of grass, the cattle began to die off. It was a catastrophe, not only for the life and economy of the nomads, but also ecologically. The natural balance had been upset over vast stretches of land, which would turn into desert unless measures were taken in time to re-establish the plant habitat.
For nomads, unlike for people living in cities, the width of territory and a proper separation between them and their neighbours in day-to-day life are of crucial psychological importance. In spite of this known fact, no planning, with respect to the forms of settlement, guided the action to settle Somali nomads.
Furthermore, clearing the areas to be settled involved the destruction of thousands of acres of virgin forest. Village plans involved mere repetition of uniform modular units. Plots of 12 square meters were too small for any kind of permanent settlement in a peasant context, let alone one involving nomads used to living a free life in open spaces and to measuring land in terms of so many days’ or weeks’ march.

Breaking the colonial chains
Under colonial regimes, agriculture was organised into large single-crop plantations for which the local inhabitants supplied the wage labour. The output from such plantations was directly integrated into the world trade circuits, destined for the metropolises and a system of exchange that benefited only the large monopolies and the colonial governments.
The colonial induced plantation system destroyed the original agricultural organisation which the Europeans had found when they invaded the African continent, just as the large scale slave trade and the political relations it established between the European powers and the African vassal rulers blocked all independent development by the African societies and cultures which, before the European conquest, had been pursuing a highly original and unique historical development.
The large trading companies appropriated the best lands for their own use. New cities grew up along the African coast in places where crops were assembled on rivers or in the interior, and became markets for black goods and labour. At best, the workers lived in slums on the city outskirts, and their labour was exploited in the white-owned mines and plantations.
Those blacks who escaped the process found themselves confined to more and more barren lands. Marginalized in their own country, their social life became impoverished. Self-subsistence farming on poor lands provided no opportunity to progress unless selling one’s labour in the urban markets could be considered social advancement.
This process of underdevelopment was perpetuated during the one century of actual colonisation, which followed the Berlin Conference held in 1884-1885 which carved up all of Africa between the European powers. Chronic marginal underdevelopment created an enormous reserve of manpower at low prices, a much more convenient situation than the black slave trade.
Because of this development, in some remote forests or deserts certain African peoples remained “unexpIored” and never, or only fleetingly, encountered white people. In the interior of the continent, away from colonial penetration, certain archaic customs considered as a means of enlarging the family labour force survived, like the "sale" of women and polygamy. In Mozambique, for instance, it is the women who work the land while the men defend and organise the family group. Great wealth enables men to “bargain” for a number of wives from other families. Households consisting of ten or twelve wives are not infrequent, nor is it unusual to encounter men who are "married" to a score of women or more, forming a small family farming concern.

New settlement and farming systems
One of the main tasks that new countries confront working towards economic independence is to introduce new settlements and new farming systems in their country sides. The eradication of single-crop farming was at the centre of all agricultural development policies in revolutionary China during the fifties and sixties, and it became the leitmotiv of Cuba’s internationalist policy. Unfortunately, in Cuba it is proving a failure, and the country is now once more turning increasing acreages into cane fields and making sugar exports the main state budget item.
But food self-sufficiency and alternative forms of rural organisation continue to be topical issues, especially in African countries which aim at development on the basis of socialist principles. Tanzania is still considered to be Africa’s standard bearer when it comes to self-reliant development and‑relying on one’s own resources.
The cornerstone of the development program in Tanzania is the ujamaa vijijini concept, which involves transforming rural settlements into a system of socialist villages (ujamaa, the term for Tanzanian socialism, is a Swahili word meaning "cooperation in a family spirit"). Community development in Tanzania has a character all its own. Physical regrouping of peasants and assisting them in such sectors as education, health, water and energy supply do not automatically mean achieving a socialist rural society. What is required is long term education in cooperation and community life and effective demonstration of the advantages offered by associated production.
Historically, two opposing schools of thought have emerged on the subject of socialising agriculture: the first favours exogenous socialisation, which may be defined as the colonisation of the village communities by the industrial society; and the second emphasises endogenous socialisation, i.e. a free association of village communities designed to strengthen their position in relation to the affluence and economic clout of the cities and of industrial society. This second approach, the result of a process of developing the villages, might be defined as the “villagization” of development. Forced collectivisation of peasants has always proved counterproductive. Persuasion is a much more time-consuming and difficult task, but one that pays dividends, both in time and in space.

Socio-political frame and development approach
When confronting the problems of rural development, and the frequently proposed approaches of poor architecture and self-help housing, it is easy to fall into the trap of extreme schematisations. For instance, some view the attempts at self-help housing and dwellers’ “participation” as decadent bourgeois remnants within the frame of a new architectural approach caught between the love for folklore and nature and a fascination with “do it yourself”; or some claim that it is a “non-architectural” approach, as the limitations imposed by the need to rely on the villager’s own strength leave no room for creativity. Others, of course, state that this approach calls upon the authentic culture of the people and their collective efforts, and still others consider it as mere propaganda by political regimes which, in actual fact, believe that real development depends on other sectors.
Reality, however, combines several factors, and more or less severe objective imitations may help establish an analytical framework for the evaluation of the various experiences in the development of new villages. This framework can reflect the socio-political point of view, or the more specific constructed form or, even better, that of an indicator which combines both, such as flexibility, identification, self‑realisation, cost, etc.
In general terms, the following observations confirm the validity of the participation of the village dwellers in the development of their settlement:

·         Collective labour in self‑help housing cannot be assessed in commercial terms or quantified as an economic factor of the final cost but only as a factor of real cost ‑ social cost in the true sense of the word.

·         Houses built on the basis of an initially poor and standardised plan ‑ in certain cases with “no plan at all” ‑ turn out to be more flexible in practice.

·         Families, even the entire community, share a strong feeling of possession vis‑à‑vis self‑help houses, whereas anonymous "turnkey" homes built by a specialised workforce are seen as a highly valued asset, objects which ordinary family efforts cannot produce, which cannot even be obtained without a minimum of special maintenance preparation.

·         Even an entire village ‑ homes and community buildings ‑ built with the use of only community skills and local materials, is perceived as an ordinary real life object without any commercial value. The structures are flexible and can be changed around by their occupants. “Precious” villages, on the other hand, built by alien technicians and with alien technology, are seen as a privilege, a symbol of social advancement and stabilisation. The buildings, however, despite the impression of non-uniformity would, in fact, fail to evolve as a living organism.
Obviously the two alternatives are governed by very different political and social concepts. It is important, however, to remember that, in any society, a house that can be changed around by its occupants tends to lose its Il aura‑ of value object, and that the classes which have recently and easily gained ownership of their home or car or any other status symbol, such as civil servants, are the only ones that treat them with an almost holy reverence not found either higher up or lower down on the social scale.

Spatial arrangement and size
The study of the way villages are distributed in space and their average size deepens our analysis.
The aldeias comunais in Mozambique are structured into a dense network designed to cover the entire national territory, with especially high densities in two provinces (Cabo Delgado in the north, Gaza in the south). In 1978, there were around 1,500 aldeias comunais and the average population was around 700 per village.
In Tanzania, according to figures published in June 1980, there were 8,300 "development villages", officially defined as ujamaa. In reality, the authentic ujamaa villages number no more than about a dozen (even Butiama, President Nyerere’s birthplace, does not merit the designation ujamaa). French agronomist René Dumont made an official report on the villages, at the request of the President, after a three-month preliminary survey. The Dumont Report should be seen as constructive observations on a subject for which the author confesses basic sympathy.
Other critical observations are more political, e.g. lack of prior consultation with the people on the choice of location, insufficient attention to. the peasants’ individuality, too rigid a structure of power delegation at the grass roots. "Socialism - says Dumont - has been imposed from above ‑ from the President to the masses. The latter are not at all convinced. The peasants prefer by far to till their own small vegetable plot than the collective fields... Nor do the villagers hold real power at any levels. They are not represented in the governing bodies of the Party, dominated by the urban classes. The real problem in Tanzania is still one of peasant power.
In the four countries under consideration in this paper, the total number of people affected by agricultural restructuration represents 3.5 percent of Somalia’s population, 10 percent of Mozambique’s and 87 percent of Tanzania’s population. The number of Algerian people living in "socialist villages of the agrarian revolution" constitute less than 1% of the total population, and they are distributed among some hundred villages, with an average of 1,400 inhabitants each. The average cost of an Algerian village, equivalent to some US$ 2.7 million, would finance the establishment of 260 Mozambican aldeias comunais and at least ten settlement centres of the kind introduced in Somalia in 1975.
Densities in the Somali settlement and Algerian villages are similar; the typology of the latter being that of Maghrebian (Northwest African) cities, i.e. square houses, narrow lanes between blank walls, opening on to a central space. The distributive pattern is the same as among Somali families and in general it crops up again in African settlements where the open space is used for both cooking food and other dayly activities.

Conclusions and recommendations
From this overview, it becomes clear that examination of, physical environmental issues, as part of “agrarian revolution” experiences in Africa, involves: the choice of general planning strategy concerning the physical environment for nomads, a critical examination of the ideology of “self-help” and “fragile” or precarious housing, and an elaboration on the meaning of a socialist idea in the context of countries that base their socio-economic advance on the development of agriculture or in which such development involves a majority of the population over a long period of time.
In the case of the nomads, we must ask ourselves, what reliable" instruments and scientific concepts can be used to exercise a political choice for these peoples: total or partial settlement, upgrading of livestock farming (nomadic or attached to specific centres), large cattle raising associations or mixed economy cooperatives or any other flexible solutions tailored to specific situations? At the same time, we must ask ourselves what really constitutes “development” for a society of nomads who, for centuries, have pursued their own form of self-reliant existence, living in equilibrium with the natural environment. Can one really speak of socialism in the sense of liberating man and his labour, while offering, or even imposing, a settled existence for people whose nomadic way of life means constant communion and confrontation with the forces of nature?
It must be taken into consideration that the natural environment itself is today changing rapidly, subject to the pressures of the “developed” world, in much the same way as a century or so ago the prairies of the American West were overrun by settlers who destroyed the nomadic redskin tribes or condemned them to live in Indian reserves.
We do not intend here to engage in a general debate on development options for the Third World, but should merely like to highlight an alternative trend emerging in the field of physical environment planning and action. This trend does not openly contradict the "international style" esthetical currents, because the mode is completely different and the instruments and objectives in no way comparable. Very often, the technical staff responsible for planning and managing self-help action does not come from official architecture and town planning circles: often, too, they do not use an architects graphic, verbal or cultural tools.
“Fragile” housing provides homes for an emerging majority of the world’s population, not only in the Third World and in the “periphery”, but also at the very heart of the industrial society. The process of rapid urbanisation and the inadequate public response are creating more and more shantytowns. We are now becoming convinced that, the present resource distribution system being what it is, there is little prospect of replacing precarious with stable housing.
The “marginal people” deserve special attention not only by providing social security but also by planning a better physical environment. This means examining the natural physical environment the way it is, not as a deviation from the norm but as the norm, at least in some places, and working towards its improvement and growth. In doing so, certain traditional premises underlying architectural planning are bound to be discarded. The first to move in this direction were Latin American countries; their regimes were forced into action when their favelas mushroomed and the danger of potential social revolt by the urban sub-proletariat became too great.
Rural settlement, the subject we are concerned with here, is a different reality. One of its principal features is a shortage of building materials, aggravated by supply and transportation difficulties. Under these conditions, local materials and unskilled labour become a near spontaneous solution, based on thousand‑year old customs.
Governments and public authorities make a qualitative leap forward when they accept the situation and support assisted self-help housing schemes. The leap is of considerable psychological importance since it implies abandoning a set of preconceived prestige concepts. The option is building homes for everyone that guarantee a minimum standard of hygiene, sanitation and other services, or building model homes for the very few. The former solution demands much greater commitment and creativity on the part of the public authorities and a new mentality among civil servants.
But, in addition to substantial savings and other advantages gained from people being involved in man­aging their self-made environment, the architectural plan­ning aspect of “poor” urban planning must be consi­dered. It is not feasible to improve the life of peasants by intervening only in quantitative terms, i.e. by merely providing more square meters of services and better hygiene. Today’s newly built urban peripheries, poor imitations of Western models, are examples of extreme desolation. In such unbelievably dreary surroundings, the desire to stand out or to appear modern makes house-owners spend money on visible decoration, while the organisation of space is in a high state of disorder.
The need for decent housing low prices must be accompanied by a determination not to create an alienating physical environment, often the result of the principle that the progress consists of imitating industrial society. Above all, it is necessary to adopt the advantages inherent in or inspired by local techniques and building materials. Architectural planning should be a continuous presence and assistance as well as a means to meet the specific needs of each social group and family nucleus and provide for their mutual relationship. The model house concept would be radically changed, the model no longer representing a sample to be repeated “x” number of times, but rather as a suggestion, a contribution to the planner.
As for maintenance and the alterations that may become necessary over a period of time (due, for instance, to changes in the family make-up), the occupants must be in fuli control of the physical aspects of their dwelling, to feel capable of repairing and renovating it. It is a tradition among the Algerian peasants, and indeed among fellahin (peasant people) in general, to place beds in alcoves built into the wails of a room. In the homes of poor peasants the birth of a child, the arrival of visiting relatives or the marriage of an adult son bringing home his bride are problems solved simply by building a new niche into a wali of the house. This procedure would obviously be impossible if the house were designed according to Western standards and built in reinforced concrete. Multiple occupation of houses built according to foreign standards leacis to overcrowding and brings with it social tension previously unknown, even in the poorest peasant homes.
The best thing any government could do would be to give each family not a free house but the means to build its own home, to decide and to participate in each phase from design to implementation. In this way, the finished product would truly be an expression of the personality and the needs of those who live in it.
Coopting local crafts is another factor in the defence of the economy and the culture against aggression from outside in the form of goods and ideologies which, although they may appear at first sight to be attractive, soon create unemployment and subordination to the international market. They then destroy the social fabric without repiacing it and substantially undermine the quality of life. Handicrafts as an activity are integrated within peasant society, adapted to its rhythm of life and human relationships, implying the best possible use of natural resources. Replacing crafts with industrially manufactured goods has been one of the most destructive effects of the commercial impact of colonialism, hitting the most vulnerable societies most severely. Local communities simultaneously lost much of their independence which gave way to an accelerated transfer of resources towards the centres of production, both the colonial metropolises and the big cities.
In the Islamic world and other African countries, craftsmen occupied an almost sacred place in village society. Manual skills were a means of mediating in man’s relationship with nature for the creation of useful objects. The long years of apprenticeship and the serene working rhythm were a form of meditation and represented the means whereby society modified and utilised its resources with humility, maintaining the natural balance. The butcher is an example. His role is to destroy animal life in order to procure food for human beings. His place in Islamic society is nearly sacred and his activities controlled by a complex ritual which divests the act of shedding blood of all its potentially aggressive content. The craftsmen do not suffer from alienation and live in perfect harmony with their methods, tools and the results of their labour.
The flood of “modern” goods has created unemployment among craftsmen, who handed down their skills from father to son and whose knowledge formed a part of the heritage of the entire community. Instead of controlling and transcending the self‑subsistence economy, the community has now exchanged it for an economy of dependency.
In the new cooperative village structures, coopting the work of craftsmen is one of the fundamental economic and cultural tools for emancipation. In Mozambique, entire “craft villages” exist; in Somalia, the settled nomads are learning the manual skills required to produce and repair the tools of their new work. Other activities, such as wood carving and weaving, are excellent instruments of social education. Obviously, the skills of the master bricklayer or, more generally, the house builder are of great value, for they are the custodians of the secret of the most economic and well-adapted building techniques using local materials.
By contrast, the architect involved in rural housing programs tends to live in the city and is used to city resources and methods. He assumes that there will be the usual entrepreneurs, sophisticated materials and funds available in rural areas, too.
To find an alternative to the private real estate system and a replacement for reinforced concrete ‑ a target which is totally incompatible with the mental attitude of many ‑ is a radical effort. The authorities in charge of housing programs suffer from the desire to defend at all costs what they would term the "proper" standard, usually interpreted as the "nobility" of the materials rather than the comfort of the potential occupants. Thus, they have to resort to whatever commercial system applies at the time. This means plans drawn up by professionals in an architect’s office and the use of a construction firm. The end result is that few houses are built and those which are turn out expensive and ill‑adapted to the people living in them.
Constructing a whole new village is a unique opportunity, for it provides the framework in which the physical environment of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people will be determined. Such a possibility of exercising choices does not often occur. It can be used either to discover and implement new solutions for the improvement of the new habitat of an entire village or, on the contrary, to squander as yet another occasion for accumulating mistakes, for repeating routine measures and for increasing inadequate solutions.
People should be able to create a new physical environment and a new society in which, to quote a phrase much beloved by Mozambican leaders, “all forms of exploitation of man by man will come to an end”. Since what we have been discussing are not ordinary villages but the nuclei of a new socialist society, one fundamental question needs to be asked: Does the traditional farming community represent a value to be developed or is it merely an amalgam of opposing forces and interests, an illusion of democracy? Can it, or can it not, be used as a basis for creating new forms of collective organisation?
In the Soviet Union, the “agrarian revolution” went against the old mir peasant community. In China, the village (albeit modified) was the linchpin of the new communes. Throughout the Third World, especially in countries that base their development on socialist principles, respect for traditional forms of settlement as a starting point for a balanced development has been, and continues to be, a basic element even though there have of course been nuances in the implementation and degrees of acceptance and interpretation. Reactionaries tend to accentuate what is picturesque, what is folklore, and coopt tribalism and native architectural styles in order to highlight “typically local features”. A progressive approach, on the other hand, consists of coopting a vast heritage of forms of living (and spatial forms and technologies). Through study, development alternatives are made in keeping with the new society to be constructed. This is not a quick or linear process. The one certain thing is, however, that it cannot be genuinely revolutionary unless it encompasses the real roots of the people.

EKISTICS, Athens, vol. 51, nr. 304, Jan.-Feb. 1984.

Pubblicato 19/03/2008 09:59:34