A Model of “Disruptive” Rural Development

Cities have grown up in record time in the last century and can be compared, in biological time, to a form of cancer. Their rapid expansion and extension of vascular support structures resemble a cancer tumor exactly. The blood flow of a cancer cell is diverted from normal cell support to sustaining the new malignant cell faster and faster yet within the normal scaling requirements of biology. It is successful precisely because it follows these laws of scaling for supply of its increasing needs to grow. It can be so successful as a self-generating growth that it overwhelms its host organism. A glance at the model of an advanced tumor reveals a perfect dendritic pattern of blood supply.

stages of cancer growth.png

The only way, historically, of stopping a malignant growth is by one of two means. The first, preferred by many American leaders is to cut it out—weapons of mass destruction and the war on terror fit that model. Blow it up. Destroy it violently. Surgery, we call it. The other is of course to starve its blood supply.

dendritic branching.png

Neither of these approaches are entirely humane when it comes to the city because, of course, we are talking about human beings and when we shut down “the blood supply” (god forbid it comes to civil unrest and asymmetric war) we have to have a “place” for those wonderful, creative and energetic people to live and continue with their contribution to the global evolution of mankind—once they are healthy again.

I do not believe anyone needs to formulate, let alone impose, a policy that gets at the “shutting off the blood supply” part of the equation. As I pointed out in the last blog on the coming singularity, Dr. Geoffrey West warns that already the vascular support for cities is straining. We need rather to focus on the place and a true market economy (in place of corporate welfare) in support of a more distributed lifestyle and a more convivial society.

In my view, the only way to avoid West’s coming singularity for the city and much of humanity is to create working models of what life might be like when the cities are no longer viable. Growth may continue just like a cancer cell and our planet suffer greatly for this malignancy unless we have another way to live. So, what’s the alternative-- realistically?

Kiberia, Kenya.png

Above: Kibera, outside Nairobi, Kenya

There are myriads of exciting alternatives on every continent. The Amish are one fine, expanding model. The Samaka systems of Asia are another. Kurotiba, Brazil is yet another. It just so happens that I have experienced another one of them myself in Africa, of all places in semi-arid,Yatta district.

I was in Nairobi, Kenya, in the early 1980’s when slum dwellers in Nairobi’s first and worst slum of Mathare Valley overflowed and began to settle into what would become Kibera--a slum with no water, no sewage, and no infrastructure, yet home to over 1.5 million souls. I watched rural families send a son or father to this dump, and I began to wonder how to stop the constant migration to an alluring trap of false hope for a “modern” life and wealth for which they would sacrifice their bodies, their land and their future. This was cancer on a countrywide scale!

I desperately wanted to disrupt the flow of human lives to that hell. I tried famine relief to keep folks on their land during droughts and legal action to help the rural poor obtain security for their property. I worked in rural schools and organized many projects to bring water and employment. Still they moved to the city.

I pretty much gave up for two years. I walked and talked to any group of people sitting in the shade talking. I grew up speaking their tribal dialect. In those two years I discovered a small group of men and their families who were determined not to move to the city no matter how rough it got. What did they need I inquired?

The first thing on their list was the strength and will and resources to say “No!’ to corruption and extortion. They could not commit their energy to work and development of their land if they could lose it easily to a corrupt official. Why build a nice place for someone else? Notice, they did not say they wanted me or anyone to “stop corruption.”

What would it take to say no to options they didn’t like?

I’ve written a book about the work that grew out of this effort over a few years. They key thing I learned from it and have brought back to life in rural America is that if you have five families working together, you can do anything and everything! Anything and everything!!

The tribesmen explained to me that each family was a finger (rather weak by itself) on the hand of God. Together they had God’s strength and wisdom. The work I saw them do demonstrated this power before my eyes. Together they built houses and schools and gardens and contoured their land and reforested. Today thousands live in rural villages and run their affairs. Secondary industry making everything they need have sprung up for the new generation. Money is flowing from the city back to these villages where AIDS is non-existent, children are healthy, and schools are no longer an economic burden. They say ‘No!” to each other and to the officials who demand bribes.

The secret to freedom is voluntary small-scale cooperation and mutual aid with money and labor. Micro-finance is anathema. They save and share as they have time and resources. They do only what they want when they want to.

How is that possible. Every small-scale villager (finger of God’s hand) is independent of the other. They have all the water, food and energy they need to live comfortably. When they have a surplus of food or money or time, they can chose to put it on the market or share it. The idea originally was to do what economists like to call import substitution.

Make at home whatever you buy.

They got so good at it that they now focus on exporting goods to the city where they collect cash and return to build new business for the young people who want a quality of life they know they will never find in the slums. One hundred families, or twenty five family units can sustain 100% cash employment and invest their voluntary “taxes” to pay for any community institutions they need—banking, education, and a host of technical innovations.

With the Internet and cell-phones and on-line money exchange, Kenya is set to reverse the migration to its death camps. Of course, urban Kenyans run head-long into the same problem as the poor in the rest of the world—a tiny few own all the arable land. Here is where this model gets truly disruptive.

Violence simmers just under the surface in most developing nations, but in Yatta, villagers have calmly organized to say “NO!” to huge irrigation schemes owned by government officials who want slave labor to grow their flowers and food for export to earn foreign currency. The Chief Justice of Kenya once tried to forcibly remove settlers off some land he wanted for a massive irrigation scheme. The people did not move and did not need his insulting daily tupence for their sweat and loss of time on their own projects. Without any protest, let alone violence, the official’s labor pool dried up. His project collapsed. Many small holders could then buy up elite owned property along the river with loans from their old friends and neighbors. I think the same thing will happen here as huge land holdings lose their value and meaning.

When huge food schemes dry up, corporations cannot find cheap labor, and when city folks refuse to eat what amounts to animal feed, then the power of rural life will be felt. A nice reversal might even occur (as it has in Cuba) where growers of good, fresh food, are richer than doctors and bankers since money has no power to produce food and so it returns to its proper function of serving humanity rather than controlling it.

The rich might tremble or laugh at such a scenario, but I have seen it with my own eyes.

I found it so compelling that I have committed my time, money and sweat for the last fifteen years to creating, so far, just one “finger” on God’s hand. I am always amazed how quick and easy it was to do this work in Kenya compared to the US. One “finger” has taken more money, more time, and more thinking than any twenty fully fingered “hands” in Kenya.

The physical structures and the nutrient networks and production processes are all in place. We will soon be off grid and import substitute every basic need we have. We lack one big ticket item—a model, earth block home. And we are now embarking on block making and hopefully we might even begin to build this year of our Lord 2012!

I guess this parenthesis via a commentary on the coming singularity explains finally what we are doing here on the Propagelle Project. I can only trust that it will soon be a hopeful model of a truly disruptive system ready for replication by many before any “singularity” renders it too late.

#ruraldevelopment #africa

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