Human Capital, Wealth, Property Rights, and the Adoption of New Farm Technologies: The Tawahka Indians of Honduras

Article excerpt

Interest in vanishing rain forests has led scholars to say that the adoption of new farm technologies such as improved plant varieties could increase yields, thus reducing deforestation. Results of past studies show that human capital (e.g., schooling, literacy), wealth, and security of land tenure help farmers adopt new farm technologies. These studies have focused on villages with tight links to the market and little land. Do results apply to more self-sufficient economies with ample land? Analysis of 101 households of Tawahka Indians in Honduras's rain forest suggests that education and knowledge of Spanish enhance adoption by facilitating the flow of information into the household and by making it easier for people to judge the quality of the technology. Wealth bore the expected positive correlation to adoption, but security of land tenure played a dual role: it encouraged the adoption of one technology (improved rice seeds) but it discouraged the adoption of the other technology (chemical herbicides). Policies to increase bilingual education may encourage adoption and benefit indigenous people and conservation.

Key words: technological adoption, education, land tenure, Tawahka, Honduras

For many years researchers have been studying why and when rural households in developing countries adopt new farm technologies, such as improved plant varieties, chemicals, or new tools, but so far researchers have paid scant attention to why people in remote societies of the rain forest with weak links to the market and with ample land would adopt new technologies(Rogers 1995). Such a study merits attention for at least two reasons, one academic and one practical.

First, conventional determinants of adoption of farm innovations in peasant societies may carry different weights in shaping adoption in more autarkic settings of the rain forest where people have access to ample land. Most studies of adoption have been done in peasant societies with tight links to the market and with little land (Feder, Just, and Zilberman 1985; Ruttan 1996). In these societies, human capital (proxied by formal education, literacy, or numeracy), secure property rights to land, and wealth have proven to be reliable predictors of adoption because they allow households to deal with uncertainty, overcome credit constraints, and get better information about the new technologies. Education allows households to obtain information about new technologies, and secure rights of property to land makes it profitable for households to invest in such technologies. In societies with little land, adoption allows households to produce more from a fixed area of land. But in societies with abundant land, people can increase production by clearing new fields rather than by intensifying production on established plots.

So under what circumstances might the adoption of new farm technologies take place where land is not a limiting factor in production? Households in isolated communities of the rain forest have ample land and may draw on webs of reciprocity with kin and kith to overcome borrowing constraints. Unlike rural societies with private, legal rights of property to land, in societies with communal management of natural resources, individual rights to land by a household may be an inappropriate predictor of adoption. It therefore remains unclear the extent to which conventional determinants of adoption in peasant societies, such as wealth, human capital, or individual rights of tenure to land, also drive adoption in more autarkic settings. By autarky we mean much economic autonomy and not necessarily complete economic isolation from the outside world.

But the study of the adoption of technological innovations in farming in rain forest economies also merits attention for reasons of public policy. The rapid loss of rain forests has led to greater interest in curbing deforestation through the intensification of farming at the edge of the forest. …