• Ancient techniques for farming and building are proving more effective than modern equivalents in some cases.
  • From building blocks made from natural materials to trapping water in barren soil, here are five old methods getting a new lease of life.

Breakthroughs from science and technology have helped revolutionize much of everyday life. But sometimes, tried-and-tested ideas that have stood the test of time can still be of use.

Here are five examples of traditional methods, old ideas and ancient techniques that are helping to solve problems here in the 21st century.

1. Growing food in the desert

Yacouba Sawadogo, a farmer from Burkina Faso, has led the transformation of barren, arid land into productive agriculture. And he’s done it thanks to an ancient way of trapping water in the soil. Pits, known as zai, are dug into the ground, allowing water to congregate in one place. Since popularizing the use of zai pits, Sawadogo has helped increase food production in Burkina Faso.

2. Creating potholes for more precise farming

Digging holes forms an important part of agriculture in Zimbabwe, too. Here the use of potholes is helping to grow crops without the need for intensive ploughing. Potholing means digging a hole into which crops are sown and grown. The holes are covered with soil, straw and other mulching materials to keep in as much moisture as possible. Unlike more conventional ploughing-based planting, potholing means water can be directed precisely where it is needed.

3. An ancient building technique – and a sustainable solution

In almost every developed economy, towns and cities are celebrations of brick and concrete. These materials are so commonplace they are taken for granted. But in parts of the developing world, an ancient alternative – rammed earth – is used more widely. In Bangladesh, a community centre made of rammed earth and bamboo recently won an award. The technique has also been used for a remote hospital in Nepal, an observatory in the Negev desert and houses around the world. Rammed earth blocks are made from naturally occurring, sustainable materials, and are simple to make on-site.

4. No smoke without fire in the Amazon

Wildfires have caused vast amounts of devastation in recent years. But the practice of using fire to clear forests is nothing new. Researchers from the University of Amsterdam examined sediment from Lake Caranã in Brazil and found evidence of frequent, low-intensity burning. They concluded that the ancient inhabitants of the Amazon region had been using fire to clear the rainforest in a carefully controlled way, to limit the risk of large outbreaks.

Traditional techniques modern-day problems farming Amazon
Ancient inhabitants of the Amazon used wildfires to carefully clear parts of the rainforest.
Image: Reuters/Ricardo Moraes

5. Natural pest control

All farmers understand the importance of pest control. In Thailand, some farmers have shunned modern, chemical-based methods and are instead using ducks. Known locally as ‘ped lai thoong’, or field chasing ducks, the birds are left to roam free among fields, eating snails and other unwanted pests. They also eat rice husks after the harvests.

Traditional techniques modern-day problems farming building sustainability Amazon
Pest-control ducks also flatten the fields in Thailand, kick-starting the ploughing process.
Image: REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom