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A paradigm shift for agricultural development

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Small and marginalized farmers operating in remote rural areas are frequently unaware of promoted new technologies because extension officers rarely visit them (AFP) Small and marginalized farmers operating in remote rural areas are frequently unaware of promoted new technologies because extension officers rarely visit them (AFP)

“Normal professionals face the core and turn their backs upon the poor. New ones, by standing on their head face the periphery instead. By doing this, they may free themselves from the mental prison of the normal view. With this reversed vision, they may see opening-up an intellectually exciting agenda of research and, more important, a practically challenging agenda of action”.

(David Korten)
I spent ten years of my adult life operating a two hectare farm in the dry zone. Living and interacting with peasant farmers, I witnessed the needs and priorities of the peasantry and the gross mismatch between farmer needs and government support services (extension, research, marketing). Thereafter, I spent another 25 years working with a variety of government agencies (research division of the Department of Agriculture, Mahaweli Authority, integrated rural development projects), Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and International Development Agencies and their bi-lateral assistance programs. If I were to summarize these observations and experiences in a nutshell, this is what it would be: The poverty and ‘backwardness’ of the Sri Lankan farmer is largely the result of unfavorable and inconsistent agricultural policies, ineffective support services (input supply, marketing, extension and research), bureaucratic indifference, arrogance and inertia; exploitation by middlemen traders and elites; and disintegration of politicized rural institutions. There couldn’t be a more complete recipe’ for disaster! However, since truth is stranger than fiction, and some one has to reveal the truth, and set the record straight, let me dissect the mess piece by piece, and expose it for those who care to see and listen and learn.

The farmer is the most important ‘actor’ in the food production process. In operating a farm, each farmer (male or female) plays two main roles - cultivator and manager.As cultivator, the farmer is engaged in tilling the soil, planting seeds, irrigation, weed control, pest and disease control, etc. As manager, each farmer (and farmer family) has to make decisions pertaining to crop and seed selection, extent of land under each crop, site selection, time of planting, inputs to be purchased (pesticide, fertilizer, farm equipment), labor management, marketing farm produce, dealing with contingencies, etc. These are complex and difficult tasks performed by even by the poorest peasant farmer.

Farmers vary greatly in socio-economic status and access to resources. Farms also vary in size, location (distance to markets, extension and support services), topography of land, soil type, drainage status and fertility. It is also not uncommon to find many variations from farm to farm, field to field and even within fields. Therefore, farmer needs, priorities and problems tend to be situation specific. This means that blanket recommendations and ‘blue prints’ are incapable of meeting farmers’ many problems.

Few scientists and policymakers understand these facts and realities and attempt to address them.“Most professionals assume that they know what farmers want and need but are often wrong. Not knowing farmers’ priorities and not putting farmers’ agendas first means that professionals are likely to address the wrong problems in their research. Conversely, understanding farmers’ priorities and helping farmers meet them, leads to innovations which are adopted. To put farmers’ agendas first, requires diagnosis in which farmers take part in analysis, and in which sensitive researchers respect farmers as people, professionals and colleagues.”

(Robert Chambers) Respect
Far from respecting farmers, current programs and policies of the Department of Agriculture tend to ignore farmers completely. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the recently proposed Seed Act which does not make any provision for farmer representation or consultation in the National Seed Council (comprising entirely of bureaucrats and academics). How relevant is a Seed Act which refuses to recognize farmers – primary users and producers of seeds?
“For many reasons, existing agricultural institutions, whether universities, research organizations or extension agencies find it difficult to learn from farmers and rural people. This is because they are characterized by restrictive bureaucracy and centralized hierarchical authority; their professionals are specialists who see only a narrow view of the world; and they have a low systemic process for getting feed back on performance. The widespread reliance on questionnaire surveys, supplemented by short rural visits, gives a distorted picture of rural reality.” (Jules N. Pretty)

There is often a (mistaken) underlying conviction that modern specialized knowledge of the ‘outsider’ (researcher/extensionist) has universal validity and application, and that it should override whatever farmers know. The attitudes and behavior that accompany this belief prevent learning from farmers. There is an urgent need for reversal of such behavior and attitude, and respect farmers as people and desire to learn from them about their situation, needs, problems and priorities.

Virgilio - a farmer in the Dominican Republic expressed his sentiments very succinctly to a researcher who came to him with a questionnaire: “ You are a scientist and you want to know. But there is only one way to learn what I know about Cassava (Manioc). Speak with me, and don’t talk to me like others did. Ask me about my life, and I will tell you about Cassava….”

Research organizations have a poor record when it comes to participation with farmers. Agricultural organizations need to become learning organizations, interacting with farmers as equals in an effort to understand indigenous knowledge and farmers’ capacity to experiment and innovate. A move from a teaching to a learning style has profound implications for agricultural development institutions – the focus being less on what we learn, and more on how we learn and with whom. This implies greater multidisciplinarity, more structured participation with farming communities in research, extension and development activities.

The following case study illustrates the value of working closely with farmers:A little structured learning can result in wholesale changes in the way research institutions focus their research. In 1993, Research scientists at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University discovered that farmers preferred red rice varieties to white rice. Yet questionnaire surveys had regularly confirmed that farmers preferred white rice, and this had resulted in the breeding and release of over 100 varieties from research stations, of which only two were red. But when scientists began to use participatory methods, especially matrix ranking, to understand local preferences for rice, they discovered that white rice was recognized to be higher yielding, but disliked for taste, fineness, and lack of nutritive value. Farmers, therefore, still preferred to grow red rice even though it was poor yielding. Farmers said they needed a single red rice variety with bold grain, high grain and straw yield, with resistance to pests and diseases. Researchers have now redirected their efforts to meet these needs.

Our current approach to agricultural development is top-down, transfer of technology (TOT) oriented. It operates on the premise that researchers and extensionists know what technology is best for farmers. Accordingly, research scientists attempt to develop what they consider to be appropriate technologies for farmers, and extensionists see their role as transferring such technologies developed at research stations to farmers. Frequently, this technology is in the form of a package of practices (high yielding varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, access to assured supply of irrigation water, etc). The farmer needs to adopt the entire package to reap the anticipated benefits. It is usually the more affluent farmers having greater access to required resources (credit, new seeds, fertilizer, pesticides and extension) that adopt and benefit from such technologies. Small and marginalized farmers operating in remote rural areas are frequently unaware (because extension officers rarely visit them), of promoted new technologies. Deprivation (poverty, lack of irrigation and other essential inputs) also prevents such farmers from adopting new technologies promoted by government agencies.

This TOT approach leads to increasing marginalization of poor farmers, results in increased social differentiation and social inequalities and contributes to increased social unrest in the country. There is, therefore, an urgent need to develop more appropriate alternative strategies capable of addressing the specific needs of the majority of poor farmers engaged in domestic food production. Poor farmer responsive programs need to be more participative, less ambitious and address their site specific needs. Such an approach is Farmer Centered Agricultural Development (FCAD) or Farmer Participatory Technology Development (PTD).
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(To be continued)

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