Promoting farmer innovation and agroecological production (part 3 of 8)

Farmers in eastern Burkina Faso learning to make zai holes using horses.

Farmers in eastern Burkina Faso learning to make zai holes using horses.

This is the third post in an eight-part series about how we can transform the roles of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like Groundswell to make food sovereignty a reality. Read the first and second posts.

Promoting Farmer Innovation and Agroecological Production

For NGOs sincerely intent on transforming rural communities, the starting point must be the people – not a technology, a particular crop, or even a specific sector per se (agriculture, health, microfinance, etc.) The question must be: how can we support rural people in generating wellbeing and overcoming poverty? We’ve learned much from decades of collective experience and trial and error in thousands of villages in Africa, Latin America and Asia. The key lessons are that authentic, community-led development is always holistic and based on strong local capacity, and that agroecological farming is a vital means for rural people to improve their lives. An increasing number of evaluations and studies are affirming similar conclusions (IAASTD, UNCTAD, various reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, etc.)[i]

Why is agroecological farming important for small-scale farmers? The primary reason is that it works. Farmers own the process – managing, adapting and creating it. It improves their lives– often reversing declines while doubling or even tripling production. The majority of small-scale farming work is now globally done by women, and as Fatou Batta says “women are often leaders in adopting agro-ecological practices because it is accessible, meets their needs and can lessen their workload. And in addition to farming, women are also the real link connecting improved production to better family consumption and nutrition.” Agro-ecological farming is economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable. It strengthens communities, local leadership (including  women) and local organizations. It improves the natural resource base that people depend on. Agro-ecological farming is an economic strategy for the poorest people to overcome hunger – to produce and eat a diverse and adequate amount of food and generate income.

In contrast, over the last 50 years we’ve seen countless programs focused on high-external input agriculture do the opposite. I am reminded of some farmers I visited in Guatemala’s highlands a couple of years ago. They had become contract farmers producing broccoli for “a company,” renting land each season and buying seeds, fertilizer and pesticides as prescribed. As we stood in their plot, our feet planted on soil devoid of organic matter, looking at broccoli plants dwarfed by a disease they did not understand, one farmer said, “At first it was a miracle, but now we are enslaved by this system. We make less money every year, and we have to calculate each year if we should plant again, or migrate. We are trapped. I would tell other farmers to farm another way.”

NGOs working to combat this trap created by many aid programs implement a strategy that supports small-scale farmers, local organizations and wider movements to learn about, innovate and expand the use of agro-ecological farming as a practical alternative to improve their lives. “We can’t transform the global food system unless farmers are able to expand the practice of sustainable farming and increase their control over how they farm,” says Peter Gubbels.

Agro-ecological farming means more than continuing the old ways or simply training men and women through a new package of sustainable practices and technologies. Some farmers practice both traditional techniques that are sustainable (seed saving, crop diversity, etc) and those that are no longer sustainable (slash and burn). Others adopt elements of industrial agriculture and reliance on external inputs. Farmers do what they think works for them, and we’ve seen both types benefit from transitions to more agro-ecological farming methods that are appropriate to their conditions: small plots, marginal and barely farmable land, fragile ecosystems, degraded soils, and isolation from services and markets.

What have we found are the most effective strategies for promoting farmer innovation and agro-ecological farming? In our experience, successful strategies revolve around allowing farmers to discover what works for them and spreading these alternatives through their social networks. Key methodologies NGOs can employ include:

  • farmer experimentation and innovation – on their own farms;
  • farmers identifying key limiting factors and testing a small number of alternatives to see what works;
  • strengthening farmer-to-farmer networks to spread successful practices;
  • focusing on seeds, soils, and water – managing, improving and making the best use of these local resources.
  • cultivating diverse, integrated farms

While specific technologies of necessity will evolve with local conditions and opportunity costs, as our colleague Roland Bunch has written, farmers’ capacity to innovate must remain a constant theme.[ii] This means people engaging in the creative, evolving act of farming and avoiding dependence on external inputs which uproot that capacity.

“In Burkina Faso, industrialized agriculture is expanding and being promoted by some political leaders,” notes Fatou Batta.“Village level farmers are not aware that when they sell land or give production rights for jatropha for biofuels, they and their children and grandchildren lose access. We’ve seen the importance of supporting people to learn what works locally, supporting agro-ecological approaches and resisting the pressure of some donors to promote a high external input approach, a quick fix, instead of listening to local people. Our evaluations have shown that the zai technique for water and soil conservation, nitrogen fixing trees, and short cycle seeds result in 50-120% increases in production. It is very high risk for farmers to depend on external inputs and distant markets, and drives them into poverty and off the land.”

In Ecuador, as in many countries, the majority of those managing family farms are women. Organizations like EkoRural are helping them strengthen local seeds systems through farmer field schools. Through discovery-based learning processes, they are supporting farmers in adapting to the effects of climate change that include depleted groundwater and altered rainfall patterns. Farmers measure the value of rainwater lost from their roofs and fields, and “harvest” it in simple storage tanks for future use and, most importantly, in their fields – as increasing organic matter in the soil allows for more water to be stored in it. The result is a positive cycle of increased productivity and innovation and significant improvements in family wellbeing, nutrition and income. Steve Sherwood says that in Carchi, a potato producing region heavily dependent on dangerous and highly toxic pesticides, “farmers have learned to maintain and increase their production using agro-ecological practices while reducing or eliminating the use of expensive and dangerous pesticides.”

– Part 4 will be posted on May 10.

This segment and the rest of the article was a collaborative effort by Steve Brescia (Groundswell’s International Director), Fatou Batta (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Peter Gubbels (Groundswell Co-Coordinator for West Africa), Cantave Jean-Baptiste (Executive Director of Partnership for Local Development), Steve Sherwood (Specialist in Rural Innovation at EkoRural), and Bern Guri (Director of the Center for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development).

Later this year the full text of the article will appear in a book titled “Food Movements Unite!”, which is a collection of essays by food movement leaders from around the world that all seek to answer the perennial political question: What is to be done? It will provide a sector by sector road map for bringing the tremendous transformative potential of the world’s food movements together into a powerful transnational force capable of ending the injustices that cause hunger. “Food Movements Unite!” is being edited by Eric Holt-Giménez, Executive Director of The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First, and Annie Shattuck, a PhD candidate at the University of California at Berkeley.

[i] The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), 2009; UNCTAD (February 2009).  Policy Brief No. 6 – Sustaining African Agriculture: Organic Production. See also: UNCTAD–UNEP (2008). Organic Agriculture and Food Security in Africa. (UNCTAD/DITC/TED/2007/15);“The Contribution of Agroecological Approaches to meet 2050 Global Food needs,” International Seminar, Brussels, June 21-22 2010.  Olivier De Schutter, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

 [ii] Roland Bunch and Gabino Lopez, COSECHA, “Soil Recuperation in Central America: Measuring the Impact Four to Forty Years After Intervention,”

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