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Science for Solutions: Farmer-scientists driving social change

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman's picture
Training farmers

This post is part three in our “Science for Solutions” blog series that amplifies scientist voices and underscores the importance of independent science as the foundation for evidence-based policymaking and narrative shifts.

On a brilliant day in July, twenty-some years ago, I stood ankle-deep in the cool mud of a fragrant rice field in central Thailand, listening to the farmers around me discuss the bugs on the plants (were these “satru puut” or “satru thammachat”? pests or natural enemies?), and whether or not the Nitrogen-fixing aquatic Azolla they had introduced into one of their experimental plots would do more to increase their yields than the chemical fertilizer in the comparison plots.

The farmers were investigating changes in the rice agroecosystem, working their way together through a season-long Farmer Field School. Pii Somkid, the local ag extensionist, waded over, his pants legs rolled up, a hapless grasshopper gently grasped between his fingers and a beaming grin on his face, as he joined in the farmers’ animated conversation.

From rice pests to gender equity

The Farmer Field School (FFS) approach, in which farmers are centered as scientist-researchers in a process of field-based experiential learning, has evolved far beyond its origins in the rice paddies of Indonesia in the early 1990s. The approach has spread over the past 25 years to more than 90 countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, engaging over 12 million small-scale farmers in community-based field study of agroecosystems, and has expanded from integrated pest management into topics as diverse as gender equity, climate resilience and cooperative financing.

Farmers who participate in, lead and organize FFS drive a profoundly transformative process of change in their communities. Pointing to empirical evidence from the field, these farmers and FFS advocates have also been able to influence national agricultural policy and extension programs, securing growing recognition of and respect for farmer-led scientific inquiry.

Beneficial impacts, worldwide

Pioneered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s “Inter-Country Programme for IPM in Asia” that facilitated farmers’ own analysis of how best to respond to the insect pest outbreaks sweeping across Southeast Asian rice fields in the 90s, the FFS strategy has grown in the hands of farmers, community leaders, government and non-government actors, and a small core of staunch allies at FAO deeply committed to grassroots empowerment.

From the Philippines to Ghana, the FFS has evolved into a flexible community-centered social process, capable of addressing a rich diversity of agroecosystems, as well as broader social concerns.

Beneficial impacts of FFSs have been extensively documented and include decreased pesticide use, improved soil quality and efficiency of water use, diversified diets, and increased yield and profits. Beyond the field, multiple cascading benefits have included transformative shifts in gender relations leading to greater respect for women’s knowledge, skills and leadership, increased confidence and economic power of women within the community.

Other documented outcomes include new and strengthened knowledge-sharing networks, the formation of local solidarity economies, and FFS graduates’ engagement in local politics and national policy. In Ecuador, for example, FFS graduates went on to establish a Colectivo Agroecologico of 400 organizations, contributed to the country’s elimination of highly toxic pesticides in 2010 and helped rewrite Ecuador’s constitution to uphold food sovereignty.

Learning to learn from farmers

Effective advocacy for Farmer Field Schools often begins with the simple act of inviting high level ministers of agriculture to take off their fine socks and shoes, and join farmers squelching their way across a muddy rice field in the midday sun. Over time, even conventionally-trained extensionists, researchers and policymakers can “learn to learn” from farmers.

Translating farmers’ success in the field into national policy frameworks that can support the program’s fundamental objective of farmer empowerment is challenging work. In countries where national extension programs have followed a conventional top-down training approach, FAO’s support can be critical in encouraging policymakers to begin to consider the radically different approach of Farmer Field Schools.

Empirical evidence provided by farmers themselves of wide-ranging multifunctional benefits provides the additional “proof of concept” necessary for ministry officials to grasp the power of the FFS approach. Examples of field-to-policy developments abound:

In Cambodia, the FFS Programme expanded from rice to many other crops, as well as to “Farmer Life Schools” and field schools for youth. Concluding that the FFS approach is one of the most effective means for farmer education, the government integrated FFS into its national agricultural extension policy, established a list of banned pesticides and issued a Ministerial Proclamation to develop and finance ongoing field activities, including the production and distribution of FFS training materials and curricula.

In Peru, on-the-ground success of the FFS approach over 20 years, strengthened by the active involvement of local NGOs and civil society organizations, led the Ministry of Agriculture to institutionalize the approach within its Agrarian Productive Development Programme in 2010. The success led to the legal establishment of regional networks of FFS facilitators and the incorporation of FFS methodology into the agronomy syllabi and curricula of national and regional universities, influencing the education of the next generation of agronomists.

In Jordan, farmers used their “new skills in public discourse” to lobby the Ministry of Agriculture on behalf of FFS. The National Center for Agricultural Research and Extension subsequently established a Participatory Extension Unit to promote and expand FFS to new regions, crops and farmer-identified priorities in participatory plant breeding, soil, water and weed management.

Farmers’ science for solutions

A tremendous amount of good can be accomplished when policymakers are willing to learn from farmers and establish policies and programs in support of authentic, people-centered approaches to agricultural transformation — and social change.  These efforts should be strongly encouraged.

We must also recognize that social and political change never follows a linear path. The power and impact of FFS can be undermined by hidden subsidies for chemical pesticides, or by pressure exerted by international financial institutions to intensify chemical-intensive monocultural production of export crops.

Dilution of FFS impact can also occur when government agencies that initially “institutionalized” FFS begin to backpedal, reducing their programs to “safe” and more easily measured outputs, such as numbers of farmers trained. Some policymakers have taken over FFS to advance their own political agendas or deliberately neglect the core FFS principles of farmer empowerment and free inquiry that could fundamentally — and alarmingly — shift the power balance between government and “governed.”

But for every setback they experience, I see FFS graduates, institutional allies and new social formations pressing forward. Lessons from Indonesia and elsewhere suggest that the most successful “institutionalization” of FFS may occur through innovative, community-driven processes.

FFS alumni and social justice advocates rarely let the challenges they face stop their proactive development of new, dynamic forms of transformational learning and farmer-led inquiry. I remain encouraged by the many new stories of Farmer Field School-inspired change that continue to unfold in rural communities around the world.

Photo: Michael Balinga/CIFOR | Flickr

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman
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Today's Guardian features a piece on Farmer Field Schools in Ethiopia (27/02/18), written by Tadesse Amera, director of PAN Ethiopia. (Many thanks to Peter Kenmore—friend, mentor, former chief of FAO's Plant Protection Service and founder of FAO's Farmer Field School program—for flagging this for me!)

Marcia Ishii-Eiteman is director of PAN’s Grassroots Science Program and a Senior Scientist with a background in insect ecology and pest management. Her campaign work focuses on supporting and strengthening agroecology movements and policies in the U.S. and globally, in addition to challenging corporate control of our food and seed systems. Follow @MarciaIshii