Based on reporting by Maria Yumbla and Martha Caswell, as well as deep dive M&E work and interviews with project leaders
This project operates in a relatively isolated region of Bolivia—two municipalities within the Department of Chuquisaca—where many members of farming households have migrated permanently. Farmers produce various crops, including potato, chile, maize, and groundnuts, both for sale and household consumption. Groundnuts are often the only cash crop, and many farmers grow organically specifically for the export market. To date, the project has focused on different themes of interest to these farmers, including organic peanut production (preferred varieties and management of pests and diseases) and an assessment of the agroecological systems functioning in their farms (exploring ecological/productive, economic/participatory, and cultural/organizational dimensions).
Fundación Valles and members from the University of Vermont’s Agroecology & Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) designed this project. Participating stakeholders include farmer associations that participate in Fundación Valles’ organic peanut production project, faculty, and students from the Universidad Mayor Real y Pontificia de San Francisco Xavier de Chuquisaca (USFXCH) and representatives from both Fundación Valles and the University of Vermont.
PAR–FRN is being conducted with organic peanut farmers in four communities in Chuquisaca, Bolivia. To date the project has placed a strong emphasis on inclusive and participatory processes for the research design, with the hypothesis that early effort invested in building trust and understanding will, as the research process unfolds, contribute to robust data that is useful to the farmer. The first research phase focused on the social, agronomic, and economic context using a variety of techniques, such as facilitated workshops, participant observation, surveys, and more. For example, farmers were invited to workshops where they drew agricultural calendars and described the main issues they face, including the chronological progression of pest/disease pressure throughout the year and connections between what recent variations they associate with climate change. The calendars were then used as a tool for prioritizing subsequent research topics. During this phase, project leaders took time to build trust and gradually introduce new ways of communicating and interacting to help shift power dynamics that are a result of years of top-down approaches.
Current research activities include monitoring the interactions among insect life cycles, impacts of climate change, and level of damage to crops. They include testing various methods for pest control as well. The farmers are also analyzing the potential for transitioning to more agroecological approaches and have worked together to design an assessment tool, which they named “radiografía agroecologica.” The radiografía agroecologica includes a set of indicators, selected through a participatory process with the farmers, that reflect the components they perceive to be most relevant to measure their current positioning along a path toward more agroecological farms. The tool also serves to inform where the farmers should direct attention in order to respond to identified gaps and maintain areas of strength. Using the results from its radiografía agroecologica, each family will select one or several dimensions and components on which they want to focus. Data are being collected using ODK on smartphones with students. Regular workshops are held in each of the participating communities, providing opportunities for group reflection.
What This Project Is Helping Us Learn About FRNs
Each FRN project provides opportunities for learning on specific aspects of what it means to build and manage a farmer research network.
PAR requires time and skilled facilitation processes: PAR–FRN has taken a strong orientation toward emancipatory participatory action research inspired by Freire and others. In this project, PAR is seen as actively pushing against vertical power structures by giving space to and valuing the voices of all actors. As such, the main learnings from this project to date concern the processes that can foster this. A first point is that these processes take time. They also require skilled facilitation and sensitivity to the scope and pace of change possible in the context. The hope is that this investment in creating environments of trust and encouraging participation will shift dynamics of exclusion and also address self-exclusion. That said, habits such as top-down transfer of information, cultural traditions regarding gender roles, for example, and structural barriers, including the legacy of colonialism, make the goals of inclusion and true participation complicated to attain beyond a sort of “token participation” in the form of attendance.
Paying attention to adult learning is important: This project explicitly emphasizes learning and transformative capacity building at all levels and among all actors. Thus, taking into account different learning styles is extremely important to help build participant knowledge and confidence. This again points to the importance of skilled facilitation and thoughtful methods and techniques that can be adapted to different learners.
Farmers are motivated by both the process and solutions: Of course, farmers are interested in finding responses to their problems, but they also want to understand where the recommendations or tools come from. This enables them to be more autonomous in the process of choosing where to direct their attention and then in selecting the best solution. FRNs offer the possibility of being involved in a process rather than simply accepting ready-made advice, however good it may be.
Understand the context. The project took some time to gain an in-depth understanding of the contexts, including community, organizational, and agronomic. It worked with farmers, field staff, and other partners to understand their practices, knowledge, priorities, and constraints. This process forms a solid basis for all further work.