by Judy Purdy
On the farms that dot the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, something entirely new is happening: Filipino farmers are talking -- and American agricultural scientists are listening. It's a new way of doing things for both. These farmers and scientists are part of a five-year, $10 million international cooperative research project to devise new models for agriculture and natural resource management in developing countries.
"The natural tendency for scientists is to go in and tell people what they need," said William Hargrove, a soil scientist at the Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station in Griffin.
"We're saying that the main thing needed is for scientists to show up and listen. Instead of just showing up with money and all the decisions already made, we're asking the local people to be active participants in developing a research agenda," said Hargrove, who directs the cooperative research effort.
Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) and administered by the University of Georgia, the experimental project began in the Philippines and has expanded to the Western African country of Burkina Faso as well as Ecuador. Researchers plan to extend the work to Morocco, Honduras and Cape Verde, but the community-centered approach to research should work just as well back home in Georgia, said Gerald Arkin, director of the Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station.
U.S. farmers "have to deal with the same environmental issues, on a different scale maybe, but it's still the same principles," Arkin said.
The "farmers-are-an-important-part-of-the-solution" approach isn't the only new idea in the Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Education and Management Collaborative Research Support Program, which is known by its initials, SANREM CRSP, or just SANREM for short.
The program also is unique for its holistic approach to agriculture research. It weaves the host country's social, environmental and cultural characteristics into new models of food production. The results are farming practices that are kinder and gentler to the landscape, natural resources and environment -- and more palatable to local farmers.
Unlike most other CRSP programs, which Hargrove said "are usually specific to one commodity, like peanuts, sorghum or millet," the research extends to a variety of food crops.
To develop such tailor-made models, the project promotes collaboration among many disciplines. Faculty from American and host-country universities are putting their heads together with government officials and community leaders in the participating countries.
"The problems are multidimensional, and solving them requires a multidisciplinary approach, a team approach," said Robert Rhoades, a UGA anthropologist and member of the SANREM team. "The age of Lone Ranger research is over."
A Landscape Approach
The Filipino farmers on Mindanao aren't the least bit intimidated by the concept of multidisciplinary research. They simply see it as a way to learn new and better methods of growing potatoes -- methods that don't denude hillsides or destroy tropical rain forests, and methods that fit with their culture and social structure.
Current farming methods contribute to soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, said Constance Neely, a soil scientist at the Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station and assistant director of the SANREM project. The large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers the Mindanao farmers use also end up polluting the water supply, she said.
That's why the Manupali watershed on Mindanao was selected as one of the first SANREM sites: It encompasses a number of important agricultural, ecological and social issues.
"It's basically a microcosm of the world's environmental problems," Hargrove said.
The tropical rain forest that covers the Mindanao mountain peak at the top of the Manupali watershed is an important source of biodiversity. It's also home to at least one endangered species, the Philippine eagle. Although the forest is officially protected by the government, new farmers are steadily encroaching higher up its steep slopes to practice slash-and-burn agriculture, usually to grow potatoes.
As the mountain slopes are cleared and planted, soil erosion becomes more and more serious. Farmers on the lower slopes and in the river valley use large amounts of pesticides and fertilizers to grow vegetables, and some of these chemicals are showing up in the water supply.
The watershed empties into the large reservoir of a hydroelectric dam that provides the island's major power source. Barely seven years old, the reservoir already is rapidly filling with sediment eroded from the denuded mountain slopes.
"You have all the typical issues that point to non- sustainability," Hargrove said. "In addition to the environmental and agricultural problems, you have social issues because this is the frontier of the Philippines, and many people are moving here from other islands. So there are conflicts between the migrants and the ethnic groups that have lived in the forest for so long, in addition to the pressure that people are bringing to bear on the natural resources.
"The typical agronomist approach to the problem would be to convince these people to grow alternative crops. But it was extremely clear to us early on that the typical approach was not going to work," he said. "These people are going to grow potatoes. It's their biggest cash income. Asking them not to grow potatoes would be like going to south Georgia and saying, 'You shouldn't grow peanuts anymore- you need to be growing wheat.' They're not going to do it!"
The situation is similar on the other side of the Earth, where past agricultural practices have squandered the resource the people of Burkina Faso need most: water.
In the Burkina Faso village of Donsin, a village typical of African tropical, semi-arid regions, water is the main agricultural, environmental and social concern.
"Both water quality and water quantity are serious issues," Hargrove said. "Almost all of the other concerns are related to water in some way."
Because women are responsible for collecting water for household use, water also becomes an important gender issue, he said. "In many cases the women have to walk a long way to collect water, so they spend a large part of every day just doing that," Hargrove said.
And the researchers also have discovered that, just as in the Philippines, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity are becoming a problem.
"The local people have a use for almost every plant, and some women told us that just in their lifetimes, in the past 15 years especially, many of these plants have been disappearing," Hargrove said.
Farmers as a Resource
If holistic study of the landscape forms the skeleton of SANREM, then participation of the farmers is its heart. Instead of prescribing solutions that look logical to American scientists, the SANREM team listens to farmers' opinions and involves them in developing solutions.
"That is really what makes SANREM a new way of doing things," Hargrove said. "That's the value of working directly with the people [because] whatever we come up with will be acceptable to them."
In the Manupali watershed area, for example, 33 SANREM staff spent two weeks canvassing the area, asking people open-ended questions and encouraging them to talk about what was most important to them, Neely said.
"We would talk to whomever we ran into," she said. "We asked them about how they farm, how they see their environment, what they remembered about changes and what kind of problems they had. We didn't want them to tell us just what they thought we wanted to hear.
This enabled them to collect "an enormous amount of information about changes in agricultural practices and the environment," she said. They also gathered information about social issues and natural resources, such as when creeks dried up, when forests started being logged excessively and when a Philippine eagle was last seen.
Researchers then invited tribal chiefs, local activists, government officials, representatives of nongovernment organizations, farmers and scientists -- more than a hundred in all -- to sit down face-to-face at Central Mindanao University to devise workable strategies to tackle the problems.
"It was a volatile group," Neely said. "We wanted them to come to a common vision, but we knew we had people whose lives influenced each other and who had never met and needed to get their viewpoints aired. And some people had bad feelings about some of the other groups."
Take for example, the mayor and Boy Tan, the outspoken community activist and leader of an agricultural school on Mindanao.
"When we first went there, they had never gotten along, and didn't even speak to each other," Neely said. "But now they're working on the same committee, and the last story I heard was that the mayor was actually calling Boy Tan 'my brother Boy.' We think that's progress."
After the first few days of airing concerns and complaints, eight diverse but cohesive working groups started forging alliances and proposing workable strategies. The results were compiled by a team of Americans and Filipinos into a document to guide SANREM research activities.
Potatoes aren't the only thing growing on Mindanao these days. Fifteen new research projects also have taken root. The wide-ranging projects, aimed at assessing and preserving the island's biodiversity, soil and water, include:
People of all sizes and descriptions have participated -- backyard gardeners, commercial growers, school children and government scientists, to name a few.
In Burkina Faso, the SANREM program follows a similar path. Visiting SANREM scientists talked with villagers whenever and however they could, even following farmers into their fields to help hoe and weed. Group gatherings were a favorite among the African farmers, Hargrove said.
"They turn things like this into a game," he said. "On one occasion we were asking about the different things they produce and sell outside the village. So they would tell us about each of the different things, like tools made by a local blacksmith and hoes made by another man, and they would send a child out to bring back an example, which was laid on the floor in the center of the group.
"They would do the same thing when we asked how they maintained soil fertility," Hargrove said. "When they talked about using manure, they brought in manure."
The SANREM team learned that perspectives on problems often depend on the villager's age, sex and occupation. For instance, village elders "claimed the major factor in the degradation of the environment was that the young people don't listen to their elders anymore. They just like to go to the city shopping and are out of control these days," Hargrove said.
Young people, on the other hand, cited drought as the main cause of environmental degradation and overgrazing as the secondary cause, he said.
By airing multiple opinions and sharing multiple solutions, Donsin villagers already have taken some positive steps to deal with environmental problems. For example, they mulch the fields with straw, build stone terraces-called-diguettes- to reduce erosion and "haul manure to the fields from small animals like goats and sheep that might stay near the house," Hargrove said.
Because of this collaborative approach to research, any SANREM-sponsored activity must involve American and host country institutions, and the local farmers and community members must participate in proposed solutions.
"No matter how brilliant our technological solutions are, it is people who have to carry them out," said Cornelia Flora, a social scientist at Virginia Polytechnic Institute who chairs the SANREM technical committee. "Often the solutions to problems are well-conceived, but there are constraints that lie in the social realm."
Social scientists help biological scientists understand how local people see a situation, Flora said. They analyze the situation and work with the local people to develop ways of solving problems within those constraints.
"Gender patterns, for instance, can be an important constraint," she said. "In the Philippines, the men's caribou wander freely and eat the hedge rows that women plant and use for firewood. The hedge rows can be very helpful in preventing soil erosion, but first we have to deal with the question of providing food for the caribou. This is a problem that might not have been identified by scientists just looking at the hedge rows alone."
In the past, "little attention has been paid to outside influences that affect the farm or the farmer- or the reverse, to the impact of agricultural activities outside the farm, such as pesticide runoff or soil erosion," said Ron Carroll, associate director of the University of Georgia's Institute of Ecology, which was instrumental in developing the concept of a "landscape approach" to agriculture research.
At the center of this worldwide web of agricultural information lies Griffin, Ga., home of the Georgia Agricultural Experiment Station, where Hargrove and Neely maintain contact with their far-flung researchers.
"It sounds good in theory to create a consortium like this," Hargrove said. "But it's not easy at all. As a scientist, it was so much simpler when I was just working in my lab. I didn't have to contact 20 other people before I made a decision."
After the Manupali watershed was chosen to be the first SANREM site, Hargrove and Neely began putting together a network of organizations and individuals. Assembled under the SANREM umbrella are tribal councils, farmer groups, community members, and representatives of government and private agencies, not to mention scientists from more than a dozen universities and non- government organizations. It more closely resembles the diversity of a Philippine rain forest than the monoculture of a Mindanao potato field. And SANREM's board of directors and technical committee include scientists from nine universities (Auburn, Colorado State, Tuskegee, the University of Georgia, the University of the Philippines, the University of Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Washington State and Western Carolina) and five international research centers.
"It takes a lot more time to do things this way, and it can be frustrating for everybody involved," said Jim Bonner, SANREM project officer for U.S. AID. "But we believe that the benefit will be a final solution that is much more in tune with what the local people need."
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