by GRAIN | 20 Oct 1990


Farmers ' innovative capacity and their accumulated knowledge has provided the foundations for thousands of years of agricultural development. After being ignored for decades, it is now seen as the key to sustainable agriculture. But urgent measures are needed to ensure that indigenous knowledge is fully utilized for the benefit of Third World farmers themselves and not merely exploited for the short term profit in the North. Farmers ' knowledge must be protected, research institutions need to redirect their priorities to work with farmers, and funds should be made available to support local development initiatives.

Two hundred years ago, Indian rice farmers managed to produce up to ten tonnes per hectare. They had developed a farming system based on generations of experience and using a wide diversity of crop types - over 50 kinds of rice were planted in some areas. Their average yield was about 3.6 t/ha with irrigation, and 1.6 t/ha in rain-fed areas. Today, despite an arsenal of fertilizers, pesticides and other expensive inputs, many farmers in India struggle to produce 3 t/ha. The use of such inputs with their associated threats to the environment is now being increasingly questioned. "Sustainable agriculture" has become the dominant new theme for development workers. That it was practised by Indian peasants two centuries ago, has been largely overlooked. These sustainable systems were based on the indigenous knowledge of the farmers themselves.

Like "sustainable agriculture", "indigenous knowledge" is now being rediscovered. Building upon farmers ' knowledge is now seen as the key to sustainable agriculture, especially in rain-fed, fragile and difficult environments, where over a billion people seek their living today. The emerging logic amongst progressive development agencies is that farmers must be empowered to develop their own capacities for innovation and some researchers are beginning to find ways of working with farmers rather than for them.

With a moment's reflection it becomes self-evident that farmers ' innovations and their accumulated knowledge has provided the foundations for thousands of years of agricultural development. Their work has also been crucial for "modern" agriculture, especially in the arena of plant genetic resources use and conservation since it is peasant farmers who have supplied us with most of the genetic material for our staple foods.

The complex farming systems now being rediscovered by agriculturalists are further proof of the innovative capacity of Third World farmers. Now that the knowledge of farmers and their role as experimentalists are increasingly being recognized, countless examples of farmers ' innovations are coming to light. So why has farmers ' capacity to innovate been ignored for so long in official circles?

One reason is their very informality. A particular innovation is invariably only part of a production system, often making sense only in its particular ecological and socio-economic context. The oral tradition of peasant societies means that rarely is there a written record of farmers ' innovations. But another reason is the widespread view that only the knowledge of "experts" is has value - a view which became entrenched during the colonial period. Traditional practices of farmers were despised and sometimes even outlawed by colonial administrations and their agricultural extension agencies. Although sometimes based on sheer ignorance, many laws in colonial Africa were designed to maintain the supremacy of white farmers over their black rivals. This was done not only by restricting access to land, but also by downgrading indigenous techniques. In colonial Rhodesia, farmers were imprisoned by the Smith regime for planting trees against official advice. Often laws isolated people from their forest lands where they were used to collecting wild plants. Such restrictive forest laws are still enforced in several countries. In western Kenya, for example, farmers are obliged to collect wild plants from neighbouring Uganda.

The perceived superiority of "expert" over indigenous knowledge reached a climax during the Green Revolution. In the 1960s and 1970s new technologies were deemed to be the answer to the world's problems of hunger and increasing populations. Seeds of modern "high-yielding" varieties, packaged with fertilizers, pesticides and "expert advice", were dispensed worldwide, as "transfer-of-technology" became the dominant paradigm. While the Green Revolution undoubtedly increased yields in some areas, the majority of the world's farmers remained poor and ever more marginalized. The failure of the Green Revolution in these areas was, for a long time, blamed on the farmers, who were considered "too traditional" or "too backward" to accept "new ideas". It has eventually dawned, however, that the problem is not with the farmers but with the technology - and with the priorities and ideologies which generate it. Even the World Bank now admits that "off-the-shelf technology" has generally been a failure.

Another major stumbling block is the underrated position of women. They often hold the greatest wealth of knowledge of plants and their uses. They are the most important conservators of plant varieties with emphasis on food crops. For them, the nutritional and food preparation qualities of plants are as important as their agronomic characteristics. The male bias in formal research has meant that the traditional responsibilities of women have received little attention. Ploughing, mainly carried out by men, for example, has received more attention than weeding or transplanting, activities usually done by women. Giving more attention to the traditional knowledge of women could help to reverse this imbalance.

Farmers as innovators

Examples of farmer innovation are numerous, especially in the breeding of new varieties. Andean farmers in Peru have classified over 400 varieties of potato developed by them and their ancestors. Andean small farmers are responsible too for an important technical innovation which is often credited to scientists working at the International Potato Centre (CIP). The scientists noticed that these farmers, like those in Kenya and Nepal, stored potatoes in diffused light rather than in darkness. They tested and refined the technique, and successfully passed it to farmers who had not used the idea before.

Farmers have also played a major role in the selection and diffusion of new varieties originally developed in research stations. A new paddy variety of rice, "Mahsuri," - rejected by official researchers after poor performance on their experiment stations - somehow reached farmers in the Indian state of Andra Pradesh. Farmers tried it and found its performance to be excellent under their conditions, and its use spread to other states. It is now the third most popular variety in India.

As a recent example demonstrates, those profiting from farmers ' innovations include Northern industries. West African farmers developed varieties of cowpea more resistant to bruchid beetles in storage. The gene responsible for this resistance was later identified and isolated, and has subsequently been patented by the UK's Agricultural Genetics Company (AGC). Potentially, varieties with an even higher resistance may be produced, but this depends on AGC - the present "owners" of the gene (the original innovators having received neither remuneration nor credit for their invention).

Paradoxically the hesitance of farmers to adopt hi-tech packages is often a positive indication of farmer innovation. Farmers are unlikely to risk making wholesale changes to their production systems, given the precarious nature of their environments. Instead, they experiment with new technologies, modify them, and incorporate parts into their own proven farming methods. From the farmer's point of view the distinction between traditional and modern are often irrelevant. Likewise, there is no clear distinction between the adoption or non -adoption of technology; farmers will pick and choose useful parts of new ideas rather than swallow the whole package.

This experimental approach of constantly testing new possibilities and combinations to match the changing environment explains why the farmers ' approach to technology development is so successful. Scientists, with a formal approach to technology development, often cannot keep up in these conditions. An example from the Mymensingh region of Bangladesh illustrates the point. There, farmers are constantly adjusting the sequence of cropping, sometimes planting three, sometimes two, crops a year, and incorporating new varieties as they become available. It takes scientists six to eight years to devise and test new cropping patterns. In that time the farmers move far ahead of the formal researchers.

The farmers role in technology development becomes more critical as more complex farming systems are used. Agro-forestry and other inter-cropping systems for example are so complex that the formal experimental approaches of scientists become unwieldy and unrealistic. It is the farmers who are the keys for evaluating these kinds of systems. They understand and use whole systems and are well placed to adapt their farming strategies to meet changing needs.

Because of these intrinsic advantages, most farmers in the tropics continue to base their decisions on their own knowledge. But this does not mean that farmers do not need new technology. Farmers ' knowledge and modern scientific knowledge can be complimentary; combined they may achieve what neither would alone, despite the great difficulties in achieving this synthesis. Traditional knowledge also has its limitations. Farming communities could benefit from learning from modern technology as well as each other. Many genetic possibilities are not open to farmers operating alone for example. Firstly, they can benefit from the introduction of exotic germplasm. Secondly, they can benefit from specific plant breeding techniques, such as the crossing of self-pollinating crops.

The challenge of new approaches to agricultural development is to build upon indigenous knowledge, to use technology in a way which strengthens farmers ' ability to innovate rather seeking to replace and undermine it. Scientists and policy makers are beginning to talk about farmers ' knowledge and participatory development. The question is whether this will prove to be mere rhetoric, bearing in mind the great difficulties of implementing a "farmer-first" approach.

Protecting and Promoting Farmers ' innovations.

Increased attention to farmers ' knowledge has its pitfalls too. After all, amongst the first to see the value of farmers ' innovation were the giant pharmaceutical and seed companies. For decades, they have been scanning farmers ' fields in search of raw material for their own breeding programmes and drug products. The cowpea example referred to above is one amongst many where genetic material selected and developed by informal innovators in the Third World has been used by Northern industries for markets ranging in the hundreds of millions of dollars. With the advent of new biotechnologies, there will be greater opportunities for this genetic wealth to be exploited by the North as the new techniques make it possible to screen and use a much wider range of material.

There is a need for both greater recognition of the contributions of farmers, and for protection of their knowledge and innovations from misuse. Some small beginnings towards fulfilling these requirements have been made in international fora.

In 1989, the conference of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) adopted a resolution on Farmers ' Rights. This recognized the contributions of farmers in improving plant varieties, and held that these had not been sufficiently rewarded in the past. A "gene fund" was established to provide concrete financial support for farmers ' work in selecting and conserving plant varieties, but this remains voluntary and underfunded.

The FAO Commission on Plant Genetic Resources is putting together an ethical code of conduct for collectors of germplasm. This will give guidelines on gaining access to genetic material and associated knowledge, on recording the sources and giving acknowledgement to the farming community concerned, and possibly, for some payment in kind to be made. In due course the code should become a full legal instrument.

Two other UN agencies have drawn up proposals for the protection of the cultural heritage of local communities. A model law - developed by the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) - would give intellectual property rights protection to communities for such folklore innovations. It has been suggested that this approach might be extended to cover traditional plant varieties and the traditional knowledge of them. Although formulated in 1985 the model law remains only a proposal.

Some see the UNESCO/WIPO model law on folklore as a counterbalance to the patent system which Northern companies want to extend to biotechnological processes and products including life forms and their genetic components. Exclusive patent protection over genes would tend to undermine other forms of intellectual property protection, such as those over varieties. Since the resource itself - the genetic information - would become subject to monopoly control, the opportunities for further innovation would be reduced. There is an urgent need to address this problem, and to devise non-exclusive systems for promoting and protecting innovations, both formal and informal.

There is also a need to further develop farmers knowledge and to link it more with the formal sector. The utilization of farmers ' innovations could be enhanced by giving more support to methods for encouraging farmer-farmer exchange of ideas and practices, and by developing participatory research methods. Participatory research is a means to bring together two bodies of knowledge to solve agricultural problems over a shorter time period than would otherwise be possible. It requires genuine collaboration with a new role for researchers. Instead of being experts and providers of solutions, they become catalysts, consultants and colleagues of farmers. The farmers themselves should set the research agenda, and evaluate the results of the experiments.

The research institutions, including those in the international system, must redirect their agendas firmly towards the needs of farmers. Some, like CIAT (the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia) are beginning to do this. But generally, the powerful influence of the International Agricultural Research Centres is to reinforce the "transfer of technology" approach. According to Robert Chambers the centres are "still more of the problem than of the solution", but they need not remain so. With a new vision and understanding, they could lead in developing, improving and spreading the "farmer first" approach.

New policies are needed at national and local levels, as well as internationally, as the recent African Charter for Popular Participation in development reaffirmed. More attention should be given to the importance of traditional knowledge. As it is not always passed on to younger generations, there is a danger that such knowledge will be lost. For farming communities, this is usually exacerbated by the loss of traditional varieties too. Indeed, the two are often inseparable.

Increased funding should be available to support small farmer-centred projects. In the area of plant genetic resources this might be facilitated by the FAO gene fund or the proposed UN fund for the conservation and utilization of biodiversity. Farmers ' groups and other non-governmental organizations have particular roles to play since their strengths and weaknesses are often complimentary to those of the formal sector. Both groups now need to re-double their efforts to work with each other.

Sources: This article draws upon papers in Farmer First - farmer innovation and agricultural research, edited by Robert Chambers et al, Intermediate Technology Publications, London, 1989 and papers in various issues of ILEIA Newsletter, The Netherlands. Other sources include Biological Diversity and Innovation by Calestous Juma, 1989, African Centre for Technology Studies, Kenya, and Folkseed by RAFI. The views of the World Bank on formal technology transfer are taken from its 1989 report: Sub-Saharan Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth, World Bank, Washington. Some details on the cowpea gene were taken from a letter from AGC to ICI, January, 1990.

Author: GRAIN