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«Social Learning for Ecological Literacy and Democracy: Emerging Issues and Challenges1 Michel P. Pimbert, International Institute for Environment and ...»

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International Learning Workshop on Farmer Field Schools (FFS): Emerging Issues and Challenges,

21-25 October 2002, Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Social Learning for Ecological Literacy and Democracy: Emerging Issues and


Michel P. Pimbert,

International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED),

3 Endsleigh Street, London, WC 1H 0DD, UK.

E-mail: michel.pimbert@iied.org


In essence Farmer Field Schools (FFS) are a form of social learning, negotiation and

effective collective action that focuses on society’s relationship with nature. The spread and scaling up of FFS principles from integrated pest management (IPM) in rice to other areas have been remarkable. However, much still needs to be done. This

paper discusses three broad challenges and emerging issues for FFS futures:

1. Social learning for ecological literacy and democracy. The dynamics of self discovery learning and participatory action are needed to expand knowledge of agro-ecology for sustainable agriculture, people-environment interactions and deliberative democracy.

2. Institutionalising social learning and participation. Different understandings and meanings of participatory development lead to fundamentally different approaches to mainstreaming social learning and participation

3. Re-governing food systems and the commons. New forms of governance are needed to safeguard the rights, livelihoods and environments of farmers and other citizens confronted by rapid and uncertain global changes.

Introduction With the introduction of a training program to help farmers apply the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) in rice production, the FAO-Government Cooperative program in South and SE Asia has been particularly innovative in pioneering an approach to farmer based learning and action, the Farmer Field School (FFS). The FFS works to strengthen farmers' capacity to observe, measure, analyse plant-pest-predator dynamics, to understand agroecological dynamics as a basis for management decisions and to conduct their own systematic experiments.

It is particularly noteworthy that the principles of FFS are now been extended from rice to other crops such as vegetables and cotton, from IPM to integrated nutrient management, plant breeding, participatory health monitoring and the management of natural resources, and from technical domains to broader engagement with policy issues, advocacy and local governance (see www.communityipm.org; FAO Mid Term Review, 2001).

1 Paper prepared for the CIP-UPWARD-FAO International Workshop on Farmer Field Schhols, 21-25 October 2002, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.

Pimbert Page 1 Indeed, the spread, scaling up and institutionalisation of FFS principles have been/are remarkable. The movers and shakers who have given birth to and nurtured this social experiment are no less remarkable. Individually and collectively they have broken new ground,- both conceptually and methodologically. Of course much still needs to be done and this international workshop will explore the emerging issues and challenges that lie ahead. In this opening paper I want to emphasise and discuss three sets of key emerging

issues for FFS futures:

• Social Learning for Ecological Literacy and Democracy

• Institutionalising Social Learning and Participation

• Re-Governing Food systems and the Commons

Social Learning for Ecological Literacy and Democracy

At heart, Farmer Field Schools (FFS) are a form of social learning, negotiation and effective collective action that focuses on society’s relationship with nature. The early rationale and proponents of FFS for rice farming recognised that effective pest management required coordinated action at the community level. The aim was to make farmers experts in their own fields. They attended farmer field schools (FFS), which are schools without walls and spread over a single rice season, running one morning a week for 10-12 weeks. It was argued that farmers cannot simply cut their use of external inputs like pesticides and still expect to maintain output. External inputs must be substituted by labour, management skills and knowledge. Farmers must, thus, invest in learning.

A whole suite of innovative methodologies and procedures were then developed and used to facilitate and structure a process of self discovery learning and participatory action by farmers. As farmers gained new skills, capabilities and confidence, the need for new learning was in many cases accompanied by appropriate methodological and conceptual support by outside professionals acting in a facilitating role. The variety and depth of the social learning that has taken place in the Indonesia FFS-Community IPM Program is edifying in this regard. Agro-ecosystem analysis and methods for group dynamic were initially used to enhance farmers ecological literacy as it related to plant-insect ecology. Farmer IPM Trainers and Researcher/Scientists learnt facilitation and presentation skills and how to basic experimental designs to analyse and quantify ecological phenomena. Learning to analyse policy, deal with high level decision makers in Government, produce a newspaper with a print run of 10 000 are all key in enabling farmers to become organisers, planners, advocates and activists seeking to influence policy processes (Dilts et al, 2002).

The FAO-Government IPM program in Asia has developed organisational procedures, ways of working and cultural norms that are more consistent with the needs of local adaptive management and self–discovery learning for ecological literacy. Emphasis was placed on carrying out administrative tasks, planning, agricultural research and development as near to the level of farmer groups as was compatible with efficiency and accountability. Much of the organisational thrust was about strengthening local groups and institutions by devolving resources and removing hurdles to local planning and action. These kinds of organisational reversals that put farmers and their innovations first are all too rare and offer challenging lessons to much of agricultural R&D worldwide.

Pimbert Page 2 Knowledge embedded in local experience Analytical skills and the sensuous experiencing of dynamic local ecologies were key to re-designing pest control technologies that harmed both nature and people. After all, variation within and among agro-ecosystems is enormous. Daily, seasonal and longer term changes in the spatial structure of agricultural biodiversity2 are apparent at the broad landscape level right down to small plots of cultivated land. Uncertainty, spatial variability and complex ecological dynamics emphasise the need for flexible responses, mobility and local level adaptive resource management in which farmers and local resource users are central actors in analysis, planning, negotiations and action (Gunderson et al, 1995; Pretty and Scoones, 1995; Swift, 1999). This calls for far greater appreciation of local farming practices and knowledge used by rural people to manage agro-ecosystems. This realisation suggested new practical avenues for technical support in which farmers' own priorities, knowledge, perspectives, institutions, practices and indicators gain validity.

The use of complementary methods from the social and natural sciences and the knowledge of local resource users were both needed to make sense of local ecologies.

There are, after all, differently situated forms of knowledge about farming and nature, and each is partial and incomplete. Participatory learning and action is needed to bring together these multiple and separate realities, combining the strengths of modern science with local knowledge.

The kind of knowledge(s) that emerge(s) from this process of social learning has been well described by James Scott in his book Seeing Like a State (1998). He speaks of “forms of knowledge embedded in local experience” (Mêtis) and sharply contrasts them with “the more general,


knowledge displayed by the state and technical agencies”. “Mêtis, says Scott, is plastic, local and divergent…It is, in fact, the idiosyncrasies of mêtis, its contextualities, and its fragmentation that make it so permeable, so open to new ideas”.

The participatory forms of inquiry mediated by FFS and their networks also represent a fundamentally different orientation to the nature of knowledge. This kind of participatory, experiential understanding takes the living involvement with our surroundings seriously. Final objective answers matter less than a concern with processes of emerging democratic engagement. The quality and validity of this way of knowing cannot be judged from the narrow standpoint of positivist science alone.

Criteria of validation and quality need to be much broader. One important criterion of quality is whether or not this social learning opens up new communicative spaces in which democratic inquiry can take place. Another is whether it has contributed to the emergence of a wide community of inquiry amongst divergent actors. In many ways, FFS based social learning is helping to “shift the dialogue about validity from a concern with idealist questions in search of “Truth” to concern for engagement, dialogue, pragmatic outcomes and an emergent, reflexive sense of what is important” (Bradbury and Reason, 2001). Coming to terms with this paradigm shift is a challenge for the wider research community.

2 Agricultural biodiversity comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds, etc.) and species used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture (including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries) for the production of food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals, the diversity of species that support production (soil biota, pollinators, predators, etc.) and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic), as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems themselves.

Pimbert Page 3 The empowerment associated with experiential learning has also given many farmers the confidence to ask questions about how knowledge is produced, why and for whom?

Many conversations with FFS alumni have reminded me of strong rationales for democratising science in an age of uncertainty by directly involving “extended peer communities” that include farmers, herders, forest dwellers, fisherfolk and other rural people in the production and sharing of knowledge. (e.g. Funtowicz and Ravetz, 1993;

Kloppenburg, 1991). Asking these and other political questions on social exclusion is an important moment in the recovery of dignity and citizenship. This process of conscientisation and personal transformation emphasises the value of FFS based social learning for a re-invigorated democracy.

This social learning should ideally be allowed to be open ended, context specific and primarily internally driven. Nevertheless, -for the purposes of this International Workshop-, I suggest that new learning and knowledge may be needed for ecological literacy and democracy.

Ecological Literacy

i) Agro-ecological knowledge In both low external input and high input agriculture, the goals of sustainability, productivity and equity may best be met through agroecosystem designs that enhance functional diversity at the genetic, species and landscape levels. A central challenge across the whole range of agroecosystems is to find alternatives to the input substitution approach and future dependence on costly and unreliable biotechnology packages. This can be achieved through an agroecological approach that seeks to break the monoculture structure and dependence on suppliers of off farm inputs through the design of integrated agroecosystems. By assembling a functional biodiversity within and around agroecosystems, it is possible to encourage synergisms that subsidise agroecosystem processes by providing ecological services, the recycling of nutrients and the enhancement of natural enemies of pests as well as provide diverse, quality foods and other farm products (Pimbert, 1999 and references therein).

However, much is uncertain and unknown about the structure and multiple functions of agricultural biodiversity. There are huge gaps in knowledge on the number of species living on Earth: estimates of total species numbers vary between 5 and 30 million and a mere 1.6 million species have been described to date. Knowledge on the functions of biodiversity, -synergies and complementarities, interactions within agroecosystems, ecological processes within soils and interactions with the atmosphere and water-, are rudimentary. An emerging picture describes the structure and functions of agricultural biodiversity in terms of variability, sudden as well as slow change, complexity and indeterminancy at different spatial and temporal scales. But there are considerable uncertainties and on-going scientific debates on the actual functioning and dynamics of ecosystems and landscapes (e.g. equilibrium versus dis-equilibrium ecology, views on succession, stability-diversity relationships, carrying capacity…).

Specific components of agricultural biodiversity are often directly implicated in the processes that structure agroecosystems at different temporal and geographical scales (from small farm plots to whole water/landscapes). Even highly complex landscapes like tropical irrigated rice or forests in the savannah transition zone of West Africa, are apparently structured by a very few key variables (cf. Settle et al, 1996; Fairhead and Leach, 1996). Research over the past 20 years in applied ecology of managed

–  –  –

“A small number of plant, animal, and abiotic processes structure biomes over scales from days and centimeters to millennia and thousands of kilometers. Individual plant and biogeochemical processes dominate at fine, fast scales; animal and abiotic processes of mesoscale disturbance dominate at intermediate scales; and geomorphological ones dominate at coarse, slow scales….the physical architecture and the speed of variables are organised into distinct clusters, each of which is controlled by one small set of structuring processes. These processes organize behavior as a nested hierarchy of cycles of slow production and growth alternating with fast disturbance and renewal” (Gunderson et al, 1995).

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