They never said it would be easy
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CTA. 2002. They never said it would be easy. Spore 101. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Is agriculture a way of life, or a way of living? Treated by outsiders as a quaint backwater, abandoned by insiders as a lost cause, it is running itself into the ground. Time for some plain talking about who runs where, and what, next.Among the...
Is agriculture a way of life, or a way of living? Treated by outsiders as a quaint backwater, abandoned by insiders as a lost cause, it is running itself into the ground. Time for some plain talking about who runs where, and what, next. Among the programmes now being carefully crafted for new economic partnerships in African, Caribbean, Pacific and other developing regions, one of the recurring questions is 'How can we energise our agriculture?'. It is as if agriculture is slipping away from its dictionary definition as 'the science, the art and the business of cultivating the soil, producing crops and raising livestock'. Instead, it seems to be slipping towards seeing itself, and being seen, as a rustic backwater far from any motor of progress. Farming is one of the world s oldest professions. The time when people clearly made the switch to growing food rather than hunting and gathering it is generally thought to have been about 14,000 years ago. The place? In the area of Mesopotamia, near the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Iraq. Other civilisations have followed to the present day in that region, but it is interesting to note the reason for the decline of the first agricultural civilisation: salination of the soils through uncontrolled irrigation. That salination problem was just the first of many setbacks, between leaps forward, in the long history of agriculture. There have been significant others: the land seizures in Europe and the introduction of rinderpest in eastern Africa, both in the 19th century, and the man-made environmental disaster of America s dust bowls in the 1930s, to name but three. And now, in many ACP countries, there is a downward spiral underway in agriculture, dire enough for even conservative observers to use the more cautious word stagnation . Decay, decline, whatever next? How could it be that more than half of all ACP countries, including most countries in Africa, the world s most fertile continent, are now net importers of foodstuffs, not just in years of exceptional disaster but every year? Even the term subsistence agriculture has lost its meaning, since few of these farmers, mainly women, can subsist on their farming alone. There is no end to the list of external factors , the beloved pretexts of politicians. And, to be sure, they all play their part in the depression of much ACP agriculture. Take the collapse of support mechanisms such as marketing boards and extension services, accelerated by structural adjustment programmes. And for the past decade the wave of globalisation has been eroding the walls that have long protected local agriculture from distant economic realities. Equally predictable have been the development-provoked environmental changes which are exacerbating the natural process of climate change. Less predictable have been the changes in health factors, most notably with HIV/AIDS changing the demographics of agricultural labour. There are also more local and more soluble problems which require only human intervention reforms in land ownership, redistribution of rights by gender; access to land, capital, credit and technology. Dynamism, with a focus Enough of this doom agriculture! The way forward is not built on the debris of broken promises or broken dreams. It is built on a determination to regroup, recharge and, above all, renew. The tried-and-tested route to renewal in an economy with symptoms of decline, in a cultural mindset that has frozen, or even in an organisation is to give it a jolt, a kick-start. Inject energy into the situation of decay, and shake up local elements to such an extent that they will re-discover their dynamism, and create new forms of it. This injection of energy can go wrong, or right. Many planners and politicians have a naïve reflationist tendency to throw money and projects at a depressed area. These strategies often do not stick. Many aspects of a depressed economy or a stagnant mindset relate to attitudinal problems: people actually talk themselves into a no-win frame of mind, and create their own process of decline. The phenomenon of rural-urban drift in its simplest form, for example, is one of the clearest expressions of this. Yet attitudes can be changed in time, as various projects in, for example, Senegal, Jamaica and Tanzania to encourage young farmers to keep farming in troubled times have shown. Other aspects are less easy to change. Perhaps the circumstances which once created agricultural dynamism no longer apply. Obvious examples are drastic changes in supply or demand caused by lower yields due to climate change; the exhaustion of natural resources; the devastation of crops or livestock through disease; and changes in consumer tastes, often created by suppliers of alternative products or the collapse of delivery systems for energy and agricultural inputs. With these, no amount of intervention can bring back the good old times. What counts is a calculation of where energy will have a good change of success. Well-placed kicks A well-placed injection can work, releasing as well as creating energy. For most energising strategies in ACP agriculture, two major thrusts are required infrastructural and institutional which can help the emergence of new attitudes. The infrastructural thrust recognises that isolation from markets, and the loneliness it breeds, is a great barrier to even the most enterprising efforts. To remove, or at least reduce, isolation is often an issue of physical infrastructure, a question of repairing, installing and properly maintaining transport links: feeder roads, bridges Their sustainability is often a matter of quality control in the original phase, followed by organisation and ownership. Want as a policy-maker or donor to help farmers? Build that road. Infrastructural investment also needs to focus on the Information Superhighway , to revive a long-forgotten term. One of its original promises was that it would change the nature of distance, making isolation a thing of the past. A decade or two of experience later, it is now painfully evident that the availability of sustainable information and communication technology (ICT) systems must be an integral part of rural development strategies. Want as a policy-maker or investor to help farmers some more? Build and maintain that telecommunications network. Step in, farmers organisations Even if the greatest financial investment in energising agriculture has to be made in infrastructure, and has to come in part from the international community, it is through sound investment in institutions that the greatest and most enduring impact will be achieved. Against the backdrop of the decentralisation of power in many countries, and the decimation and withdrawal of State services and institutions, we are witnessing the fascinating emergence of farmers organisations, and their federations. Their quintessential role is both simple and awesomely complex. It is to assume a large part of the responsibility for helping rural communities to govern their own lives, socially, culturally and economically. In the absence of other stakeholders who have withdrawn to the city, or who have yet to emerge in the countryside, it is farmers organisations which will be the most significant rural body in many a developing country for the next decade or two. They will take on for the rural world of the 21st century a role as important as that of the trade union and cooperative movements for the industrial world in 19th century Europe not only organising to gain basic rights, but also operating trading, finance, social, welfare and educational systems. In this process, there has to be a place for institutions which can unleash the entrepreneurial energy and the attitudinal change of many farmers, rather than only reinforce their indigenous knowledge. The South African notion of the emerging farmer is a replicable one: moving from subsistence to commercial operations. Credit systems, business development services, results-driven training and extension services, market-oriented programmes, enterprise boards, properly run chambers of agriculture all these require a stable and representative environment. And here, then, lies the challenge for the federations of farmers organisations which have to create these facilities, if not dominate them. They can choose to be so sensitive to the conservative aspects of rural life that they in fact act as a brake on the energetic leap forward which is now needed. Or they can, alongside their many other tasks, also recognise their role as a motor and an accelerator. Sparks will fly, no doubt, and so, in a certain way, they should. [caption to illustration] It always comes down to training. Sharp, focussed minds will find the way to the future. [summary points] To energise and revive agriculture and depressed rural areas requires well-focussed approaches: careful analysis of risks and prospects of sustainable conditions; realistic assessment of chances for reforming access to land, capital and technology; investment in infrastructure; sound, stable and yet renewing organisations.
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