Continuous community based studies. Testing of technologies. Dialogue of local & outsiders’ knowledge. “Dynamic expertise”. (New) Technology design. Up-scaling to other communities. Knowledge sharing. Documen- tation.
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Dialogue oflocal & outsiders’knowledge
Up-scaling to other communities
Figure 1. Building, studying, and sharing“dynamic expertise” for soil fertility management
Limited land (land rights)
Marital / family disputes
Low labour (out-migration, etc.)
Limited income (lack of skills, markets..)
How can integrated natural resource management truly build on local knowledge?
Joshua J. Ramisch – School of International Development and Global Studies (SIDGS) – firstname.lastname@example.org
Innovation and Sustainable Development in agriculture and Food – June 28 / July 1, 2010
Context: The Strengthening “Folk Ecology” Initiative (FEI)
The FEI began with the premise – common to much participatory action research – that farmers and professional researchers have different (and therefore potentially complementary) knowledges and skills. An iterative process of dialogue between actors tested and developed new technologies and techniques using both collective and individual experimentation. This created an evolving “dynamic expertise” for better soil fertility management, shared by farmers and scientists.
Social scientists and soil scientists from the Tropical Soil Biology and Fertility Institute (TSBF-CIAT) worked from 2001-2008 with farmer self-help groups and other partners (NGOs, Ministry of Agriculture, Kenyan Universities) in six western Kenyan sites.
1. “Soil fertility management”
The importance of soil (and soil fertility) varies greatly in rural livelihoods, especially where land sizes are rarely adequate to produce 12 months of food even with excellent yields and crop husbandry. The tendency of scientists in the project team to define “soil fertility” (Figure 2) using purely “soil”-based factors was at odds with farmers’ interest in crop production as part of broader livelihood concerns (e.g. markets and farm size).
Outsiders easily conflate environmental and social dimensions of vulnerability, as if being a “smallholder farmer” makes one inherently vulnerable. If this is the case and “depleted soils” and “socio-economic marginalisation” are universal, such “vulnerability” cannot help identify populations for problem solving or technology development.
In the literature of environmental hazards, “vulnerability” relates to exposure and sensitivity to external risks whose risk must be managed by technical interventions. Such an analysis often makes all smallholder “objects of concern” (e.g. for having soils low in Phosphorus, or plagued by Striga weed). Social science critiques of such analyses that defend the ability of smallholders’ “coping strategies” to diversify and adapt to environmental or other challenges may, however, under-estimate the long term impacts of deprivation and environmental degradation.
Local terms for “vulnerability” (e.g. umaskini – poverty) would be applied to both soils (without productive potential) and people (without money or other assets). However, in a context where “vulnerability” attracts development assistance (participatory or otherwise), the term is strategically deployed. Even if livelihood and personal circumstances produce multiple forms of vulnerability or resilience, the importance of “soil-related” problems would be elevated or minimized depending on people’s perceptions of the FEI and its activities.
The Strengthening “Folk Ecology” Initiative (FEI) was a community-based learning and innovation project that addressed smallholders’ soil fertility management and ecological knowledge in western Kenya1,2. The challenges of sustaining and “scaling up” this type of approach relate to mediating and managing the involvement of community members (or their representatives) in longer term “participatory” processes of priority setting and development research that also required the ongoing participation of both natural and social scientists.
The contested nature of “local knowledge” (about both ecological phenomena and also who constitutes the most “vulnerable” group(s) within a community).
Conflicting perceptions of previous or ongoing development (or research) practices, which have significant, wide-ranging, and often unpredictable implications.
Dialogue between knowledge systems (such as between scientists themselves or between researchers and farmers) must therefore acknowledge the non-unitary nature of “local” knowledge(s), building on this diversity through a continuously iterative process that acknowledges livelihoods that are broader than a “vulnerability” based on low soil fertility.
Figure 2. Different explanations for low crop yields as given by farmers and scientists (Focus groups, Ebusiloli sub-location, 2001)
3. Conflicting perceptions of development practices
While an ebb and flow of interest is normal in community-based projects, the challenges of sustaining the participation of different types group members were distinctly different. Many from the following groups “opted out” or stayed away from FEI activities:
Figure 3. Multiple dimensions of “vulnerability” that individuals or households in western Kenya might face (or strategically present)
Although the FEI did succeed in building a dynamic expertise in soil fertility management in the participating communities, the research and innovation process faced the complexities of working with local knowledge. “Soil fertility management”, the entry point for the FEI in the sites, was and continued to be a contested concept. “Vulnerability” was either strategically deployed to justify participation or exclusion from the groups and their activities, or was so broad or un-nuanced a concept as to be useless in identifying relevant groups for further work. Finally, the very different perceptions and expectations of the FEI (and other development interventions) by various stakeholders required constant attention, mediation, and management. Scaling up the successes of knowledge-based, participatory research and development is therefore not easy or self-sustaining, and probably requires greater resources up to and after a project’s completion than most donors are willing to invest.
1. Ramisch, J.J., Misiko, M.T., Ekise, I.E., Mukalama, J.B. (2006) Strengthening “Folk Ecology”: Community-based learning for integrated soil fertility management, western Kenya. International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 4(2): 154-168.
2. Misiko, M. (2007) Fertile Ground? Soil fertility management and the African smallholder. Ph.D. Thesis, Wageningen University, The Netherlands. (146pp)
Key words: local knowledge; participatory research; community-based learning and innovation; soil fertility; scaling up; Kenya
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