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2. Land management for sustainable development: Farmers' participation

Michael Stockin

Sustainable land management is possible
Societies adapt and change
Farmer participation is essential
Conclusion: Components of participatory land management


An Anecdote

Shinyanga Region in northern Tanzania must be one of the most degraded parts of a degraded continent. Africa is often perceived as having the worst excesses of environmental destruction - desertification; forest removal; soil-nutrient and organic-matter depletion; and, above all, soil erosion with its attendant bare hills and incised gullies. Although intrinsically fertile because of the calcium-rich lakebed sediments, the south-eastern parts of Shinyanga manifest the full range of indicators of environmental stress. Since the implementation of Ujamaa, or villagisation policy, in 1972/73, vast areas of Acacia-Commiphora woodland have been burnt to make way for extensive cultivation of cash crops such as cotton and subsistence crops of maize and millet. The WaSukuma brought with them huge herds of cattle which rendered the seasonal grasslands almost totally bare. In a few short years, the effect of the population transition was devastating.

Yet, amidst the sheet-eroded agricultural slopes and bare rangeland, our 1980/81 surveys for the World Bank-funded Regional Integrated Development Programme (EcoSystems 1982) found pockets of hope: places where land use seemed far less exploitative; where intricate systems of small-scale agriculture were producing a variety of crops; where locally available technology (animaldrawn ploughs) had been adapted to build contour ridges; where intercropping on the ridges enabled good conservation of soil and water as well as provision of cereal crops, vegetables, legumes, and fodder for animals; where the social system controlled indiscriminate grazing by animals. Ironically, these very places were generally isolated, had not been visited by agricultural officers or extension services, and were on some of the poorest soils.

Participatory Land-Management Issues

What was going on in these remote spots of Shinyanga Region? The answer embraces a number of issues which have come to the fore in recent professional understanding of the importance of farmers' own knowledge and perceptions of their environment, as well as their development of solutions and technologies of natural resource management. The issues are not solely about what scientists and traditional science may contribute. As Brookfield (1993) has remarked about experts who gathered for a UNU conference on "Sustainable Environmental Futures for South-East Asia" they find it much easier to say what is unsustainable about present resource use, than to identify what might be sustainable. Scientists blame policy makers, the ineffectiveness of development efforts, rapid population growth, and inadequate social and economic systems - indeed, anything but themselves. This paper is an attempt to redress the balance by emphasising ingredients which promote sustainable land management and to outline an approach which values non-traditional scientific knowledge as of equal or greater worth than the normal offerings of reductionist science.

Specifically, this paper adopts three positive and, hopefully, optimistic themes:

• Sustainable land management is possible in difficult environments - it is not inevitable that marginalised, small-scale farmers will ruin their natural resources for short-term gain.

• Societies have the capacity to adapt and to change to new circumstances they do this by developing new ways of meeting fuel, fibre, food, and fodder needs, by adapting indigenous and exogenous technologies, and by using their own informal experimentation.

• Farmers often have the solution to their own problems - solutions which may differ from those promoted by external agents; the role of the professional is now evolving into the provider of assistance to help unlock indigenous capability.

The logical conclusion to these three themes is that farmer participation is essential, even mandatory, for effective rural development and the sustainable management of land and water resources. The paper will conclude with the key components of a farmer-participatory approach to natural resource management.

Sustainable land management is possible

Sustainable Land-Management Practices

There is an increasing record of sustainable land-management practices in an array of environments which had been seen as difficult, marginal, and scientifically challenging. In a major new review of policies and practices for sustainable agriculture, Pretty (1995) describes a large number of resource-conserving technologies, many of which were either discovered by farmers or developed in partnership between agricultural research and local people. Some happened by accident; others were deliberate and planned interventions. Similarly, in soil and water conservation, the literature which is recognising the value of some indigenous technologies (e.g. IFAD 1992) and of new directions in land husbandry and working with farmers (e.g. Lundgren et al. 1993) is flourishing. The list is impressive and could include:

integrated pest management; now widely used in the USA, but has greatest potential application in developing countries through using local and scientific knowledge on resistant varieties, alternative natural pesticides, bacterial and viral pesticides, use of pheromones, appropriate rotations and multiple cropping, and habitats for natural enemies.

integrated plant nutrition; with an emphasis on improving efficiency of uptake of applied nutrients, introducing beneficial crops, and using organic sources. Some of the most spectacular developments have been in the use of legumes as part of an overall soil management, weed control, minimum tillage, and plant nutrition strategy - see below.

agroforestry; where woody species are combined with land uses such as arable and rangeland. An interesting example cited by Palmer (1992) is where farmers have taken particular components of the Sloping Agricultural Land Technology (SALT) model of contour hedgerows which has been widely promoted in the Philippines and Sri Lanka, and adapted them to their own systems. The pure SALT seems to be consistently ignored unless subsidies and inducements are provided.

sediment traps; built in a gully often as an earth embankment, these trap sediment from upslope, creating new fields and additional production opportunities. In Rajasthan (India) the plugging of nullahs has been practised for decades, but has not been recognised as a valid practice by the professionals and hence has received no state aid. Yet, farmers willingly and voluntarily carry out the labour because they perceive the practice to give them a more valuable and reliable crop than any other land-management practice. These and other soil and water conservation practices are only recently being described and catalogued (Kerr and Sanghi 1992) an example is given later in this paper.

water harvesting; in semi-arid zones, the concentration of water to provide more effective use of rainfall to parts of the landscape is widely accepted and many techniques exist (Critchley and Sievert 1991). For example, "fish-scale terraces" in China provide minicatchments of a square metre or more to water a single tree on each "scale" on steeply sloping land.

Example: Velvet Bean in Brazil

To illustrate further the feasibility of sustainable land-management practices in difficult, marginal environments, take the almost ubiquitous use of Mucuna pruriens, or velvet bean, by small farmers in the western portion of the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina. Spontaneously, the use of Mucuna has spread from farmer to farmer on the nutrient-poor oxisols which are intensively farmed on small plots for maize.

Briefly, the agricultural cycle is: (1) in spring, the hand-planting of maize with a dibber into a thick layer of dead Mucuna mulch - no need for ploughing as weed suppression is achieved by the mulch and microfaunal activity in the soil has kept the soil aerated; (2) the maize germinates and commences growth, assisted by additional water-holding capacity, the humidity, and extra nutrients of the mulch; (3) later in the growing season, self-sown velvet-bean seeds also germinate - these are largely non-competitive with the maize and achieve maximum crop-water demand only after the maize has matured; (4) the maize is harvested and the Mucuna continues to grow on residual soil moisture; (5) when winter temperatures return, the Mucuna dies back, leaving fixed nitrogen in the soil and good surface-soil protection against erosion. Adapted by farmers but with the original species introduction attributed to formal research systems, the benefits of using Mucuna pruriens may be summarised as: reduced labour in land preparation, weeding and planting; low-cost and no-cost inputs of nitrogen; water conservation through the use of mulch; soil conservation through excellent ground cover of both maize and velvet bean; and good returns to the farmer estimated as up to five tonnes per hectare of maize with little need for expensive inputs.

Resilience and Sensitivity

Sustainable land management must, however, depend on the intrinsic quality of the natural resource base. Technologies, even farmer-developed ones, cannot be made to work everywhere and under all conditions. Environments are difficult and marginal precisely because their use is constrained and options for exploitation are limited. A useful means of distinguishing environments is provided by the conceptual terms "sensitivity" and "resilience."

Whole landscapes are now becoming increasingly recognised for their differences in sensitivity (Thomas and Allison 1993). The term implies the degree of fragility; how readily change occurs, especially with only small differences in external force; and the susceptibility of landscape components such as the soils to alter irreversibly. Landscapes have inherent sensitivities, but of more relevance to sustainable development is the likely effects of human activity and whether these change the attributes of the environment so as to undermine future land uses. Sensitive environments degrade easily. For example, the Loess Plateau in China erodes at an apparently alarming rate with only modest changes in land use. The spectacular gullies and sediment-choked rivers are ample testimony to the sensitivity of the landscape system to human activity. Another example is provided by the luvisols (or alfisols) common in seasonal rainfall regimes in the tropics where much subsistence farming activity is carried out. With their concentrated nutrient distribution in the topsoil, luvisols lose their fertility very easily. The two examples are different, however, in their ability to cope with the changes and recuperate. That difference is encompassed in the term resilience.

Resilience is the property that allows a land system to absorb and utilise change. It is its resistance to external shocks and the resultant changes that are brought about. In the Loess Plateau example, the soils are resilient. They have good reserves of nutrients, and the societies that use them are adept at bench terracing, the use of irrigation, and fertility maintenance techniques. Thus, even with very high rates of erosion, the Loess Plateau remains relatively productive. From fieldwork in the Niehegou Catchment on the southern part of the Plateau, we have even found farmers who deliberately, they say, seek eroded slopes to grow potatoes because yields are better there. Consequently, one can call such landscape conditions highly sensitive but also highly resilient. In the second example, it is only with very great difficulty, expense, and effort that land management can restore the productivity of luvisols once they have been degraded - high sensitivity; low resilience. Similarly, many conditions have relatively low sensitivity to human interference and a high resilience to external shocks: the majority of temperate farming conditions are able to withstand intensive agriculture and the use of large numbers of inputs.

By defining land and natural resources in terms of their sensitivity and resilience, the various options for sustainable land management can be framed. This has recently been presented as a matrix for environmental managers seeking to classify the different properties of soils which make certain agro-ecosystems more hazardous than others (Stocking 1995b). By understanding the dynamic nature of our renewable natural resources through such concepts as resilience and sensitivity, the productive potential of the land should be able to be managed in a more sustainable fashion.

Societies adapt and change

Knowledge Systems

Cultures are often perceived as static, unchanging, unyielding, and inherently conservative. Stereotypically, local societies are seen as a barrier to development and modernisation; local people are characterised as a problem precisely because they will usually wish to cling to their existing ways; and local cultures are hidebound by myth and irrational practices. This view tends to be perpetuated by modern science, presented as a body of "fact," rational deduction, and the only basis for economic development. It is a science that is based upon high technology solutions, external inputs, and the results of experiments carried out under controlled and (usually) temperate conditions. Häusler (1995) has presented a useful schema for distinguishing the two types of knowledge:

• Western scientific knowledge (episteme): analytical, impersonal, universal, cerebral, logically deducted from self-evident principles, communicated in writing;

• indigenous knowledge (techne): based upon experience, personal, particular, intuitive, implicit, integral, orally communicated.

Under some conditions, interesting interactions may occur between the store of indigenous knowledge and the outputs of Western science that give land-use systems that are apparently sustainable ecologically and appreciated locally (c.f. Apfel-Marglin and Marglin 1990) - the Mucuna pruriens case from Brazil described earlier is one such beneficial utilisation of both knowledge systems. Conceptually, however, the two systems provide conflicting analyses and mutually contradictory results.! In its relations with developing countries and local cultures, science implicitly brands society as '`backward," "primitive," and requiring "appropriate technology." This last term is often taken by developing country professionals as especially demeaning - it says that only simple technologies, perhaps technologies that have now been well superseded in the West, are to be promoted, with the implication that local people are too ignorant or incapable of coping with better.

Local Adaptations

What, however, is the evidence from local societies themselves when faced with change, whether brought about by uncontrollable factors such as drought or other sources such as conflict, population pressures, or economic crises? It would be wrong to say that peasant populations have all the answers; that they can cope with all pressures. Manifestly, they cannot. However, we do find a remarkable set of "grass-roots responses" in even the most marginal of societies. Take, for example, the social dynamics of groups vulnerable to drought in semi-arid areas (Barraclough 1995): pastoralists and agriculturalists resort to a variety of interesting and intricate strategies, even though many of the alternatives may look distinctly unattractive to them. These may include:

• adapting production and consumption patterns: pastoralists in the Sahel have developed sophisticated land-management systems in order to spread the risks associated with drought (Behnke and Scoones 1992). These systems include herd diversification and the maintenance of large numbers of socalled "low quality" animals. It also includes the use of animal and vegetation indicators in the use of natural rangeland. Much of this local knowledge would be unrecognised and rejected by modern science, yet its rationality is slowly being discovered by scientists in the last few years;

• adopting social structures to assist risk aversion: traditionally, in many pastoral communities, reciprocal obligations between different groups have become institutionalised in order to share risk. Common-property regimes are well known in this regard. In other cases, society has been propelled into private land ownership and intensification of crop production;

• finding alternative livelihoods: peasants can be extremely entrepreneurial in discovering new ways to seek a living. Sometimes, these ways are illegal: growing drugs, smuggling, poaching, and distilling of spirits. But there are also many examples of diversification of activities into new crops, village-based industry, and added-value processing of plants and animals.

Example: Soil and Water Conservation, India

Soil and water conservation in the semi-arid parts of Dungarpur District, southern Rajasthan, India, provide a fascinating example of the difference between Western scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge, and how local society has adapted to a degrading environment, increasing population, and limited livelihood options. This is a difficult physical environment where the most prized agricultural opportunities are in the bottom of valleys where pockets of soil can be retained by earth bunds (embankments) and water trapped to maximise plant-water availability. The bare slopes are used for grazing, and, perhaps inevitably, they are denuded of vegetation for all but the two or three peak months of the rainy season. The people of Dungarpur are predominantly tribals or Bhils, so far at the bottom of the social ladder that they do not even enter the caste system. A few may get labouring jobs in Gujarat, but most have to subsist from the local natural resources and their knowledge of how to eke a living from a reluctant environment. What would Western scientific knowledge advise for these people and their conditions? And what actually do the Bhils do?

The standard manuals of soil and water conservation, supported by such major programmes as the All-India Watershed Management Project, all promote catchment (watershed) protection through earth bunds constructed on the contour. Support is provided through subsidies for bund construction based on the volume of soil dug following the guidelines of the professionals as expounded in the official manual. Emphatically stated is that these bunds must be constructed first at the top of the catchment in order to keep as much soil and water on the slopes, and to protect the valley from eroded sediments. Then progressively farmers are advised to build further bunds down the catchment until the whole area is "protected." The scientific logic is inescapable. If our principal objective is to control erosion, then keeping soil as close to where it is formed, and water as close to where it drops, are rational means to achieve our goal.

The Bhils view their situation through a completely different optic. At the core of their concern is, naturally enough, the security of their livelihood. In a marginal environment, that security is necessarily short term: the vagaries of drought, insecure land tenure, the improbabilities of gaining off-farm income and so on mean that people must ensure production now. The longer-term view of, say, greening of the whole landscape is not really feasible or, indeed, advisable, for families who need a regular and as reliable as possible productive output from the local natural resources. Earth bunds are constructed at the bottom of the catchment. Most importantly these are not seen as ways of catchment protection but as sediment and water traps, a means of obtaining a new field and a new production opportunity. In such valley-bottom parcels of soil, rice may be grown if there is enough water, vegetables can also be produced, and, if there is sufficient residual water (likely, given the topographic position), a dry-season crop of pulses may further support their meagre living. By contrast, consider what the professionally recommended way would mean for production. Instead of a new field, or soil and water replenishment to an old field, the soil would remain on the slopes. These slopes are stony from decades of erosion; they are termed the "wastelands" with good reason because the surface is littered with gravel. Keeping the soil here will mean a little more grass will grow and last for a few weeks longer after the wet season. One or two animals extra may be grazed for two or three months on the slope. As one old man told my interpreter: "What is the point of protecting the slopes first, when what we really want is rice? Our animals can more easily eat the rice straw all year than a few extra bites of grass on these stones. And, besides, our earth bunds in the valley give us better grass anyway than these wastelands." The return on investment of labour into a standard catchment protection plan would be minimal compared to the additional production afforded by the ways suggested by local knowledge. Who, then, is right?

To answer this last question, it is informative to note that local people do follow the standard advice if they are subsidised to construct bunds on the typical piece-work rates given by the Indian government. Tribal women will queue for the opportunity to do soil and water conservation! Professionals will congratulate themselves that the message of soil and water conservation has at last got through. The women, however, are showing their adaptability in seeking alternative livelihoods - they are farming subsidies, instead of farming the land. Our field calculations suggest that, if they work reasonably hard, they can gain more by government subsidy in payment for their daily labour than they could get by alternative employment, including arable cultivation. It is little wonder, then, that most government-sponsored programmes of soil and water conservation are neglected after construction, and sometimes even deliberately destroyed. Local people will hope that next year a project will return to pay them to reconstruct the bunds! In complete contrast, our fieldwork in Dungarpur showed time and again that local farmers will construct bunds according to their local knowledge and own analysis of the situation without subsidy and willingly. They would, of course, be even happier if government paid them to do it that way also.

Farmer participation is essential

Farmers' Experiments

The priorities, assumptions, objectives, and modes of analysis of professionals will thus be very different from those of local farmers. We have argued that in many cases a knowledge system that derives from local experience may provide techniques of land management which are not only more acceptable but also protect the environment. Without the intimate involvement of farmers, such knowledge is unlikely to be accessed in any development or assistance programme. However, it is important to have a balanced attitude as to what local knowledge can provide. Table 1 presents a listing of the strengths and weaknesses of farmers' experiments, the major source of accumulated local knowledge which offers possibility of integration with scientific knowledge.

Table 1 - Strengths and Weaknesses of Farmers' Experiments


1. Focus of experiments on issues directly relevant to farm household.

2. Start with an accumulated knowledge of household members.

3. Experiments usually directed to improving the use of locally available resources.

4. Use evaluation criteria which are directly relevant to farm household: e.g. does the crop taste nice?

5. Observations are iterative; take place during routine farm work; and are generally continuous. It is a process of progressive learning.


1. Search for solutions based on limited scientific understanding of processes and limited technical knowledge of the options.

2. No control. Experiments may be over whole field, so no comparisons are possible.

3. Non-statistically justifiable conclusions. Bias and prejudice, as well as the experiment, may invade the results!

4. Causes may be attributed to simplistic reasons, and hence results cannot be extrapolated.

5. Dissemination of results imperfect; maybe limited by gender or to specific socio-economic groups.

On balance, it is local knowledge and the results of farmers' informal experiments which should get highest priority. Why? Local farmers live more closely to the real problems, constraints, and opportunities afforded by the environment. Their experience will pick up complex interactions of variables which may be very specific to the local circumstance but which would have been rejected in scientific experimentation because of their local nature and the impossibility of researching every possible permutation of factor values (e.g. rocky, steep slopes; high rainfall; restricted growing season; cereals intercropped with legumes; no fertilizer; hand tools; family labour). Perhaps the most pressing reason to give local knowledge the first consideration is that, in the end, it is the local farmers who suffer from poor advice, failed technologies, and expensive solutions. Local knowledge will likely not make the great leap forward in production that, say, a new crop variety could do, but at least it is the lowest risk option. We, the experts, can just go back to our offices, and we are extremely adept at rationalising our failures; to the local farmer failure has more fundamental significance starvation, for example - and cannot just be shrugged off.

Farmer Participation

If farmers' knowledge may be superior; if they are closer to the real local problems; if they can see things that experts might often miss; and if their objectives are more realistic for economic development - then farmer participation in planning, decision-making, implementation, and evaluation is absolutely essential. This is participation rather than just involvement. Table 2 contrasts some aspects of a participatory approach with a more standard advisory approach to development.

Table 2 - Features of Participatory and Non-participatory Approaches

Participatory Approach Non-participatory Approach
Participation Instruction
Involvement Observation
Learning-by-doing Teacher says
Bottom-up Top-down
Ownership Employment
Empowerment Obedience

The most controversial aspects of a farmer-participatory approach involve the notions of "ownership" and "empowerment," which in effect mean the transfer of rights of determination from professionals and traditional decision makers to local people. Governments feel uncomfortable; professionals feel humiliated; and local people may well feel perplexed. It must therefore also include confidence and capacity-building, both in the wise use of transferred power and in the new role of professionals as facilitators.

There has now developed a whole new culture of "farmer-first" approaches, starting with the work of Robert Chambers on the concerns about the top-down nature of rural development (Chambers 1983), the development of this into an appreciation of what farmers can contribute in the field of agricultural research (Chambers et al. 1989), and most recently an exposition of how farmers' knowledge can be integrated with professional understanding in order to provide for secure livelihoods (Chambers 1993). Essentially, "farmer-first" involves the scientist as observer rather than manipulator; it calls for empathy with the conditions and needs of rural land users; it raises the status of individual decision making by farmers above that of advice from the centre; it assumes that farmers' choices will be rational and also supportive of the collective good of society. Pretty (1995) has reviewed some 20 case-studies drawn from India, East Africa, and Central America which seem to show that the new culture is gaining ground and is showing positive results both in terms of crop yields and in professional attitudes towards farmers' knowledge.

Engendering Participation

One of the most fundamental changes in agricultural development in recent years has been the rapid expansion of participatory approaches which involve interactive learning between professionals and farmers. A growing list of methods now exist for (1) professionals to understand local people; (2) local people to inform outsiders of their needs; and (3) local people to analyse their own conditions. As Pretty (1995, p. 174) notes: "The interactive involvement of many people in different institutional contexts has promoted innovation and ownership." He cites some common principles in the alternative systems of learning and action:

• A defined methodology and systematic learning process: all participants learn cumulatively from each other.

• Multiple perspectives: diversity is deliberately sought; bias and prejudice are not avoided; multiple descriptions of real-world activity are encouraged.

• Group-learning processes: group enquiry and interaction; different sectors and disciplines; outsiders and insiders.

• Facilitating experts and stakeholders: expert role is to help others achieve what they want.

• Sustained action: learning leads to debate about change and accommodation of conflicting viewpoints; debate seeks to motivate and strengthen capacity to remove obstacles and initiate action.

How can such laudable goals be achieved? Much can be learned from direct project experience. As Atampugre (1993) notes for the fascinating experiences with NGOs on the Projet Agro-forestier (PAF) at Yatenga, Burkina Faso, many of the best examples remain undocumented and handed down only anecdotally. However, that of course is the way that farmers' experience is accumulated. Nicholas Atampugre's brutally candid evaluation of PAF, Behind the Stone Lines, shows that there are no simple formulae for reaching, understanding, and motivating people to action. Inter-village conflicts, the tolerant attitude to corruption, and the turbulent social dynamics between project staff and local people all make the simple goals above rhetorically easy to say but difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, distilled from experiences such as these which have had undeniable technical impacts - in the Yatenga case, the digging of diguettes and other soil- and waterconservation measures - there is an accumulating fund of participatory methods for alternative systems of learning and action which have proved themselves for some groups in some situations. Table 3 lists a number of these methods.²

As practitioners have found, participation calls for collective analysis, and when it works well, groups can, through shared perceptions, make significant advances in designing developments and motivating to action. Important common elements will include the visual construction of a problem using local criteria and illustrative material. Sensitive, non-intimidatory interviewing is essential: several observers have described such interviews as being more like structured conversations. In the final analysis, however, participatory learning requires empathy on the part of practitioners and openness on the part of local people - in short, it sets a bond of trust, and that trust will need hours of dialogue to build. The 1980s paradigm of "Rapid Rural Appraisal" has had to give way to "Participatory Appraisal" simply because the process cannot be rushed. Partnerships take time.

Table 3 - Participatory Methods of Rural Appraisal; Alternative Systems of Learning and Action

* Direct field observation
* Key informants ("local experts")
* Focus groups/group interviews
* Participant observation Transect walks (walking with the locals)
* Participatory mapping/village landscape modelling/Venn diagrams
* Seasonal calendars/daily routines/activity profiles
* Ranking/scoring matrices
* Use of local value criteria and preference ranking
* Oral- and ethno-histories and local stories/portraits
* Community problem brainstorming
* Proxy indicators

Conclusion: Components of participatory land management

Land management for sustainable development is not about finding the right science and the new technology that will solve our problems. The "technology kitbag" approach to agricultural development in developing countries has created as many problems as it has provided solutions; and it has left many disappointed people, bypassed by development, because of their inaccessibility to scientifically determined solutions and the inappropriateness of solutions to their particular circumstances. The new agenda of farmer participatory land management is about matching existing knowledge - formal and informal - with the vast array of potential combinations of environmental circumstances and socio-cultural and economic situations. People have for centuries been gaining livelihoods from difficult environments; they have been learning all the time; the products of that learning have been handed down in the form of custom and practice; the accumulated knowledge cannot possibly be reproduced today in modern scientific experiments because of the huge number of possible permutations of circumstances and the complexity of relevant variables which affect the outcome of agricultural production.

What are the key components of a farmer-participatory approach to sustainable land management? Adapted from the listing of Hinchcliffe et al. (1995), formulated for the particular case of participatory watershed development, we may highlight the following differences between participatory and conventional approaches:

Participatory: local communities are fully and actively involved in the analysis of their land-management problems. Conventional: communities may be consulted about their views, but the analysis is done by professionals.

Participatory: external support organisation is a facilitator of analysis and a catalyst for action. For sustainability, it may assist with creation of local institutions and user groups to manage aspects of the natural resources; and encourage such institutions to develop their own procedures, rules, capital, and operating criteria in order to ensure continuance after external support withdraws. Conventional: donor support creates new, imposed, externally financed structures with little linkage to local community or to local government.

Participatory: information dissemination is by farmer-to-farmer extension and informal networking; the object is to create greater self-reliance and closer collaboration and community dependency; extension agents act as facilitators. Conventional: information is transferred by extension agents through key informants, demonstration plots, field visits, and the media; the aim is to convince farmers of the importance and utility of the information.

Participatory: flexibility and adaptation to local circumstances pervade any recommended technologies and selected crops; individual farmer needs and criteria for choice override technical specifications. Conventional: development of blueprint solutions and recommended practices by professional staff for local people.

Participatory: emphasis on sustainability, equity, and access to improvements; not on short-term benefits. Benefits which occur without subsidies, inducements, and external assistance are favoured. Conventional: adoption criteria include technical efficiency, production maximisation, cost-benefit analysis.

Our challenge in land management for sustainable development is to harness the knowledge that is right for the times, the people, and the environment - a knowledge that has been constructed from a diverse and complex set of causalities, and one that has withstood a society which is placing increasing demands on natural resources. Some may conclude from this listing that science is usurped and that myth and local knowledge take its place. However, science has its mythology too, not least in conclusions based upon poor measurement, inadequate data, and simple mistakes (e.g. the case of soil erosion: Stocking 1995a). The role of science has to be different: as observer rather than manipulator; becoming more socially aware, and accepting interdisciplinary social science as an equal in deriving applicable conclusions; rejecting technical fixes and replacing them with tentative hypotheses and lists of optional strategies. Of course, such a role is less satisfying to those who wish to pontificate: therefore, the style of science needs to be different - less dictatorial, more provisional, greater willingness to learn from others, less inclined to force its own recommendations.

In such changes which are implied in a farmer-participatory approach to land management, there still exists a crucial role of science to describe, understand, and seek explanations for practices and views of land users. This is what PLEC (People, Land Management, and Environmental Change) is all about. The project is searching for ways farmers have learnt how to cope with environmental change and other pressures (such as conflict, economic forces, and demographic change), principally through utilising variety and diversity in the natural environment. Biodiversity, for example, is seen in many small-farm management strategies in the ways that people promote it in their own lands and conserve genetic pools to cover for an uncertain and unpredictable future. PLEC, we believe, highlights the necessary and radically different approach to science, by working with anthropology, the humanities, and socio-economics as well as interdisciplinary science to find a much more realistic understanding of the complexities of the real world in which we all operate.


1. As Häusler (1995) points out, different approaches to indigenous and scientific knowledge systems may not be so contradictory because of the knowledge itself, but because of the perspective of the people promoting the knowledge. This has led in recent years to the "actor-oriented" approach, which asserts that the processes by which the social actors interact, negotiate, and accommodate to each others' life-worlds lead either to reinforcement of existing types of knowledge or to the emergence of new forms - see Long and Long (1992) for a discussion of the distinctions between knowledge systems and how these may affect development discourses.

2. Numerous publications now give guidance on methods of participatory learning and action. See, for example, Pretty et al. (1995) and the RRA Notes published by the International Institute for Environment and Development, London, between 1988 and 1995. From Number 22, February 1995, the RRA Notes changed name to PLA Notes (Notes on Participatory Learning and Action) in recognition that many of us are unhappy with the notion of "rapid" and cannot see why the discussion should be confined to "rural."

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