|CERES No. 111 (FAO Ceres, 1986, 50 p.)|
An interview with Santiago Funes
Ceres: The humid tropics are the only agricultural frontier left for Mexico. What are the possibilities for developing them?
Funes: About 7.6 hectares of what are called the tropical coastal lowlands are not being used. When we speak of the country's most important agricultural frontier, we mean a large area of underutilized land which would be put to better use generating products for domestic consumption and export. There are great physical obstacles to the development of an agriculture based on the experiences of non-tropical zones. These are the type of soil, the uncontrolled excess of water, the presence of semi-permanent flooded areas, the amount of rainfall, and the presence of significant annual dry seasons.
Q.: In a word, the only technological option is to make use of the knowledge of the human resources in the zone.
A.: That is one factor among others that we must consider. The physical problems must be overcome and development of productive systems with a different orientation, appropriate to the specific conditions of each tropical area, must be stimulated.
Second, we are underutilizing the tropics in Mexico because there are technological deficits. Research has emphasized sustaining expansion and agricultural growth in non-tropical zones. As late as 1970, not even minimal facilities existed for agricultural research on the tropics.
There are also social and economic difficulties. In the case of
underutilization due to livestock farming, clearly there are benefits to be
reaped from the present extensive livestock breeding in the tropics, and clearly
the fact that those benefits are obtained in relation to the average rate of
profit in the system allows investment in extensive livestock breeding in the
tropics to continue.
On the other hand, the peasant economies in the tropics have in the last few decades found themselves with an increasing incapacity to reproduce themselves as the conditions of the initial viability, which lasted almost until the beginning of the 1950s, have changed.
These peasant economies (in the Tabascan lowlands, for example) used to be capable of producing three tons of maize per hectare with slash-and burn agriculture. They are now producing between 600 and 800 kilo grams per hectare, and are insisting on application of a technology which is no longer viable.
Q.: Why is this tropical region important for the future of the country?
A.: The historical growth of the national economy has caused the concentration of inhabitants in industries, and employment opportunities in a few very large urban-industrial centres, located principally on the central plateau, in Monterrey and Guadalajara. The vast and humid tropical lowlands, with great potential, but generally underutilized, could be an area for development, which, if well handled, could receive agricultural and livestock production advantageously.
Q.: Will the rural population disappear or migrate to the cities unless this frontier is developed?
A.: This is generally what has been happening in the Mexican tropics. As productive systems cease to be viable, people lose interest in continuing to live and work in the rural areas. In most cases, agriculture in the tropics demands much effort and human energy. The risks of farming have increased for two reasons, one being loss of diversity. It used to be both possible and desirable to utilize the soil differently: maize and other basic crops were planted; there were fruit trees and the possibility of capitalizing on timber production; people kept cattle on a small scale and even fished. In contrast, today we find a tendency toward specialization or the reduction of the variety of crops and productive options. The second reason is change in the natural resources, such as the increase in plant diseases due to certain environmental changes. We have found a deterioration in the quality of the peasant diet in the PRODERITH project areas since 1950. Protein is replaced by carbohydrates; rich and varied homegrown foods are replaced by less rich, less varied foods from outside.
Q.: How important is the loss of technical and cultural knowledge?
A.: Traditional knowledge is fundamental. Discouragement of a continuation of traditional productive systems in the tropics leads to a break in the transfer of knowledge. In PRODERITH it has always been said that peasant economies in the tropics can no longer continue as such, as conditions have changed. But a viable project could be defined based on what they were in the past and what they are today. For agricultural research, this knowledge is essential as it includes not only traditional theoretical knowledge, let's say experience passed on by oral tradition, but also the availability of genetic material and the knowledge of the characteristics of the soil, is fundamental. One of the main related issues must be the application of new knowledge which can be adapted and used by the peasants, by transforming it into productive systems and real employment options.
Q.: This leads us to one of the most important aspects of rural communication within PRODERITH: the capacity to make the peasant participate.
A.: We have developed a very interesting system of rural communication in PRODERITH. First, I must say that we were working within a very clearly defined programme. The starting point was establishment of a system of communication within the development process proposed by the Government in 1978. We developed a system related in the first instance to the institutional development required to support development in the tropics effectively.
Institutions can also be thought of as information networks which must be enriched with new material which then leads to institutional behaviour suitable for the needs of the tropics and the project, which requires them to act in a coordinated fashion in support of production. That is the first level of communication for development. Second, these institutions should see themselves as organic groups of people. Generally, the personnel recruited to serve rural producers and their organizations is not adequately trained to work in the tropics.
Q.: And agricultural personnel is generally the worst paid and least motivated?
A.: That's true of the personnel in direct contact with the producers. As a solution to this, the Mexican Government made the development of what we might call a professional civil service an official policy, but its introduction will be slow and costly. Only a good civil service scheme that ensures continuity and remuneration according to the professional development and work capacity of the technicians can the situation be corrected. In PRODERITH a very strong human resource policy has been chosen, consisting of short courses, training in long courses inside and outside the country, and field training. The horizontal transfer of experience between technicians involved in concrete rural development projects situated in very different tropical areas and with great distances between them is very important. The rural communication system was conceived and implemented to lend support to in-service training and to the exchange of experience among technicians involved in the process.
Q.: Moving away from the old scheme often found in various countries of a purely vertical transfer of knowledge and orders from top to bottom of...
A.: Exactly. It is surprising how an inservice training programme like that used in PRODERITH can benefit young technicians. We have had many cases of technicians who were hired at the lowest level of the bureaucratic scale but quickly acquired the capacity to take on medium-scale operations by applying the guidelines and knowledge acquired in PRODERITH. This is the second level: communication for the development of personnel working out their service in PRODERITH.
The third level has to do with the protagonists of rural development. Development in the tropics - as anywhere-cannot be achieved without the real support and active participation of the producers. But for this to be possible a framework for contacts between the rural population and the promoting institution needs to be created from the beginning of the development operation. It is very important that the institution be able to communicate directly with the producer.
Q.: To establish mutual trust.
A.: Yes. But, the peasants can't always speak their minds. There is a question of censorship. Sometimes they don't tell the truth because they have a standard response to questions from the outside. What also happens is that each peasant has his own perception, but the real problem is in understanding not so much the individual point of view but the consensus of the community.
Q.: Don't different groups establish different relations with the outside?
A.: From the beginning PRODERITH told the peasants what the programme was about, what its purpose was. At the same time that we carried out the evaluations needed to define the projects, we began the system of rural communication to stimulate what we have called "situations of internal debate" inside the community: debates about the past, present, and future. Just by stimulating existing networks, using efficient media like video, the peasants were able to rapidly articulate a structured and precise dialogue with the institutions.
It is recognized that a sharing of experiences among peasants is an important prelude to development. We have used the rural communication system to stimulate this exchange not only at the local or project level but also as part of PRODERITH's exercise in communicating peasants' experiences between different areas of the Mexican tropics. To this end, several meetings have been organized, addressing subjects important from a production point of view, such as drainage systems and their exploitation at the parcel level, systems of water control and alternative means of using and conserving tropical soils. Women's issues have also been addressed. Interesting experiences have been shared-for example, the use of soya, home improvements, small-scale livestock farming, and family orchards.
Another aspect of the system is its use in the introduction of new technology. Let me try to explain this in some detail.
PRODERITH's greatest effort to bring in outside knowledge has been in water control. Infrastructure has been designed at the water-bed and subwater-bed levels and has included rivers, streams, unsilting works, and main and secondary drainage systems. Designs have been carried out with a view to use on parcels of land by means of work. The design requires participation by the producers, their communities, and peasant organizations at the community and project-area levels. The rural communication system encourages this kind of participation.
It's always kept in mind that the design phase as well as the construction phase are preliminary to the use of the infrastructure for productive purposes and its maintenance. The organization of the producers during the preparatory stages favours their permanent organization during the operative and maintenance stages. However, it is the impact of the infrastructure that gives meaning to the peasant organization, that motivates its organized participation, and that, in the final analysis, gives credence to the peasants' acceptance of the works and decision to renew their pact with the environment. Technical assistance services can't be removed from the debate surrounding infrastructure and its consequences. They interact with the peasant groups in the detection of the production-related problems. In this way, the community generates information that field technicians can transmit to other levels of institutional organization, particularly to the research centres that with PRODERITH's assistance address specific problems.
In PRODERITH, all these efforts are undertaken within the context of the peasant family and the rural community. Because of this, all the diagnostic exercises and information and training activities are carried out in the community with the participation of producers with similar interests and expectations in such a way as to encourage the suggestion and implementation of local initiatives in the development area.
Q.: Are these local projects oriented only to production?
A.: They couldn't be. Let's say that they attempt to take into consideration the whole spectrum of problems and possible solutions. Technological innovation has meaning if it contributes to an improvement in the general conditions of family economies. That's why the rural communication system takes into consideration almost all aspects of the rural community, not neglecting the groups of concerns conventionally called culture. For this reason, we have encouraged a tendency to transfer the design and control of the programmed materials to the local peasant organizations.
Q.: How about the results of this type of development interaction which offers technological, managerial, and cultural inputs to the peasants? Has it been possible to quantify its impact on production and living standards?
A.: Preliminary work with rural communication began in 1977. The first stage of the programme was the installation of the field components in 1979. This stage, now complete, covered 50 000 hectares in all in a new service of integral rural development support that includes technical assistance, family development and other components. It's too soon for a rigorous and definitive evaluation, but what we do know is that in all the PRODERITH projects output has increased as measured by volume or by value of production.
The process of technological innovation has begun. It is based on a more rational use of resources so that producers can exercise greater control over water by using a parcel-based drainage system. It has also highlighted soil conservation. Furthermore, well-developed and even struggling peasant organizations have established greater control over their relations with the external environment. This newly created control is, of course, only just becoming consolidated. I would say that the PRODERITH areas are much improved over what they were seven years ago. Producers have seen what they were like and how available resources have been used to create concrete improvements. In this context it is evident that the system of rural communication has made a significant contribution. The first and very difficult challenge was to assure that the communication system would be an integral part of the complex PRODERITH programme. This has been achieved. Furthermore, field technicians, peasants, and their organizations solicit and use the communication system's materials in accordance with a methodology that has been perfected through experience and a more extensive and intensive use.
The communication system has built into it a system of monitoring and evaluation. They form part of the programme's monitoring and evaluation system. We have just finished satisfactorily a study of the effect that this system has had in three of the six projects in their first stage.
Though the conclusions are satisfactory, they do not give us peace of mind. There is a lot still to be done. We must improve the basic components of communication for rural development day by day: methods, personnel, and equipment. We must work toward a real and enduring transfer of both the organization and control of the operation at community level to peasant organization. This is of course more than just the result of a bureaucratic decision; it means developing a new process and a new management of the instruments and contents of rural communication but at the same time implies consolidating the institutional commitment to dealing with the renewed demands which will spring from peasant management. We must also improve the training of technical staff, so that the system can become permanently self-sufficient. We must also perfect strategies so they are appropriate for the future development of the Mexican tropics. It is worth mentioning that the total cost of the system has been less than one per cent of the total investment and cost of the programme as a whole.
Q: What are the fundamental problems in this new phase that PRODERITH and the rural communication system are entering?
A.: This idea of a new phase must be explained. PRODERITH completed its first stage between 1979 and 1984. In each of the six intensive projects, a total solution applied to the problems found in the economies of peasants and other types of producers, generally with success. In this first stage, a strategy for approaching the problems was established; a planning system covering problems on both local and national levels. A methodology and the tools for dealing with institutional work, including the rural communication system, was also established. As a result of this we now have projects which can continue work carried out in intensive areas and begin to expand, principally by adding infrastructure to the technical support tasks which were carried out in the first stage. The second stage will mean expanding on what was done in the first stage. Operations will also begin in other areas of the Mexican tropics.
The Government has taken the political decision to initiate this second stage. PRODERITH forms part of the strategic project for the humid tropical region in the latest national integral rural development programme. PRODERITH can contribute trained and experienced personnel, then tried and tested strategies and methods, and above all, the social base in project zones willing to carry on with the development exercise.
There are, of course, questions still to be answered. The transition from the first to the second stage is not only quantitative but also qualitative. In development areas of around 100 000 hectares, there is no doubt that problems which fall outside of the agricultural sector arise. A greater responsibility and autonomy of institutional actions at a local and area level would appear to be indispensable. But this presents a challenge for the institutional organization, for coordination between the institutions and for the training and maintenance of technical personnel. In the second stage we should act in areas where peasant organization, not only those at community level but also second and third level organization, joint communes or groups of joint communes, can and should play a greater role. It is obvious that this would demand greater involvement of the theoretical and practical aspects of peasant organization. On the other hand, it must be recognized that attaining development goals always implies a certain number of contradictions in society. In the second stage these contradictions will doubtless be greater or at least more complex than those which PRODERITH had to face in the first stage.
Q.: Do you mean that peasant organizations should change from being productive organizations that manage their own production systems to organizations that can participate in planning on a project area scale, assume control and maintenance of infrastructure, and even play a different role in the political system?
A.: I think so. And this would be consistent with government policy, which gives priority to decentralization,-the establishment of a democratic planning system, and, in general, the democratization of national life. The producers must go on to participate in aspects that are very important at the level of development areas. Stimulating this idea of giving developing societies more responsibilities, interacting with the concrete aspects of this and adjusting them to national objectives, adapting them to a realistic rate of national development and to investment possibilities, would increasingly demand a higher standard of institutional interventions. This is, without a doubt, one of the main challenges facing PRODERITH in this second stage.