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close this bookCERES No. 109 (FAO Ceres, 1986, 50 p.)
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View the documentLocal language use helping to spread new farming techniques
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Local language use helping to spread new farming techniques

One obvious but often overlooked reason for the difficulties encountered in upgrading agricultural practices in the developing world is the fact that an overwhelming majority of peasant farmers do not understand any of the European languages in which much of the international exchange in agricultural research is conducted. To a lesser degree, the same handicap faces many extension workers charged with disseminating improved technology. And even where some familiarity with European languages exists, there is often resistance to its use, based on post-colonial perceptions of independence and sovereignty. In the mid-1970s, when the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) surveyed more than 400 government agencies, research centres, academic institutions and non governmental groups in the region concerning languages to be used in education and extension programmes, the great majority indicated a preference for local languages. The proportion of respondents favouring local languages exceeding 75 per cent in seven of 13 countries and fell below 50 per cent in only two. A more recent survey by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) showed that educational material published only in English failed to reach millions of farmers, extension specialists, scientists, and educators in the developing world.

An early initiative to help bridge this gap was undertaken by FAO in the early 1970s when it began publishing its Better Farming Series in non-European languages. Although still modestly budgetted at about $150 000 per year, the programme has succeeded in publishing and distributing practical farming and rural homemaking guides in Arabic, Hindi, Indonesian, Lao, Swahili, and Thai.

A new effort in this field has been launched by IRRI with its manual, "A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice", recently made available in 22 languages worldwide. Editions in at least 14 other languages are in press.

The effectiveness of this manual and other publications in local languages as against English is now being studied in Leyte, Philippines, through a cooperative research project of Araneta University, the Philippines Bureau of Plant Industry, the FAO Integrated Pest Control Programme, and IRRI. "A Farmer's Primer on Growing Rice" was conceived and compiled by Dr Benito S. Vergara, an IRRI plant physiologist. When teaching IRRI courses on rice science to students and trainees from Third World countries, Vergara sensed the need for a simple, readable book for extension agents or progressive farmers that would explain clearly the "how" and "why" of good rice-growing practices. Although leaflets available then listed steps for successful rice cultivation, Vergara believed that farmers and rice production specialists should understand better the reasons why such practices as seed incubation or proper depth transplanting were recommended. The Science Education Centre of the University of the Philippines at Diliman used an early draft to teach principles of agricultural science to elementary students. IRRI trainees who studied early drafts of the primer in Vergara's courses returned home and realised its usefulness. But it was not then available in their local languages. Even before IRRI published the primer in English in 1979, requests were made for permission to translate it into Thai and Bahasa Indonesia. The author knew then that his primer was reaching the people for whom it was intended, those involved in rice growing.

Since IRRI does not have the staff, expertise, or equipment to translate and publish its educational materials extensively in non-English languages, it cooperates with other agricultural agencies and private publishers in developing countries in joint efforts to publish their materials in local languages. According to IRRI statistics, by late 1983, more than 600 000 copies of non-English editions of IRRI books had been or were being printed in 32 languages.

Another effort to hurdle the language barrier is being made by the Developing Countries Farm Radio Network. Based in Toronto, Canada, it supplies about 500 affiliates in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and the Pacific with tapes and scripts that provide the raw material for farm radio broadcasts in more than 100 languages. The broadcasts reach an estimated 100 million listeners. Project Director George S. Atkins, a former farm radio commentator for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation who also produced that service's renowned "National Farm Radio Forum", sends out a quarterly package of radio tapes covering a wide range of practical subjects.

The first such package was distributed in English in 1979 to 34 charter members in 26 developing countries. The first participants were all farm broadcasters. Now the network also includes agricultural extension workers, health workers, writers, missionaries, teachers, librarians, and others. Currently the tapes and scripts, which are distributed in English, French, and Spanish, have been translated into 113 languages and dialects.

Information polls sent out with each package request evaluations from participants. The evaluations and suggestions are used as a guide in determining the form and content of information prepared for future packages. Participants are also encouraged to contribute material for use in future broadcasts. Atkins lists the following criteria for his selection of material to be used: 1) it must be aimed at increasing food supplies and improving the quality of life of the small farmer and his or her family; 2) it must be simple and practical; 3) its idea must be communicable by radio or word of mouth; 4) it must have been developed, tested, and proved in the developing world; 5) it must be useable or adaptable for use in other developing countries; 6) it must cost little or no money, requiring only resources ordinarily available to the farmer; 7) it must require little or no help from extension workers.

With a staff of six, the network operates on a budget of about $1.5 million per year underwritten by three sponsors: the Canadian farm equipment firm, Massey Ferguson, the University of Guelph, which provides office space and administrative and technical support, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).

"One of the secrets of the network's success," says Atkins, "is our threeway approach to communicating with the local broadcaster, teacher, or missionary, whose knowledge of English, French, or Spanish may be somewhat limited. In the regular feedback we receive, they tell us that by following the script, by listening to a recording of the script, and by referring to illustrations with the script, they are able to fully understand the information and then pass it along to the rural people they serve in the local language and cultural mode."

Nick Kesi with Ceres staff