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close this bookResource Management for Upland Areas in Southeast Asia - An Information Kit (IIRR, 1995, 207 p.)
close this folder1. Overview of upland issues and approaches
View the documentUpland development issues and approaches
View the documentPeople's participation
View the documentLevels of decision-making

Levels of decision-making

Agriculture and natural resources management systems are made up of social, biophysical and economic systems. They must be viewed at different levels: from the individual farmer and household, up through the community to the national and international levels. These levels are interrelated and affect each other in various ways.


Different people or organizations make decisions at the various levels. At the farm level, individual members of the farm household (male, female, young, old) make key decisions. The household is the most important decision-making unit in many settings. At the community level, local leaders (both formal and informal) are important. The cultural norms and traditional practices of ethnic groups may also determine the activities of a family or an individual.

Individuals and groups make decisions after considering many factors—social, biophysical and economic (see General systems overview). The perceived risk involved is a major influence. Decision-makers may take a short-term or a long-term view.

Decisions made at one level can affect that level and the lower levels. For example, an individual farmer can decide what crops to plant and this will affect his or her income and the types of pest problems in the field.

Individual decision-makers at one level do not normally affect what happens at higher levels. For instance, an individual farmer's cropping practices do not have a major impact on the amount of soil erosion in a river catchment or on the market price of the crop. However, farmers can have an impact on erosion or price if a large number of individuals make the same decisions, either deliberately (as in a cooperative) or because of external factors (as when they respond to price increases).

Empowerment-a key to sustainable development-means enabling farmers and other rural people to make decisions that affect them, both at their own level and (through community organizations) at higher levels.



Production and decision-making are affected by social, biophysical and economic systems in a given area. These systems are complex and interrelated, leaving farmers with large numbers of choices. An understanding of the many factors and the relationships among them is key to helping farmers make informed decisions. To do this, researchers and extensionists must have a broad understanding of various issues. Frequently, a multidisplinary approach to research is needed. (See General systems overview.)


Social elements include the farmer (male and female, young and old), the household and community. Each of these units has certain characteristics, skills, needs, priorities and rules.

Some social factors, such as management skills, can be changed through training or experience. Others, such as family size, change only in the long run.


Physical systems include soils, topography, climate, water and location. Biological elements include crops and livestock, insects and diseases.

Some of these can be altered by the scientist or farmer. For instance, water availability can be improved by building irrigation facilities. Crop yield potential can be increased by breeding droughtresistant varieties or by the use of fertilizers.


Economic components include village stores, input suppliers, and processing and marketing systems. These help determine the demand for a commodity, supply of inputs and prices of produce.

Many economic factors are determined at more macro levels, so are largely outside the control of individual farmers. However, they may be amenable to change by group action, cooperatives and government programs.

Scientific disciplines

Different scientific disciplines tend to address systems at certain levels. For instance, agronomists and plant pathologists focus on cropand field-level biophysical systems. Community organizers are interested in the multifarm and community levels. Some disciplines (such as ecology) span a wide range of levels.

Role of the extensionists at various levels

The extensionist works mainly at the farmer, household and community levels (levels I to 4) in the system. He or she has little control over characteristics determined at higher levels (such as commodity prices and disease epidemics). The extensionist's role depends on the level of the system.

Crop and field levels

At the crop and field levels (levels 1 and 2), interactions among the soil, plants and insects are the key. The farmer can, to a certain extent, control these interactions through the choice of crop, planting time, application of compost or artificial fertilizers and management of pests. The role of the extensionist is to help the farmer decide what are the most appropriate ways of controlling these interactions—for instance, by helping identify promising local knowledge, testing technologies and introducing new ideas.

Farm level

At the farm level (level 3), the extensionist can help the farmer design changes in his or her farm system, such as introducing a new enterprise or assisting in the construction of soil conservation measures.

Community level

At the community level (level 4), the extensionist can help farmers and other rural people become organized so they can have an impact on higher-level systems. For instance, a cooperative can affect the marketing system and thereby the price that farmers received for their produce. A farmer group can test and implement soil and water conservation techniques in a microcatchment, reducing soil erosion and improving productivity in this area

Watershed level

At the watershed level (level 5), the extensionist can help test the applicability of improved management practices so they can be promoted over a wider area. The extensionist can facilitate cooperation and exchange of information among villages and ethnic groups. He or she can also influence local governments to improve market systems and the accessibility of remote villages.