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Barefoot agro-foresters: A suggested catalyst

Barefoot agro-foresters: A suggested catalyst

Peter Poschen
Faculty of Forestry, University of Freiburg im Breisgau, Federal Republic of Germany

Agro-forestry is meant to be a concept for the solution of the tremendous land-use problems in the tropics. In many parts of the tropics agro-forestry schemes, or at least starting points for them, have developed spontaneously. The problems in the extension, optimization, and adaption of such autochthonous techniques are many. The exclusive application of scientific methods to the investigation of existing techniques and the synthesis of new agro-forestry techniques are not feasible because of the costs, time, and staff required. For the development of traditional schemes and the improvement and extension of agro-forestry techniques, I suggest the introduction of "barefoot" agroforesters with a role in agro-forestry similar to that of barefoot doctors in the health services in China-namely, researchers in the field who are also extension workers. In this way they can apply simple and effective scientific methods to local starting points in agro-forestry and thus make an impact without major financial inputs.

These barefoot agro-foresters would serve as catalysts, undertaking field research and publication and extension work, using local knowledge and experience, and applying the most elementary scientific methods like observation, comparison, and systematization. Although there are problems in agro-forestry that call for sophisticated research instruments, in many cases small-scale science may be more efficient.

Barefoot agro-foresters will also need a good understanding of the local population's problems, conditions, and mentality. Therefore, they should be limited to areas where the basic conditions of life, ecology, social, cultural, and economic structure are relatively homogeneous from the agro-forestry point of view. The size of the area must be small enough or accessible enough for them to visit regularly. Close contact enables the co-operation between farmer and catalyst necessary for effective improvements.

Important functions of catalysts are to introduce know-how (e.g., simple methods for wood preservation, useful pruning tools); to establish contacts (e.g., sources for seeds or planting material, outlets for produce); and to analyse the deficits of the institutional and legal framework. In the case of alder with pasture, for example, the forestry law of Costa Rica does not take agro-forestry into consideration at all. People are needed to draw the attention of the authorities to this deficiency. Other paragraphs of this law, concerning tax reductions, etc., could be beneficial to farmers, but the farmers are not aware of them. A guideline for the catalysts' work must be to begin where the farmers are and move forwards from there. Techniques that have been developed on trial plots and in laboratories often do not comply with this rule.

Since the problems of tropical land use are growing at a speed that traditional scientific procedures cannot keep up with, fast-working, efficient, and low-input measures are required if agro-forestry is to play a positive role in development. Observations and experience within Costa Rica suggest that the introduction of such catalysing personnel could multiply several-fold the importance of agro-forestry within a few years, and thereby contribute to meeting the basic needs of the local people.