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close this book Food first: The Campesino a Campeslno movement: Farmer-Led, Sustainable Agriculture in Central America and Mexico
close this folder Methodology
View the document A. How did it all happen? Can we make it work again?
View the document B. Bringing the madness to the method

B. Bringing the madness to the method

The essence of Campesino a Campesino is, of course, farming itself. This simple maxim fundamentally distinguishes it from conventional agricultural extension.

Farmer innovation and farmer solidarity are the two pillars of the Campesino a Campesino methodology. These primary aspects are encouraged and reinforced by small-scale experimentation and farmer to farmer training. These are, in turn, implemented and complemented through promotor-led workshops, field visits and farmer to farmer seminars gatherings and symposia.

Farmers do not just share information, they share culture. This is the basis for sharing knowledge' -which can be shared but not taught. While professionals may support this process of extension with technical information. methodological training and organizational support, it is still primarily a farmers' activity based on their own culture. Put simply then, there can be no farmer-led extension if one of the parties is not a farmer.

1. Basic principles and technical components

The basic methodological principles of Campesino a Campesino have not changed significantly since they were expressed in Two Ears of Corn in 1982. They are:

- obtain rapid and recognizable results

- start small, go slowly

- limit the introduction of technology

- use small-scale experimentation

- develop a multiplier effect

Likewise, the basic components of farmer experimentation, theoretical and practical instruction and teaching others remain central to Campesino a Campesino. If anything. the original principles and components developed by the Cachikels and World Neighbors have: been expanded and further developed by applying these principles in the right place at the right time.

The advantage of the basic principles is their flexibility, which has allowed for campesino and technician creativity and resulted in a myriad of techniques -both methodological and technical which are constantly being adopted, adapted and reinvented. Further, it has given rise to constantly evolving levels of organization on a village, national and international level.

The technical, methodological and organizational creativity of Campesino a Campesino has allowed the movement to extend from the exhausted soils of the dry and semi-humid hillsides to the lowlands and humid tropics of the agricultural frontier. As Campesino a Campesino spread, the original practices were adopted. adapted and complemented with new techniques. New innovations surfaced in response to different conditions. For example:

dry to semihumid eroded hillsides

semihumid fertile hillsides

humid forests & lowlands

contour ditches, bunds, terraces, comporting, water harvesting, green manure

IPM, asociated cover cropping, in-line intensive tillage

weed control, agroforestry, rotations

Exchanges between farmers of different ecological life-zones sometimes result in an inappropriate application of a particular technique at first. However, small-scale experiments allow errors to be corrected and technologies to be adapted. As a result, the technical "basket" in any given agroecosystem can be greatly enriched from others.

2. Program steps

The development of Campesino a Campesino's "technological basket" has been fairly asystematic, evolving as campesinos from different areas become interested and begin experimenting and sharing their innovations. Nonetheless, NGO's which support the movement with technical assistance and sustainable agriculture projects have developed some programmatic guidelines. The following table is meant to be descriptive rather than normative, and gives an idea of how this methodology can be organized and implemented on a project level.

Steps in farmer-led extension:



1. Getting Started

Diagnostic, Site selection, Identify key farmers


Visits to Campesino a Campesino promoter fields


First promoter-led workshops, promotor-led field surveys


First problems assessment


Extensionist support

2.Identitying Useful Small-scale Elements

Promoter-led workshops on conservation, and on-farm, farmer experimentation

3. Design of Experiments

Promoter-led workshops and group site


visits for experiment selection and design based on


farmer-identified problems and possible solutions

4. Sharing Experiments

Campesino a Campesino, group visits


to field experiments


Follow-up by promoters and/or extensionists

5. Sharing Results

Group and community field visits, local and national


Local Seminar (encuentro) of farmer-experimenters


Publication of results in local and national farmer newsletters


and magazines, radio & TV

6. Spreading and Consolidating the Movement

National & International Campesino


Encuentros, Local Transects,


Community Workshops

3. The Canasta Metodológica

The accumulation of technical knowledge in sustainable agriculture by campesino promotores has also been accompanied by an impressive and ever-changing body of methodological knowledge about how to teach and promote sustainable agriculture. A rich basket of didactic techniques has proven very effective in teaching the complex, diverse and abstract, agroecological concepts basic to sustainable agriculture.

The very condition of functional illiteracy among the majority of campesinos demands both creativity and a tremendous attention to detail when teaching or learning something new. Despite the introduction of the television, like preliterate civilizations, campesinos continue to relate events, information, values and ideas through oral, visual and physical expression. Thus, campesino methods for learning sustainable agriculture usually employ several techniques for introducing, understanding, learning and remembering a new concept or practice. These may include a site visit and a hands-on trial for the practice, as well as a game, a related physical demonstration or experiment to help understand the concept, and a. song, story, poem or play to help relate the experience to others.

The "canasta metodológica," (literally the Methodological Basket) is a collection of these methods, recently documented and grouped in the following pedagogical categories:

• PROBLEM ANALYSIS Basic concepts of ecology, equilibrium and synergy: Activities for group agroecological appraisal of farms and watersheds, ecological history, weak links in the ecological chain, limiting factors in production, principal problems, causes and possible solutions, IPM.

• EXPERIMENTATION Experimentation based on overcoming limiting factors, controlling variables, valid comparisons and accurate measurements, group experimentation, working hypothesis and experimental design, importance of recording observations and results.

• PROMOTION Horizontal communication, watershed models. general agronomic knowledge: pH, water stress, evapotranspiration, erosion, texture, absorption, organic matter, level, average slopes, tillage, IPM.

A review of themes reveals a strong emphasis not simply in skills acquisition but knowledge acquisition. Campesinos not only want to know the how of sustainable agriculture, they want to know the why. And not only do they want to know, they want to teach.

Apart from its effectiveness among campesinos, the truly extraordinary contribution of the "basket" is its broad applicability. The games, activities and demonstrations have been used in elementary school garden programs (Mexico); for training ecotourism guides (Nicaragua); and for orienting extensionists, agronomists and even college students throughout Mesoamerica.

The Canasta demonstrates that it is possible to learn sustainable agriculture from farmers, not only on a practical level, but on a conceptual level as well.

The deductive and experiential nature of the Canasta is well suited for teaching the basic concepts of ecology and sustainable agriculture, and is a refreshing change from the rather ineffective "learning by rote" which dominates teaching and training in Central America. Also, learning agriculture from campesinos helps overcome the conventionally paternalistic (and frequently antagonistic) relationship between extensionists and campesinos. and builds sell: confidence among campesinos as a group. It may also help redefine the relationship between campesinos and other sectors of society.

As Mesoamerica's agroecological crisis continues to unfold, campesinos could turn out to be the ones holding not just the technical but the cultural keys for understanding and solving the region's rural, environmental problems.

4. The promotores

The primary actors in Campesino a Campesino are of course, the campesinos themselves, who as protagonists of their own movement, are at once potential executors, beneficiaries and sponsors of farmer-led experimentation, training and extension. Among the campesinos. the promoters are clearly the catalysts.

Initially, potential promoters are frequently the first farmers to formally experiment alternatives. As one of the original Cachikel consultants explains:

The success of their initial experimental plots often attracts a large number of other fanners. As these leaders beg)'' to explain to visitors what the'' did and what the results were they (are) unconsciously developing) the skills of a (promoter). Later they will organize local workshops provide formal and informal follow-up and prepare future promoters. They become primary village "training providers" and serve as a liaison between the commumity and development agencies us well US an initial motivator of the community.19

The salient characteristic of the promoter is the fact that he or she does not initially abandon their agricultural activities in order to provide professional "extension" services. Rather, it is the farm itself which is at once a lab, workshop. and living proof of the viability of sustainable agriculture. The advantage over the professional extensionist or técnico is that by their continued presence in the village, "they can repeat the ideas taught much more often... They are available when problems crop up and have some chance of solving them in a timely manner... Not all professional agronomists have the patience or are willing to dedicate the needed amounts of time to the process. (Promotores) are more accustomed to the slower pace of village life. Furthermore, they know personally how hard it is to risk one's livelihood--and local reputation-on new ideas (Ibid)." Just being farmers can lend credibility to their new practices. As one Mexican participant remarked,

With the extensionists if the practice is good or bad they' alwayds get their paycheck. Whatever they do they always eat whether their (demonstration) farm makes money or not. But a promoter has to live off his land. I know whatever works for him and his family will work for me and mine. That's how it is between campesinos.

But this comparative advantage can be placed in jeopardy in at least three ways:

1) If the promotores are perceived as receiving too many special advantages, (salaries, perks, etc.) they will be considered as "different" and the alternatives implemented may be considered (rightly or wrongly) as beyond the reach of the "average" campesino.

2! If the promotores advance too far ahead of their neighbors, technologically, the farm system will appear too complex to adopt.

3) If promotores work alone, they will often receive ridicule from the community for breaking with convention or tradition. This can produce a certain cultural introversion on the part of the promoter who may come to depend on professionals and program officers rather than the local population for acceptance and support.

Within Campesino a Campesino, quite a bit of effort has been spent defining the preferred qualities for promoters. Bunch described the ideal promotor with the following qualities:

- Motivation to help others

- technical knowledge

- Ability to teach

- Enthusiasm

- Conviction

- Prestige

Promotores themselves and villagers frequently emphasize the following qualities:

• 1) Promoters must be motivated to experiment, share, learn and teach.

• 2) They must be willing to donate time and be capable of interpreting and responding to local felt needs.

• 3) They must have a deep love of the land and for other campesinos.

• 4) They must be honest and responsible.

• 5) They must practice what they preach.

• 6) They must understand both theory and practice.

• 7) They cannot have an alcohol problem.

Many efforts have been made to establish an effective means of promoter selection. Clearly, imposing promoters selected by outsiders runs at cross purposes to the objective of empowering local populations to develop their own agriculture. However, attempts at early, "democratic election" of promotores by local communities has met with limited success. Villagers often select those people who already have many community responsibilities, those who are sons and daughters to the more powerful or prestigious, or -if they are not convinced of the project- those whom they least believe in. Even establishing appropriate agroecological and social criteria with villagers prior to selection, often results in overlooking those potential promotores who do not exhibit the agreed upon qualities at the moment of selection.

Both the selection and the training process for promoters are precisely that: processes -not events- and are both at least a medium-term investment of time and resources for project supported Campesino a Campesino efforts. These processes CUR be timed to coincide with the gradual development of the project itself within the village. As innovations are tested and introduced, promotores are in fact, being self-selected and trained, "hands on." In this sense, no real time is "lost."

What appears to be most important in the selection process are the results the promoter obtains in his or her field and their willingness to share their knowledge with others. Said one experienced and biblically oriented promotor,

"One recognizes a tree by it's fruits and a promoter by their actions."

The process by which promotores are trained and the agreements by which they relate to outside development partners -NGOs and LDOs- will also contribute to this "natural selection". This places a tremendous responsibility on the supporting LDO.

There is no fixed set of rules. But a lack of rules tends to be counterproductive. If the training and extension activities are carried out under a nebulous or tenuous set of agreements, or if agreements are non-existent, the lack of clear ground rules will allow opportunists. Whose motivation may well be economic compensation, power or prestige to take advantage of. the program. Worse, if projects begin by offering even the hope of salaries and perks instead of plain hard work, they run the risk of training people interested in gaining advantages over their neighbors rather than those interested in working together with them. Becoming a promoter will be viewed as an end in itself rather than a means to improve living standards by improving agriculture.

To avoid confusion, a clear and respectful interpretation of the basic principles outlined by Bunch must be arrived at early on, by participating promoter groups and the supporting technicians. These interpretations vary according to each situation.

The importance of training a solid group of promoters cannot be overemphasized. Groups allow innovations to be generated rapidly and diffused broadly through existing, extended family communication networks. In groups, there is more opportunity to specialize: some promoters are better at giving workshops, others at experimenting, others at providing follow-up. Further, the promotional work load itself is shared, thus promotores can work as little as a day a week away from their farms, eliminating, in large part, the problem of salaries.20

Further, groups allow for the necessary rotation and renovation of promotores without undue disruption of the work. Finally, groups allow the "pioneers" of new innovations support for what may appear as strange or even crazy ideas to the local farmers. A group can help defend fledglings promoters from unnecessary and demoralizing ridicule, (from both farmers and jealous technicians), especially at the beginning of the process.

Monetary remuneration aside for the moment, what motivates a farmer to become a promoter? Self-development as a farmer, the satisfaction of helping others, the prestige and respect of the community are all aspects mentioned in "Two Ears of Corn" and certainly continue to be important factors for motivation. However, with the growth of the Campesino a Campesino movement, another important factor has come into play: promoters are also motivated by a profound sense of contributing and belonging to the future of agriculture.

This is admittedly a romantic notion, but nonetheless important. Campesino a Campesino is, in part, a belief -belief that as campesinos they are not simply a poor people with "problems" to be solved, (through self-help or otherwise) but are in fact legitimate, social actors, capable of generating solutions, not only for themselves, but for agriculture and the environment in general.

5. Who should be a promotor?

Socio-econornic, agroecological and even cultural 'profiles" of the Campesino "innovator" or "promotor" have appeared in an attempt to predefine potential promotores by isolating those special qualities which set him or her apart from the rest. This is a somewhat futile exercise, in part because campesinos often change their social and economic profile significantly after working as promoters. Quiet, shy men and women who may never have held any socially responsible position in their lives have become eloquent teachers and tireless advocates of sustainable agriculture. Loners can become stalwart group organizers, sedentary farmers begin to travel, semi-migrant agricultural workers can shift their focus to family farming. What does appear to be consistent are the basic qualities outlined by Bunch fifteen years ago. But these are not always apparent until the campesino or campesina is actually working as a promotor. Also, misconceptions about literacy, level of schooling, traditions or prior leadership experience have been shattered by the-weight of the actual Campesino a Campesino experience. If anything, the typical "promotor" distinguishes himself or herself by being a typical "campesino".

As agencies and ministries cast about for methodologies for "farmer participation" or even "farmer-led" approaches to development, the temptation is great to define the "ideal" partner or to establish the "model" farm. Innovation, however, probably depends more on stimulating the existing family and cultural networks than in isolating "ideals." Rather than search for the ideal farmer typology or the key farm system, we might review the cultural context in which campesino innovation occurs. As farm systems research quickly discovered, campesino farm systems are in essence, family systems, often extensive and every bit as complex. Just as important as the production system is the "reproduction" system. After all, not only does campesino production depend on the family, but the family depends on the farm, for housing, employment, food, wood, water, etc. This farm/family framework can include off farm activities and employment as well. The point is that it tends to seek the security of that same framework. Innovations may surface in the field, in the garden, the patio or off farm. Infant nutrition programs, for example, have been instrumental in the spread of Velvet Bean in Honduras; school gardens spread the use of organic soil amendments and crop diversification in Mexico. The housewife in her patio or elementary school students in their garden program may prove to be every bit as critical to the innovation process as the farmer and the field.

Innovations will be tested for their validity and will be implemented if they contribute to the security of the family and the farm, which is the cultural and material basis for the reproduction of the campesino family as such. This logic does not always follow linear projections in terms of profits, higher yields or savings.

What are the "hot spots" for innovation within the farm/family system ? Who are the primary actors and how do they relate to others? Who are the family and inter-family communicators'? These are just some of the questions asked when attempting to strategically support campesino innovation.

6. The technicians

It has not been easy for technicians trained to extend Green Revolution technologies to participate in Campesino a Campesino. In Nicaragua, there are still less than a dozen assisting nearly 300 promotores. Why?

In the first place. few have any training or practical experience in ecology, which is, after all. one of the building blocks of sustainable agriculture. farm systems research notwithstanding,,, the majority of mid- and lower-level extensionists in Mesoamerica are not trained to analyze systems or detect agroecological problems. Few have much practical experience in experimentation, particularly field methods. Most have been reduced to distributing predetermined "recipes" to farmers. These extension methods, when applied to the complex and dynamic agroecological problems and opportunities of Sustainable Agriculture, have proven highly ineffective.

Second, simply put, conventional extension is more a business than a service, and little in it resembles innovation or solidarity. It is a service which, while providing solutions to production problems, does little to promote an innovative process among farmers themselves. The center stage occupied by the extensionist as "solution provider" and "expert" not only discourages farmer autonomy and technological independence, it also is a barrier to a more horizontal relationship between the two parties. The traditional role of the extensionist contradicts the notion of farmer as protagonist.

If during the earlier years, these differences resulted in conflicts between promotores and extensionists -particularly those who felt their technical territory infringed upon- recently it has become clear that extensionists are assuming a minor role in Central American agriculture, anyway. With the regional privatization of agricultural services, extension for the majority of farmers has simply disappeared. Conventional extension in general represents neither a limitation nor a resource for Campesino a Campesino.

But from the very beginning, Campesino a Campesino has benefited from the support of a few key professionals, some agronomists, others methodologists. These people have helped train and guide the promotores technically, methodologically and organizationally, primarily by recognizing problems and opportunities, bringing in new information, making contacts, providing institutional follow up and documentation and, in general, standing next to -or behind- the promotor in their role as protagonist in their own movement.

What is the future role for professionals in farmer-led extension? "Partnership," the easy answer, is not as easy as it sounds. Social and cultural conventions are not easily changed, particularly if there is no visible incentive. While it may be easy to convince farmers that their technical and cultural protagonism will result in more stability and control over their own agriculture, why should a technician change roles?

The Cachikel consultants consider that the role of the professional extensionist or agronomist is, in fact, enriched and enhanced by the Campesino a Campesino methodology:

When (promotores) take over many of the roles that were previously thought to be those of the agronomists. many agronomists begin to fear that their importance will diminish. Nevertheless, experience has shown the opposite to be the case. The role of the agronomist has become more important, more varied, and much more productive. And the demand for agronomists capable fulfilling this new role is astonishing...this new role will include initiating the innovative process in the communities, identifying and training villager extensionists, back-stopping for them, and providing a liaison between them and other development programs and sources of information... Two factors have emerged that have increased the demand for agronomists where farmer-led extension is being used. First of all, the newly acquired innovativeness of the people, and the success of their innovations has increased dramatically the demand for more technical information... Second, when development institutions realize the potential that farmer-led extension has, wizen they realize the tremendous influence this process can have for empowering and improving the lifestyles of thousands upon thousands of villagers, they tend to dedicate more of their time and budgets to agricultural improvement. Therefore the number of jobs and opportunities to agronomists increases.21

Given the extensive "downsizing" of Central America's agricultural ministries and extension programs, this vocational opportunity may soon turn out to be the only one available to agronomists.

Training in Campesino a Campesino approach as well as training in agroecology is essential for technicians, especially if they can be trained by Campesino promoters. But this training, in itself, is not enough. Clear program guidelines and support for their new role in the form of coherent goals and objectives is also important. Finally, technicians must be trained to share project management (including the use of resources) with promotores themselves. The professional success of the technician must be measured by the quality of the technician's participation in the farmer's process and the extent to which this involvement has actually empowered farmers.

Above all, as mentioned earlier, in terms of farmer-led extension, care must be taken to insure that farmers are not simply seen as substitutes for professional extensionists. This approach would effectively deprive the technician of his or her legitimate counterpart with whom to develop sustainable agriculture -and a new, supportive relation. Moreover a simple substitution is essentially reductionist and not only ignores the farmers' comparative cultural advantage, it places them in a false, competitive position with the few practicing extensionists still active in agriculture.