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Agricultural research in the Pacific


Agricultural development and the management of natural resources are central to the economies and peoples of the South Pacific island nations . However, the opportunities for economic growth and development of the Pacific States are severely constrained by the small size of their land the small populations and limited internal markets, and their isolation from potential export markets.

Improving agricultural productivity and conserving the fragile environments on many of the islands will require research to produce or identify new and appropriate technology. How to plan and organise national and regional research efforts to tackle the problems facing agriculture was the topic of a recent international workshop held in Western Samoa.

The workshop brought together agricultural scientists, policy makers and technical specialists to identify ways that strategic planning of national agricultural research can enhance its contribution to the region’s agricultural growth. Several international, regional and national organisations pooled their efforts to sponsor this event. Among these are the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO/UNDP), the International Service for National Agricultural Research (ISNAR). The Institute of Research, Extension and Training in Agriculture (IRETA) of the University of the South Pacific hosted the event at its headquarters in Alafua, Western Samoa during the first week of March.

The challenge for small, national agricultural research systems

The South Pacific countries are separated by vast distances, with small populations and varied cultures and ethnic background. Papua New Guinea is the largest with a population of over three million and 426 000 km². Approximately, 2 million people live in the 16 other island states. These vary in size from Solomon Islands with a land area of 27 500 km² to Tokelau with only 10 km² land area. The population of these islands varies from 725 000 inhabitants in Fiji to only 1 600 inhabitants in Tokelau.

The small size and isolation of the South Pacific countries pose many constraints to agricultural development and production on which all the islands are largely dependent for food and export earnings. With very limited resources, the islands are endeavouring to produce a range of agricultural commodities to meet local food needs and secure foreign exchange earnings for development.

To develop the agricultural sectors of the South Pacific countries, new approaches will be needed to make the most of the scarce resources on the islands. Governments and producers are looking to the agricultural research institutions for new solutions. Research can make a significant contribution to increasing the production of local foodstuffs thus reducing the dependence on imported food and the vagaries of transport. Research will also be needed to identify crops and postharvest methods to develop agricultural exports.

Conservation and management of natural resources is also an important area where more research is needed. On many of the atolls and on the volcanic islands with steep hillsides, soils are fragile, and need to be conserved. There are some encouraging signs. In Fiji, for example, careful management of forest resources can provide a secure base to support the islands’ economic growth.

The agricultural research systems in the Pacific Islands are generally, as expected, very small, have extremely limited resources and are highly dependent upon expatriate staff and external donor assistance for their research activities. Only Papua New Guinea and Fiji in the region have a reasonably sized national research system of about 50 research scientists. In the other countries the number of research scientists varies from 21 in Tonga to just one in Tokelau and Tuvalu. In most of these islands, over half and in the case of Vanuatu almost all the research scientists are expatriates. The local research scientists in the region are inadequately trained with over 75% having only a first degree.

There are also many partners that support agricultural research and development efforts in the region, such as the EEC, Australia, USAID and other donor countries. There are also the important research and development programmes of CIRAD, financed by France and based in Vanuatu and New Caledonia. Other research is done in private or parastatal organisations as is the case with sugar research in Fiji, and coffee, cocoa, coconut and oil palm research in Papua New Guinea.

The role of strategic planning in national agricultural research systems

Organising agricultural research in this complex environment requires strategic planning to focus these national and regional efforts on those areas where they are likely to do the most good. Strategic planning is also important for mobilising and coordinating these diverse research organisations and efforts around the national and regional development policies.

The Workshop on Strategic Planning for National Agricultural Research Systems in Small Countries of the South Pacific focused on ways to overcome the following six major constraints to effective and efficient research programmes.

· Although most of the NARS in the South Pacific region are located within the Ministries of Agriculture, Livestock, Forests or Fisheries, government policy makers are not fully aware of the benefits of agricultural research and many research organisations suffer from a lack of funding support.

· The small numbers of researchers in these countries have to deal with a wide range of commodities grown or raised in a number of agro-ecological zones and a variety of farming systems. Their resources are limited and without careful planning and setting priorities, it is difficult for researchers to focus their efforts.

· The majority of NARS in the region do not have research plans, and priority areas for research and development of NARS are not clearly identified. When working with limited resources, it is critical that key areas of development of NARS and priority areas for research are clearly defined so that the limited resources can be put to the best use.

· Research is often carried out in a number of ministries, departments or sections in the government. In addition there are important research efforts taking place in parastatal or private commodity organisations. The need for coordination and a coherent national research policy is great even in small countries.

· Only the countries with larger NARS, Fiji and Papua New Guinea, have the capacity to develop or transform new technologies. Most research systems screen and test technologies developed elsewhere for their application within the country. However, the small NARS have great difficulty in developing and maintaining linkages with the large number of institutions that produce relevant technologies. The small size of research units, their isolation, relatively inexperienced research staffs and poor resources make it almost impossible for the small NARS in the region to borrow knowledge and technology from external sources.

· A special characteristic of NARS in small countries is that researchers are often called upon to fulfil various non-research functions. These include seed production, seed testing, quarantine, and provision of analytical and advisory services in soils, plant nutrition and plant protection. In many cases they are also representatives to the world scientific community and valued advisors to government.

Strategic planning of national agricultural research will improve the link between government policy and research organisations. Increased support for research would then be matched to more relevant research programmes that address the priority problems facing farmers and consumers in the South Pacific nations. International donors and technical assistance agencies also play a big role supporting the region’s research and development efforts. Strategic planning of national agricultural research allows these external partners to target their assistance more effectively and in accordance with the policies and priorities of the countries. In general, the improved management and planning of national research is crucial if the limited resources available in the South Pacific are to have an impact on the problems facing South Pacific agriculture.

Training for planning research

FAO, CTA, ISNAR, and IRETA have been involved in assisting the small countries in the South Pacific to improve their planning and management skills in agricultural research for over a decade. ISNAR has conducted reviews of research systems in several countries and assisted in developing research plans and provided management training to research leaders. The FAO has implemented numerous research projects and supported the training of researchers. The CTA has assisted IRETA to develop a network for the exchange of agricultural information and improving the linkages of NARS with external sources of information. CTA has also supported new research initiatives such as those of the South Pacific Commission. IRETA, a regional institution, has the mandate to assist the South Pacific countries in research, extension and training. It implements various research projects in the region and provides some graduate and post-graduate training through the School of Agriculture of the University of the South Pacific.

These organisations pooled their efforts to sponsor this latest workshop on strategic planning held in March, 1991. The workshop was modelled on previous FAO/ISNAR workshops organised in Latin America and the Caribbean. It also drew upon lessons learned from a global study by ISNAR on the ‘the Scale and Scope of National Agricultural Research in Small Developing Countries’.

Twenty-three Directors of Research and Senior Research Scientists from 10 South Pacific Island countries attended the workshop. The resource persons included Mr. Huntington Hobbs, Dr. Gabrielle Persley and Dr. Pablo Eyzaguirre of ISNAR, M. Mohunji Narain of CTA, Dr. Berndt Muller-Haye and Dr. Ralph Kwaschik of FAO/UNDP, Mr. Param Sivan and Dr. Mohammed Umar of IRETA and Dr. Malcolm Hazelman of the South Pacific Commission.

The main objective was to improve the planning skills of research managers. This entailed providing the research managers with a broader understanding of their complex role. The workshop identified new and emerging challenges and opportunities for research leaders in small systems. Finally, the workshop organisers led small groups designed to introduce and improve the use of strategic planning as a tool for meeting the evolving challenges of agricultural research.

The workshop was opened by the Minister for Agriculture of Western Samoa, the Honourable Afioga Pule Lameko. The Minister in his speech stressed the aspirations of the small countries in the South Pacific to develop agriculture as the basis of their economies. He also stressed the need to conserve the fragile environments on many of the islands. The minister acknowledged the support given by the sponsors to improve the planning and management of research in the South Pacific. The participants expressed their hope that improved planning would allow their research units to make a larger contribution to agricultural development in the region.

The workshop was divided into three main sections. In the first section, the general issues affecting NARS in the South Pacific were discussed. In a long-term planning exercise, the research leaders discussed their vision of South Pacific agriculture in the year 2000. How new scientific advances such as biotechnology would affect agriculture and research in the region were highlighted. Regional cooperation and consolidating efforts at the regional level as in the case of IRETA and the South Pacific Commission were also seen to be of increasing importance in the future.

Table 1: Indicators of country size and agricultural research effort in selected South Pacific countries

The second part of the workshop dealt with Strategic Planning. This included two lead papers presented by ISNAR which introduced the participants to strategic planning and discussed the basic elements of a strategic plan for a small-country NARS. Case study exercises sharpened the skills of the participating leaders. The participants found this extremely useful.

The third part of the workshop included discussion on challenges and opportunities for the manager of a small-country NARS led by ISNAR and discussions on project preparation for agricultural research, monitoring and evaluation led by FAO.

The South Pacific research leaders found the Strategic Planning workshop to be very useful and requested follow-up training and assistance in this area. Project formulation, and planning, monitoring and evaluation of research were also very useful and a follow-up work shop fully devoted to this area would be of great interest to the region.

Among the major recommendations coming out of the workshop were that South Pacific NARS leaders required follow-up training in the areas of strategic planning, priority-setting for research, project preparation for research and monitoring and evaluation of projects. The national research systems also require assistance to develop national research plans (at present most of them do not have plans) that guide the long term development of their institutions define the priority areas for their research programmes, and indicate the level of resources required.

The workshop produced a greater understanding of the challenges and opportunities for agricultural research in the region. With their newly acquired skills, South Pacific research leaders hope to use strategic planning to enable their agricultural research systems to define their goals, focus their efforts, and identify mechanisms for coordinating activities and resources. In this way they can ensure that research in the South Pacific contributes to agricultural production that provides balanced growth in the face of the inherent problems of small size and a limited natural resource base.

P.S. and P.B.E.