Opinion

Supporting farmers to create pathways for learning on agroecology

Published on 26 June 2017

The Transitions to Agroecological Food Systems project, led by IDS, is investigating potential pathways to more sustainable food systems through agroecology. This blog post reflects on the different forms of learning from project activities in Senegal involving farmers who identified agroecology as part of their past and future.

Members of the farmers’ jury explore some of the challenges facing a transition to agroecology in Casamance, Senegal

In Casamance, southern Senegal, five micro research projects were completed using a participatory systems based research process to map and analyse constraints to agroecological food systems. The projects were defined by a farmer’s jury which was formed of 13 smallholder farmers from across the region of Casamance who were brought together for the purposes of this project. The members of the farmers’ jury were selected for this project based on their interest in agroecological farming and a diverse range of livelihood sources.

Shortly after the projects were completed, the farmers’ jury met to hear the research findings and pass their verdict on the ways the research can be used to develop an action plan to transition towards agroecological food systems. The workshop was facilitated by the research team, representing the Institute of Development Studies, Forum for Sustainable and Endogenous Development (FODDE), and the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research (ISRA). A range of ‘expert witnesses’ also attended the workshop, including an agricultural input dealer, an agroecological farmer, and a traditional oral communicator.

The farmers’ jury identified a series of goals, actions, and potential ‘change agents’ who could support the actions. During the meeting, farmers highlighted how the success of the project and, more broadly, a sustainable transition to agroecology was dependent on sharing learning among the farming community.

Learning across scales

The project set out to elicit small- to medium-scale farmers’ perspectives on and priorities for transitioning to an agroecological food system. We sought to learn from the farmers’ experiences rather than to give them information and teach them. However, participating farmers learned in multiple ways from the research process and findings. There are also signs of institutional level learning beyond the farmers.

During workshop discussions farmers who have been engaged in promoting agroecology in Casamance for some years heard the perspectives of other farmers. One farmer stated that they had learned that there are many understandings of agroecology in Casamance and there is a lot of knowledge about agroecological practices in the region. This was reiterated in the findings of one of the micro research projects which uncovered a wealth of information about traditional practices which were deemed to be agroecological, including knowledge that was new to local and national NGOs and the Senegalese Institute for Agricultural Research (ISRA).

Farmers explained that through the micro-project research findings they have learned a lot about the different types of constraints and challenges facing farmers, retailers, and suppliers in different places around Casamance. They have learned how the food and agricultural system in Casamance is structured, what influences it, and how they are able to influence it. Through this, they suggested that they now have a better understanding of how a transition to agroecology would fit within the local agricultural system and where the opportunities are for taking action to support such a transition. This learning means that the farmers and other local stakeholders are in a stronger position to overcome obstacles to transitioning to agroecological food systems.

There has also been learning at an individual and institutional level for associated organisations. For the purpose of this project FODDE established a partnership with ISRA to provide research expertise. Facilitators from FODDE, a non-governmental organisation based in Casamance, stated that through working with researchers from ISRA they had learned new methods for engaging different stakeholders to identify problem areas, priorities, and strategies for change, as well as learning how to conduct research.

In addition, members of the farmers’ jury explained they planned to use the same participatory methods, including systems mapping and deliberation of evidence, within their producer organisations so that they may continue to identify action plans for further issues related to a transition to agroecological food systems.

Beyond the country-level learning, across Senegal, Nicaragua and the UK there is much scope for learning about potential pathways for a global transition to agroecological food systems through exploring the similarities and differences in the priorities for farmers from different cultural contexts with diverse traditional histories. Following the completion of the participatory research processes in Nicaragua and the UK, insights across the three countries will be synthesised, in hope that this will provide further learning for transitions to more agroecological food systems elsewhere.

Building learning into future action

During the final workshop in Casamance for this project, a range of local stakeholders made commitments to carry out actions for change which the farmers’ jury expected will support and promote agroecology locally. Representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health support the initiative to preserve cultural heritage, produce healthy diets, and sustain the local environment through a transition to agroecological food systems. In addition, the national Federation of Organic Producers and ISRA have committed to collaborate with the farmers’ jury and their respective organisations to support this transition. The farmers’ jury plan to use some of the learning from this project to take action towards agroecological food systems in Casamance and create opportunities for further learning.

Rachael Taylor is an independent research consultant. 

Image: ‘Members of the farmers’ jury explore some of the challenges facing a transition to agroecology in Casamance, Senegal’. Credit: Rachael Taylor.

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