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Sustainable bio-intensive farming system: An innovation for sustainable livelihoods

by Binayak Rajbhandari, Ph.D.

(Saturday, March 6, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- One of the daunting challenges Nepal has been facing now is how to increase food grain production without depleting further the available natural resource bases and without degrading the environment. A subsistence-oriented agrarian economy is predominant in Nepal even today. In the late 70's, high response varieties (HRVs) as well as the chemical fertilizers were introduced in Nepal with an objective of transforming the subsistence agriculture into a commercial one. During the last two decades, however, the agriculture and environment have shown a negative change. These include deforestation, soil erosion, land slides, and loss of indigenous crop varieties well suited to the local environment. As a result of these negative processes, many hill districts have become food deficient. Moreover, there has not been a significant positive change in the pattern of resource (land) ownership. Rather the small holders have lost their ownership to land for the sake of earning livelihood. The small farmers are compelled to sell their lands to the landlords or rich farmers for their survival during food shortage periods. After losing their lands, the small/marginalized households become landless, and owing to the lack of employment opportunities in the villages migrate to cities/towns to earn their livelihood. The process of dispossession and disempowerment of landless and marginalized population groups and their migration into cities to earn livelihoods have created a vicious cycle in rural Nepal. If the food needs of the Nepalese people are to be met through increased agricultural production, in the new millenium, the development strategies adopted in the past periodic plans are to be given up and new strategy options are to be adopted (Chitrakar, 1997).

Globalization, i.e. corporation-driven integration of the world economic system, in the form of open market economic policies has additionally intensified the wave of migration from rural areas in Nepal. Privatization of public service sectors and cut down in the government expenditure in those sectors, continuous price rise in basic commodities, agricultural inputs and food items, diminishing role of occupational castes in rural economy, ever increasing rate of unemployment are some of the major impacts of globalization in Nepal. Furthermore, women and children are reported being trafficked into the sex trade, labour exploitation and servitude like practices amidst such labour migration (Rajbhandari, 1997; Rajbhandari, 1998). These are the evidences of how globalization, the open market economic policy and the inappropriate development policies compel the marginalized rural population to move towards servitude and exploitation, losing all grounds, means of and hopes for a self-reliant livelihood. These conditions have aggravated poverty as well as economic and food insecurity, particularly in rural areas.

The exploitation, which the landless laborers, tenants and marginalized farmers have suffered at the hands of "Landlords" and money lenders in the villages, and the sub-human food-deficient conditions in which most of them are living, have made them timid, suspicious, and resigned to their destiny. Most of them have lost all hopes, lack initiative or are afraid to exercise it, and are not courageous enough to break the socio-cultural traditions impinging upon their subordinate socio-economic situations. They are dehumanized, disintegrated and inanimated. Extreme poverty and erosion of household economy have reduced them to a state of apathy. The poverty has thus created a vicious cycle in the rural areas of the country, where over 80 percent of its population reside.

This process of impoverishment and marginalization is the central issue this participatory action research aims to address. The process of impoverishment and marginalization is characteristic to other developing and least developed countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America as well, leading to food insecurity and unsustainable livelihoods (SID, 2000). In such conditions, it is difficult and would be even a mistake to anticipate that the survivors of poverty and marginalization would improve their standard of livelihoods on their own initiatives. They rather require stimulus and assistance from outside to build up their self- confidence, to raise their consciousness and to improve their socio-economic conditions so that they would be able to shake off the "culture of greed", the "culture of poverty" and the "culture of silence", which are being perpetuated from one generation to the next.

Animation: The Concept and Process

We have termed the process of revitalizing and awakening the inanimated and dehumanized people to realize and fight against their weaknesses and make use of their latent potential of creativity for eliminating the factors of poverty, subordination and their exploitation as Animation. Animation is the most important process of spiritual empowerment. It is both a necessary outcome and a necessary aspect of the rural development process.

Community participation, including those of women, local ownership to natural resources (land, forest and water) and collective empowerment and sustainability are the essential characteristics of sustainable development process that assures attainment of sustainable livelihoods. Organization and empowerment (spiritual, social, ideological, technical and financial) of farming communities should, therefore, be the most important strategy of the sustainable livelihoods and development approach. WOREC has been attempting to translate this sustainable livelihood strategy into practice by animating, empowering and mobilizing the local farming community. WOREC has termed its comprehensive approach as integrated animation and bio-intensive farming system (IABIFS).

The integrated animation and bio-intensive farming system approach focuses basically on the marginal and small farmer's households, who constitute the majority of rural population in the targeted district. From the experience of WOREC, it has become clear that rural woman's and marginal farmer's powerlessness and subordination in the society stems from a complex interplay of factors-historical, cultural, social, economic and political. There is the need to understand and analyze the structures within which they live, and the dynamics of power and gender within these structures at local, regional and national levels. The grassroots people themselves, the women and marginalized farmers themselves should be able to analyze their situations and the prevalent socio-political structures. They can do it more comfortably if they are united in the groups and are provided with appropriate training that broadens their vision, provides with conceptual understanding as well as technical skills. Only a comprehensive and a holistic understanding of the context, in which they live and work, could enable them to find out ways and means of changing their situations. These are the concepts, processes and approaches of animation.

WOREC has been assisting the rural people, particularly the women and resource poor, to get themselves freed from the fatalistic beliefs, ideas and attitudes, which are nothing than a phenomenon of a person's dehumanized state. Each member of the community groups is assisted to acquire this scientific outlook by analyzing their problems and the context in group meeting, education session, training and field visits. The local population groups are regarded as the real agents for change. WOREC has therefore been emphasizing on the formation and strengthening of local people's organizations (WOREC, 1999).

Without systems, which animate and empower the apathetic, the marginalized and the dehumanized people, and without systems, which reveal their capacities, their latent potentials of creativity and without incentives for change, the investment, technology and all other frequently discussed elements of so-called development are of little value. It is in this perspective that WOREC focuses on empowerment, conceptual clarity, strengthening and mobilization of local people's organizations as the fundamental components of its innovation for sustainable livelihood. The local institution has two primary and inter-related components: the organization as such and a set of links among the organizations (CBOs, GOs, youth clubs, local NGOs, community based users groups/committees, cooperatives, community grain storage/saving fund, etc.) and with its socio-political environments. The important features of the people's organizations, which are involved in various stages of programme development and implementation, include their conceptual clarity, leadership quality and strength, resources and the internal structures, including the patterns of authority, communication and control or in short, the level of democratization. Democracy means collective empowerment of the people. It is a socio-political system in which every member of the household, organization, society or nation state has a dignified space for participation in decision-making and process of change about the fate of the household, organization, society and nation state. The higher the level of democratization and commitments the higher the effectiveness of an organization. It is in this perspective and background that the local organizations and elected members, both female and male, to local governance bodies like VDCs and DDCs are strengthened through training, orientation and workshops on relevant aspects.

Principle and Features of Bio-intensive Farming System

The concept of bio-intensive farming system is based on the agro-ecological principles of sustainable organic agriculture system and participatory rural development. These principles include the scientific crop rotation, mixed farming system with specialized crop and/or livestock enterprise(s), optimization of organic recycling, participatory and sustainable management of natural resources (land, forest, water, plant biodiversity), participatory research and extension, and higher degree of economic self-reliance of farm households against external techno-economic shocks.

Empowerment of People's Organizations

Enhancing people's organization's identities as social capital through empowerment of local farmers’/women’s groups and advocating for the rights of farming communities and women on natural productive resources like land, plant genetic resources and seeds, water, forest is an important feature of the BIF system. It is a demand driven problem-solving approach directly related to the needs of the rural marginalized population groups including women and the landless and their socio-economic environment. This approach places the small landholders and women at the centre of the innovation. It is a promising alternative to traditional methods and the intensive chemical farming, which is based on commercialization of food production resources and process, greed market economy, and which is in control or command of a few rich people, the landlords or corporations.

The bio-intensive farming system flourishes when the rights of farming communities to natural resources, work/employment, food, education, health, information and skill development are translated into reality. This approach intends to make the farming communities aware of the fact that food security is a human right's issue, which includes a number of other human rights. And these rights are inter-linked with various dimensions of food security as presented in chart-9. Empowerment of the people's organizations is a primary work for advocacy on food security issues from the perspective of human rights.

2. Conservation and Utilization of PGRs

The integrated animation and bio-intensive farming system approach envisages that in-situ conservation, authorized utilization, and free exchange of plant genetic resources (PGRs) among the farming communities and researchers comprise an essential component of sustainable livelihoods. It encourages cooperation between farming communities and researchers for proper identification, documentation, conservation and utilization of the biological diversity for the benefit of local farming communities, in particular, and for human beings, in general.

Documentation, conservation and utilization of biodiversity (plants, animals and soil microorganisms) and the farming communities' control over plant and animal genetic resources are critical for preventing further degradation of the productive resource base, economic opportunities, poverty and the food insecurity situations as well as to make the livelihood of the rural population sustainable both in terms of space and time.

3.Eco- and Health-friendly Rural System

The bio-intensive farming system is a biologically intensive mixed farming system, which relies on intensive engagement of farmers, organic recycling optimization through intensive crop rotations, integrated soil nutrient management (ISNM), integrated pest/disease management (IPDM). The ISNM favours a very limited use of mineral fertilizers in the field crops to complement organic or bio-fertilizers and IPDM is about the limited use of less hazardous pesticides/fungicides integrated with/without plant-based or biological agents in emergency cases. Neupane (2000) has pointed out that integrated pest management (IPM) is the only eco- and health-friendly option available today for the control of pests in agriculture. Integrated pest management is one of the technico-environmental components of the IPDM concept within the conceptual framework of bio-intensive farming system. The bio-intensive farming system relies on appropriate spatial management of field crops, vegetable crops, fruits and fodder trees as well as livestock and poultry for rational and ecologically non-destructive utilization of lands in the hills and mountains. Furthermore, it increases the soil fertility, revitalizes the degraded soil, decreases environmental pollution and prevents health hazards to humans and livestock as well as reduces further degradation of the environment, which otherwise might lead to desertification of the globe. It is, therefore, not only eco-friendly but also friendly to human and animal health.

4.Equitable Access to Natural Resources and Public Service

Equitable access to natural productive resources like land, community pasture/forest, medicinal plants, water sources and community irrigation water, and equal respect to the diversity of farming community (ethnicity, gender, sex, religion) at the local level are the essential prerequisites for attaining food security and sustainable livelihood. The community forestry, community pasture, community irrigation system, community food security stocks (Dharam Bhakari), community herbal garden, community-based women’s health resource centre, community-based health clinic, community-based development education and information centre are some of the local infrastructures or social capital, which would prove to be a sustainable way of ensuring community members’ equitable access to common resources and public services. WOREC has been attempting to transform the targeted communities in this direction.

5.Sustainable Technology

The BIF system as a kind of sustainable organic agriculture focuses on the community in terms of resources (human resources, animal power, seed, manure/fertilizers, bio-pesticides, implements, finance), perfect social marketing and extension of technical skills and information through the local farmers’ scholars and leaders, both male and female.

The available natural resource bases have now gradually been depleting causing difficulties in increasing food grain production in all the agro-ecological regions of the country (Chitrakar, 1997). Posey (1986) has rightly pointed out that there are many lessons to be learned from the native inhabitants, not the least of which is that "natural resources" also include people. In 1990, he pointed out that growing discoveries of the importance of indigenous knowledge about the environment have called attention to the necessity of understanding and respecting the different "realities" of native people. I agree with him and perceive the necessity of understanding and respecting the different realities, experiences of native Nepali people and diversity among them. The BIF system approach relies on the utilization of indigenous knowledge, realities, resources and experiences, which have a history of hundreds of thousands of years, and on the modern agro-ecological principles and scientific techniques that offer the potential to conserve and regenerate resources. It is close to the beneficiaries and low in cost with minimum reliance on external expertise, capital, resources and equipment, which has been shown to result in the over–dependence of farming communities.

The technological aspects it promotes include inter-cropping, mixed cropping, and crop diversification and rotations to increase the cropping intensity as well as to minimize the incidences of diseases and pests. In addition, it emphasizes the promotion of agro-forestry, renewable energy like solar energy, bio-gas, and improved cooking stoves aimed at conserving the forest, reducing the work burden on women in regard to collection of fuel wood and cooking food at the cost of their health. The by-product of biogas plant is applied in the crop field for improving the soil fertility and structure. Furthermore, the time saved by infrequent movement to the jungle or forest is utilized for extra–income generation for livelihood. Because the agriculture alone does not seem to solve the problem of livelihoods.

This approach facilitates farmer-to-farmer communication and extension. The farmer managed model demonstration farms; maintenance of seed purity and improvement of local crop varieties with high food values in the farms by the farmers themselves; seed storage at household level and farmer-to-farmer information, education, communication and extension are the essential components of this technology. The model demonstration farms are the nodal points, which serve to be the field laboratory of the farmer, managed by the farmers and used for demonstration, dissemination or extension of technology to the members of the farming communities. These farms are also used for participatory research. These farms serve to be the bridges between participatory research, extension and production.

(This article is based on the Author's research report entitles "Integrated Animation and Bio-intensive Farming System-A Case Study in Nuwakot", WOREC, Kathmandu, 2000).
Address: Technical advisor, WOREC, Kathmandu, Nepal and ; Executive Chair, HICAST, Bhaktapur, Nepal, P.O.Box 13233, Kathmandu, Nepal; Email: hicast@wlink.com.np