Pimbert argues that, for agriculture to become more resilient to climate change, environmental degradation and rural social decline, we must build on the multi- functionality of agriculture and strengthen the diversity of its resource base. To achieve this Pimbert proposes radical changes in the way in which research is organized and conducted.
Reductionist bias in EU research
EU research and research institutes have, at least in part, been responsible for the environmental and societal crisis that agriculture is currently facing. Essentially the problem is that research is biased towards reductionist approaches. The result is a failure in recognizing the dynamic complexity and variation between and within ecosystems. It has also led to the persistent exclusion of local people, their knowledge, their values and their “ways of doing”. This in turn has led to the imposition of inappropriate practices and management systems which have not only failed to contribute to rural livelihood, but also have had negative impacts on the environment.
Participation to offset bias
In the report Pimbert focuses on the on-farm management of biodiversity and draws on the experiences from the Farm Opportunities Project (FSO), a partnership which includes public-sector research institutes, peasant networks and organic farmers’ associations from six European countries.
Pimbert argues that the bias in research can be offset by combining a plurality of actors from different knowledge traditions, particularly that of farmers, to create new (contextualized and locally relevant) knowledge-for-action. This form of participation must not be seen as a mere tool to make research more efficient or effective; it is also about social justice. The co-existence of different forms of knowledge and their associated practices, livelihoods, and way of doing must be recognized and respected.
Implementing participatory approaches
To make this form of participation the modus operandi in EU research, drastic changes are required in the way in which research is conducted and structured in government bureaucracies. Essentially power must be transferred from external agencies to build local assets and people’s sovereignty. This involves a shift in training agency personnel from an emphasis on technical solutions to including issues of communication, learning and change. It also involves a broader process of reorienting institutional policies, procedures, financial management practices, reporting systems, reward systems and norms so that it also reflects the views and priorities of farmers and other rural actors.
Enabling policy environment
Participation requires an enabling policy environment. This entails equitable rights of access, use and control over natural resources on the one hand and macroeconomic policy that does not disproportionally disadvantage specific groups on the other. Participatory plant breeding is for example inhibited by strict EU regulations for seed uniformity (only stable and sufficient uniform seeds can be sold), the decline in the number of farms in the EC, economic insecurity by farmers and lack of time (especially small farms and wage labourers). The erosion of local knowledge and declining biodiversity moreover means that less natural and locally evolved analogies for biodiversity management are in place.
Pimbert argues that, in order to make a transition towards participation in research, several changes are required. First, projects that apply for EU funds should make the level and type of participation more explicit. Second, agro-biodiversity research should build on criteria and indicators that both farmers and scientists agree upon. Third, employees from EU bureaucracies and knowledge institutes should be trained in the use of participatory approaches. Fourth, the CAP must be reformed such that farmers have enough economic security and time to participate in setting farming policies and research priorities.
The challenges ahead
Pimbert makes a strong case for research to take on a different role in development. Research that is not concerned with finding technical solutions but with finding the right set of stakeholders, facilitating negotiations, finding the most appropriate form of participation and creating a suitable environment for participatory processes to take place. Realising these changes is however not likely to go unchallenged. Research and bureaucratic institutions will have to have to let go of some of their control over the research process. Convincing them will be a slow and painstaking process and will probably require pressure from several actors.
Another challenge is dealing with conflicts that arise between different actors in the participatory process. Nevertheless, democratising research is perhaps the only way through which we can move out of the crisis and achieve progress for all.
Download the report: Participatory research and on-farm management of agricultural biodiversity in Europe, M. Pimbert, IIED, 2011 [2.3 MB]
Text: Leonardo van den Berg