Participatory, on-farm research in Viet Nam is a challenge!
Participatory, on-farm research has long been acknowledged as an approach with great potential for increasing the adoption of research results for development purposes. However, sometimes there can be unexpected obstacles, including the farmers themselves.
In participatory, on-farm research farmers become partners in the design, implementation, evaluation and modification of farming technologies. The involvement of farmers can reduce the time needed for adaptation and increase the adoption rate of the improved or introduced technology and thus increase the impact on farmers’ livelihoods.
Taking advantage of this, a project called Agroforestry for Livelihoods of Smallholder Farmers in Northwest Vietnam (AFLI), which is funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, has been testing a range of agroforestry systems and specific technologies in the northwestern uplands of Viet Nam.
The initial goal of the project is to improve the performance of smallholders’ farming systems through agroforestry and to promote large-scale adoption of the systems throughout the region to improve livelihoods and protect the environment. AFLI started in November 2011 and will end in August 2016.
On-farm research seems to be a new approach for researchers in Viet Nam. According to AFLI’s research partners, many previous projects had established trials on farmers’ fields, however, they were not real participatory, on-farm trials. Researchers simply leased farmers’ land to conduct their experiments over a certain period of time and farmers were not involved in the design, management and evaluation of the trials. They were provided with all the necessary inputs for establishing whatever system was being tested and were paid for their labour that they invested in planting and management, under the supervision of the researchers. Not surprisingly, these farmers were passive, waiting for instructions from the researchers and considered that the trials were not theirs. Most of these kinds of trials were abandoned after the project ended or farmers cleared the fields and returned to their conventional farming methods.
With the new participatory research approach of AFLI, farmers have been provided with technical knowledge and very limited material inputs and are expected to be active in the research process, contributing their labour, time and local knowledge as well as manage the trials. Even so, our experience after three years shows that implementing on-farm trials in a participatory fashion is still a big challenge.
Farmers had become used to being provided with everything that was needed and even being paid for the labour they put into taking care of their own fields. Consequently, a major challenge for the project team has been convincing farmers of the benefits of being involved in the trials and seeing them through to maturity in collaboration with the researchers. The time and effort needed to encourage farmers was more than we had expected. Farmers hesitated to participate in the trials for various reasons, the most important of which was that they were uncertain about the success of the new technologies.
A further challenge that the project has been facing was the implications of government poverty reduction programs. Many of these programs were designed as grants and gave direct to farmers the materials they needed for their living, such as rice, cattle, money for electricity, water, education and health care. The support of these programs was so comprehensive, covering everything the poor needed, that many of them were unwilling to escape poverty and such welfare programs.
AFLI is using the participatory research approach to try to help farmers sustainably improve their livelihoods by providing them with the knowledge and capacity to be able to improve their living themselves. In other words, by giving them a fishing rod whereas the poverty reduction programs gave them the fish in their hands. Farmers had become used to receiving materials for free but not knowledge and the capacity to use that knowledge. This could be observed during training activities, when farmers attended only if an allowance was provided.
Accordingly, efforts to improve farmers’ livelihoods and reduce their poverty through research for development in national, international or governmental programs should be wisely coordinated, especially, in choosing the type of approach that will reduce obstacles to implementation and enhance the effectiveness of the interventions.