SIDEBAR 6.9 Geography and the Development of Agricultural Policy

Societies throughout the world are struggling to develop efficient and effective approaches to the management of agricultural land. In many cases, small landholders are on the front lines of such struggles. Research has shown that the ability of small landholders to increase production and conserve natural resources depends on their knowledge base and the extent to which they are able to play a meaningful role in resource management decisions. Consequently, a growing number of resource management initiatives are focusing on the situation of small landholders.

One important example is a project led by Gerald Karaska, in which geographers are working with development anthropologists, economists, and others to assist the Sri Lankan government in its efforts to develop a program to increase the efficiency of water use and improve the lot of small holders without unduly sacrificing agricultural production and environmental quality. The project is part of a USAID initiative, the Systems Approach to Regional Income and Sustainable Resource Assistance (SARSA), which seeks to assist governments around the world in efforts to improve resource use. The project is designed to increase the control of resource users in management decisions through partnerships based on formal agreements between the state and small landholders.

Since its inception in 1993, geographers have played a leading role in the Sri Lankan project, and its structure bears the imprint of their perspectives. The watershed is the basic unit of analysis, and studies of spatial relationships between economic and environmental variables have been used to understand the complexities of water management issues. Moreover, intensive participatory interaction among resource users and state and local officials has been employed to develop site-specific resource management strategies. The project identifies subregions sharing particular human and environmental characteristics, and these are then used as the spatial frameworks within which planning decisions are made.

The project has already produced striking results, with farmers' organizations agreeing to share the flow of water and change their land uses according to their locations within watersheds. These results are expected to lead to national policy changes as well as to new laws that give farmers long-term usufruct rights to land and forest improvements.

Another example shows how geographers can link their academic interests in development with the "hands-on" development work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to influence agricultural policies. Anthony Bebbington, formerly of the Overseas Development Institute and now of the International Institute for Environment and Development, bridged the academic-policy gap in Ecuador and associated Andean regions (Bebbington, 1994). Working with the Inter-American Foundation and the Fundac para el Desarrollo Agropecuario (FUNDAGRO) in Ecuador, Bebbington expanded the meaning of farming systems to include indigenous farm organizations and investigated their role within the larger environmental system and the regional political economy. Special attention was given to federations of campesino communities, NGOs, the modern church, and certain agencies of the state and how these entities were used by the campesino to negotiate relationships with the market and the state. Bebbington's ethnographic work showed how agrarian societies interact with the NGOs, and he demonstrated diverse ways in which households, communities, and organizations interact and respond to changing economic and environmental conditions.

Bebbington's work, in association with FUNDAGRO, made NGOs rethink their relationship with various indigenous farmers, particularly the campesino federations. The success in working with these federations has fed into international and national agricultural research institutions in Ecuador and the Andes, stimulating policy that involves such federations in determining agrarian policy and the nature of Andean agriculture. Andean agricultural development now incorporates indigenous farmer organizations and grassroots NGOs.

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