Overstory #74 - Microenvironments (Part 2)
A microenvironment is small-scale environment which differs from its surroundings (such as shade under a tree canopy, a windbreak, or a distinct soil pocket). In the first part of this two-part series on microenviroments (Overstory #72), special guest author Robert Chambers discussed the importance of microenvironments to sustainable livelihoods. In this edition, Dr. Chambers discusses how producer-based, participatory research can legitimize and strengthen microenviroments for sustainable development.
The biases in both agricultural and social sciences combine to hide microenvironments (MEs) from sight, to understate or exclude them in statistics, and to undervalue their importance for livelihoods. In addition, there are other factors specific to the nature of MEs which conceal them from view or insulate them from attention. These can be understood by considering examples of MEs and reflecting on some of their characteristics.
There are many reasons why professionals have neglected MEs, including: Smallness and dispersal.
MEs are often half-hidden. They are usually small and dispersed, and many are low-lying. The small or intermediate scale of MEs combines with topography and with the way in which water and soil collect in low places to hide many of them in dips, depressions, valleys, gullies, and watercourses where they are easily overlooked by a casual visitor. Professional attention focuses on other scales. Gene Wilken has noted (1987) that "most research has been limited at the technical level to horizontal plant spacing and at the aggregate level to optimum farm size and economies of sale." Normal soils maps also miss much. In India their scale is 1:500,000. In both Kenya and Zambia, it is said that because of their scale, soils maps have omitted the crucial MEs of riverine strips and areas of seasonal standing water and moisture (known as dambos in Zambia and Zimbabwe).
Research station conditions
Most research is conducted on research stations where undulations and irregularities tend to be eliminated and their ME potential ignored. Some ME types created by farmers may not be feasible or found at all on research stations - for example silt deposition fields. And where MEs are created on research stations, it is difficult to avoid creating special conditions quite different from those of farmers.
Most professionals have shorter time horizons than most farmers. Soil and water conservation staff with targets seek to complete works within the financial year. But many farmers' MEs take years to develop. Some silt deposition fields in gullies are built up sequentially over years, with rock walls raised annually. Home gardens, and areas near homesteads, where farmyard manure and household organic wastes are used, gain in fertility over time. Runoff watercourse training may be developed gradually over many years, as may many forms of water harvesting which require physical works. Making raised fields and ditch ponds in wetlands in Indonesia leads to sequential cropping in which tree crops gradually come to dominate after 10 to 15 years (Watson, 1988).
Some MEs, especially home gardens, are mainly the concern of women, and women's concerns are normally neglected by male professionals who are still in the majority.
MEs often grow crops (vegetables. multipurpose trees, less common root crops) other than staple grains, root crops, and non-food cash crops which are the priorities of research and extension, which are marketed in bulk, and which are estimated and enumerated in official statistics. In Indonesia. the products of home gardens are mostly consumed locally and rarely appear in the statistical record (Soemarwoto and Conway, 1989).
Misfit with normal research
Normal research simplifies in order to measure. Due to apparent complexity, diversity, and untidiness, many MEs do not lend themselves to standard agronomic trials or measurement, or to mechanisation or high capital inputs. Many MEs use organic, not the preferred inorganic, fertilizers. Many are based on subsoil conditions and rooting patterns which would be costly and tedious to examine and observe. And many develop and exploit diverse complications such as linkages between earth shaping with soil and rocks, the channelling, harvesting and retention of water, a variety of crops and vegetables, livestock including fish, multiple canopies including bushes and trees, and mulches and manures.
Many illustrations of the above could be given. Paul Richards comments on the significance of the niche of run-off (seep-zone) agriculture, in parts of West Africa on fields which trap moisture and silt from higher up a valley profile, and notes its neglect by 'formal sector' researchers (Richards, 1985). In an RRA in Ethiopia, only by walking a systematic transect was it revealed to outsiders that in a semi-arid environment farmers had, over the years, developed an intensive system for trapping and concentrating silt, water and nutrients in gullies, and growing high value crops including coffee, papaya and chat (a narcotic) in the MEs protected by the gully walls (ERCS, 1988). In India, RRAs undertaken in 1989 by MYRADA in Gulbarga District in Karnataka by Youth for Action in Mahbubnagar District in Andhra Pradesh and by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in Bharuch District in Gujarat have variously identified the creation of MEs to harvest water and soil as prevalent local technology significant economically but in no case recognized or supported by the official soil conservation programmes.
Home gardens are frequently overlooked or misinterpreted. In Bangladesh, Anil Gupta found (1989) that scientists believed that households used homestead space and other resources inefficiently, and that they planted most trees, bushes and vegetables randomly or just let them grow where they came up. But a survey by women scientists, and maps made of home gardens revealed great complexity and what appeared to be some order in what had been assumed to be disorder.
MEs are thus largely unobserved. Spatially they are hidden by their dispersal. Professionally they are hidden by their irregular untidiness and their misfit with the mainstream priorities of the major disciplines. And temporally, they are hidden by their use in only certain seasons.
Yet in aggregate, they are at present of major significance to sustainable livelihoods. Because of their generally better moisture and fertility conditions than their surroundings, they provide the more reliable component of a farming household's food supply. Moreover, in many environments. MEs have been developed as a form of intensification linked with increasing population density. In the future, as rural populations in many places increase yet further. MEs will be developed even more, and will become even more significant for the livelihoods of poor farming households.
Whose Knowledge and Creativity Count?
MEs are a domain where villagers' knowledge, creativity and Research and Development (R & D) have advantages compared with the knowledge and R & D of scientists.
In terms of knowledge, scientists have an advantage in their knowledge of and access to information and genetic material from elsewhere; but their capacity for precise measurement is less useful faced with the complexity and diversity of ME conditions than with the simplicities and uniformities of industrial and Green Revolution agriculture. Villagers, on the other hand, know more about the complex and diverse detail of their livelihoods and of local ecology, and of how these mesh and are managed. Villagers also have advantages in local observations over time.
In terms of creativity and R & D, many MEs have been made and exploited by farmers over the ages without any formal scientific input. Home gardens, silt deposition fields, and terraces are examples. MEs proved support for the view that "...the farmers' role in technology development becomes more critical and increasingly cost-effective as the proposed technology becomes more multi-faceted and complex" (Sumberg and Okali, 1989). With most MEs scientists have serious disadvantages. Research station conditions are likely to be radically different from those of most MEs: wetland patches in dry areas, for example, cannot be replicated on research stations (IIED, 1989). With the possible exception of some basic research, on-station research concerning MEs is likely to mislead and generate recommendations that misfit rather than help.
In contrast, farmers have several comparative advantages. They are constrained neither by an inflexible experimental design nor by the simplifications demanded by reductionist statistical methods. They do not suffer from scientists' relatively short time horizons, but like the settlers in the wetlands of Java, can embark on processes which will take 10 to 15 years to mature. They can manage the complexities of simultaneous land shaping, concentration of soil, water and nutrients, and sequential changes as trees and other plants grow. They can adapt what they do to diverse and irregular topography, and climatic and social conditions. They can plant complicated mixtures of plants, and can place plants individually to exploit tiny pockets of fertility or protection. They can develop MEs sequentially, maintaining and modifying them as they observe and learn.
Not surprisingly, then, there is much evidence of farmers doing better than non-farming officials or scientists in developing MEs. In Singhbhum District in Bihar, it has been found that soil conservation staff are not as good at selecting water harvesting sites as villagers; those selected by the villagers capture more water (Sinha, 1989). In various parts of the world, government soil conservation programmes using contour earth bunds have actually contributed to erosion. As in Ethiopia, Mexico, and India silt deposition fields appear to be entirely a farmer's technology. In India, at least, they are far superior to the standard gully checks of official soil programmes. It is only reasonable to conclude that programmes for the creation, improvement and exploitation of MEs should be largely determined and implemented by farmers.
Action for the Future
The comparative advantage of farmers and disadvantage of scientists in the creation and use of MEs means that less has been lost from past neglect of MEs by non-farming professionals than might at first appear. All the same, the potential of MEs appears large, especially in the semi-arid tropics. And as populations in many countries continue to increase, the need to develop and exploit MEs will become greater. Already in water harvesting, soil conservation and agroforestry, considerable programmes have been mounted by governments and also NGOs, but with mixed results. The question is what non-farming professionals can do to enable the potential of MEs to be realised more rapidly, effectively and efficiently.
First, clear and secure rights and tenure are preconditions. Farmers who sense their tenure is insecure are deterred from taking a long view and from investing labour in land shaping or planting trees. This has been the tragic situation in much of Ethiopia where the 1970s land reform perversely made farmers insecure. In parts of India, too, tree planting and protection by farmers is discouraged by restrictions on rights of harvest and transit (Chambers, Saxena & Shah, 1989). In contrast, land consolidation and the provision of secure land titles to farmers in Kenya has had the opposite effect, supporting a soil conservation programme and also resulting in much tree planting and protection, with research showing the densities of planted trees to be higher the denser the population and the smaller the holdings (Bradley et al., 1985; Peter Dewees, pers. comm.).
Second, observation and awareness by professionals are imperative. These can be achieved in many ways. The techniques of rapid and participatory rural appraisal (Khon Kaen University 1987; IIED, 1988-1990) and especially of agroecosystem analysis (Conway, 1986; McCracken et al., 1988) have much to offer. These include walking transects, mapping village resources, mapping MEs, and the participatory use of aerial photographs to identify MEs and soil patches and zones. The simple act of mapping a homegarden or diagramming a transect can have a dramatic effect on personal awareness, sometimes provoking a 'flip' - a professionally and intellectually exciting deeper change in what is seen and how it is seen.
Third, the appropriate paradigm is farmer first rather than Transfer of Technology (TOT). For non-farming agricultural professionals, farmer first entails changes and reversals:
- of location - from on-station to on-farm;
- of learning - from learning from literature and from other non-farmers to learning from and with farmers;
- of role - from teacher who transfers technology to consultant who searches for technology and supports farmers' trials and experiments;
- of content - from the single simple package to the basket spread of diverse choices;
- of direction of transfer - from vertical to lateral with farmers' workshops and visits to each others' MEs;
- and of process - from simplifying and standardising to complicating and diversifying.
Farmers' participation throughout is of paramount importance
To observe and learn about microenvironments, and to help farm families create and exploit them and improve and intensify their use, presents a challenge to the agricultural and social sciences. Microenvironments demand quiet professional revolutions. These will start not with the lecturer but with the farm family, not just in the classroom but in the field too, not on the research station but in the microenvironments themselves. They will entail not simplifying and standardising but enabling farm families to complicate and diversify. The future will show whether non-farming professionals can make that revolution and usefully meet that challenge, or whether it will be largely unassisted that farmers continue to experiment, innovate, develop and manage on their own.
Bradley, P. N., Chavangi, N. and van Geldar, A. 1985. Development Research and Planning in Kenya. Ambio 14 (4-5), 228-236.
Chambers, Robert. 1983. Rural Development: Putting the Last First. Longman, Harlow, UK.
Chambers, Robert, Saxena, N.C. and Shah, Tushaar. 1989. To the Hands of the Poor: Water and Trees. Oxford and IBH, New Delhi and IT Publications, London.
Conway, Gordon R. 1985. Agroecosystem analysis. Agric. Admin. 2~, 31-55.
Dewees, Peter. 1989. Aerial photography and household studies in Kenya. RRA Notes 7, 9-12. TIED, London.
ERCS. 1988. Rapid Rural Appraisal: A Closer Look at Life in Wollo. Ethiopian Red Cross Society, Addis Ababa and lIED, London.
Gupta, Anil K. 1989. Scientists' views of farmers' practices in India: barriers to effective interaction. In Chambers, Pacey and Thrupp (eds). Farmer First, pp 24-31.
IIED. 1989. Patchy Resources in African Drylands: a review of the literature and an agenda for future research and development. A proposal of the Drylands Programme, lIED, London.
Khon Kaen University. 1987. Proceedings of the 1985 International Conference on Rapid Rural Appraisal. Rural Systems Research and Farming Systems Research Projects, University of Khon Kaen, Khon Kaen, Thailand.
McCracken, Jennifer A., Pretty, Jules N. and Conway, Gordon. 1988. An Introduction to Rapid Rural Appraisal. LIED, London.
Sinha, Amarjeet. 1989. Harvesting rain water in the tribal district of Singhbhum. Wastelands News 5, (2), November 1989 - January 1990, 2-7. Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, New Delhi.
Soemarwoto, Otto and Conway, Gordon. 1989. The Javanese Homegarden. Institute of Ecology, Padjadjaran University, Bandung, Indonesia.
Sumberg, J. and Okali, C. 1989. Farmers, on-farm research and new technology. In Chambers, Pacey and Thrupp (eds). Farmer First, pp 109-114.
Watson, Greta. 1988. Settlement in the Coastal Wetlands of Indonesia: an argument for the use of local models in agricultural development. Crosscurrents (Rutgers University) I 18-32, September.
Wilken, Gene C. 1987. Good Farmers: Mexico and Central America. University of London. Traditional Agricultural Resource Management in of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London.
About the Author
Prof. Robert Chambers is an internationally renowned author of books on participatory community development, a champion of participatory methodologies such as Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) and PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal) and a scholar with extensive experience on development in South Asia. He is affiliated with the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex, UK. He can be reached by e-mail at R.Chambers@ids.ac.uk.
This article was excerpted from the original published as _Microclimates Unobserved_ in the Gatekeeper Series (No. 22) by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). For more information on the Gatekeeper Series or to purchase the original booklet, contact International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H ODD, United Kingdom; Tel: +44 (0)207 388 2117; or visit http://www.iied.org and go to the online bookshop.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #72--Microenvironments (Part 1)
- The Overstory #64--Tropical Homegardens
- The Overstory #51--Protecting and Expanding Traditional Agroforests
- The Overstory #34--Forest Islands, Kayapo Example
- The Overstory #27--Foster Ecosystems
- The Overstory #17--Microcatchment
- The Overstory #9--Observation