Thursday, October 21, 2010

Farmers, knowledge and land

Yesterday, I was at a symposium on agricultural extension in Central Asia. Quite interesting.
Farmers need to know things to do their job, and keeping up with the latest innovations requires a lot of knowledge.

In the U.S., this is made easier by a web of agricultural extension services, usually linked to state universities and based at counties. In Europe, some countries have specialized agricultural universities and their institutes for applied research and extension, or farmers unions active in this field, or both. In the USSR, there was a host of applied agricultural research institutes, at universities, at the ministry of agriculture and the ministry of land reclamation and water resources, under the umbrella of the academy of sciences, and later more and more under a separate academy for agricultural sciences. They went from centralization to decentralization and back, and the late Soviet centralization under the agricultural academy created problems, even according to the Soviets themselves. Knowledge was produced too far from the farmers and their practical problems and limited resources; much of it was never applied, and the collective farms had problems responding to changing circumstances. Yields did not rise for decades in some areas, and even fell in others.

After the breakdown of the Union, the system of institutes fell apart. Connections with the main research centres in Moscow were lost, resources dwindled, and many surviving state- level institutions became empty shells. If one connects this with the break- up of the collective farms and their managing corps of specialists, and with a chronic scarcity of resources in higher education, it is easy to see the clouds gathering. N.g.o.'s cannot take up the challenge by themselves, and neither do the farmers.

For land use and planning, this has too many consequences to describe here, but we can point out that it makes economically and environmentally rational land use very hard to achieve. It also makes it harder for farming communities to formulate shared visions, even on basic issues, yet another reason to assume that bottom- up land use planning is a remote prospect. It makes it harder for farmers to see the advantages of self- organization, and it makes it harder for state organizations to function properly. In an area where it is already difficult to develop long- term visions, to think of investment and investment in knowledge, such amounts to a formidable obstacle for planning, for land reform, and in the end for economic development.

Time might bring solace, and e.g. here in Khorezm the new generation of farmers, often people with different professional backgrounds, is learning the trade. The government invests in experimental farms, in greenhouses and new irrigation techniques. Young Uzbek ngo's combine local knowledge with foreign expertise. And there is production and marketing potential. Attention to land use planning might help to tap that potential.

(Highly recommended: ping- pong for three, where one takes turns to jump out, drink beer, to come back reinvigorated and take the game to a higher level. It might help to change the rules during the game, at unexpected times)

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