In 1972 in the hillsides of Guatemala, a small NGO and a group of Kachikel Mayan Campesinos together discovered a methodology that would transform the face of smallholder agriculture in Central America, and eventually all over the world. After years of bringing flashy ideas sure to transform entire farming systems, (and smiled upon by the International Development elites), World Neighbors could not seem to gain traction or in their agricultural programs. No matter how promising the technology, farmers were unwilling to change their practices. Completely dependent on the meager earnings from their low corn yields, the risk involved in transforming their farm for a chance on a new technology was too much. Furthermore, farmers were (and are) somewhat skeptical of the good intentions of outside “experts” who all too often know all too little about the reality of campesinos culture.
Then, a lightbulb of simplicity went off. Fancy technologies were scrapped for simple, low-risk changes in growing techniques. Programs promoting farm-wide transformation were scrapped for a long-term vision and process of experimentation. Employing Paulo Freire’s horizontal learning, NGO workers accompanied farmers to set up test plots on small portions of their land, trying out one simple change at a time and keeping track of the results compared to their conventional systems, year by year. As positive results emerged on their own land and were seen with their own eyes, farmers began voluntarily implementing them on their whole farm.
The movement came to be known as campesino a campesino, a horizontal methodology of knowledge transfer; a farmer-led, locally-empowered agricultural extension movement that proved more than ever that you can never underestimate the power of civil society. With solidarity on their side, NGO workers achieved results together with farmers, producing systems of empowered individuals acting on their own right, systems that could last long beyond one or two harvests.
Don Pedro shares his plans to experiment no-burn agriculture,
incorporating crop residues into the soil, with neighboring
farmers at the Monte Cristo conference.
At Semilla Neuva, we are standing on the shoulders of the giants of the Campesino a Campesino Movement, experimenting with farmers across the Pacific Coast of Guatemala in a number of alternative, sustainable growing techniques and helping them build their own development.
” The CaC movement walks on the legs of innovation and solidarity by experimenting on small, local scales, and by widely sharing knowledge, creativity, experience and wisdom, farmer to farmer.” — Eric Holt-Gimenez, executive director of Food First
Farmers are ready for development (with a lowercase d)
It is estimated that 79% of soils in Guatemala are severely degraded. Corn yields in Guatemala average less than 20% of yields in developed countries like the US, despite heavy increases in fertilizer application. And as soil quality continues to decrease, costs of fertilizers and hybrid seeds continue to rise, sucking farmers deeper and deeper into a cycle of debt and poverty with every harvest.
Development cannot be about fixing these problems for the people. At the core of the CaC Movement is the belief that farmers are capable of developing their own agriculture. Campesinos are not incapable, nor are they willing to stand passive as the large institutions of the world mold and shape their livelihoods. They have a will and work ethic incomparable to any other industry in the world, resisting political and systemic barriers at every turn to feed their families, not to mention providing the main supply of basic grains in the world. What we want to do is open doors of choice for these people, creating spaces for more empowered decision-making so that they can fix their own problems. Amarty Sen said it best that, “the identity of an individual is essentially a function of her choices, rather than the discovery of an immutable attribute.”
Experimentation allows for the advancement of this context of empowered decision-making by individual farmers. The simple act of keeping track of the farm’s investments can be a life-altering educational experience for the farmer. Our agronomists walk the rows of corn alongside individual farmers, accompanying them in the process of noting their investments (How much fertilizer did you apply? How much did you spend on seed? What yield did you get in this part of your land compared to the other area where the mango trees are?). With this information alone farmers start to see where their choices are being limited, and where choice (and empowerment) exists in places they may have never imagined. Experimentation empowers people to change.
“Successes achieved by the villagers themselves changes self-doubts into self-confidence, and discouragement into hope.”
The real beauty of the CaC movement emerges post-harvest, when the innate communal spirit of farmers arises. The knowledge sharing that occurs between smallholders is something stronger and longer-lasting than any tractor or hybrid seed could provide, and is probably the most important element of our work and the campesino a campesino methodology. Participating farmers host workshops and conferences, focusing primarily in hands-on, interactive education with their neighbors, helping farmers to realize benefits of practices in a language that they can understand. Hundreds and thousands of farmers can be experimenting with a variety of agricultural variables at the same time (i.e. no-till/reduced-tillage, seed spacing and type, intercropping and rotations, etc.) and sharing their results across communities and across regions. Farmers are literally building a database of agricultural research from the farm up, with a total research output sometimes much greater and more applicable than that coming out of major international research centers from the corn fields of Guatemala’s campesinos. That is something we can truly call grassroots development.
La Montaña, Retalhuleu farmer-led conference in March 2013
hosted by Semilla Nueva.
Farmers for the future
We believe in development (with a lower-case d) in which people take charge of their own lives, become organized and solve their own problems, a process far more important than the flourishing corn fields and inflated wallets that may result. Experimentation is the greatest tool we can give because it goes beyond technologies, beyond yield results, beyond crop diversification and into a milieu of a movement.
We are a resource, a bank of access to alternative ideas, a bridge for these farmers to traverse the rivers of globalization that have separated them from the justice they deserve. And while we can do our best to build that bridge as soundly as possible, with the best development engineering we can find, it is the civic will and perseverant spirit of thousands of ambitious individuals who will walk themselves across that bridge.
It has been said, ‘those that adopt new ideas quickly, drop them just as quickly.” Our collaborative projects with farmers take time. They are fed and nourished by years of building trust, fostering empowerment, and watching new opportunities grow with every new harvest. What started with a group of Mayan farmers and NGO workers on a hillside in Guatemala has spread all over Central America, standing on the shoulders of over 10,000 practicing campesinos. For three decades the CaC movement has been patiently developing a farmer-led extension model of sustainable agriculture.
This March each of our communities put on their own farmer-led conferences. In some cases up to a third of the community showed up to hear about their neighbors new farming techniques. Semilla Nueva staff simply watched on as participating farmers shared their experiences from last year, while listeners nodded their heads and came to sign up to test out a technique on their own land in 2013. It wasn’t us that did the convincing, its the farmers themselves who are leading the charge. This is farmer to farmer, and its blossoming right in front of us.
“Farmer to to farmer is happening. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And one of these days we are just going to have to get out of the way.”
–Semilla Nueva Executive Director Curt Bowen
If you want to hear how Campesino a Campesino works, listen to the words of one of our most promising community leaders, Juan Manuel de Leon, in our most recent video.