Gabriela Quiroga Gilardoni is a social scientist and consultant for rural innovation and farmers organization at KIT (Royal Tropical Institute in the Netherlands). For her Masters, she did research on an agricultural cooperative in eastern Uruguay, focusing on the organizational capacities that strengthen the social capital of livestock smallholders. In Uruguay she also did work with the National Agricultural Federation of Cooperatives (CAF) and she has experience working for the International Federation of Agricultural Producers (IFAP), a worldwide federation of farmer’s organizations. In her work, she advises organizations in farmer-led participatory policy generation with particular attention to young farmers’ leadership and empowerment as well as gender mainstreaming.

After the symposium, where Gabriela shared a Prolinnova video, we had an email exchange in which she offered: I found it difficult to make more ‘voiced’ interventions in regards to the policy work I do with farmers and their organizations. Perhaps in the future, if a Policy People event is organized to tackle agricultural policy more specifically, either in the Netherlands, Europe or worldwide, my experience with Prolinnova (promoting local innovation) would make more sense.

To which we responded: We agree that the panel form proved challenging to incorporate your experience and voice, and we hope that you got something out of the conversation despite its structural flaws. We have intentionally avoided a sector focus like agriculture because we are interested in how policy takes on similar forms no matter the content of the discourse. Rather than speaking to particular policies or domains of policy, we were interested in the ways that policy as a form invokes logics of participation and prevention in the “care” or “fixing” of others, despite any particular sector specific goals. We got some sense of Prolinnova from the video you showed. However, it won’t translate into the publication we are working on. So we were hoping to do a brief interview to better understand your professional position (not necessarily that of Prolinnova) and experience working on participatory policy methods. As a researcher whose work attempts to mitigate the fact that the vast majority of agricultural policy does not benefit the poorest rural farmers, your address of policy as an entity which can and should be defined by those it governs, (in your work through participatory development) is a viewpoint that we felt entirely necessary to have within the project.

Interview by Policy People

Policy People How did you become involved in agricultural policy and farmer led governance? Can you share your experiences or concerns that led you to this work? What is it about agricultural policy, in your experience, that needs to be challenged by farmers?

Gabriela Quiroga Gilardoni I myself grew up on a farm in the south west of Uruguay. I always had an interest in farming, not in relation to the particularities of the improvement of production, but rather in management and the ways farmers organized to do things together or to advocate for their interests. From an early age I joined my father at meetings at the local agricultural cooperative where he was a member and active on the board. I began to recognize how much of a struggle it was to improve production and reach the market to sell the farming product (whatever it was, from wool and meat to vegetables in the case of Uruguay). (Reaching the market) was the only thing that made sense towards improving the livelihood of any rural family farm. This was one of the main reasons why I decided to study social sciences with a focus on rural development.

Agricultural policy needs to be challenged by farmers in at least two ways. One of the most important things concerns their own engagement in the design of policy. It should be “nothing about them, without them” as they say at Agriterra, a Dutch agri-agency working for the strengthening of the value chain in farmers organizations. An agricultural policy designed without proper and in-depth consultation with farmers may fail sooner or later.

Many rural farmers are already self-organized (RPOS — Rural Producer Organizations) yet most existing agricultural policy does not focus on this local expertise amidst the vast changes to the conditions of agricultural production in the last several decades. As Mercoiret and Minla Mfou´ou (2006: 2) point out, the economic and institutional context of agriculture has undergone profound change, such as the state withdrawal from agricultural support and its privatization, as well as increased market liberalization, all of which are modifying farmers´ production conditions particularly for family farms. These reforms impacted most countries of Africa, Latin America and Asia during the ‘80s. While some farmers have been able to capitalize on the market liberalization opportunities, such as the livestock sector in Uruguay, others (such as the smallholders) have not and have faced considerable difficulties, particularly in those cases where rain-fed farming is carried out. Even within the context of previous reforms and the challenges that came with those, RPOs had developed, not only progressively asserting themselves as full-fledged players in agricultural and rural development but also proving to be resilient through ongoing contributions to rural life. Some agricultural cooperatives in Uruguay are made up of members who are smallholder farmers. When their bonding social capital as well as their managerial capacities are strong enough, the agricultural cooperative manages to face competitive challenges to reach the market (local and regional in most of the cases) adopting invigorated capacity-building strategies. Social capital consists of the ability by certain social networks’ to marshal resources. Putnam (1995: 2) refers to social capital as the “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust to facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit”. However, most of the research being done is focused on the economic dimension while very few studies refer to the extent in which the development potential of RPOs manifests and operates in local realities, addressing, in addition to their economic values, other developmental dimensions related to intangible achievements and benefits that their membership offers and stimulates. This is another challenge that not only farmers but research particularly should tackle to contribute to better policy design.

PPIn our project, we are attempting to think critically about the rhetoric of “inclusion” in many policy discourses. Specifically we saw an array of notions of inclusion in the policy fields (public health for Karisa and cultural for Ellen) we both worked in. How would you say notions of “inclusion” or “participation” crop up in agricultural policy? And how does participatory policy work, in your experience, attempt to mitigate the “participation” espoused by dominant policy discourse? Can the same word “participation” be used for both farmer-led and top down policy generation?

GQGInclusion and participation at the level of agricultural policy design represent a big challenge. It is so not only in the sphere where agricultural policy is designed but also at the base of the organizational sphere –the RPOs in this case- where agricultural policy begins to take shape. In 2012 I conducted research in an agricultural cooperative in southeast Uruguay that evidenced the prominent role in rural development agricultural cooperatives have (these are one type of RPOs). A local agricultural cooperative assists its members to reach an economically viable production scale and gain market power and also provides them with more intangible benefits, such as trust among its members. Agricultural cooperatives can use their potential social capital to create opportunities for livestock smallholders. But this depends on the extent to which they exploit two main elements.

Firstly, the institutional setting, where three key sets of arrangements have to be taken into account: a comprehensive knowledge base regarding membership, which includes information about members and lessons learned; mechanisms to disseminate concerns from top-down and bottom-up, to deal with complaints and to monitor members’ compliance with regard to their rights and duties; and regular assessment to ensure that the services meet smallholders’ needs. Secondly, the members themselves and their capacity to advise one another and steer the agricultural cooperative’s activities (including services). Together these elements increase the opportunities to strengthen the farmer-led potential, to maximize trust-building and therefore to enrich bonding social capital. This type of social capital appears when similar people within a community (or a group) link to each other.

The internal elements of the cooperative, a strong institutional setting and membership, would affect collaboration with diverse “external” stakeholders with regard to developing the potential of bridging and linking social capital. Bridging social capital is the capacity of different people –outside one’s community- to still establish a connection with each other for certain purposes; and linking social capital develops when the relationship occurs through diverse formal institutions. Therefore, the findings demonstrate that the stronger the mechanisms to enable the smallholder member to regain their voices, the greater the opportunities for them to take the lead and strengthen their social capital.

The design of agricultural policy will be as participatory and as bottom-up as their designers are used to and able to include in their work. It won’t happen automatically because those in power determine it so.

PPIn the work of Prolinnova, it seems the function is to mediate between farmers and international stakeholders. Could you describe this space? Who gets involved and how? How do you describe your own role?

GQGProlinnova is one of the first Global Partnership Programs (GPP) that developed under the auspices of the Global Forum for Agricultural Research (GFAR). Since its formal launch in Ethiopia in March 2004, this NGO-facilitated international multi-stakeholder partnership has spread to 21 countries and involves more than 150 Agricultural Research for Development (AR4D) organizations on four continents. It focuses on recognizing the dynamics of indigenous knowledge (IK) and enhancing capacities of farmers (including pastoralists, fishers and forest dwellers) to adjust to change — to develop their own site-appropriate systems and institutions of resource management so as to gain food security, sustain their livelihoods and safeguard the environment. The essence of sustainability lies in the capacity to adapt.

The network builds on and scales up farmer-led approaches to participatory development that start with finding out how farmers create new and better ways of doing things. Understanding the rationale behind local innovation transforms how research and extension agents view local people. Farmers, research and extension agents are the main stakeholders that we try to engage through Prolinnova. This experience stimulates interest on both sides to enter into joint action. Local ideas are further developed in a process that integrates IK and scientific knowledge. Joint action and analysis lead to social learning.

To explain our (also my) role into the network requires making explicit the Prolinnova agenda:

PPDuring the symposium you talked about how local farmers are very creative and innovate on their own: that they don’t need someone external telling them what to do. You have shown here how this idea is integrated into Prolinnova’s agenda. How would you say external parties have benefited from the creativity of farmers? Again a similar question as above: while absolutely, your research on farms more than demonstrates their innovative actuality, how can this “creativity” be understood differently or most importantly, function differently to the discourse of “creativity” used against farmers by international stakeholders? Can the same language of creativity and innovation be employed in their interest? We are asking this because you at the same time very clearly show how these languages are used against farmers, or at least against their ability to be at the helm of their own governance.

GQGSmallholder farmers worldwide are persistent innovators in their efforts to adapt to changing conditions and to survive. Discovering how and why these farmers innovate makes outsiders appreciate what local people are already trying to do to improve their situation. Also the farmers start to see themselves differently: although often poor in terms of financial resources and formal education, they realize they are rich in knowledge and ideas. In this context, efforts to promote innovation by farmers and to involve them in formal Agricultural Research and Development (ARD) have great relevance in creating learning opportunities for all involved — not only the farmers.

So considering the above, it is clear to us that the creativity and capacity of farmers to innovate is there. One of the main challenges is to have this recognized by the other stakeholders we work with, particularly governments and research institutes with which (or perhaps by whom?) policy is designed. Of course creativity and innovation can be employed for farmers interest in relation to their own governance but there are still challenges in terms of the recognition that they have these qualities. Education is so formalized that the ‘learning by doing’ in your daily work has sometimes nothing to do or cannot be compared with years at University to pursue different degrees. So the question is why don’t we consider one or the other’s types of learnings accomplishments? If this question is still very difficult to answer, we may need to still keep working on the relevance of all types of learnings and contributions to knowledge.

PPIn the Policy People texts there’s an interview with Claire Pentecost, an artist and activist who agitates against gmo and factory farming. In the interview she describes a meeting between herself, scientists and PR representatives from Monsanto. The meeting was presented as bridging the differences between protestors and Monsanto, but Pentecost personally didn’t feel that either side was open to the conversation — she views it rather as a purely symbolic gesture or performance. What kind of inclusionary tactics have you used or experienced that avoided being merely symbolic (as Pentecost describes this discussion as)? In other words, have you been able, in your view, to bridge this kind of communication gap around policy? Otherwise, have you had experiences where you have convened discussions between stakeholders who do have much at stake between them (farmers and multinationals, or farmers and land owners, politicians, anyone else in power) only to have the conversation never engage because its terms are never shared? This is at least a kind of discussion (many nearly related conversations but which are unengaged) both of us experienced a lot of in our policy work, which effectively disabled change or movement towards any form of policy contestation or struggle.

GQGI very much agree with the description that Claire Pentecost did of such an interview. This is one of these cases where the power relations are very much at the table. Indeed, one of the ways to address the communication gap is to tackle power relations. But how to do so? Or how this could be done? So far for us one of the ways of doing this has been the facilitation of processes where diverse stakeholders sit together around an issue and try to get some understanding.

PPAt the same time, Pentecost described a situation in which diverse stakeholders — precisely a representative from many sides of an issue — were brought together only to speak over and around each other — no conversation was actually able to take place. Or at least the impasse itself was left intact, untouched despite this group having been brought together. Further in our conversation with Pentecost, we questioned whether reform was the place to spend energy. Clearly, your work is all about belief in reform — or at least that reform is the only way to address material realities, or the survival of small farms under present conditions. We certainly understand this and it is why we wanted to invite you to the panel. However, we want to push the question further: your view, what are compromises that farmers make to work with participatory policy development rather than against it? What is lost in the transition from a way of life (as your describe in your childhood) to the labeling of non-economic qualities as social capital? What cannot be grasped, in your view, by policy generation? — Even though you believe in its power for change.

GQGThe stronger the mechanisms of RPOs to consult their members the wider and more comprehensive the capacity of farmers inside the organizations to voice their interest, including policy development, in a participatory-manner. So in other words, the first compromise has to be with their own organizational structures. In my view, the possibility to lobby for policy development through participatory and consultative processes is limited if you do not practice this type of approach yourself. This also challenges those just expecting that something will happen to change their realities… but in my view nothing will change unless you take action. Agency of course is relevant. You can also decide not to participate, not to take any actions. However, that may be one of the very strong points: either to go actively or passively against what is participatory, either choice is a compromise that farmers have to make. Social capital as well as finances can be considered as drivers of policy generation in my view. You change your job because you would like to improve your salary and you move from your small town to a city because you would like to be more challenged in terms of establishing more diverse relationships with people. So behind any transition there is this idea of change. Policy generation may take timelines seriously into consideration. Things evolve and change so the process not only of designing but reviewing policies has to be challenged in terms of its mechanisms to be more sustainably adapted to reality.

December 2015