José Carvajal has developed a unique farmer-to-farmer training model aimed at improving the operation and management of farms, strengthening rural institutions, assisting farmers in the production and sale of organic crops, and supporting sustainable agricultural practices at all levels of society.
The New Idea
José Carvajal is systematizing and disseminating the effective agro-ecological practices which Andean farmers know and employ. He challenges those systems imposed by the state and various nongovernmental organizations which rely on technology transfer and assistance, without recognizing the values and knowledge of those who live and work in the countryside. Instead, José links these same institutions with farmer groups under a new orientation of reflection and participatory training, guided by the belief that successful techniques which come from the farmers themselves will be more sustainable in the long run. Another unique component to Jose's model is the development of lobbying techniques which give these groups effective voice in and influence over agricultural policy. He has found that it is much easier to convince political and social institutions to adopt methods of sustainable agriculture when this change is based on the methods the farmer groups have discovered and are using themselves.
In Ecuador, farmers have very few spaces to share their practical experiences, skills, and knowledge. Existing activities are oriented exclusively to an elite group: the technicians and engineers of nongovernmental organizations and the state. The development and implementation of these activities typically do not recognize the techniques that many farmers already apply and instead rely on modern developments largely imported from other countries. This importation often results in the loss of valuable agricultural practices and know-how that local farmers have developed over centuries and that have provided positive economic, social, and environmental results.The decline of traditional farming techniques has led to accelerated depletion of natural resources, and to an increased use of chemicals in production. The economic and social impact on farmers and indigenous groups, which account for 40 percent of Ecuador's population, has forced them to migrate from rural to urban areas and has ruptured the traditional family units. Many farmers suffer from insufficient nutrition, and their income often does not cover their basic needs, yet their well-being depends on the nourishment and salaries that their farms provide. According to José, less than one percent of the country's farmers and indigenous population have training in sustainable agricultural management. The rest simply insert themselves into a destructive model of extractive production, stripping the land of nutrients, ignoring integrated management of natural resources, and putting present and future generations at risk.Throughout the history of Ecuador, farmers and indigenous groups have been marginalized. The recent Law for Agrarian Reform apportioned land for individual farmers in the least desirable zones for the development of agriculture. Under these conditions, farmers face a difficult economic adjustment, and many have sought to increase production to pay off the debt incurred in purchasing land. Instead of helping the farmers, land redistribution has upset subsistence systems of production.
José relies on a national network of farmers to serve as trainers in each province. He and a group of volunteers have identified farmers with best practices in sustainable agriculture throughout the region over a number of years. Acting as facilitators, José and his team bring together those with knowledge to share and those requesting the knowledge. He recruits volunteers who go out and ask about unique farming techniques and observe farms in the region for sustainable agriculture methods. They work with the farmers and their families to gain the trust and respect of the community and, through repeated visits, to determine which practices the farmers are using for their crops. These farmers are experts in soil conservation, organic fertilization, rotation of crops, heritage seed preservation, conservation of water resources, bee-keeping, integrated pest management, and other agricultural issues. José and his team then contact local agricultural groups, such as farmers' unions, and offer the services of the "best practices in sustainable agriculture" trainers they have recruited. According to the particular requests within a given application, José contacts the appropriate farmer expert who corresponds to the expressed need. The only requirement is that the requesting community commit to learning a new technique, to implementing it, and to sharing it with others in the region.The "expert" travels to the community to share his experiences and the results achieved. Women and children are also included in the workshops in recognition that agriculture is a family affair. The expert and the community then make a pledge to each other to meet again in six months to share experiences and results. The community is responsible for testing the new agricultural practices, while the expert returns to see if his ideas proved viable. A person from the group is chosen by the group to monitor the application of the techniques over the six months and beyond, and to report back to the expert and the rest of José's team.The next step of the process is the documentation of experiences throughout the country. Results are documented and presented at a national seminar, which lasts three weeks and can include individual farmers, groups, and/or organizations. The most recent gathering was in 1996, and included 72 institutions and nongovernmental organizations, 92 rural organizations, 100 individual farmers, and a coordination team of 22 people. All participants document and share their successful agricultural techniques in a systematized structure. Because it is difficult for farmers to attend the entire three weeks, the meeting is organized around thematic areas of two to three days each, with farmers attending during the sessions corresponding to their area of expertise. Approximately 40 to 50 farmers attend each thematic area.From this national gathering emerges a manual documenting the farmers' experiences. José is a part of the International Institute for Rural Reconstruction, which has given him space and support to implement his plan. Ecuador's national indigenous organization, CONAIE, has also opened its resources to José's ideas. José's strategy includes plans for CONAIE to adopt and institutionalize his methodology, and to broaden the documentation and dissemination to the Amazon and coast of Ecuador, as well as to Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia.Looking to the longer term, José is a member of a group of organic producers in Ecuador which promotes chemical-free production and through which participating farmers are able to sell their goods at a better price. To incorporate farmers into this group, José is educating them on the benefits of organic production, assisting them in chemical-free production without chemicals, and aiding them in the establishment of their own small businesses and markets for their products.
The roots of José's model can be traced to his years at the university, where he was a student leader in charge of pre-university courses in agronomy. He founded a program of student field trips to the countryside for agronomy students as a way to share experiences and learn about the countryside outside of the city. José later developed what is known as the University Rural Development Program, which aims to link university training more closely to real-life experiences in the countryside, supporting rural development processes, and developing theses which can help to solve local problems. University students in this program have helped farmers to detect and solve problems through applied research. Students then developed a thesis, backed up their solutions with research, and lived in the zones of study during weekends and vacations. Even after graduating from the university, José continued to coordinate this group of 300 students for four additional years.He then formed a volunteer group of friends from the university who went out in the countryside to identify farmers using best practices in sustainable agriculture. Most of the members of this group are now married with children, and they continue to go on weekends with their families to identify model farmers and techniques. In the villages they visit, the volunteers ask about renowned farmers and then visit the farms and offer to help for the day. This was the beginning of the farmer-to-farmer sustainable agriculture program founded by José.In the early 1990s José worked with the Natura Foundation and other agronomists to recover traditional knowledge of the Shuars, an indigenous group in Ecuador's Amazon. Despite a lack of funds and experience, they succeeded in writing a book on Shuar traditional knowledge and technology. This experience formed the basis of ways to share traditional agricultural techniques for future meetings, training workshops, and manuals.José has lived his entire life in the countryside, where his grandparents and mother taught him agriculture. He has identified with the ideas of solidarity and the shared efforts of social groups in rural areas. With the death of his grandfather, he promised to "return to the land which gave him life." Ever since, José has been working in the countryside, to serve farmer groups interested in learning and returning the environment to a sustainable equilibrium.