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Working strategies to improve life in Latin American indigenous communities

Guest columnist

Despite billions spent on traditional foreign aid and development programs since the 1960s, little progress has been made in ending rural poverty in Latin America, especially in countries with large indigenous populations. Fortunately, there are some new approaches that are beginning to show good results, and they are being applied in Bolivia, Peru and Guatemala – three countries where the majority or near-majority of the population is made up of Native people.

Rural poverty, worldwide, has been difficult to eradicate for several reasons. The large integrated rural development projects that were established in Latin America and Africa in the 1970s and 1980s by the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other major donors were unsuccessful because they tried to carry out a variety of development activities in a single region (increased income from agricultural activities, better health services, more schools), and the breadth of their ambition made these projects unmanageable. The agricultural reforms and techniques of the mid-20th century that constituted the “green revolution” brought enormous gains to

producers of rice and other crops from the Philippines to India, but sadly did not have much of an effect in Africa and Latin America. Because soils on these continents had become highly eroded, especially in the regions of greatest rural poverty, much more than improved seed, fertilizer and insecticide was needed in order for poor farmers to increase their productivity and income.

In addition, agronomists working for governmental projects and nongovernmental organizations alike often took a “top-down” approach, dictating to farmers exactly what they had to do to increase productivity and income. Unfortunately, many of the agronomists lacked practical experience, and the theories they learned in agricultural schools could not be applied without considerable adjustment to the realities of the region’s poor farmers. Also, poor farmers in three countries in Latin America, where the majority or near-majority of the population is made up of indigenous peoples – Bolivia (71 percent), Peru (47 percent) and Guatemala (66 percent) – had an additional burden. As a result of colonization and its decades-long legacy of institutional discrimination, they were left with the worst land – mountainous or semi-arid land, fragile soils susceptible to erosion, and small amounts of land per family.

Strategies for International Development, a U.S. nonprofit organization, has been working in Latin America since 1994, providing aid and assistance in creative ways to Native farmers in Bolivia’s Altiplano, the southern Sierra of Peru and the western highlands of Guatemala to reclaim eroded land while they also increase their productivity and income. SID has pioneered useful innovations such as “competitions among communities” to mobilize participation and give farmers the lead in planning projects and evaluating results.

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The competitions work in a fairly straightforward way. At the beginning of each rainy or dry season, farmers in areas comprised of 30 – 50 communities select the farming practices that they wish to adopt or improve – for example, digging water retention ditches in compacted soils, damming gullies, reseeding pastures, vaccinating cattle, treating cattle for internal parasites or digging farm ponds. They then set criteria for measuring results (meters of ditches, etc.) and select prizes such as alfalfa seed, farm tools, or calves for the communities and farmers that achieve the greatest results. SID provides technical assistance throughout the season in these practices, and at the end of the season the farmers select a panel of judges that measures the results in each community and awards the prizes to the communities with the best results.

The competitions are flexible enough to permit farmers to find their own solutions to their problems, and the farmers and communities that do not win learn by witnessing what others did to win. They adopt these methods and improve upon them and become the winners in the next competition. Few communities win more than two or three times in a row. We find that the competitions give recognition, value and reward for adopting the best farming practices.

In addition, successful farmers work as extension agents and project staff in three ways. Each community appoints a male and female farmer to work as volunteers and organize and help provide the training and technical assistance in their community. Farmers skilled in one or more practices are hired as part-time extension agents to work alongside the agronomists and community volunteers in providing the training and technical assistance. Farmers visit those communities which have done an outstanding job in reclaiming land or increasing productivity, and they learn from farmers who are one to two steps ahead of them.

Finally, SID also helps farmers make the all-important link to the marketplace and encourages the adoption of standard business practices such as identifying major buyers, negotiating sales agreements, and making and using business plans. The buyers, rather than agronomists, provide guidance to the farmers on minimum quantities, product quality, prices, potential volume of sales, market stability and any sharing of transport costs. The buyers are agro-processors or exporters, not the truckers and other intermediaries that come to the communities and to whom farmers sell at the farm gate.

Negotiating with major buyers helps farmers increase not only their self-esteem, but also their business savvy, and their sales and income. Much as the policy of Indian self-determination has done in the United States in the last 35 years, incorporating these methods helps farmers feel that they have greater dominion over their businesses and are becoming more equal players in their market.

With these types of approaches, SID has helped Native farmers to reclaim significant amounts of eroded land, increase productivity by at least 50 percent and often more than 100 percent, and increase their incomes by at least 50 percent. Native farmers work with some of the worst land in Latin America, but nonetheless they can make significant advances if given an opportunity to plan, implement and evaluate the programs and services they see as appropriate and that local conditions merit. In the end, Native farmers in Latin America are treated with the respect they deserve, and they and their families have better chances at improving their standards of living and the futures of their children.

Charles Patterson, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is the executive director of strategies for International Development, a 501c(3) not for profit organization headquartered in Arlington, Va. He can be reached at (703) 875-0500 or by e-mail at