Home' Partners : Partners January 2013 Contents of Agricultural Research and the Australian
National University, ACIAR sought to improve
water-harvesting practices on the East India
Plateau and link this to research on soils
and agronomy, all the while engaging more
effectively with farming communities.
In so doing, they have allowed farmers
to broaden their scope beyond traditional
Kharif rice and opened up the possibility of
year-round agriculture with crops such as
vegetables, wheat and mustard, as well as
direct-seeded aerobic rice for land that is too
risky for traditional rice.
TRADITION VERSUS MODERNITY
"One thing that surprised me scientifically was
the extent to which traditional rice condemns
farmers to failure in this area, but at the same
time there is abundant rainfall to safely grow
other crops," former project leader Professor
Peter Cornish says.
Rice has historically been the staple crop.
There were good technical reasons for this: it
grows well in the lowlands where it achieves
modest yields with little or no fertiliser and
weed management is easy.
"Population pressure caused rice to be
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grown widely on the sloping upland, which
comprises most of the land owned by poor
families," Professor Cornish says.
"Farmers have tried to adapt the technology
from the lowlands to the terraced uplands,
but there is often insufficient rainfall for
transplanted rice here. That led us to develop
the technology with farmers to grow rice more
safely and to try alternative crops for the Kharif,
as well as develop rainfed and irrigated crop
options for the non-rainy season (Rabi)."
Where poor farmers diversify out of
transplanted rice they need to learn how to
manage the risks: climate, market, cash flow,
pests and diseases. One of the best ways to
improve livelihoods is to grow vegetables,
especially if they are grown when supplies to
the market are lower and prices are higher.
However, that strategy introduces risks as it
involves cropping when conditions are more
difficult, such as during Kharif. It also requires
a willingness to think in new ways and to
One of the biggest changes was to the role
women played in farming.
For Professor Cornish and Professor Bill
Bellotti, who was also involved in the initial
research, a remarkable discovery was the
profound effect achieved across a range of
areas by involving the village women.
"Every step of the way, women as well as
men were involved in training, decisions on
research priorities, conducting experiments,
interpreting results and explaining them to
other farmers," Professor Cornish says.
"Better decisions tend to be made when
women are involved because they consider the
broader family needs. That's what the project
did that was new---it engaged with the women
as farmers, rather than merely as members of a
The distinction is an important one, as it
fundamentally redefines the role of the woman
in the family unit and empowers her to make
decisions that have far-reaching effects on the
family's livelihood and wellbeing.
WOMEN TAKE THE LEAD
Among the rural poor, women are marginalised,
yet they often prove to be the most effective
agents for development. When family
economic circumstances improve---and if
women have a voice in how the money is
spent---women tend to first invest in their
family's health and education, then in capacity
and labour-saving (such as a bike or mobile
phone), facilitating a virtuous cycle of gains in
the family and wider community.
PRADAN recognises this. To improve
livelihoods, they use a participatory approach
across a network of well-established women's
self-help groups (SHGs). Traditionally these
groups have addressed microfinance and
gender issues, including health, but not
ACIAR saw value in the integrated
community approach championed by
PRADAN and in the focus on the optimal use of
resources to reduce vulnerability.
Following initially poor project
implementation by participating male farmers
in the villages of Amagara and nearby Pogro, the
project engaged intensively with the women's
SHGs in a way that was new, with PRADAN
managing implementation of the research.
Professor Bellotti says that the ACIAR project
engaged the women as partners in research.
"The ultimate outcome of this innovative
process was that the agricultural research
process provided the context for women to
see themselves as farmers---decision-makers---
rather than just farm labourers.
"Although the process is intensive, requiring
significant investment in time and expertise,
the outcome of developing local capacity for
independent innovation is long-lasting and
Farmers in two villages helped develop
and adopt new crop options and improved
agronomy. These more intensive and diverse
cropping systems use land and water resources
more effectively. Findings were then scaled out
to more than 2,700 families for evaluation.
A clear project lesson is that implementation
improves when women are engaged equally
with men in learning about agricultural
innovation and decision-making about how to
A driving force behind the success of the
East India Project was the husband-and-wife
team of PRADAN's Avijit Choudhury and
"Avijit and Kuntalika have developed a
wonderful way of working with women that
gets them first thinking about their role in the
family," Professor Cornish says.
Although women undertake much of the
farm labour, they regard their husbands as the
farmers and decision-makers. Mr Choudhury
encourages the women to reflect on the work
they do and reach a point where they start to
make the decisions alongside the men.
Participants found that both the self-image
of the women involved and the perception of
them by their peers---other villagers, salesmen,
government officials---were profoundly altered.
"The village men have been surprised at
what the women have achieved," Professor
Cornish says. "Men will say, 'We didn't know
women could do that'."
In Chaibasa, a farmer takes a break from weeding to
pose proudly beside her wheat crop, judged the best
in the village in a recent competition. Chaibasa is one
of the more successful villages in Jharkhand, with some
irrigation infrastructure providing a degree of certainty
to its local farmers.
PHOTO: BILL BELLOTTI
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