Family farmers Paulo and Josefa with water resource infrastructure on their farm in the Paraiba semiarid.
Photo: AS-PTA

Valuing farmers’ local knowledge

For several decades, the organisation AS-PTA has been campaigning for sustainable rural development and family farming in a number of Brazilian Federal States. Knowledge exchange between farmers plays a crucial role in this context.

For over 35 years, AS-PTA – Agricultura Familiar e Agroecologia (family farming and agroecology) has been working, as a non-governmental organisation to promote patterns of sustainable rural development and the strengthening of family farming in Brazil. AS-PTA implements its actions via local programmes in the states of Paraná, Paraíba and Rio de Janeiro. The accumulated experience of the organisation throughout the years allowed it to provide evidence on how the agroecological approach helps family farmers to address the challenges that agricultural sustainability presents.

    AS-PTA has advocated for the creation of several civil society networks, such as the National Coalition for Agroecology – ANA, aiming to promote sustainable rural development. While these civil society organisation (CSO) networks constitute spaces for collective learning, they also allow articulated actions by the organisations and social movements to advocate for the formulation, implementation and monitoring of public policies. At local level, this dialogue process takes place with distinct actors: in Paraíba, with the Borborema Pole, in Paraná, with the Triunfo Collective and in Rio de Janeiro, with the State Coalition for Agroecology, all of them networks formed by the community associations, organisations and unions of family farmers.

These local collective actors constitute the organic partners of AS-PTA regarding the implementation of projects and the participation of actors in all stages of planning, monitoring and management of the initiatives. AS-PTA’s work is based on sharing the management of the programmes with the farmers’ organisations, whether they are formally or informally constituted. It is in these processes that one of the rationales of AS-PTA’s work becomes more visible: valuing farmers’ local knowledge in their forms of organisation and management of their production but also regarding the management of their agroecosystems and their production techniques. Promoting farmer-to-farmer exchanges (see quote in Box), several actions are strengthened and gain recognition in the territory. It is also through valuing knowledge that AS-PTA promotes interdisciplinary exchanges to advance agroecological knowledge with partners in research institutes and universities.

In Paraíba state, AS-PTA develops its action in the Borborema Territory, covering 15 municipalities and directly reaching 6,200 farmer families in 404 farmer communities. The territory is located in the Brazilian semiarid region. The Brazilian semiarid is characterised by 63 per cent of its overall territory consisting of areas prone to desertification. Caatinga is an exclusive biome in Brazil. It has the most diverse biota in the world in terms of semiarid vegetation, although today, 68 per cent of its area  is already anthropised at several levels and is exposed to processes of environmental degradation.

Ninety-nine per cent of the municipalities in the areas prone to desertification still record Human Development Indices (HDI) that are inferior to the Brazilian average. The Brazilian semiarid concentrates 750 of the 1,000 with the lowest HDI and two thirds of Brazil’s poor. AS-PTA’s work experience in the region demonstrates that the poorer segments are not only exposed to more socioeconomic vulnerability but are also more excluded from the benefits of public policies for the region. These segments consist of families with little access to land (with farm units of up to three hectares). Women in general face strong obstacles to participating in the management of production systems and income access. Despite successes in developing several agroecological innovations, a patriarchal culture has remained dominant both within the family and in organisations. The inequality between men and women has been a barrier to full implementation of agroecology across the region, although a women’s movement for autonomy has been growing stronger over the last 15 years (for experience gathered by the network of women farmers in Paraíba state, see article in “Farming matters”).

Promising achievements in the region …

The following highlights some of the most significant results reached by AS-PTA Paraíba Programme in the last few years:

  • Markets: With the support of municipal governments,210 farmer families are regularly marketing ecological food at eight municipal fairs, while 176 families supply schools and nurseries with ecological food  via public policies such as the National School Feeding Programme (PNAE) and the Food Acquisition Programme (PAA). In PNAE, for example, a policy that guarantees that at least 30 per cent of the funds for school meals is directed to purchase from family farmers, agroecological products receive a differentiated price. Even though prices for agroecological products tend to be higher when compared to conventional ones, these experiences of direct purchase (without third parties/intermediaries) guarantee that the prices are well balanced and products reach a broader range of consumers.
     
  • Genetic resources: A regional network comprising 60 community seed banks and directly reaching 1,500 families has been organised that provides advocacy for the government policy for seed distribution and the Food Acquisition Programme. These partnerships with local authorities ensure that storage of the seed banks is maintained and stocks are renewed. Also, the Borborema Territory now has more than 80 community seed banks involving 3,000 families.
     
  • Livestock farming: Through propositions made by the Borborema Pole, the Development Programme for Borborema Territory acquired eleven machines for fodder production under collective use.
     
  • Water Resources: Cisterns have been built for domestic use by families (partnership with One Million Cisterns Programme), while decentralised infrastructure has been constructed to capture, store and transport water (underground dams, clay pit, stone tanks, etc. – partnership with the One Land Two Waters Programme). In total, more than 11,000 cisterns with water for human consumption have been provided and 2,700 implementation measures to store water for farming produce (social technologies: paved cisterns, stone tanks, popular pumps, underground dams) have been run.
     
  • Financing: Across 14 municipalities, 140 communities are managing solidarity rotating funds, a kind of community microcredit that allows the community to finance an amount higher than the value one individual family could afford.

… and at national scale

At national scale, the following results ought to be mentioned:

  • The expressive process of scaling up in terms of reaching more people and covering larger areas achieved by AS-PTA’s local programmes (Paraíba, Paraná and Rio de Janeiro).
     
  • The creation and dissemination in networks of methods for the management and monitoring of development programmes in rural territories, with an emphasis on the protagonist role of family farmers’ organisations as essential actors in the process. These methods have been summarised in the Economic Ecological Assessment of Agroecosystems, spread by the organisations gathered under the National Coalition for Agroecology. This material produced by AS-PTA can be found at the AS-PTA website.
  • Promoting the development of CSO networks for agroecology and family farming at local, regional and national levels.
     
  • Proactive participation in governance forums, political arenas and public councils responsible for the guidelines of rural development policies, such as the National Council for Sustainable Rural Development and the National Committee of National Policy for Agroecology.
     
  • The support of a national network structure via the campaign For a Pesticide- and GMO-Free Brazil.

A national policy promoting agroecology and organic production

For the development of public policies that promote sustainable food systems and sustainable patterns for rural development, AS-PTA has also taken action to create democratic spaces that allow CSOs and farmers to be heard in the formulation of policies. In 2012, PNAPO – the National Policy for Agroecology and Organic production – was launched, representing an important victory for civil society’s demands in the struggle for agroecological approaches to public policies. Programmes such as ATER Agroecologia (directed at extension services for agroecology) and ECOFORTE (support for territorial projects of agroecology networks) are included in the National Plan for Agroecology and Organic Production. Policies such as PNAE and PAA, established prior to PNAPO, also have shown an impressive impact on fomenting agroecology, family farming and nutrition and food security.

In the very recent context of political crises in Brazil, the programmes addressing agroecology have faced significant budget cuts and winding up of institutional bodies responsible for policy implementation. In spite of this, AS-PTA and civil society agroecology networks in Brazil have remained strong in their commitment to democratic legitimacy, a rights-based State and citizenship – for it is only under such circumstances that agroecology can be developed and scaled up.

Promoting farmer-to-farmer exchange

“„The first step in implementing AS-PTA’s local development programmes was to talk with local farmer organisations and other kinds of groups, like church community groups, that could be interested in our proposals. The second step was to identify the main problems and potentials of the farmers’ agroecosystems and make an analysis of the main causes of the difficulties they identified. Through these participatory rural appraisals, farmer participants and technicians developed a common view of farmers’ problems and their possible causes, and a ranking of the more general and more important ones was established. Broadcasting the results of these operations as frequently as possible through local radio and television stations provoked curiosity in other communities not yet involved. Demands for visits to farmers interviewed in the media began to flood the community organisations’ network and required AS- PTA to take a systematic approach. The technicians created a group of farmer facilitators who were responsible for supporting these farmer-to-farmer exchanges.”
A founder of AS-PTA

Bruno Prado is a technical advisor and project manager in AS-PTA. He holds a master’s degree in social sciences and is also a researcher at CERESAN – the Reference Centre on Food and Nutrition Sovereignty and Security (CPDA/UFRRJ).
Contact: bruno@aspta.org.br

More info on AS-PTA can be found at the organisation’s website (in Portuguese)