Listening to farmers: communication for participation and change in Latin America

S. Balit

S. Balit was Chief of FAO's Communication for Development Group from 1984 to 1996. She is currently a freelance communication specialist living in Rome.

Via A. Poerio 109,
00152, Rome, Italy
tel: +39 06 5881638


Meeting the major challenges facing the world today requires information, knowledge and a participatory process of social change. Communication is an essential element in this process. Communication practitioners are drawing upon the lessons learned in the last 25 years to apply communication technology, methods and media in the most effective manner to promote sustainable development efforts and adapt to the changing needs of a global information society. FAO's Communication for Development Programme has evolved in accordance with changing development paradigms. Today its philosophy and basic guiding principles are based on the results of methodologies and research applied in the field. This article describes the experience of a regional rural communication project in Latin America, financed by the Government of Italy, which creatively applied the experience gained by FAO in many countries in the region. The project concentrated essentially on two communication systems: audiovisuals to train small farmers; and electronic information networks to provide information to agricultural producers and their associations. The approaches and methods applied in this successful FAO rural communication project can be replicated in other countries and regions.


The major challenges facing the world today include: managing the environment in a sustainable manner; managing the exploding rate of population growth and urbanization; ensuring food security; meeting health, education and literacy needs; and eliminating poverty. Meeting these challenges requires information, knowledge and a participatory process of social change. Communication is an essential element in this process. Establishing a dialogue with people can empower them to make decisions for their own development. Communication can be used to increase participation, provide information for change and innovation and help in the sharing of knowledge and skills.

Since its inception, "communication for development" has been a dynamic discipline, evolving and adapting with new development paradigms. In the past, development approaches were top-down and based on economic development and the transfer of technology and information. Now, participatory and people-centred development approaches are used. A variety of communication models and approaches have been developed in the last 25 years. The lessons learned can now be drawn on to guide the use of communication technologies, methodologies and techniques in the most effective manner to promote sustainable development efforts and adapt to changing societal needs.

FAO has been a pioneer in the field of communication for development and has developed a number of innovative methodologies for applying communication media to promote rural development. The results of experience in the field, applied research and evaluation have enabled FAO to develop a series of guiding principles that are the basis of its communication for development philosophy and practice today.

Communication for development was defined by an FAO Expert Consultation held in 1984 as "a social process, designed to seek a common understanding among all the participants of a development initiative, creating a basis for concerted action". Communication is a mediation tool that brings different social groups together to discuss their interests and needs and to reach a consensus for action. Communication technology and media are useful tools in this process but should not be considered as ends in themselves. Sustainable people-oriented development can only be realized if information and knowledge are shared and rural people are involved and motivated. The experts at the Expert Consultation indicated that "the essence of involving rural people in their own development lies in the sharing of knowledge. Sharing is not a one-way transfer of information; it implies rather an exchange between communication equals. On the one hand, technical specialists learn about people's needs and their techniques of production; on the other, the people learn of the techniques and proposals of the specialists" (FAO, 1987).

Communication for development efforts should begin by listening to farmers and take into account their perceptions, needs, knowledge, experiences, cultures and traditions. In rural communication for development efforts, the communication staff, resources and equipment required to produce the required results and impact should be provided. A holistic approach to rural development should be used that covers the multifaceted aspects of life in rural areas and deals not only with agriculture, but also with health, habitat, nutrition, population and women's issues. Partnerships should be sought with all the stakeholders in the development process. Use should be made of all the available media infrastructure and channels, both modern and traditional, in an orchestrated fashion. To be sustainable and independent of technologies that are available only in industrialized countries, the communication media that are suited to the cultural, social and economic conditions of rural areas in developing countries should be used. They should be participatory and interactive.

In the past, FAO used media such as rural radio, slides, filmstrips, video and other traditional and popular media. More recently, FAO has embraced the use of electronic information systems provided that they are adapted to local conditions with the full participation of the users and that they are complemented by other media in situations where rural communities are unable to access them directly. In a communication for development approach, national communication institutions must apply pluralism and involve all the partners in the development process. These institutions must be autonomous and generate income for their services if they are to become sustainable. The development of national capacity and human resources is also a major priority. Training of a critical mass of development staff at all levels, from field workers to trainers to communication planners, is an essential requirement for successful communication for development efforts.

This article describes the approaches and activities developed by an FAO regional project in Latin America, financed by the Government of Italy, which creatively applied the lessons learned from a number of development communication projects implemented by FAO and national institutions in various countries of the region.

Communication for development in Latin America: a regional experience

"More than natural resources, more than cheap labour,
more than financial capital, knowledge is becoming
the key factor of production"
(World Bank, 1992).

Information and knowledge are essential for improving the productivity of farmers in Latin America. As a result of the new market-orientation of the economy and the shrinking involvement of governments, rural poverty is increasing and so is the marginalization of small farmers, women and rural youth. Extension systems are either very weak or non-existent. Rural producers are in great need of information, knowledge and skills to improve decision-making, increase productivity and simply to survive under new market conditions. Appropriate technologies and information exist in the region, but they are often not accessible to farmers because of a lack of appropriate delivery systems. Communication technologies have helped to meet some of the challenges faced by a large number of people. These challenges include: a lack of well-trained extension workers; a lack of transportation; a lack of standardized scientific and technical information; a low level of literacy; and the presence of many local languages.

An FAO Regional Project (Comunicación para el Desarrollo en America Latina, July 1993 to December 1996), financed by the Government of Italy, has created national capacities in rural communication in four countries (Bolivia, Brazil, Nicaragua and Chile) and provided assistance to a number of other countries in the region (Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, Venezuela, Uruguay and others). The main objectives of the project were to develop national communication systems and train a critical mass of national staff in the production and use of communication methods and media for participation, social change and training of small farm families. The project concentrated primarily on the application of two communication delivery systems: a video-based system for the sharing of knowledge and skills "pedagogia audiovisual"; and electronic networks for the dissemination of information.

Pedagogia audiovisual

"What I hear, I forget. What I see, I remember.
What I do, I know" (rural proverb).

Audiovisual pedagogy is a video-based training methodology that listens to farmers, collects their knowledge and experience and integrates it with modern scientific knowledge. Video programmes are the primary training tool, but the methodology also uses a number of other communication channels to facilitate the learning of small farmers and semi-literate rural populations. The methodology was first developed by an FAO project in Peru and has been applied in other countries in the region, as well as in China, Mali, India, Indonesia and the Republic of Korea.

The FAO regional project used this methodology to share knowledge and skills with small subsistence farmers. The emphasis was on human resource development and training of national personnel through intensive courses. The courses for audiovisual producers and trainers (pedagogos audiovisuales) lasted 45 days. Courses for field workers/facilitators who used the audiovisual materials in training sessions with farmers (capacitadores audiovisuales) lasted 20 days.

Audiovisual training packages were produced on key themes, issues and technologies that were identified by the farmers and technicians. Each course consisted of a series of video programmes (normally six to seven classes) accompanied by simple printed guides for the trainer/facilitator and the farmers. Each training session involved viewing a video programme, holding a discussion with a technician and then performing practical work. The guides for the farmers (which had many illustrations and little text) also served as reminders for the trainees.

The video equipment used was low-cost, portable, battery-operated and small-format, consumer-grade (Hi-8 and VHS). The technical content of the course and the programmes was provided by subject matter specialists and the farmers themselves. The multichannel approach (face-to-face communication, video programmes, practical work and written materials) reinforced learning, especially among illiterate rural populations.

The communication staff trained by the project worked in the villages and in the field with groups of farmers and farm families, including women and youth. In addition to working through government channels, the project worked with all the stakeholders involved in rural development. New institutional frameworks were established to produce and use the audiovisual training and information materials. Government institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), farmers' associations, cooperatives and private-sector groups were involved. The new rural communication institutions are now generating income by producing communication materials and training field workers to use the materials.

A World Bank study carried out in Bolivia, indicated that the costs for audiovisual training activities were between one-third and one-fifth of the cost of traditional extension activities (Valenzuela, 1994). After the initial investments are made in equipment, local personnel training and materials, the cost per farmer decreases when training activities are applied on a wide scale. For example, the total cost of producing a complete audiovisual training package was estimated at US$25 000, including the costs of international experts and training local personnel to use the package with farmers. If the package is used to train 1 000 farmers, the cost of the course per farmer is US$25. If the package is used with 10 000 farmers, the cost per farmer is reduced to US$2.50.

During the project, 153 309 small farmers participated in the information and communication training activities. There were 191 audiovisual producers and 672 audiovisual trainers trained. There were 58 audiovisual training packages and 120 training and information video programmes produced and used with small farmers.

Rural information systems

"We recognize that the new information technologies
and new approaches to access and use of technologies
by people living in poverty can help in fulfilling
social development goals and therefore recognize
the need to facilitate access to such technologies
(World Summit on Social Development, 1995).

Another communication delivery system applied in the project was the electronic information network system. The project built on an experience initiated in Mexico under a previous FAO rural communication project which was financed by the Government of Mexico and the World Bank.

In Chile and Mexico, computer technology was applied in a participatory manner to establish information networks for agricultural producers and farmer associations. The networks provided essential data on crops, inputs, prices, markets, weather conditions, social services, credit facilities, etc. Messages were generated, processed, transmitted through low-cost computers via the Internet and delivered to farmers' organizations, cooperatives, town councils, etc., which were equipped with computers, modems and printers (Figure).

FIGURE Rural information systems

The process started with an assessment of the local knowledge and information needs of farmers and their associations. The assessment indicated that farmers had a strong desire for an improved communication system. The extension services, local leaders and institutions required better information to organize and manage agricultural development activities. The project provided the electronic network designs, some equipment, logistical support, coordination and technical backstopping. Training in how to use electronic information technology for rural development, and in particular how to analyse and disseminate information that is locally relevant, was provided to local extension and farmers' organization personnel. Servers were established and small information centres equipped with computers, modems and printers were created within the offices of farmers' organizations and NGOs. The information centres distributed the messages to individual farmers and associations, according to local conditions and the facilities available. For example, faxes and/or printed materials were used if access to the Internet was not available (Fraser, 1996). The messages distributed through the Internet were timely, appropriate and transmitted in a form that could be understood by the farmers.

By 1996, the national agricultural extension service in Chile (INDAP) had established an electronic rural information system that connected farmers' organizations, rural municipalities, NGOs and local government extension agencies to World Wide Web (WWW) information services. Five local information centres had been established in the offices of farmers' associations or NGOs and it was estimated that transmitting price and market information this way cost 40 percent less than using traditional methods. In addition, the information was more timely, reaching the farmers much faster; in the past, the publication and distribution of a printed bulletin took 45 days (Masias, 1997).

After six months "on-line", the WWW homepage of the electronic information system had had over 7 500 hits (Internet jargon for the number of times a homepage is accessed). Much of the information available through the Chilean network was useful to other Spanish speaking Internet users as well. Within a one-month period, there were over 1 000 hits from Latin Americans outside Chile, and a further 1 000 hits from Internet users elsewhere, including Europe, North America, Asia and Australia (Richardson, 1996).

A farmers' association in the state of Sonora, Mexico, reported that by using the market price information provided through electronic mail by the information and communication unit, it was able to sell its cotton crop for US$82 per quintal as opposed to US$72 which was the price local buyers were trying to impose. Knowing the future prices for cereals and oilseeds also enabled the association to plan better the quantities of crops to plant. Vegetable producers reported that the information on meteorological conditions informed them of the climatic conditions faced by competitors in other states and countries, and this enabled them to plan markets for their products (Masias, 1997).

The total cost to establish the rural information system in Chile was $US21 500 (equipment, US$12 000; installation, US$3 500; and training of national staff, US$6 000) and annual recurring costs for maintenance, personnel and telephone were estimated at US$100 000. The cost to establish an information centre in a farmers' organization was US$4 500 (equipment, US$3 000; and training of local personnel, US$1 500) and annual operational costs were US$13 000 including personnel (two technicians), telephone and connection to the server.


An independent evaluation mission carried out in December 1995 confirmed that the methodologies applied by the FAO rural communication project were appropriate for the needs and conditions in the region and were cost-effective. The major beneficiaries of the project were the subsistence farmers and their families who were actively participating in the training and information activities. Extension workers, facilitators and field workers had been trained and had tools for better communication and identification of farmers' needs. They also had more knowledge and experience to provide farmers with standardized, high-quality technical information and training. Government agencies, NGOs, municipalities and farmers' associations had acquired communication systems, methodologies and tools to disseminate information and transfer knowledge and skills on a wide scale. National and local institutions established by the project were generating income, thus guaranteeing sustainability of the communication activities.

Lessons learned

The following are some of the factors that contributed to the success of this project:

Many of the success factors for this project are compatible with FAO's guiding principles for communication for development and can be applied to other programmes in the developing world to achieve effective rural communication to support rural and sustainable development.


Balit, S., Calvelo Rios, M. & Masias, L. 1996. Case study presented to the World Bank Workshop on Alternative Methods for Funding and Delivering Extension. World Bank, 1997.(not published)

Calvelo Rios, M. 1989. Popular video for rural development in Peru. Development Communication Report No. 66.

FAO. 1987. Report of the Expert Consultation on Development Support Communication, Rome, 8-12 June 1987.

Fraser, C. 1996. Communication for rural development in Mexico: in good times and in bad. Rome, FAO.

Masias, L. 1997. Final Report of the Project on Communication for Rural Development in Latin America. GCP/RLA/114/ITA, Rome, FAO.

Richardson, D. 1996. The Internet and rural development: recommendations for strategy and activity., FAO, Rome.

Valenzuela. 1994. Unpublished report.

World Bank. 1992. Policy Research Bulletin. Washington, DC, World Bank.

World Summit on Social Development. 1995. Declaration. Copenhagen.