A micro-basin approach to extension and training: experiences in Latin American

E. Zaffaroni

E. Zaffaroni is Professor and Coordinator of the Agroecosystems Project at the Federal University of Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, and has worked as a consultant to FAO and other international organizations.

Universidade Federal de Pelotas,
Cx. Postal 354,
96010-900, Pelotas, RS Brazil


In Latin America and the Caribbean there are 13.5 million agricultural family farms involved in subsistence farming. Many of these are small farms located in areas with poor soils and difficult socio-economic conditions. These factors have pushed farmers to exploit their land. The challenge for farmers, and for extension services, is to improve their productivity without degrading the natural resource base.

It is estimated that millions of hectares of cultivated land can no longer support agricultural production adequately (FAO, 1992). This is a result of land being farmed more intensively, often without proper farming practices, to meet the demands from a rapidly growing world population for food, fibre and fuel. New areas of land being brought into cultivation are often of poor quality and low productivity which exacerbates the problems of soil degradation (Norman and Douglas, 1994). Soil erosion has become a major concern in recent years in Latin America and the Caribbean; in Mexico, for example, it is estimated that 80 percent of the land is eroded.

One innovative way to address soil erosion problems is through microbasin management, sometimes called "microwatershed" or "microcatchment" management. A microbasin is a subunit of a watershed, generally a primary channel directly from a water source, such as a spring.

Low productivity and the degradation of soils is caused mainly by a lack of management expertise and information. Agricultural extension and farmer training are essential components of the microbasin approach.

This article presents the microbasin approach to rural development based on Latin American experiences and describes the extension and training components within the overall approach.

Approaches to agricultural extension in Latin America

In the past, agricultural technologies were often developed without the participation of small farmers. As a result, the technologies were inappropriate to the needs of the majority of small farmers. Where appropriate technologies did exist, they were not channelled through an efficient extension system.

By using different rural development models in recent years, extension programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean have changed their purpose and now aim to educate agricultural producers and their families in order to enhance their potential to make better use of their human and natural resources (FAO, 1991).

Some key challenges for the development of small farmers are:

Taking into consideration the experiences in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is clear that without improved education of extensionists and farmer training it is very difficult to promote change. Extension should be strengthened to increase its effectiveness and ensure that its training programmes are adapted to the resource needs and capabilities of smallholder rural families.

Microbasin approach to soil conservation

In 1987 the Brazilian Federal Government launched a national programme to promote use of the microbasin approach for land management. The goals of this programme are to increase the productivity of agricultural systems, increase farm income and improve the living conditions of the rural population (Government of Brazil, 1987). With World Bank funding, the programme has been quite successful in the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina and is being extended to other states. FAO is promoting the microbasin approach throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, at the regional level and with specific projects in several countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador and Mexico).

The approach consists of two strategies: a technical strategy which aims to improve soil and water conservation through the adoption of new farming practices; and a methodological strategy, known as participatory planning, which involves farmers in the entire planning and execution process (Bragagnolo, Ago and Kessler, 1995).

The technical strategy is based on natural resource use, planning and conservation. It incorporates knowledge of current farming systems, socio-economic conditions and available natural resources. The technical strategy consists of at least four basic objectives:

To achieve these objectives, the microbasin approach focuses on improving and/or modifying current farming systems to increase crop and animal yields. The aim of the approach is not only to decrease soil erosion, but to establish rational, balanced and sustainable crop production.

The main objective of the methodological strategy (participatory planning) is to control water erosion and reverse natural resource degradation through technological alternatives that increase the production levels, productivity and net income of farmers. In order to achieve this objective, it is necessary to establish programmes within a framework of sustainable development that considers prevailing socio-economic, political and environmental conditions.

Transfer of technology within the microbasin approach

In the microbasin approach, transfer of technology (TOT) is interpreted as a process of extending technology to farmers and as an interactive methodology that involves farmers, researchers and extensionists. Under different approaches, other authors (e.g. Chambers, 1983) have defined TOT as a one-way process where the researcher produces innovations that are passed on to extension workers who in turn pass them on to farmers (Mettrick, 1993).

The strategy of TOT in the microbasin approach takes the prevailing conditions into account. Often, successful technologies do not require large additional expenses but, rather, depend on a change in management practices. It is important to emphasize internal community factors within the microbasin and/or the production units (farms). The approach addresses issues that farmers, or farmer groups within the microbasin, can influence. Efforts are therefore directed at both the microbasin and the farm levels. At the microbasin level, activities utilize existing resources to help broaden the scope, decrease the cost and increase the adoption rates of the technologies. At the farm level, activities are based on organizing and training farmers and on preparing and executing farm management plans.

The process starts with participatory planning which takes into consideration the relationships between the problems identified at each level of analysis, the constraints or variables to be addressed and the socio-economic environment, as well as the people who make decisions on the use and management of the resources involved.

The boundary of the system is the microbasin which is the geographic area limited by a watershed. The microbasin is a complex unit and working at this level creates the possibility for integrated environmental planning and management with the required conditions for community organization. However, political divisions do not necessarily follow the natural divisions of a microbasin, and this can create problems (Zaffaroni, 1996). For instance, the ejido in Mexico is the minimum political unit and it is either larger or smaller than the microbasin. In general, the second situation is more problematic because only a part of the microbasin is covered by the ejido (Zaffaroni, 1996).

Some of the environmental objectives of microbasin projects are (Bassi, 1996):

The main outputs of microbasin programmes are (Bassi, 1996):

Formulation and planning of microbasin programmes can be done at the national, regional or municipal level (Figure 1). The steps to be followed at the regional level are shown on the left-hand side of Figure 1. The microbasin level, shown on the right-hand side of Figure 1, is the critical level where the actions of the programme are carried out.

FIGURE 1 Different phases in formulation and planning of a watershed programme

The first step in the planning process is to create a committee to promote and organize the activities to be carried out in the microbasin. The committee should represent the community, i.e. farmers, cooperatives, associations, credit institutions, research and extension agencies and other government and non-governmental organizations. The committee is essential to obtain a high level of participation.

Other steps in the planning process at the microbasin level are: microbasin selection (criteria have been developed for this purpose); problem diagnosis; preparatory activities; planning at microbasin and farm levels; and the execution of possible solutions.

An essential component of the microbasin approach is TOT, which can be subdivided into technical assistance (personnel and methodology), the diffusion campaign and training.

Technical assistance

Personnel. TOT in a microbasin programme is executed by extension workers working directly with farmers. In Mexico, for example, the agronomist who works directly with the farmers is called the rural development promoter (RDP) (Zaffaroni, 1996). This person should be involved in no more than three microbasin projects.

Some essential characteristics of a RDP are: 1) a belief in the value of extension; 2) idealism (the RDP should have commitment to the development of rural families); 3) leadership skills; 4) an understanding of farmers' problems; 5) good communication skills; 6) technical capability suited to the needs of the specific project; and 7) field experience.


The methodology used in the microbasin approach can be broken down as follows:

The diffusion campaign

To disseminate the solutions identified by using the microbasin approach, various communication activities should be conducted in the region. The following methods could be used:


Training should be an essential part of the project. Training is needed at both the trainer and farmer levels.

Training of trainers. Rural development promoters require special skills and practical knowledge. They should be familiar with the technological and methodological aspects of microbasin projects, as well as the extension and communication tools necessary to disseminate information. In Mexico, the following six training courses were proposed for RDPs and agronomists involved in microbasin projects: 1) soil and water management under a microbasin strategy; 2) extension methodologies; 3) farm management for small farmers; 4) farmers' organizations; 5) maize and bean production (the major crops in the project microbasin); and 6) reforestation and pasture management (Zaffaroni, 1996).

Training of farmers. Demonstration plots can be used to teach farm households about new technologies. Before investing a large portion of their income in a technology, farmers can use demonstration plots to test technologies on a small scale, ensure that they know how to use them and learn what the outcomes will be. The following two phases are recommended for farmer training:

Successes of using the microbasin approach

In the state of Paraná, in southern Brazil, use of the microbasin approach has resulted in: 1) decreases in the cost of water treatment, from US$313 to $81 per 10 000 m3; 2) an increase in water quality as a result of a significant reduction of pesticide contamination; 3) decreases in the cost of fertilization; 4) increases in soybean, maize, wheat and drybean yields; and 5) increases in net family income, from US$3 062 to $4 872 per year (Toledo and Otani, 1996).

In Santa Catarina state, also in southern Brazil, positive outcomes were achieved at the institutional level. As a result of using the microbasin approach, extension activities were decentralized and 126 municipalities created their own extension systems and participated actively in project execution.


The number of microbasin projects is growing in Latin America and the Caribbean, mainly in southern Brazil, with significant positive socio-economic and environmental impacts. Microbasin projects have proved to be a valid way to plan and execute environmental and rural development projects. The projects combine two key issues in rural development, namely improvements in the environment and farmer welfare.

One challenge for the microbasin approach is a lack of farmer participation in some of the projects. This may be explained by the use of top-down extension approaches in previous years in Latin America, which have left a legacy that is difficult to overcome.

The experience in Brazil shows that the microbasin approach, which incorporates a technical strategy and a participatory planning strategy, can have a positive impact on extension activities for small farmers.


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