Will they have to lift

themselves by

their own bootstraps?




Pedro Bueno
Information Specialist
Network of Aquaculture Centres in

Asia-Pacific (NACA), Bangkok



"The central reality of Asian agriculture", the late D.L. Umali, FAO’s former Regional Representative for Asia and the Far East once said, "is the small farmer". He said this almost two decades ago at an international workshop in the Philippines on Agricultural Research Management Asia, sponsored by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture based in Los Banos. Much more recently, two meetings held in Thailand involving NACA and FAO, several Asian governments and other organizations working in fisheries, drew the same picture of Asian aquaculture1. The practical considerations have since shifted along the knowledge generation-application continuum but the fundamental issues remain.

Dr. Umali was urging researchers to shed their elitism and make the "talents and techniques of science available to the common man and invite the common farmer as a participant". On a somewhat similar line, the two recent meetings, on small aquaculture for rural development, raised, among others, the question as to whether research is addressed to the farmer or to the commodity, and whether it considers the circumstances of the small aquaculturist or simply aims to maximise yield? A plant breeder by training, Dr Umali gave this reply to a research administrator who disagreed to the idea of involving farmers in decision making because he thought it impractical to involve them without the benefit of preliminary testing: "Breeding work should be done by researchers and technicians trained for the job. But breeding work will be more meaningful to the farmers if the breeders take into account the physical limitations of the region and the socio-economic limitations of the farmers. This is where the participation of farmers is useful". The response of researchers eventually came in the form of farming systems research and extension, an approach that the two more recent forums stressed is relevant for small-scale rural aquaculture.

The other side of relevance of research and development efforts is the capability of those to whom these efforts are directed. Dr Umali spoke of using what he termed "alternative economics" to get farmers organized to "stimulate self-reliance and participatory, self-directed community action, and modes of mutual aid to solve problems of peasant insecurity and powerlessness".

Looking at aquaculture on a less lofty level, participants at the two recent meetings identified three major applications of aquaculture for rural development: (1) meeting basic human development needs, particularly food and livelihood; (2) rehabilitating the environment; and (3) maintaining social harmony and promoting social equity.

Tackling these and some major institutional constraints has been the focus of numerous pilot studies and field research. Some of these — reported in seven country reports (from Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam) and 13 papers that described and analyzed regional, national and local projects in these same countries,


and others in the region — provide useful lessons. What follows is a summary of selected information gained from the meetings.


The various papers suggest five basic attributes of small-scale rural aquaculture with social objectives:

1It is participatory.
2.  It is people-oriented rather than technology-driven.
3. It follows a holistic and systems approach.
4. Participants have access to resources and are assured of security of tenure.
It is compatible with the objective of environmental sustainability.

In addition, there are important although non universal considerations that include the following:

1It is a low-input activity.
2. It is a low-risk investment or risk is spread out.

To enable the fulfillment of the basic attributes, barriers have to be overcome through: Capacity building through manpower training, institutional strengthening or creation, appropriate policy development, and strengthening and coordination of other support systems.


Both the current importance and future potential of small-scale rural aquaculture, within a wide range of farming systems (in Asia), are not fully reflected in most governmental development programs. However, there are several examples (from Bangladesh, India and Vietnam, as well as in Cambodia) of projects with social objectives addressed to small-holders, or even the landless, being implemented by Government-NGO cooperation, invariably with donor support.

Although there is now a discernible shift in emphasis, previous government policies have tended to be commodity-based and technology-oriented with focus on production maximization. Appreciation of the capacity of small-scale aquaculture to contribute to rural poverty alleviation, improved household food security and the advancement of weaker sections of rural society is a recent development. There has been little co-ordinated attempt within the region to inform policy makers of the potential of small-scale aquaculture in rural livelihood development.


In all seven countries reporting, the basic infrastructure to support aquaculture development exists and, in all cases, is well organized and operated. Training and education centres, research and development institutions, extension services seed production and distribution facilities, as well as those for other input supplies, are generally well-developed and have systematic programmes targeted at aquaculture. Post-harvest, market and transport facilities are generally adequate. However, the problems related to availability of and accessibility to credit sources are commonly shared, although there are a few cases that provide examples of appropriate credit schemes targeted at small farmers, the landless and women, such as the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and NABARD in India. In Bangladesh, NGOs have strong credit programs.

But capability, as well as expressed policy, are not the issues surrounding the support infrastructure and services in relation to small scale fish farming. It is the actual orientation of their programs and activities, which are generally biased – however inadvertently – towards the bigger and more progressive farmers, or at the least, overlook the segment of the farming population to which they are targeted. In some countries, this shortcoming is usually addressed by focused projects assisted by donor agencies or those implemented by NGOs; Bangladesh, Vietnam and the Philippines provide a number of examples. The usually strong and substantial technical input coming from government is complemented (and adapted) effectively for grassroots utilization by the strong suit of NGOs – which is organizing communities and assisting the people to diagnose their own problems, set their priorities, and seek or devise solutions. In other words, the NGOs and, in the Philippines, People’s Organizations, catalyze people’s participation in development, an element that is not often emphasized in the execution of government programmes. At least, the participation of farmers in research has been made possible through the farming systems research and extension approach. In addition, over the past few decades and especially in recent times, the attention of governments has been steadily swinging from higher production to sustainable production, thanks in part to productivity targets already being or almost attained and to the rising awareness of social and environmental issues.

There are also numerous assistance programs at the national, sectoral, and local government level that focus on the social objectives of food security, poverty alleviation and livelihood improvement. The government plays an important role, not so much in initiating the activity and providing the policy basis and initial funding support as in offering the framework and usually drawing the participation of organizations and corporate bodies such as Banks, NGOs, suppliers of inputs to take part in the programme.


Bangladesh has a strong element of external-assisted and NGO-implemented projects which are very well targeted and focused; that of the People’s Republic of China is firmly government directed with emphasis on technology and organization; India portrays a government guided program that is nevertheless devolved to an organized grassroots-level institution (FFDA)2 for implementation; Indonesia follows a sector program approach with specific technical and institutional support to well-defined programs; the Philippines has a complex structure of institutional linkages and several layers of supporting activities; Thailand is also strongly government guided, all the way down to the farm level (as its farmer organizations are still developing) with a very efficient R and D and extension support system; and Vietnam is likewise strongly government-planned and supervised with a strong element of participation and ground-level guidance of donor and development assistance organizations.



The summary of main constraints in promoting aquaculture for rural development as identified by countries, are listed in Box 1. These are broadly classified into institutional, technical, social, and economic, although there are clear overlaps and some are the consequence of others.

Box 1. Constraints, as identified by countries3

A. Institutional

Overlapping functions and responsibilities between various Government Organizations (Bangladesh)

Lack of co-ordination between GOs and NGOs (Bangladesh)

Lack of co-ordination between banks, extension, and farmers (Bangladesh)

Weak linkages between research and development (India)

Weak extension, both GO and NGO (Bangladesh, India)

Weak research and extension linkage (Thailand)

Inefficient institutional capacity (Thailand)

Inadequate human resources for R&D in aquaculture (India, Thailand)

B. Technical

Limited supply of high quality fish seed (Philippines, Viet Nam)

Limited supply of inputs, particularly fish feeds/fishmeal (Philippines)

Lack of infrastructure and facilities (Bangladesh) particularly for feed manufacture and distribution (India)

Lack of diversification of aquaculture practices (India)

Technical problems related to natural disasters (Bangladesh, Philippines)

Limited water availability (Thailand)

Inadequate production technology (Thailand)

C. Socio-economic

Target group identification: NGOs target group is the landless and the poor farmers (Bangladesh)

Geographic isolation of target groups and related problems (communication, extension, other support services) (Viet Nam)

Limited access to water bodies for pen and cage culture (Bangladesh)

High investment costs (Bangladesh)

Land use conflicts (Bangladesh)

Lack of security (Bangladesh )

Multiple use of ponds and other water bodies (Bangladesh )

Multiple ownership of ponds and other water bodies (Bangladesh)

Financing of projects (Philippines,Thailand)

Lack of economic incentive (Thailand)

Limited access to credit (Bangladesh, Viet Nam)

Lack of awareness among financing institutions (India)

Complex credit norms (Bangladesh)

Limited knowledge of farmers (Bangladesh)

D. Others

Need for information on different water resources and aquaculture production from different farming systems (Bangladesh, India)

Political will to promote food production and aquaculture (Philippines, People's Republic of China)


It is widely considered that there is great scope for improving productivity, but a range of obstacles impede this development. The obstacles are remarkably similar to those which impede productivity growth in smallholder crop and livestock enterprises, and include the following:

-commodity focused research aimed at maximizing yields without much attention to the needs, aspirations and possibilities of small-scale producers;
-extension services with poor coverage and inappropriate messages derived from the flawed research process;
-low capacity of farming communities to diagnose their problems, prioritize improvement options and plan the exploitation of opportunities;
-problems in obtaining purchased inputs – either because they are not readily available or because of cash flow problems and poorly developed rural financial services;
-poor supply of fish seed;
-marketing and post-harvest problems; and
-lack of participatory resource management mechanism and awareness by local communities.


Recent studies and development projects indicate small-scale aquaculture can and does help achieve social development and environmental objectives. While aquaculture can close the gap between supply and demand, help meet the needs of the landless poor through such systems as cage culture and enhanced fisheries (provided security of tenure over communal resources is ensured), and from employment in fish farms and related services, there is not enough documented evidence to corroborate the claim that it can have an impact on poverty. Impacts of recent pilot development projects are rare and are just beginning to be reported. Examples of lessons learned, reported at the FAO/NACA Chiang Rai consultation are summarized below.

Lessons learnt from DFID4 projects in Bangladesh (Anon. 1999 5)

Technical issues and lack of new knowledge are not the major constraint to aquaculture development in Bangladesh. There is a wealth of indigenous and local knowledge that requires effective widespread dissemination to enhance human capital. People, and not ponds or technology, are the entry point for aquaculture development. Poverty and environment degradation can be eliminated through holistic development interventions that facilitate diversified sustainable livelihoods.

 Summary of lessons learnt:

Aquaculture makes significant contribution to nutrition, food security and sustainable livelihoods in Bangladesh.

Rural households and communities are complex and therefore require a holistic inter-disciplinary cross-sectoral approach.

Households are not homogenous so household family members should be treated separately to reach all of them effectively.

Capacity building, skill development, knowledge and access empower the poor.

Greater use should be made of indigenous knowledge.

There are wide opportunities for the poor to integrate fish culture within existing farming systems.

Diversification of livelihoods reduces risk.

Low risk, low investment, and low external input strategies should be promoted in targeting the poor.

Key stakeholders should participate at all stages of the project process including project design and selection of indicators of change.

Investment should be primarily in human capital and not resources or technologies.

Projects should facilitate people to assess their own risks, and determine their own levels of investment, use of external inputs; use of aquatic and natural resources.

Lessons learnt from CARE projects in Bangladesh (Nandeesha and Chapman 1999)6

-The experiential learning cycle (ELC) proved to be the most effective mechanism to build confidence and enrich knowledge of farmers.
-Research results obtained by farmers on their own farm or in the locality are better adopted.
-Tools like Participatory Monitoring and Evaluation Process (PMEP) are useful to provide ownership of the results to the farmers.
-Simplifying science to a level where both literare and illiterate farmers can understand is necessary to ensure farmers participation in the investigation process.
-In fixing indicators for a project, it is necessary to lay emphasis on increasing decision-making capacity of the farmers, instead of production targets.
-To accomplish the task of empowering farmers with knowledge, project staff must possess excellent facilitation skills coupled with awareness of social and technical issues.
-Results have consistently demonstrated that


Lessons learnt from the AIT (Asia Institute of Technology) Aqua Outreach Programme

-Farmers should be involved in all stages of the research and development process, including the development of the extension system and extension materials.
-A farming systems approach appears to hold promise for the development of low-cost aquaculture for small-scale farmers.
-Technical recommendations should not be prescriptive; farmers will experiment with the technology and adapt it to their circumstances.
-Too narrow a focus on aquaculture in assessing its relevance to rural livelihood development is dangerous; attention needs to be widened from the micro-level of the farm to include regional level assessment of where aquaculture fits in the wider resource context.
-Focused surveys, designed on the basis of prior ‘rapid appraisal’, may be more efficient than complex agro-socio-economic surveys, in terms of time and money, since few data collected through the latter are actually used for situation analysis.

Lessons learnt from the Pond Dynamics/ Aquaculture CRSP

The CRSP7 (Egna et al. 1999)8 strives for institutional sustainability. The CRSP in Southeast Asia had at first concentrated on research for the benefit of small-scale aquaculture, then shifted from production optimization to environment and socio-economics. Some lessons learnt are listed below:

1.  There is need for:

-continuity of funding and commitment by donors and participants;
-balance in emphasis between capacity building and technology development;
-the right balance between short and long-term objectives;
-nurturing collaboration by administrators, donors, and participants and through effective policies;
-decreasing reliance on expatriate staff in favour of collaboration with local staff ; and
-early-on investments in social and economic research and its continuation throughout the project.

2.    Major challenges revolve around the politics of setting a relevant research agenda by balancing top-down and field-based inputs, fostering a sense of common ownership, encouraging input from the target community, and providing mechanisms for full participation by all researchers.

3.   Transparency and participation in the agenda setting process is critical, but the increased costs

of administering participatory processes must also be considered.

4. Inadequate resources are devoted to needs assessments, impact assessments, design, broad participation and project planning.

5. The poorest, smallest producers are less likely to take advantage of CRSP’s technologies tha farmers with some access to resources.

The age-old question has been "After project support ceases, what next?" and its kin, "Can this be done elsewhere with the same degree of success?" Much has been said about political will as a major force in any development endeavour, from initiating something to pushing it forward, to making it a permanent entity, or, if something is eventually found wrong, having the courage to have it excised. Political will is not a magic bullet, however, but the term does focus on where the major responsibility rests and what needs to be done to convince government to incorporate the positive aspects of a project into policy and the development programmes of a country. AIT’s Outreach (Demaine 1999)9 provides lessons in institutionalization. The programme approach incorporates the institutional dimension and makes capacity building its core objective. The Outreach has been pointed out as targeting improvement in government systems, rather than rural poverty directly. The strategy is to change understanding, processes and attitudes on the assumption that these changes "can bring about development on a broad front rather than in isolated enclaves". The latter, Demaine says, usually result from area-specific development projects, "which create parallel systems of such a resource intensity as to be non-replicable".

Some key lessons from AIT Outreach are listed below:

-There is no single or simple model for the process of capacity building. The cultural and developmental background of the different countries in which Outreach works varies considerably and so must the approach taken. This implies different roles for the external advisors and the need for flexibility in relation to key issues of project management.

-The process of institutionalization seems hardest where there are long-standing norms and traditions of working, so that individuals and institutions carry an ‘intellectual baggage’ which makes it difficult for them to innovate. With this in mind, DOF (Thailand) introduced farmer-managed on-farm trials into its research system, which up to then was not part of the research approach followed by the government. A second innovation has been the introduction of provincial level resource assessments as a basis for setting a framework for joint action between provincial fisheries offices and fisheries stations.


-It is not possible to create regional or national ‘networks’ at the beginning of the process as the pace at which change can take place in different institutions differs considerably. Only as the process matures does the common ground emerge on which collaborative activities can take place. Only in the last two years did such interchanges begin particularly between institutions in Thailand and Vietnam and, in Vietnam, between institutions in-country.


The lessons learnt from recent projects will help guide future research and development efforts. This type of information is only now becoming available; much remains undocumented. Unfortunately, there has been no review of the considerable experience that has been gained through farmer participatory research projects over the past decade. Nor is there a framework available to make comparisons between projects which have used a variety of often experimental approaches in diverse contexts (Edwards, 1999)10. Most projects are being implemented as isolated efforts with little or no communication between one project and another.

Regional networks provide an effective mechanism to handle diverse contexts within and between countries. The proposed NACA-FAO regional programme on Aquaculture for Sustainable Rural Livelihood Development (ASRLD), which emerged from the two meetings discussed here, is intended to provide a vehicle for Asian regional cooperation to promote and catalyze the further development of small-scale rural aquaculture. This will be accomplished through a voluntary network of national institutions and field projects, and by building capacity and mobilizing information and expertise in the region.

1  The meetings were the FAO/NACA Expert Consultation on Sustainable Aquaculture for Rural Development held in Chiang Rai, Thailand in March 1999, and the Asia Pacific Fisheries Commission working group meeting on rural aquaculture held at the FAO Regional Office in Bangkok in October 1999. Taking part were experts from government agencies, NGOs, regional organizations, international development assistance agencies, academic institutions, donor agencies, and rural development projects and programmes.

2  Fish Farmers Development Associations

3  FAO/NACA. 1999. Report of the FAO/NACA Expert Consultation on Sustainable Aquaculture for Rural Development.FAO Fisheries Report. No. 611. Rome, FAO. 1999. 34p.

4  Department for International Development, UK

5  Anonymous. 1999. Lessons learned and issues relating to aquaculture and rural livelihood- DFIF Bangladesh. Paper presented at the FA/NACA Consultation on Sustainable Aquaculture for Rural Development. Chiang Rai, Thailand, 29-31 March 1999.

6  Nandeesha, M.C. and Chapman, G. 1999. Aquaculture development in Bangladesh through capacity building: Experiences of CARE. Paper presented at the FAO/NACA Consultation on Sustainable Aquaculture for Rural development. Chiang Rai, Thailand, 29-31 March 1999.

7  Cooperative Research Support Program (USAID)

8  Egna, H.S., Kwei Lin, C. & Clair, D.Z. 1999. The Pond Dynamics/Aquaculture CRSP: Developing technologies and networks for sustainable aquaculture and rural development. Paper presented at the FAO/NACA Consultation on Sustainable Aquaculture for Rural development. Chiang Rai, Thailand, 29-31 March 1999.

9  Demaine, H. 1999. AIT Aqua Outreach: Experience, lessons learnt and issues. paper presented at the FAO/NACA Consultation on Sustainable Aquaculture for Rural development. Chiang Rai, Thailand, 29-31 March 1999.

10  Edwards, P. 1999. Draft guidelines for the assessment of rural aquaculture projects. Paper presented at the meeting of the APFIC Ad Hoc Working Group of Experts on Rural Aquaculture. 29-31 October 1999. Bangkok, Thailand.