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II. The Nicaraguan experience: presentation and lessons learned

2.1 Introduction

Nicaragua's main exports are agricultural products, such as coffee, cotton, livestock, sugar and timber. Its agriculture sector is the backbone of the national economy. In 1995, this sector contributed about, 33 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), and occupied 46.5 percent of the economically active population. The agrarian structure reflects a history of landownership concentration in the hands of a few owners. Despite attempts in the 1960s to modify the distribution of land, true agrarian reform did not take place until the 1980s (FAO, 1997). Confiscations of large holdings, expropriations and other measures gave rise to production cooperatives and farms, which were paralleled by a cooperative movement of small and medium agricultural producers.

The Nicaraguan Government of the 1990s, in tune with the changing times and the international context, promoted policies to liberalize the economy. A structural adjustment and stabilization plan was enacted and called for a public investment plan and a drastic reduction in public services, accompanied by market liberalization. This period coincided with the return of demobilized former soldiers or guerillas, both men and women, to their place of origin, as well as revision of the land reform movement of the 1980s.

This was the background to the launch, in 1992, of the preparatory phase of the project "Training and Participation of Peasant Women in Rural Development", which continued in phase one of the project "Strengthening Women's Management of Rural Production Units". The overall goal was to improve the living conditions of poor rural women in central and northern Nicaragua, in the regions of Matagalpa and Esteli. These regions had been heavily affected by the armed conflict of the 1980s, incurring massive destruction of infrastructure, frequent massacres, incessant tension, displaced people, and so forth. As a result of the armed conflict, many rural households lost family members, which caused significant alterations to the family structure. Although the agrarian reform that took place in the post-war period did not discriminate against women, very few women benefited directly, and comprised only 8 percent of those granted land titles nationwide.

Nicaragua: aspects concerning the issue of rural women

Generally and traditionally, a woman in central and northern regions of Nicaragua assumes the role of wife and mother between the age of 14 and 19. Of the registered unions, 54 percent are common-law marriages. Land traditionally belongs to the man, as do the assets of the farm family production unit. In the case of a separation, the woman is usually deprived of access to the means of production, in particular land. An estimated 34 percent of rural households are headed by women - and this proportion is higher among the poor. The phenomenon of women-headed households grew during the years of armed conflict in the 1980s.

Project profile

During the preparatory phase, the project focused on identifying the prevailing dynamics of the project area. Using a systemic approach, the agrosocio-economic conditions were reviewed and described, and the rural production units analysed. At the same time, an in-depth study of social, institutional, family and productive frameworks was carried out. This study included the limiting factors and obstacles affecting the living conditions of rural women.

In other words, the national project team selected the areas of intervention, promoted gender-sensitive participatory consultations, trained rural female leaders and identified specific technical and agronomical areas for potential improvement. In this context, the community work for the study was carried out on the basis of the following focus points:

Gender-responsive systemic analysis was adopted to answer these questions, but it is important to state that the study only derives from the general guidelines of the approaches presented in Section 1. The process began with a number of methodological steps, which were gradually refined until a regular appraisal procedure had been established for the community level. The appraisal method was not established beforehand, but rather emerged as the outcome of a hands-on learning process in the field during the execution of a project that aimed to combine both approaches in an operational, practical way. The available human resources and time, as well as the tools, relevant variables and methodological steps, had to be adapted to the local situation and to the project objectives. Another fundamental aspect of the project was the active participation of the local population in the preparation of appraisals. The appraisals led later to concrete and participatory action for development.

The project had three specific objectives:

To strengthen women's participation and organizational skills in order to meet the first objective, the project undertook two activities: training was provided for women leaders; and public officials were sensitized to gender issues, with particular emphasis on the question of landownership, particularly the issue of granting women title to land parcels.

Concerning the second project objective, efforts were directed to reducing women's dual workload. First, alternative technologies (domestic infrastructure such as water storage tanks, fuel-efficient stoves and laundry facilities) were introduced to reduce the long hours that women devote to household tasks. Second, activities aimed at sensitizing household members to gender roles were conducted in an attempt to establish medium- and long-term relations of equality and collaboration between women and men. This was a three-stage process:

In pursuit of the third project objective, new farming alternatives were introduced into the FFPUs, consistent with the local agro-ecological specificities and existing farming systems, in order to improve nutrition and increase income. The target group consisted of women heads of household who are responsible for the overall management of the FFPU, and the wives or partners of male farmers (whether or not they are responsible for managing subsystems in the FFPU) who participate to varying degrees in the farming activities of the land plots managed by the men.

In this framework, the project introduced experimental, demonstration farming activities and alternative techniques for existing farming systems to increase agricultural productivity.

In short, the project adopted three fundamental aspects of the combined farming systems and gender approaches:

2.2 Appraisals and surveys conducted at the municipality level

Meso-scale appraisals were conducted in the three municipalities where the project was to be implemented (San Ramón, Terrabona and Río Blanco/Bocana de Paiwas). The studies can be considered as three successive stages of a single process in which the methods used, the relevant variables and the tools were gradually refined to combine the systemic approach with gender analysis.

2.2.1 The Rio Blanco/Bocana de Paiwas appraisal

The appraisal of Rio Blanco/Bocana de Paiwas comprised three stages that adopted a mainly sociological approach. The first stage comprised a brief characterization of a community hit by violence and dominated by small livestock agricultural producers. The agro-ecological, physical and demographic contexts were reviewed, as well as the infrastructure, social services, general characteristics of agricultural production and the socio-economic profile of the local farmers. The second stage examined the conditions of rural women, their participation in organizations and their status in the FFPUs with regard to their workloads and access to land, inputs and income. For this analysis, typologies were drawn up to fit women in a variety of situations: single women heads of household or women with partners, owners of land or the landless, according to the size of the family farm. The third stage of the appraisal characterized farming systems on the basis of a summary of the technical and economic results of case studies. The analysis focused on the timetable of activities and on yields and capital return, from a systems typology standpoint.

From a methodological perspective, the appraisal contributed to:

However, the systemic approach and technical and economic analysis of the FFPUs were rather superficial, as they failed to visualize their heterogeneity, excluded the criterion of gross margin (global, and per work and area unit) and failed to identify the constraints of each system and subsystem.

Selected aspects of the Río Blanco/ Bocana appraisal

  • Women's estimated contribution to FFPU agricultural production in the microregion represented 20 to 40 percent of the total labour force utilized.

  • Peak labour in the timetable occurred during the "third" season.

  • Credit at the FFPU level was granted for a specific farming item, but families used it in accordance with their needs and those of the FFPU as a whole.

2.2.2 Review of Terrabona's farming and agrarian systems

The Terrabona appraisal, which was limited in terms of time and human resources, defined the selection criterion for the project area as being where women's organization was at its highest, and presented a brief general description of the area, with a focus on women. The case studies of women-headed FFPUs provided the basis for a review of the economic and technical situation of these units, as well as for recommendations on agronomical practices. The advantages of the appraisal were that it:

However, it should be noted that the appraisal was not based on typologies of the FFPUs or the farming systems, and the descriptive part of the case studies did not provide a clear picture of the farming activities, constraints and potential of the systems under review.

2.2.3 Characterization of the municipality of San Ramón

The characterization of San Ramón incorporated some elements of the other studies, which facilitated the integration of gender into the systemic approach.

The appraisal began with a characterization of the general development context (concerning the prevailing demographic and agro-ecological situation, including the available infrastructure and public services) and focused later on the agricultural characteristics. A land use study was conducted, which described the main local cropping and livestock subsystems; a gender-sensitive review of the farming social sectors was carried out (traditional, reformed and formerly state-owned or worker-owned areas); and a clearer typology of farmers, which combined social stratification with farming systems, was structured and briefly described. Agro-ecological zoning of the municipality provided an overview of its evolution and microregional trends.

The appraisal reviewed the situation of women in the FFPUs, identifying their roles and typical life paths. A new typology (characterizing women as single heads of household or as wives/partners) was also adopted for analysing women's participation in farming, the division of labour (for cropping, but not livestock) and the working days of these two major groups of women. Equally important was the identification of areas where women are predominant, such as in the rearing of small livestock (pigs and chickens), the raising of annual or perennial crops (roots and tubers, annato, grafted fruits, soybeans and pigeon pea), crafts (baskets and pottery), and food processing for market outlets.

The analytical description of the microregion concluded with a review of the local institutions and organizations. Future areas to be covered at the community level will be selected in accordance with the extent of organizational involvement, participation in decision-making and existing municipal structures. Guidelines for action were formulated as a conclusion to the appraisal.

2.3 Systemic and gender analysis at the community level

The analysis conducted at the municipality level was purely exploratory in nature, offering the project team the opportunity to design a methodological matrix for the successive appraisals to be conducted at the community level.

The following are the methodological steps that were followed in community-level appraisals:

Nicaragua: participation in agricultural production and access to resources in the project communities

In mixed households, women's participation in productive agricultural activities varies. It is generally higher in poorer households, and represents up to half of the labour force. In principle, women are not excluded from any agricultural activity except land preparation and the application of agrochemicals for plant protection.

Access for women (both female heads of household and women with partners) to means of production or resources such as land, credit, technical assistance, inputs, etc. is marginal.

Where organized women's groups exist (made up of: female heads of household and/or wives/partners), they often lack (or possess only precariously as loans or leases) direct access to land parcels to be cultivated collectively.

Given that credit is granted preferentially to applicants with collateral such as land, women tend to be sidelined, and few are in a position to have loan requests accepted. Given that the local culture does not recognize women as agricultural producers, they are often excluded from technical consultation meetings, training courses and sessions, and technical or experimental formal demonstrations.

The following are the activities that were carried out:

Nicaragua: women's contribution to overall gross profit and farm work in San Ramón FFPUs

The contribution of "women with partners" to agricultural production (gross profit) ranged from 12 to 25 percent, with a low of 5 percent and a high of 50 percent. The remainder was supplied by men and children. With very few exceptions, women's contribution to labour fell within this same range.

The following are some observations and specific constraints regarding the process:

2.4 Introduction of innovations

The appraisals highlighted the role of women and their contributions to farming systems in the communities studied, and led to a more relevant targeting of project activities.

Taking into account the data provided by the appraisals, the project team set up on-farm experiments and introduced alternative techniques for existing farming systems. Three types of innovations were introduced: barnyard activities, such as poultry and hencoops, or growing food plants, or both, constituted over half the demonstrations. There were also plot activities or new crops, including fruit crops, pitahaya, passion fruit, chayote, pineapple and demonstration plots of new maize varieties, and livestock activities, such as the introduction of a collective herd to be later divided and managed by the households.

The active participation of women (the target population) in identifying their needs in the various types of farming systems was essential in ensuring that the innovations introduced to improve their living conditions addressed their concerns effectively. During participatory seminars on the identification of needs, women expressed what they deemed most urgent and necessary in terms of farm and household work: to reduce their heavy workloads for fetching water and fuel by introducing improved stoves, home water storage and laundry facilities. Indeed, the changes introduced were adapted to the conditions of the women under review, and to the existing potential of the family production system. Recommendations thus took into account such variables as available land and labour, and women's control over these resources.

Given the nature and size of the investments in technical innovations it is important to stress that, from a systemic standpoint, the proposed changes did not have an immediate economic impact, as the project was designed to meet its objectives over the medium-and long-term periods. Indeed, although the economic potential of intensifying barnyard hen coops and homegrown fruit crops was excellent, its impact would only be visible after a period of four to five years. From a gender perspective, the impact of the project had immediate effect, as gender roles were modified through the introduction of new activities (or the improvement of existing ones), directly strengthening women's roles and participation. These changes, in turn, had a highly significant technical and economic impact.

Overall, the project should have drawn more systematic profit from the wealth of analytical data available in the appraisals. Although it was possible to distinguish different typologies, the general recommendations were not very different among the households and categories identified, and consequently the technological introductions were standardized. Despite this, project activities did take into account, from a gender perspective, the common problems expressed by the target population. The effects of integrating women's and men's priorities were therefore positive.

Ensuring an adequate supply of technical assistance and extension for the adoption of technical innovations tends to be a difficult task as men are the usual beneficiaries of such extension, credits and technical assistance. The fact that changes are made with and by women brings a change into the traditional pattern, which does not consider women with partners (nor do they consider themselves) as agricultural producers.

The lack of training in the area of systemic approaches among extension workers, and the relatively standard models proposed, proved to be a constraint to the monitoring of a genuine systemic methodology during the stages of introducing and monitoring technical change. Indeed, the models applied resembled conventional technology packages and the usual extension and credit practices of rural development projects, failing to consider fully the inherent peculiarities and interrelatedness within a given farming system.

2.5 Some conclusions

The appraisals provided valid data on the situations and conditions that are most commonly confronted and experienced by farmers in general (particularly women farmers) in the project area.

Based on these appraisals, the project team identified, defined and analysed emerging issues, as a combination of three related sub-issues:

The observations and lessons learned from the experience of the project team are summed up as follows:

The Nicaraguan case study is of great interest from the standpoint of methodology. Despite the difficulties encountered during the process, and the presence of certain constraints, the participatory appraisals guided activities towards a genuine, in-depth and methodical grounding as regards the actual situation, from a farming systems and gender analysis perspective. It thus provided concrete guidelines for development and for the use of technical working models with women.

The value of an appraisal is largely contingent on the amount, detail and relevance of the data collected; the depth and rigour of agronomic, economic and gender analysis; the degree to which recommendations are operational; and how the appraisal differentiates by systemic typologies, and the positions held by women and men within them. Recommendations need to ensure that the introduction and monitoring of new models are truly functional, given that the basic criteria for monitoring and evaluating the results, effects and impacts of the proposed innovations will be formulated at this level.

The criteria used to define farming typologies must be simple and limited in number, with a maximum of the following three variables for cross comparisons:

Taking into account the above observations when preparing appraisals contributes to generating a better response to the specific needs identified in each unit by the on-farm innovations introduced.

In this way, the recommendations should take into account the various systems and subsystem typologies, as well as women's position within them, in order to support the selection of appropriate technical improvements and extension models. Thus, these models should consider the existing local diversities and specificities at both the household reproduction and the agricultural production levels. This is not always an easy task, given that both institutional and community resistance is frequently encountered when the goal is to introduce changes that imply new patterns, methods, concepts and, ultimately, a new outlook.

Useful and relevant elements emerged from the analysis and discussions of the Nicaraguan experience. These propose certain methodological steps that will appropriately combine the systemic analysis, gender approach and some participatory methods.

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