In those years of the late 1970s, there was an ongoing and successful experience of video use in a large FAO-supported programme for training farmers in Peru. The breakthrough achieved by this project in using video successfully in remote rural areas, coupled with the Zapotal experience in using video to help participatory situation analysis, made video a logical choice as the prime medium for a Communication System for PRODERITH. Furthermore, video was improving in quality and becoming constantly cheaper and easier to use.
An advantage for the development of PRODERITH's Communication System was that it was planned from the start as an integral part of the Programme, with staff, equipment, and operating funds foreseen. In so many other development projects, communication is tagged on as an afterthought, with few resources and certainly without the critical mass necessary to make any major impact.
The Communication System worked in three main areas:
Peasants often have difficulty in articulating their view of their reality, and they seldom declare their "truth" to outsiders in a normal interview situation. Although each peasant certainly has his individual perceptions, development work cannot be sustained on the basis of these. What is required is a collective perception within the community of the local situation and of the options for improving it. This can only be reached through an internal debate within that community about its history, its present, and its possible future.
The Communication System began by using information and testimonials on video during PRODERITH's early contacts with communities to explain the Programme and its development focus. This provided an entry point, a crucial step in gaining acceptance and in opening a dialogue.
Once a community had expressed its interest in participating in PRODERITH, the next objective for the Communication System was to help the community generate what was called an "internal development project". Basically, this was a consensus that actions could and should be taken to improve the situation. Video recording and playback were used to stimulate and deepen the debate within the community about its past, present, and possible future. For the communities, video recordings made with them were somewhat like looking into a mirror: they provided new perspectives.
Concurrently, a classical socio-economic and technical study was under way to identify the feasibility in technical and economic terms of a range of possible development initiatives. With these options available, the communication team began what was termed the "information cycle". They worked with a small group of about 10-20 community members who had been chosen by the community to represent it during the process. The purpose of the information cycle was to discuss the results of the study and its proposals and to establish the feasibility, in human and social terms, of each proposal.
The output from this work was a Local Development Plan (LDP). A documentary video was made to describe this LDP, both to help the community understand it properly - especially the illiterate - and also to provide a record of the agreements reached.
This planning process could take several months, but the investment of time and resources was worthwhile for two reasons: firstly, the LOP reflected local needs and possibilities; and secondly, the peasant's involvement in drawing up the LDP made it much more likely that they would participate in putting it into effect.
Exchange of experience between communities can be a powerful stimulus to action and change, especially when one community sees how another has tackled and resolved problems similar to their own. PRODERITH made much use of this strategy with video recordings.
A particularly ingenious use of video for situation analysis and motivation of the local people took place in Yucatan. PRODERITH was trying to establish an entry point in the area around the small town of Tizimin, but there was much local resistance to any sort of outside intervention. This was because a 10 000-hectare irrigation scheme installed a few years earlier by a rural credit bank had failed dramatically. The farmers provided the land for the irrigation scheme only to find out, after it had been built, that the water was too saline to grow crops. Serious damage was done to the land, and the peasants were left with a debt to the bank. In the end, the bank waived the debt, but only after several years of protest and struggle by the peasants.
A situation analysis in the Tizimin area had revealed a number of problems that PRODERITH thought the local population should discuss. However, apart from the need to overcome the resistance remaining from the failed irrigation scheme, PRODERITH staff had little idea of how to spark a dialogue with the indigenous, Mayan-speaking people. Many of the problems that had been identified were quite recent, especially some serious ones of food security and malnutrition.
The ingenious solution proved to be video recordings with someone who could talk about the problems in a historical context. An anthropologist who knew the area put the communication staff in touch with Don Clotilde Cob. He was 82 years old, a proud ex-revolutionary, who had learned Spanish and taught himself to read and write as an adult. He was articulate and lucid in both Mayan and Spanish.
This charismatic old man, with his white hair and white beard, sat cross-legged in front of a video camera for hours on end. He held forth about the past, about the Revolution, about the greatness of Mayan culture: and about life today. He deplored the decline of such Mayan traditions as the family vegetable plot, explained how he cultivated his own maize, and complained that today's young people did not even know how to do that properly. He accused the young of abandoning all that had been good in Mayan culture; they would sell eggs to buy cigarettes and soft drinks, and so it was no wonder that diets today were worse than they were in his youth, and so on.
Scores of people sat in attentive silence in the villages as these tapes were played back. In the evening, under a tree, the words in Mayan flowed from the screen, and the old man's eloquent voice and emphatic gestures spread their spell. For many, it was the first time they had ever heard anyone talk about the practical values of their culture. It was also the first time they had seen a peasant like themselves on "television", and talking their own language. Frequently they asked that the tapes be repeated again and again.
The desired effect was achieved: the people began to take stock of their situation and think seriously about their values. Thus, the ground was prepared for when PRODERITH began to discuss development proposals.
There is also a good example of the Communication System helping to create participation. In one Project area, the technicians had proposed a drainage plan to cure the regular flooding that occurred in a particular place. A peasant thought that the plan would not work because, in his opinion, the technicians were wrong in their analysis of the cause of the flooding. The peasant was video-recorded as he explained his reasons, scratching a diagram in the soil with a stick to illustrate his point.
This tape was shown to the technicians. They studied the situation again, and they found that the peasant had been right. Many members of the community had been standing by when the recording was being made with the peasant, and the fact that PRODERITH engineers took into account his opinions and changed their plans created a sense of self-esteem and participation in decision-making.
Improved knowledge and skills in all areas of rural life are the foundation stone for higher productivity and better standards of living, and Local Development Plans invariably identified training and education needs in the community. To meet these needs, PRODERITH's Rural Communication System adopted a methodology based on video with supporting printed materials, the whole forming so-called "pedagogical packages" (This methodology was first developed in Peru with FAO assistance in the mid-1970s and is now in use in a number of countries of Latin America, Asia, and Africa).
A package covers a subject, say poultry raising or child nutrition, broken down into a series of videos, each of about 10-15 minutes duration and constituting a single lesson of the course. The trainees each receive a printed manual, with many illustrations, to consult during the course and to take home as a reference for the future. A printed guide for the technicians who will be using the material provides them with additional information on the subject and on how best to use the package.
During PRODERITH I, these training packages were only used in the presence of a subject-matter specialist from a field unit. He would lead the discussion after the presentation of the video and conduct a session of practical work whenever possible.
The discussion was also in a sense "practical" in that most knowledge is only accepted and acquired when it is debated and internalised. Thus the educational philosophy of PRODERITH was to introduce information for discussion rather than to convey it.
As one of PRODERITH's field staff said, "The sessions in which we present the training materials are certainly important. We see the videos, we discuss the information, we read the printed material, and we conduct the practical work. But what is really important is what happens after the session, when the peasants are walking home in small groups, talking. That is when the information is analysed and discussed among equals, and when the real decisions are taken."
This observation was in keeping with the way in which PRODERITH's management always tried to take into account the characteristics of peasant economy and culture. They realized that peasants have their own rationale for decision-making which may not always coincide with a rationale that is external to the community. For this reason, training was useless unless there was a real possibility that peasants could take the new information and transform it into elements that had a place in their own rationale and logic.
A vast range of subjects were covered by the video-based packages produced by PRODERITH. Naturally, many were on agricultural production techniques for the various crops grown in the tropical wetlands. However, many were for more general education linked to the needs of rural development. To give an
idea of the variety, some of the programmes covered basic arithmetic to help peasants manage their affairs better, soils and climate, purification of drinking water, food and nutrition, children's diseases, latrines, the role of women and their organization for rural development, and so on.
The video-based methodology was also used for training and orientation of PRODERITH's own staff. Some of these packages covered concepts of rural development, but others were on specific technical subjects, such as the traditional cultivation of maize, principles of immunisation, pests and diseases of grain, and so on. PRODERITH's staff praised the fact that the training packages helped greatly to standardise the information that they wished to present to farmers, putting it into a form in which it was readily accessible, even to the illiterate.
PRODERITH, with its multi-faceted approach to rural development, had an inevitable need to create understanding and coordination among the various parts of the organisation, as well as with other institutions. The coordination problem was complicated by the fact that the Programme was gradually expanding the number of its project areas, and these were scattered in different parts of the country.
The Communication System was used to provide the flow of information necessary for this improved coordination and management. For example, reports in video form were made on the progress of a particular project, and any lessons that might have been emerging from the experience, so that other project areas could benefit from the information
The System was also used to feed back negative information from project areas so that the central management could take appropriate remedial action. This called for a very open-minded attitude on the part of the management, not always found in developing countries.
On one occasion, the peasants in a project area were complaining about the delays in building a promised drainage scheme and were openly critical of PRODERITH. The communication team recorded these complaints on video and edited them into a single programme, obliquely called "material for discussion". This was played to the top management of PRODERITH.
One might have expected an explosion about ignorant peasants daring to criticise the Programme and its management. On the contrary, the management welcomed the video and recommended its widespread use in the project area as a way of putting pressure on those responsible to speed up construction. The video was also used in other communities to stimulate discussions as to whether the peasants themselves should assume a greater role in the building of infrastructure.
Under PRODERITH I, the Communication System was, in effect, centralised. There was a Central Unit in Mexico City where most of the communication staff were based, even if small teams of two to three people were also outposted in the project areas.
The Central Unit was transferred to Cuernavaca after the 1985 earthquake, at the same time as PRODERITH's headquarters were also moved. In 1995, it was still there, located in the IMTA complex.
The Central Unit took overall responsibility for all programmes produced by the System. The research, scripting and shooting could be done either by staff of the Central Unit or by staff outposted in the project areas, who were equipped with cameras and recorders. The outposted staff sent their recorded cassettes to the Central Unit with an outline script, and all editing was done there. The 3/4-inch U'matic editing suite frequently worked 24 hours a day, and to stand up to this intensive use and to improve speed and capacity, a professional (broadcast) quality U'matic editing suite had to be added in 1984.
Initially, the staff of the Rural Communication System were trained within PRODERITH. They came from a variety of backgrounds. The majority had a technical education and some experience in agriculture or social work, while a few came from administrative tasks. They were provided with intensive training lasting several months in concepts of rural development and in the production and use of video and their supporting printed materials. The FAO-supported project in Peru that had pioneered video for farmer training provided two trainers for the first course.
Later, some recruits to the Communication System were media specialists; especially graduates from film schools. This was the case when there was emphasis on videos for institutional audiences, for it was thought that they would best be able to produce materials in tune with the visual culture of the government staff.
In the second phase of PRODERITH (1986 to 1995), people were also recruited from schools of social communication.
After many years of using 3/4-inch U'matic equipment, the communication team began to use the Video 8 format under PRODERITH II. This cheap, compact, and agile equipment proved excellent in the field. In particular, its recording time of 60 minutes on a cassette, compared to 20 minutes for the portable 3/4-inch system, enabled discussions to be recorded without interruptions to change cassettes. This was important because interruptions seriously damage the dynamics of a discussion. Video became the standard for most field production, but the staff usually preferred to edit on 3/4-inch equipment.
Computers were first introduced in the early 1980s for cataloguing materials and for keeping track of their use in the field. Computerized graphics production for the video programmes was introduced in 1985. Very recently, a computerized digital editing system was added to the range of the equipment in the Central Unit.
Playback units for use in the field gave more trouble than the production equipment, much of which has been operating well for over 15 years. A common problem with playback units was that constant plugging and unplugging of the cables between the various components damaged the connections.
PRODERITH's Communication Unit introduced a novel, if simple, idea to improve the reliability and convenience of using playback units in the field. The Programme designed and built special wooden carrying cases for the equipment. The inside was divided into compartments for each of the components, which remained permanently connected to each other. These carrying cases could be loaded into any vehicle and, on arrival at the community, simply unloaded, opened up and set to operate. Vehicle batteries of 12 volts direct current powered the equipment, using an inverter that converted the power to 130 volts alternating current if the equipment needed it.
This solution was far better than buying vehicles especially adapted for video use in the field with all the equipment fitted into cabinets, and permanently connected. They can cost as much as US$50 000 and when one audio-visual component breaks down, the rest of that equipment is often stripped out, and the vehicle is used for other purposes. Given the shortage of transport in developing countries, it almost never reverts to being a video vehicle.
In the period 1978-1984, the Communication System produced 345 video programmes with, in most cases, supporting printed materials. The videos were shown to more than 260 000 people in about 8200 sessions for training and orientation.
At its peak of productivity in 1981, PRODERITH's communication team was able to produce about 100 videos a year. Then the economic situation in Mexico began to limit public expenditure, and by 1985, staff of the Communication System had been reduced from about 40 to about 20, with a concomitant reduction in production capacity.
There can be no doubt that the Rural Communication System developed in those first years of PRODERITH did some outstanding and pioneering work. It was unique in the way it was integrated into a major development programme. It was the first time in history that the fundamental role of communication in a major development programme had been identified from the beginning, and that it had been given the recognition and resources necessary for it to make a real contribution. In the very early days of PRODERITH, there were some field technicians who said they would have nothing to do with "idiot boxes", but it did not take long to convince them of the value of video when working with peasants.
PRODERITH, in fact, developed a Rural Communication System that was uniquely imaginative and effective. It aroused worldwide interest, and the World Bank praised it in a number of its documents. A staff member of the World Bank with responsibility for Mexico stated that the Communication System had been "central to the success of PRODERITH I."