How to change the status quo
Inside the strategy to tame rampant pesticide use
Islamabad, Pakistan – Rural development is all about change, but that is easier said than done. The status quo suits some parties. If government must lead change, inefficient bureaucracies may slow progress. Farmers, already at the mercy of forces beyond their control like the weather and prices, tend to be conservative.
For these and other reasons, development projects in rural areas, perhaps introduced by international agencies or non-governmental organizations, often fail to bring about lasting change. Despite good intentions and hard work, new ways of doing things may not last much beyond the point where foreign funding runs out.
Which makes the pesticide-reduction movement in Pakistan’s cotton-growing sector all the more impressive. An FAO-EU programme to reduce out-of-control pesticide use has been followed up and successfully continued by farmers, the national government and other players.
How did this come about?
Over 300 companies in Pakistan produce pesticide. Conventional thinking held that pesticide was a routine and irreplaceable agricultural input. These were the realities confronting a group of government technical experts and officials working in the capital city's research institutes and ministries in the 1990s who became alarmed at the effect of excessive pesticide use on the environment, farm family health and food safety.
"I insisted on massive advocacy first – bring forward the scientific evidence on pesticide residues," says Dr Iftikar Ahmad, a plant pathologist and Head of the National Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Programme. "We hired consultants to discover the truth on all issues and wherever we went we built the case for changing the regulatory framework on pesticides."
Dr Ahmad also believed that a movement to reduce indiscriminate pesticide use needed a solid institutional foundation.
"I kept delaying the start of the FAO-EU project because we didn't have the capacity to handle it," he recalls. "I said we have to establish a national programme, otherwise it won't last."
Champions and allies were crucial. Besides international support from the UN system, the Asian Development Bank, the European Union, European aid agencies and non-governmental organizations, the IPM movement in Pakistan is backed by key government ministers.
"The EU delegation showed very keen interest and helped us frame our application for funding. And the FAO Representative, if a file stopped moving through a ministry, would phone on our behalf to get it acted upon," Dr Ahmad says. "Another important element is to develop the farmers and their organizations as catalysts before the project closes – so that there is a likelihood of farmers acting as a pressure group for the continuation of this kind of programme."
When the programme met resistance in the main agricultural province of Punjab, it adjusted its strategy and introduced IPM in neighbouring Sindh province, later urging Punjab to get on the bandwagon.
What of the future?
Making these inroads with two new ideas – Integrated Pest Management and Farmer Field Schools – has required almost religious zeal and faith. But what about quality control? Is a certain degree of “orthodoxy” needed for these methods to continue to work?
The success of the Farmer Field School methodology is based on allowing farmers to learn by observing and to debate among themselves with minimum facilitation. In this way they build the necessary skills and confidence to make their own decisions, which may at times run contrary to prevailing thinking. The old top-down methodology of lecturing to farmers might seem easier, but it doesn't work as well in the long run.
"Quality is the big issue," Dr Ahmad concludes. "The momentum is there but as the movement grows some people who are running field schools are starting to produce manuals. We never had a manual, which stifles experimentation."
"One of the cornerstones of the Farmer Field School approach is innovation. You have to present choices to farmers and listen to what they want. Some newcomers would rather tell them what to do."
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