Land tenure Institutions

Updated September 1999

A brief on Agrarian Systems Diagnosis (ASD)

by Paolo Groppo
Land Tenure Officer, Systems Analysis
Land Tenure Service (SDAA)
FAO Rural Development Division
See also Foreword/Table of contents to Guidelines for agrarian systems diagnosis (FAO, August 1999) - full document available for downloading as a Word97 file (zipped, 331K)


While it is recognized that all rural sector policy/planning proposals should be based on preliminary surveys and an understanding of the rationale of farmer behaviour, no agreement has been reached on the tools required for this task. Prompted by the need for better analytical tools to meet the challenges ahead, FAO's Land Tenure Service is elaborating a specific methodological proposal.

Agricultural development experts need to have a solid data base on the structure, operations and dynamics of agrarian systems if they are to undertake a critical analysis of agricultural trends and to formulate development proposals. They also need to be familiar with methods of critical analysis and with the concept and theory of agrarian systems.

Our search for a satisfactory tool led to the elaboration of Agrarian Systems Diagnosis (ASD), whose theoretical reference framework was prepared by Prof. Marcel Mazoyer, of the Institut National Agronomique Paris-Grignon. The methodological steps to be followed for carrying out these diagnostic missions have been prepared by myself.

Our system approach has been already tested and used in a wide range of socio-economic and geographical contexts - Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Peru, Guatemala, Poland, Albania, Lithuania and Laos. Results indicate that ASD is going to become one of the most powerful tools for elaborating legitimate and effective agricultural projects. (See also: Evaluation and planning of development support activities for settlement areas in the State of São Paulo, Brazil.)

The aim of this methodological proposal is to summarize the basic theoretical concepts of what an agrarian system is and to fully develop the methodological approach for examining their socio-economic dynamics. This insight into theory and technique will not open the door to a new technocracy. However pertinent the analyses, however appropriate the projects (or policies), the question of the legitimacy of development interventions still has to be resolved.

Aside from emergency relief - which is obligatory to save people from famine and other natural disasters - intervention is legitimate only if it is requested by the people or their (legitimate) representatives. A preliminary study should therefore not only deal with technical issues, but also focus on legitimacy. The people and institutions concerned should be informed of the aims and modalities of the study and project, and conclusions and recommendations should be submitted to all interested parties for discussion. Otherwise there will be no support for the project, participation in its implementation, or project impact.

Outline of basic methodological steps for the identification and analysis of agrarian systems

1. Type of information required

ASD uses field data and secondary information. But who should be interviewed and how? Among the criteria to be considered, there is a natural hierarchy reflecting specific local conditions. This means that we are going to highlight the more representative and more contrasted situations, trying to cover the greatest diversity of producers.

2. Zoning

Zoning means the division of an area into smaller units that have similar characteristics. The objective of this activity is the identification and localization of agro-ecological and socio-economic constraints and potentialities that influence the dynamics of the different systems.

Zoning becomes necessary both for practical reasons (it does not make sense to study all the production/consumption units of the region) and for identification of the "recommendation domain" (RD). The RD is generally conceived as a group of production/consumption units sharing similar problems, usually of a technical nature. We can interpret the RD, within each zone, as the sub-unit for the implementation of possible solutions aimed at overcoming the bottlenecks identified. It must be clear that although agro-ecological criteria are always important for the determination of zones, the process of zoning is closely related to the problem we have to deal with.

Therefore in some cases socio-cultural criteria and policy/institutional criteria can be of greater importance than simple agro-ecological aspects. In practice, depending upon the specifics of each situation, we will choose the most useful of different criteria, noting that, for practical reasons, the total number of zones cannot be so reduced as to prevent identification of differences nor so high as to be a nonsense for regional development programmes.

3. The unit of analysis

The unit of analysis should correspond to the level where common social, technical and economic habits exist. This means focusing the centre of our attention not on the farm per se but on the people who are managing the farm. The family, the community or other level of social aggregation could be used as unit of analysis, depending on the specific local situation. Whilst in Western countries the concept of "family" seems to be the more appropriate for the rural sector, this is not necessarily the case in many other countries, because of the separation between the unit of production, the unit of living and the unit of consumption. Therefore it is necessary to understand and identify the minimum level of aggregation where these operations are self-contained.

4. The survey and the sample

The determination of the sample to be used for data collecting requires clarification of two criterion: the breadth of the survey and mechanisms for selecting individual case sources. Methods can differ between two limits: The first method has the drawback of using a great amount of human and financial resources, in addition to being repetitive. In fact, actual practice has shown that these statistical surveys have rarely resulted in viable development project or programme designs. The same information can often be collected with reasonable reliability through alternative means at a lower cost, e.g. through reconnaissance surveys. This method, much less structured, depends on an open-ended process of questioning and observation. The surveys are conducted by one or more qualified rural development specialists who concentrate on key informants, and are normally based on a preliminary pertinent diagnosis in order to avoid possible underestimation of relevant land tenure and production systems.

Generally, a semi-structured questionnaire with a checklist and a list of questions prepared in advance, partially closed and quantitative (for technical and economic aspects) and with a strong emphasis on the dynamic aspects, is a quick path to a good understanding of the agrarian situation of the area.

Obviously, as for each step of the methodology, it is possible that during the implementation of field visits, new facts previously unknown will come to light through analysis and interviewing, requiring additional collection of data. This process of reiteration must be considered as a central point and enough time and manpower should be reserved for this purpose.

When initiating data collecting at field level, the first step consists of interviewing key informants, selected among people having a deep knowledge of the area in which we are working. These interviews are clearly less structured and more open than the other questionnaires. However, they must cover the same fields because of their usefulness as "guidelines" for the preparation of the sample that will be interviewed later.

5. Reproduction thresholds

ASD has to be considered an approach for the improvement of the standard of living of rural people based on in-depth analysis of the technical, social and economic bottlenecks that obstruct the fulfilment of development goals. Therefore, what is needed is to specify how we are going to compare field results with a reference standard. These references are the "reproduction thresholds", which allow a first rough distinction between different types of producers according to their degree of poverty.

The methods usually employed for measuring poverty fall into two major groups: those referring to the concept of "poverty line" and those referring to "basic unsatisfied needs". The most important one is the "simple reproduction threshold" (SRT) which would represent the cost of living in a specific country (or region) at a specific time. The SRT is clearly a dynamic concept, varying in time, with an increasing trend because goods included in the basic basket are not the same, and will change according to the changing situation of the country.

6. Typology

For the realization of a diagnosis, the next step is carrying out a typology of the units of analysis, for which different criteria can be employed: production strategies, historical background, income level and composition, ethnic appurtenance, etc. The necessity of carrying out this activity responds to a common preoccupation and observation, i.e. the big differences between production/consumption units, even within a limited geographical area, and the need for highlighting this diversity for implementing support actions which take into consideration every specific bottleneck.

The elaboration of a typology begins with a declared operational interest: trying to simplify the heterogeneity through the identification of groups (types) presenting similar potentialities and restrictions in relation to one or more selected factors. This effort aims at identifying, for the implementation of rural development programmes, the different capacities, rhythms and levels of possible accumulation of the various production/consumption units. As for zoning, the method to be used should be selected according to the specific situation, not forgetting that this also is a reiterative process.

7. The agrarian system - economic analytical framework

This analysis is carried out using the traditional concepts of technical itinerary, cropping pattern (or livestock pattern) and production system. The economic analytical framework is represented by the theory of the ordinary farm. By the term "ordinary farm", we consider exploitation with a zero level of profit, that is to say that the final value of the production corresponds strictly to the costs of production. The first direct consequence of utilizing this concept can be found in the way the questionnaire is prepared: instead of favouring hazardous data (mainly referring to techniques, yields and prices), special attention is drawn to analysis of the most common practices, that is to say "ordinary practices".

Using traditional micro-economic techniques, it is therefore possible, by matching this analysis with the calculated trend of the SRT, to estimate the land and capital deficit for each type of unit of analysis within each zone considered. This means the identification of the "field of possible improvement" defined by the maximum technical productivity of the system, the maximum economic productivity and the estimated SRT.

From this point, we start elaborating simple models that should integrate other compatibilities (social and political behaviour, long term sustainability, etc.) that directly influence the present situation.

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