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Posted September 1996

Small farmer inter-group associations in Sri Lanka: Peddagama Village Board

by Cameron Clark
FAO Consultant
Note: This case study focuses on a small farmer inter-group association (Village Board), made up of predominantly landless farmers and rural workers, which decided to convert itself into an officially-sponsored Farmers' Organization (FO) in order to gain additional advantages. Did the advantages of the change outweigh the costs? In this particular case apparently not - but it does demonstrate that, three years after the termination of FAO project assistance, groups still continue to search, on their own, for new modalities to improve their members' welfare.
See also Special: Participation in practice - Lessons from the FAO People's Participation Programme

Background

Two villages, consisting of about 100 families of low caste potters, in the Galgamuwa Division, were selected by a GP in 1989 to start work in. Within a period of less than two years, seven adult groups consisting of 68 persons and one children's group of 8 youth were functioning well.

Based on the experience of a VB organized by PPP groups in the Matale area in 1990, the GP discussed the concept with the seven groups in her two villages. The members welcomed the suggestion as the groups were already sharing experiences, but on an ad hoc basis. On 29 July, 1991, they met to organize their VB and at the same time officially registered themselves as a farmers' group under the Agrarian Services Act. This latter has proven to be very fortunate in view of the new emphasis being placed on the organization of Farmers' Organizations by MALF under its AMA programme.

At the time of the Study, 65 families belonged to a PPP group out of a possible 100 families in the two villages.

Organizational structure and functioning

The VB consists of two representatives from each group. A chairperson, secretary and treasurers plus a vice for each of these posts are elected each year on a rotational basis. In addition, one member is selected yearly for each of the seven committees - Agriculture, Credit, Health and Nutrition, Small Scale Enterprise Management, Animal Husbandry, Marketing and Survey and Expansion. The principle of shared leadership is followed as a means for developing leadership skills and ensuring the active participation of all group representatives on the Board.

Distribution of posts between male and female members has been unbalanced. The position of VB Chairperson has always been filled by a different male while different females have always been elected as secretary. Over the past five years, a different female has served as treasurer for three of these years. The same male served for two years.

Up until this year the VB has met regularly every month with every third month being a General Meeting to which all members are expected to attend. The last meeting of the VB was a general meeting on 1 April 1995 attended by over 100 persons, including members and interested villagers. No further meetings have been held due to a combination of the following factors:

  1. Malfunctioning of the IVBF and the SFDO. New elections have been held by both bodies but without informing Village Boards in this area. Since then the VB chairperson has sent two letters to the SFDO, but with no reply.
  2. The VB secretary has resigned and a replacement has yet to be elected.
  3. Confusion regarding credit repayment rules established by the new Government.
The financial situation of the VB is satisfactory with a balance of Rs 1117/-. It has no physical assets other than 7,000 clay bricks, worth Rs 7,000/-, which the members have donated for the future construction of a VB meeting hall. The individual PPP groups have substantial group savings totalling over Rs 90,000/- with one group owning 8 bicycles for group use in transporting their clay pots to local markets. However, members are not interested in building up the VB fund as they had a bad experience in 1993 with the control of a group fund to which all group members had contributed Rs 50/- as collateral against a crop production bank loan. Repayment by groups has been uneven. The VB is still recovering from that unfortunate activity.

Services provided to groups

Exchange of Experiences

Each group reports on its progress and problems in considerable detail at each VB meeting. Problems are analysed and suggestions welcomed from peers. Individual groups have greatly benefitted from this process, which has also contributed significantly to the building up of inter-group trust and increased confidence in dealing with government and the community at large. While still not perfect, the social progress made by group members from this low caste community has been remarkable.

Credit and Savings

For most members this has been their first opportunity to receive institutional credit. Each group prepares its group production plan and group credit needs for VB approach in accordance with the procedures established between the local bank(s) and the original project. With the removal of the GP from the process, the VB and the IVBF have had to take on additional responsibilities for credit approval, monitoring and repayment. The approval of the Project Officer, under the newly created (1993) SFDO, for new loans and the rescheduling of loans in default is still required. Since he has not visited the groups in this VB area for the past year, the VB has been unable to assist groups with their credit needs. This is causing the members serious problems and hindering the normal functioning of the VB. Previously the chairpersons of the Credit Committee had undertaken special training in credit management (organized by the IVBF) and was systematically monitoring all loans. The Study revealed that some individual group members had complained about such close monitoring but were told that it was being done with the full authorization of the VB.

Extension Support

As these people are primarily pottery makers they have very limited agricultural lands and then only uplands. However, during the Yala season (dry season), many are finding the growing of chillies to be more profitable than pottery, provided they have access to water. Through group action they are helping each other to dig wells. Agricultural extension has conducted demonstrations on improved chillie production.

Because of their limited land base, they are particularly interested in the rearing of small animals such as goats. Two members of the VB Animal Husbandry Committee received special training from the Veterinary Officer but general members are complaining there has been no follow-up training for them. Frequent requests to the Livestock Department for assistance apparently go unheaded.

Production Inputs

The VB has done nothing in this area in view of the limited need and interest of group members in agricultural inputs such as improved seeds and fertilizer.

Training

Members consider the training courses, which the VB has helped to secure, to have been of particular value. These included courses in nutritive food preparation, goat rearing, book keeping, production of improved clay stoves, credit management, marketing of produce and ornamental pottery production. Members generally feel the training that is given directly to interested group members to be more effective than when passed through the VB committee structure.

Marketing

The VB was responsible for securing a contract with the Divisional Secretary for the production of 1,500 improved clay cooking stoves. Two groups cooperated in the task. Members received Rs 45/- for each stove. These were resold by the Government at Rs 75/- to the general public.

Survey and Expansion

The Survey and Expansion Committee of the VB has been particularly active and relatively successful. After the departure of the GP the committee helped organise three new PPP groups. One group has survived and its members are doing very well.

Committee members received special training in techniques of problem-solving. Problems raised by groups during the monthly VB meeting are tackled as quickly as possible. The Committee makes periodic visits to individual group meetings so they can better access each group's viability and compare their findings with what is being reported by the group's representatives at the monthly VB meetings. Close monitoring of each group by the VB has been a major factor in keeping all groups relatively active and with a minimum loss of members (from 76 to 73 persons over a 5 year period).

Role of the group promoter

As with all VBs, the role of the GP in their establishment has been critical. Although VB members expressed the opinion that group and VB activities declined by about 50% after the departure of the GP, the fact that all the original groups at least continued to function relatively well, shows that the VB has been able to perform at least some of the functions of the GP. It must also be recognized that although the official services of the GP stopped on 31 December 1992, she did continue to live in the area and to maintain a general interest in the welfare of the groups on a volunteer basis.

Linkage with other organizations

Despite the low social status of most of the members of these groups, the VB has been able to attract the services of a variety of government and NGO agencies on a need by need basis. The only failure cited was the refusal of the Department of Health to allocate any improved latrines to the groups.

By far the most significant relationship has been that established with the AMA programme of the MALF through the Divisional Officer. As mentioned earlier, when first establishing the VB back in July, 1991, its members had the foresight to also register as a Farmers Organization under the Agrarian Services Act. It was registered under the name of PPP "Mahashana" - Number 524/6 dated 7 July 1991.

With the new emphasis being given by the present government to the organization of Farmers' Organizations throughout the nation, some of the traditional farm leaders in this Grama Niladara Division decided they should establish a FO in order to be eligible for all the goods and services to be provided by Government under the AMA programme. On checking with the Divisional Officer they learned that a FO already existed (No. 524/6) with membership from the PPP groups of small farmers who had been meeting regularly since then as a VB. As the traditional farm leader believed there should be only one FO per Grama Niladara Division, they approached the VB demanding that it be dissolved and a new election of officers held in which all farmers would be allowed to participate. The VB officers refused and insisted that they be permitted to continue independent of the big farmers.

The Divisional Officer supported them and informed the traditional farm leaders that they should proceed to organize their own group of farmers and to register as a separate FO. To date they have been unable to get the required minimum number of 25 farmers.

The VB converted to a FO officially on 2 October 1995. In the meantime the renamed VB has elected one of its members to represent them at the monthly meeting of the Agrarian Development Council, which meets at the next level of government. This council consists of one representative from each FO in the Division (there should be about 25 FOs per Council, once fully developed).

The "Mahashana" FO members have decided to continue to conduct themselves as a VB. They value the support they have received in the past from the IVBF and are optimistic that it may be revived in the near future.

Since the VB is now a FO, each PPP group member must pay an initial fee of Rs 100. This makes him/her eligible for group credit from the newly established Farmers' Bank, under the AMA programme.

Major problems and training needs

The major problem now facing the VB members is to successfully integrate the philosophy, principles and practices of PPP into the FO structure. They expect that the big farmers (the traditional farmer leaders) will continue to pressure government to permit only one FO at each Govi-Sevana Level (lowest government level). The "Mahashana" FO must therefore work hard to demonstrate the value of the PPP approach to development in both economic and social terms. Towards this end a sound training programme needs to be developed. The IVBF is the logical place to coordinate and organize such training. It must therefore be reactivated at an early date. This means the problems of the SFDO must also be addressed on a priority basis.

Sustainability

The sustainability of the renamed VB is conditional upon its successful integration into the FO structure and the reactivation of the services and support of the IVBF.



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