Updated September 1999
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.