This is the most recent in a series of three analytical case studies carried out by FAG on a Mexican experience in communication for rural development. These studies cover almost 20 years of a sustained, complex and evolving effort by the Mexican Government, to stimulate the participation of peasants and other actors in the development process, through local, regional and national communication activities. The FAO Communication for Development Group provided the technical backstopping.

These case studies highlight the benefits obtained, experiences shared and lessons learned through rural communication activities. The second study is one of very few of its type in the world. It is written by a peasant from E1 Olimpico, a small, isolated village south of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and a specialised and well known international consultant. Together they described an experience, analysed it in detail and identified the main conclusions.

This third case study deals principally with the Integrated Rural Development Programme for the Humid Tropics (PRODERITH), launched by the Government at the end of the seventies. The purpose of PRODERITH is to promote integrated rural development and effective peasant participation in an area covering over 10 million hectares of humid and sub humid coastal plains, with high and medium agricultural potential. One important component of the programme is its rural communication system, which was designed within a well defined public development policy established in 1979. This study considers the PRODERITH communication system as one of the widest ranging and longest lasting exercises of this type in the world. Different actors in the development process were involved in its formulation, implementation and evaluation. With participation as the central concept, the system brought together peasants, government representatives, researchers, technicians, banking services, construction companies and marketing and processing institutions.

A key characteristic of the rural communication system was its place within a public policy where participation was prevalent. This affected its development and is crucial to understanding the causes of its success as well as learning from its failures. Thus, when the time came to transfer certain functions within the communication system to peasant organisations or communities, organisations who were already involved in participatory development activities were well equipped to take them on.

In the second phase of PRODERITH, the State began to withdraw from the scene, assuming the role of subsidiary to the intitiativesof small and medium-sized peasant enterprises.

The experience of the PRODERITH rural communication system therefore shows that it is possible to insert rural communication components into a public development policy that uses different instruments and approaches according to the characteristics and conditions of the various groups of rural producers involved.

Drawing from this experience, the communication system was expanded beyond the humid and sub humid tropics and helped meet one of the greatest challenges ever faced by the Mexican agricultural sector: in 1989, the Government began to transfer the responsibility for administration and maintenance of large and medium-sized irrigation schemes, to the producers' organizations that were using them. In 1994, after five years of intense institutional changes, around 300 000 farmers had received the technical and economic responsibility for the schemes, across an area of about two million hectares.

In the irrigated areas, the technical and entrepreneurial environment is quite different from that in the tropical areas supported by PRODERITH, which are mainly inhabited by poor peasants and cultivated under extensive production systems. In the new environment it was possible to broaden and improve the available rural communication infrastructure and technical expertise.

Between 1989 and 1994, the rural communication system reached the widest coverage and highest intensity of its activities. This took place in an increasingly difficult social and political context, where modernisation was a key issue for the country's peasants and agricultural producers. The transformation and opening of the economy, deregulation, reduction of the role of the State, changes in the land tenure system and, in general, changes in the legal framework affecting life in the rural areas and agricultural activity, imposed significant social costs on the peasants and the rural world.

A wide-ranging debate began on the new developments and their effects. This debate required more information, both of a higher quality and more up-to-date. This set a new challenge for the communication system. Its local units and regional centres became centres of demand for information as they had never been before. The system, with a few local exceptions, stood up to this challenge, in both the tropical and irrigated areas.

At present, the Government is concentrating its efforts on overcoming the consequences of the crisis of 1994, recovering growth capacity and seeking a solution to long-term and new poverty in the rural areas.

The crisis affected the capacity of the public sector and that of the peasants' and agricultural producers' organisations to keep the rural communication system operating efficiently. Recent developments and requirements have led to the emergence of new strategies in rural communication, particularly in relation to a greater initiative on the part of producers' organisations, communities and non-governmental organisations, which are increasingly offering their services to the farmers. Professionals and technicians trained by the rural communication service continue to work either in the public sector or in small-scale non-govern mental service organisations. For example, experiences gained in the rural communication system are being incorporated into the strategies of a large national non governmental organisation to improve its services for technical assistance and promote productive and social development.

In spite of the difficulties being faced by the rural and agricultural sector, it is clear that the communication for development activities have not been cancelled. They are an integral part of the lives of hundreds of rural communities, peasant organizations and producers in the tropics, as well as in the irrigated areas.

In 198S, a senior FAD staff member visited the areas covered by the PRODERITH rural communication system and met many of the participating communities, organizations and individuals. At the end of the trip he discovered what, to his mind, was one of the most important methodological "secrets" of the Mexican experience. He said: "The main challenge faced by a good communication system in the field is not, as one might generally think, filling a social space with words, it consists in the establishment of an initial silence, where the actors present recognize each other as equals, with the same rights and possibilities for generating the new knowledge required to improve the quality of life and working conditions"

Indeed, this study shows that communication in the field implies creating or recreating the possibility for people to reach, by themselves and in their own terms, the knowledge required to change what is necessary, without losing their identity, their feelings for the land and their historical background.

Santiago Funes

Deputy FAO Regional Representative for Latin America and the Caribbean

FAO Representative in Chile

Former Chief Technical Adviser for UTF/MEX/027



This is the third case study commissioned by FAO on communication for rural development in Mexico. The first, entitled A Rural Communication System for Development in Mexico's Tropical Lowlands, was published in 1987. The second, Towards Putting Farmers in Control, appeared in 1990.

This third study takes a historical perspective It presents and analyses developments since 1990 but, at the same time, it covers the more important communication concepts and activities that were described in the first two studies. In this way, it is a complete history that spans 17 years.

Part I describes those 17 years of communication work in the tropical wetlands to help small farmers become the protagonists in their own development, and to provide them with the knowledge and skills they needed to improve their situation. The media used were mainly video, simple printed materials and loudspeakers, and the system was based on Regional and Local Communication Units, which engendered much peasant participation.

Part I also includes how the Rural Communication System was applied, beginning in 1990, to the enormous task of transferring the management of three million hectares of irrigation systems from the Government to their users.

Part II covers another rural communication initiative, this time to provide market and other information to farmers through a computerized system. The farmers involved in this were generally operating on a much larger scale than those in the tropical wetlands. Their information needs, and the technology used to meet them, were quite different. However, the basic philosophy of providing information as a basis for decision-making and empowerment was the same, and it was conducted by the same Rural Communication System.

The author of the first case study was Colin Fraser, Director for Social Communication, Extension and Training for the consultancy company Agrisystems (Overseas) Ltd. of the United Kingdom. He also wrote the second, but with inputs from Jose Nieves Martinez, a Mexican peasant farmer living in the tropical wetlands.

For this, the third study, Colin Fraser worked with a co-author, Sonia Restrepo-Estrada, also of Agrisystems, and also a specialist in communication for development. It was judged that fresh eyes would give the benefit of a new perspective.

Many people were interviewed for this study, and the authors would like to express their thanks to them for their time and the wealth of information they provided. The following people worked very closely with the authors for extended periods, and special thanks are due to them for the outstanding support they provided: Martha Abundis, AIda Albert, Dionisio Amado Bobadilla, Manuel Calvelo, Emilio Cant6n, Omar Fonseca, Santiago Funes, Jorge Martinez, Luis Masias, Jose Luis Melendez, Roberto Menendez, Juan Carlos Miller, Angeles Navarro, Lorena Navarro, Sergio Sanjines and Angelica Santos.

Several of these persons accompanied the authors on field trips in Mexico and had to put up with many hours of questions and discussions.

Finally, the authors are particularly grateful to the many peasants who spent long hours in discussions with them. Without their input, this case study would be worthless.

A list of source material will be found in Annex 1.




Apoyos y Servicios a la Comercialización Agropecuaria.


Centre of Support for Rural Development


Comision Nacional del Agua


Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Gross domestic product (PIB - Producto Interno Bruto)


Instituto Mexicano de Tecnologia del Agua


Local Communication Units (Unidade Locale de Comunicaci6n)


North American Free Trade Agreement


A subsidy programme for Mexican farmers to help them adjust to NAFTA


Programa de Certificacidn de Derechos Ejidales y Titulacidn de Solares Urbanos


Programa de Desarrollo Rural Integrado del Tropical Humido (Programme for Integrated Rural Development in the Tropical Wetlands)


Secretariat for Agriculture, Livestock, and Rural Development


Secretariat for Agriculture and Water Resources


National Market Information Service


Technical Information and Communication Unit


Unidades de Cooperacidn Tecnica (Technical Cooperation Unit)


Unilateral trust fund



For many decades, Mexico's priority in agricultural development was to expand irrigation in its arid areas. However, by the mid-1960's, the costs of the further development of irrigation and the nation's need to increase food production focused attention on the tropical wetlands of the coastal plains.

A major development initiative called Plan La Chontalpa in the State of Tabasco became operational in the mid-1960s. It successfully installed drainage and other infrastructure on a vast area, and provided credit, technical assistance and other inputs to peasant farmers, but the project failed on the human level. The peasants never identified with it, nor did they use or maintain the infrastructure properly. This was attributed to "a lack of effective mechanisms forthe participation of the beneficiaries".

Despite this setback, the Government could not allow the tropical wetlands, that make up 23 percent of Mexico's total area, to remain out of the nation's socio-economic development. The challenges were enormous: there were few roads into the vast areas of forest and scrub; the quantity and violence of the rainfall caused flooding, land compaction, and erosion; environmental degradation had set in because of the relatively small area available for agriculture as opposed to livestock production; the people were culturally, ethnically, and linguistically diverse, with high levels of illiteracy; and finally, extreme poverty, malnutrition, and disease were endemic.

To avoid another Chontalpa, the Government decided that future development in the tropical wetlands would have to be planned and executed with the informed and active participation of the local people. This would call for a communication process with them at all stages, for it could help in the proper identification of the physical, technical, and socio-economic problems, and also in ensuring that proposals for their solution were fully appropriate to the situation and agreed to by the communities.

Much research was done with peasants before designing any development program~ne. In 1977 some borrowed video equipment was used for recording and playback to peasants to help them analyse their situation, and also to help the researchers understand more clearly how the peasants saw their own reality. The use of video during the research phase proved an excellent stimulus for a communication process and seemed to open the path to achieving what the planners hoped: to have the peasant become the protagonist in his own development. This turned out to be the prelude to one of the most successful rural communication systems ever developed.

In 1978 the research and planning, much of it in the field, resulted in the project known as Programa de Desarrollo Rural Integrado del Tr6pico Humedo


(PRODERITH) - Programme of Integrated Rural Development in the Tropical Wetlands. This Programme had two phases: the first from 1978 to 1984 and the second from 1986 to 1995. Both phases were supported by World Bank loans, and both also received technical assistance in communication for development from FAO.

The objectives of PRODERITH I were to increase agricultural production and productivity in the tropics, improve the living standards of peasant families, and conserve natural resources. It worked intensively in three project areas on a total of 54 000 hectares and with 3 500 families. It set out to quadruple family income over 1977 levels. It also worked in 500 000 hectares of expansion zones where it aimed to increase family incomes by 50 percent.

An aim of PRODERITH I was to achieve participation of all concerned (peasants, its own staff, and that of cooperating institutions). In addition, given its integrated development approach, it also needed to foster effective coordination between all of the institutions active in the Programme.

Among PRODERITH's activities were: the building of roads and drainage systems, soil conservation, research, technical assistance, credit, and the organization and social participation of peasants.

The Rural Communication System was planned and budgeted for from the outset. It worked principally with video and supporting printed materials to cover the Programme's three types of communication need: a) situation analysis and participatory planning with peasants; b) education and training for peasants and for PRODERITH's own staff; and c) institutional information for better coordination and management.

PRODERITH's methodology was primarily based on field units, small multidisciplinary teams who worked with the communities. Helped by the Communication System, they used video recording and playback to promote an internal debate in the community about its past, present, and possible future. The aim was to reach a collective perception of the local situation and of the options for improving it, with support from PRODERITH. A "Local Development Plan" was the outcome of this period of discussion and debate, which was supported and enriched by the video.

Executing the local development plan invariably called for orientation and training. In the years 1978-84, the Rural Communication System produced more almost 400 videos, mainly for training, and supported by printed materials for course participants and technicians. They covered a wide range of agricultural and rural development topics.

Videos were also used to provide a feedback of information from the project areas to institutions, thereby helping them towards better management and coordination.

The Rural Communication System was run from a Central Unit but with outposted staff in the project areas and frequent travel to the field from the Central Unit. Cameras and video recorders were available in the project areas, but all editing was done in the Central Unit.

The 3/4 inch U'matic format was used for production in the early years, with tapes for playback in the communities converted to the 1/2 inch Betamax format. Later, the Video 8 format was introduced, both for production and playback.

Beginning in the early 1980s, a series of economic crises and structural adjustment programmes gravely affected all government development actions, including PRODERITH, which lost between 60 and 70 percent of its excellently trained field staff during the period of transition from the first phase to the second. So, when PRODERITH II began in 1986, the capacity for technical assistance in the field was severely reduced, just when it should have been expanding to cater for the much larger scope of the second phase.

PRODERITH II ultimately covered 1.4 million hectares in nine project areas, with a total of more than 650 000 people living in some 500 communities. Replication of PRODERITH I on such a large scale was problematic and the Rural Communication System had to develop and apply new approaches in its work. A first need was to decentralize the System and, in keeping with new government policies, develop it in such a way that it could be taken over and run by farmers' organizations. Communities would also need help to develop communication capacity, and the system would have to support and strengthen organisations and associations of farmers.

Under PRODERITH II, five Regional Communication Units were established in different parts of the country, each capable of independent action in communication planning and the production and use of materials. Unfortunately, the economic plight of the agriculture sector made it impossible for farmers' association to take over these Communication Units.

Local people were trained and formed communication committees in many farming communities, and in some, Local Communication Units were established. These consisted of a loudspeaker system to reach the whole community and a covered meeting area where videos could be shown and discussions could take place. These were instrumental in many cases of social dynamization which led to concrete development actions in the communities, especially concerning issues such as water supply, women's activities and health. No community with a Local Communication Unit had a single case of cholera during the epidemic which produced many cases in the nearby areas, and there were significant reductions in infant deaths caused by diarrhoea.

The Communication System did much work in the health and community development sectors under PRODERITH II because of the reduced capacity of the Programme to provide technical assistance for agriculture.

During the two phases of PRODERITH, more than 700 videos were produced and video-based information and training were brought to about 800 000 people.

The costs of the Rural Communication System for PRODERITH worked out at less than 2 percent of the total cost of both phases of the Programme.

The Communication System also worked on the transfer of the control and management of the country's 78 irrigation districts to their users. This enormous operation involved helping more than 250 000 farmers on more than 3 million hectares to reach an awareness of the issues at stake, to create the organizations and capacity for them to take over and run the systems, and to provide them and government staff with the technical knowledge and skills required. The operation was described as the "greatest process of dialogue ever organized" in Mexico.

Despite being arguably the most successful and experienced Rural Communication System anywhere in the world, its future role is unclear. Institutional changes have recently placed it in a Ministry that has little to do with agricultural and rural development. Perhaps of equal importance is whether the democratic and participatory approaches applied so successfully under PRODERITH have become sufficiently institutionalised to form part of constant rural development policies in future.

The communication initiative described in Part II arose from the enormous problems being faced by farmers in the state of Sonora, in the north of Mexico. The creation of the North American Free Trade Area and other economic changes put Sonora's irrigated farms into direct competition with US and Canadian farms. These produce similar commodities, but more cheaply, if only because they can often grow crops without irrigation.

An FAO study of Sonora's agriculture in 1993 showed that greater efficiency, and particularly improved marketing, could be the main solution to Sonora's problems. For example, farmers and their associations were lacking information about market outlets and prices and, when they exported their produce, they were at the mercy of middlemen.

A Technical Information and Communication Unit was therefore established in Hermosillo, the state capital, by the Rural Communication System. It was able to download information from various sources and databases. This covered detailed weather forecasts, technical information, market opportunities, and actual and future prices of commodities.

This information was incorporated into three bulletins per week that were faxed to farmers organisations, and in some cases to individual farmers. For a few farmers, the bulletin soon became a key element in helping them to plan their operations and, in a number of cases, it helped them obtain better markets and prices for their crops.

However, not all farmers in the area have been as quick to realize the potential power of information in their work and the system needs to be promoted and made better known. It has also suffered from institutional problems. Nevertheless, the Sonora experience has clearly shown how this type of information can benefit commercial farmers, and it is being replicated in other parts of Mexico, as well as in Chile, again with FAO support. Direct downloading of information from the system by farmers and their associations, rather than faxing a bulletin, is the strategy for these later operations.