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2. A brief look at the historical context of the FFS

The historical context out of which the FFS approach emerged was dominated by the agricultural projects of the Green Revolution. The approaches to agricultural development that were used in these projects were heavily centralized. At their best, the social engineering techniques of the Green Revolution were dehumanizing. The final scenes of the Green Revolution were played out to the accompaniment of a warning note sounded in the Philippines. Researchers found that the projected demand for rice from increasing regional populations would eventually overtake surpluses generated through Green Revolution projects in Asia. They also found that a significant number of farmers were outperforming research stations. This flew in the face of the opinions of many experts who viewed farmers as the main problem in agriculture production instead of recognizing them as potential problem solvers.

If extension was having problems, plant protection experts were able to create their own problems through the 1970s and 1980s by advocating the increased use of subsidized, broad-spectrum insecticides. Massive insect outbreaks were occurring that demanded a rethinking of crop protection approaches. The IPM FFS was developed in response to these conditions. The following is a brief review of the historical backdrop to the early development and spread of the FFS.

2.1 Small farmers in Asia and the Green Revolution

Almost one third of the world's population consists of Asian farming households. Across the region, hundreds of millions of families make at least part of their living by tilling the soil. Among the developing countries in the region, the proportion of the population engaged in agriculture is estimated to range between 42 percent in Indonesia to 96 percent in Nepal. Most of the households involved in agriculture own or have access to small parcels of land. Observers have estimated that, in Viet Nam for example, these small-scale farmers represent about 60 percent of the population. Small-scale farmers are the bedrock of Asian economic development. Because of the importance of small farmers as producers of each nation's food and industrial raw materials, as consumers of goods and services, as managers of national resources and as citizens, success in economic development largely hinges on the viability of smallholder agriculture and the vibrancy of social, economic and cultural life in rural areas. The economic crisis that recently swept the region made this point painfully clear.

Three decades ago, an immense social and economic experiment was launched in Asia. The experiment, which subsequently came to be known as the Green Revolution, was largely based on an engineering approach to smallholder agriculture. The main assumption of the approach was that small-scale farmers' productivity could be raised if they had better access to certain inputs and used them according to a set of prescribed instructions. This approach was most successful when farmers had access to:

Small farmers, particularly those located in well-irrigated areas with good soils, responded positively to the opportunities that easier access to these inputs presented. Farm productivity increased substantially. The average rice yields in the region doubled between the 1960s and the 1990s.

However, helping small farmers to build sustainable, productive agricultural systems proved more difficult than was originally supposed. Green Revolution programmes were designed to disseminate new technologies as quickly as possible. Because of the great number of small farmers in most Asian developing countries, the dissemination process was greatly simplified to facilitate rapid adoption of new inputs and methods. In some cases the push for rapid adoption led to open coercion. Agricultural development programmes came to rely on highly centralized systems designed to deliver input packages and information to small farmers. Although this approach succeeded in introducing small farmers to the new inputs, new problems quickly emerged.

The centralized systems were unable to take into account the reality of pronounced agro-ecological diversity within countries, regions and even within villages. The inclusion of routine pesticide applications within the input packages often caused severe ecological disruptions, most notably the rise of pest resurgence and resistance. Rather than reducing production risks for small farmers, the input packages frequently generated new, more serious threats to the sustainability and profitability of small-scale cultivation. Together with the disruption of the ecosystem came new threats to farmers' health and the introduction of millions of tons of poisonous substances to the fields, waterways, food and homes of rural people.

The inability of Green Revolution programmes to tailor input use to local conditions extended beyond pesticides to inorganic fertilizers and seeds. Centrally designed nutrient packages, in fact, required adjustment to local-specific soil conditions. The top-down extension of these packages did not give farmers the knowledge they needed to make these adjustments. Improved varieties were also introduced uniformly without assessment of local needs and conditions. In many regions production risks were often actually increased while local biological diversity was dangerously reduced. As a result, variation in yields increased in step with average yields and the marginal productivity of physical inputs began a long downward trend. More and more inputs were needed to achieve ever smaller incremental increases in production per unit area. (Kenmore 1991)

Of equal, if not greater importance, were the social implications of the engineering approach to farming systems. The government agencies that sprang up to disseminate Green Revolution technologies were target-oriented and often rigid in their interpretation of their mission. The pressure that these agencies put on small farmers to use inputs in accordance with centrally determined recommendations contributed to a deskilling of rural communities. Farmers were expected to be progressive and adopt new technologies rather than be active innovators.

2.2 The importance of being expert

Asian farmers were producing enough rice for the populations of countries in tropical and sub-tropical Asia by the 1980s. Yields forged ahead of population growth. These yield increases owed much to the above-mentioned access of farmers to improved varieties, inorganic fertilizers and improved irrigation systems. Then, in the late 1980s the work of a group of researchers from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines produced some disturbing news. It showed that rice production increases in Asia had hit a plateau. Rates of increases in yields fell from 4 percent per year to 2.4 percent per year. This was close to regional rates of population growth and the estimated growth in demand for rice for the 1990s of between 2.1 and 2.6 percent (Rosegrant and Pingali 1991). The research also indicated that the yields on research stations had hit a ceiling established nearly 20 years before (Pingali et al. 1990) and that the highest yields obtained at the research stations were actually declining (Pingali 1991). The main cause of these declining yields was found to be environmental degradation caused by intensive rice monoculture. The degradation of the rice agro-ecosystem - and there were many possible causes, including micronutrient depletion, atmospheric pollution, pest pressure and accumulative toxic changes in soil chemistry - was found to be greater than the capacity for genetic improvements in yield potential. The negative impact of intensified rice production increased the speed of the depreciation of investment in the development of high-yielding rice varieties (Kenmore 1991).

The IRRI researchers identified one robust source of potential yield increase: expert farmers. A survey of farmers in the provinces surrounding IRRI had been carried out at intervals from 1966 to the late 1980s. The survey showed that during those two decades farmers' yields had not plateaued out. Surveyed farmers whose rates of yield were in the top third of yields in 1966 (their average yield was more than two tons below the highest yield at IRRI) had, by the late 1980s, increased their yield rates, on average, to more than one ton over those achieved at IRRI. The remaining farmers in the survey who in 1966 had an average yield of about four tons below that of IRRI were able to increase that average to less than two tons below that of IRRI. The IRRI trials made use of a standard set of management approaches, whereas the farmers innovated and improved. The gap between the average of the top third of yields and the average of the rest of the yields was actually wider than that between IRRI and all farmers (Pingali et al. 1990). The researchers suggested that the main reasons for this gap were differences in farmers' abilities and differences in access to irrigation. The researchers further suggested that training of farmers would be increasingly important.

"Training programmes become particularly important as the incremental gains in productivity are achieved by adopting... 'second-generation technologies' (such as better fertilizer incorporation technologies, integrated pest management, etc)... more knowledge-intensive and location-specific than the modern seed-fertilizer technology that was characteristic of the Green Revolution." (Pingali et al. 1990)

Furthermore, the IRRI researchers found that "Farmers who have the ability to learn about the new technologies discriminate among technologies offered to them by the research system, adapt the technologies to their particular environmental conditions and provide supervision of inputs to ensure the appropriate application of the technology." (Pingali et al. 1990)

This assessment of the capacity of farmers to learn and apply what they learned was drastically at odds with the assumptions of Green Revolution extension education systems. These systems assumed that "traditional" farmers required a complete refitting of their practices to become "modern". The time for a new approach to farmer education had arrived.

2.3 Getting the bugs out

The problems faced by Indonesia in dealing with brown planthoppers (BPH) were typical of those faced in all countries in the region. Indonesia's BPH woes began to be noticed in 1970 and 1971. Surveys of stemborer damage in selected subdistricts of West Java determined that where farmers were applying insecticides, not only was there increased stemborer pressure but also BPH densities were ten times higher than in fields where insecticides were not used (Soehardjan 1972). Before the seventies, BPH was not considered a pest. This situation soon changed. As part of the BIMAS Gotong Royong programme of the late 1960s and early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice were treated with aerial applications of broad-spectrum organophosphate insecticide. The programme also provided production packages of in-kind credit that included chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As production went up so did BPH infestations. In 1975, as the government began to directly subsidize insecticides, losses to BPH equalled 44 percent of the country's annual rice imports (Kenmore 1991). This led the government to initiate aerial applications in 1976 of ultra low volume formulations of insecticide. These applications allowed huge areas to be treated. The result was that in 1976/1977, the brown planthopper caused severe damage to over 450 000 hectares of rice fields. The estimated yield loss was 364 500 tons of milled rice, enough rice to feed three million people for an entire year. (Oka 1991)

This was not an isolated occurrence. Indonesian crop protection policies that promoted the use of pesticides led to two other major outbreaks in 1979 and 1986. Thailand, Viet Nam, Cambodia and Malaysia also experienced similar outbreaks. Population ecologists were able to document the process (Kenmore et al. 1984; Ooi 1988; Settle et al. 1996). The brown planthopper was found to remain at insignificant population levels in intensified rice production under complete control by natural enemy populations when fields were not treated with insecticides. Even with immigration of large numbers of reproducing adults to a field, natural enemy populations were found to be able to respond and exact massive mortality on the intruders leaving rice yield unaffected. Insecticide applications were determined to cause disruptions in natural control. Survival rates of BPH in an insecticide-disrupted system were found to increase more than tenfold. With compounded rates of expansion this led to densities of BPH that were hundreds of times higher within one cropping season. Trying to control this kind of outbreak with insecticides was like pouring petrol on a fire.

With the massive BPH outbreaks, plant breeders set to work to develop varieties that would be resistant to BPH. The strategy was to displace insecticide use with the planting of BPH-resistant varieties. In the field, however, there continued to be intensive use of insecticides. Intensive application of insecticides actually encouraged a rapid selection among BPH for those who were able to overcome the resistance that had been bred into the new varieties. (Gallagher 1984) The rapid breakdown of these varieties meant that the money and time invested in their development was lost.

Thus what had been standard government methods for crop protection in the 1970s and 1980s actually increased the risk of pest outbreak. The BPH example is illustrative of the process that, in general, precedes insect pest outbreaks in tropical rice. Insecticides degrade a system so that it no longer contains the natural enemy populations that can provide protection to that system. Government policy also failed to take into account another buffer to further enable a rice agro-ecosystem to avoid loss of yield. This buffer is the ability of a plant to compensate for the loss of leaves and productive tillers during the first 30 to 40 days after transplanting. Some high-yielding varieties can withstand a loss of up to 30 percent of leaves and tillers during vegetative stage without a loss in yield. The compensation capacity of some of the widely grown high-yielding varieties enables plants to withstand damage from pests such as stemborers, leaffolders and others. (Way, Heong 1994) Way and Heong in their 1994 paper conclude that "IPM in tropical rice should be based on the contention that insecticides are not needed rather than that they are, and that "pests" should now be critically reassessed and proven guilty before insecticide use is contemplated."

2.4 IPM and sustainable agriculture

The above sections provide an outline of the set of problems that the FAO regional IPM programme faced in the late 1980s.

1. Pest resurgence and resistance caused by the indiscriminate use of insecticides posed an immediate threat to the gains of the Green Revolution.

2. Research demonstrated the viability of biological control of major rice pests, but such an approach required a broader understanding on the part of farmers (not to mention governments) of the ecological principles underlying the rice field agro-ecosystem.

3. Green Revolution extension approaches were actually deskilling farmers, not expanding their expertise. New approaches needed to be found for educating farmers.

While IRRI researchers found that the demand for rice was rapidly catching up to current levels of production, they also found that farmers had the capacity to learn, innovate and even outperform research stations in terms of average yield. That farmers could become expert in farming had become a working assumption of FAO regional programme training activities by the mid 1980s. Based on that assumption, the FAO regional programme developed a new departure in Southeast Asia related to IPM and farmer education. This departure posited that the methods that were being used for the dissemination of technological packages among farm communities were fundamentally flawed. These methods were technologically driven, not farmer-driven; centrally uniform, not locally adaptive. Given appropriate training methods that would empower farmers through learning, farmers could:

2.4.1 Developments in the Philippines

The first steps towards the creation of the IPM farmer field school approach were taken in the Philippines with a farmer training programme lasting for five consecutive planting seasons from 1978 through 1980. (This section is largely based on a chapter by Matteson, Gallagher and Kenmore in Ecology and management of planthoppers, 1994.) Philippine rural sociology and community organizing experts, extension officers, and an anthropologist and entomologists from IRRI made up the team that conducted this training programme. In many ways this was a research effort into how farmers could be trained in IPM. The training tried new methods that were found to be important in helping farmers learn IPM.

This initial farmer training programme was followed by a cadre of officers from the Crop Protection Division of the Bureau of Plant Industry. After 1982, the FAO Inter-Country Programme for Integrated Pest Control in Rice in South and Southeast Asia provided technical and financial support for the training effort. By 1984 about 200 master trainers, 4 500 extension agents and 55 000 farmers had been trained in IPM.

The Philippine farmer training effort made important innovations that were eventually incorporated in the IPM farmer field school in Indonesia.

2.4.2 Indonesia and farmer field schools

The approach to farmer education that has been named the rice IPM farmer field school incorporated the lessons from the Philippines' experience in farmer IPM training and was implemented first in Indonesia. The first FFSs were conducted in the rainy season of 1989-90. In a few years the approach was being used throughout the region (see Table 1.1 below for data regarding implementation of FFSs in FAO community IPM programme countries). Field schools give small farmers practical experience in ecology and agroecosystem analysis, providing the tools they need to practise IPM in their own fields. The FFS also provides a natural starting point for farmer innovation covering the whole range of issues relating to crop and agro-ecosystem management.

The FFS approach is based upon four IPM principles. The principles provide a guide to what farmers should be able to do when they participate in an FFS. They form the working definition of IPM for the FAO community IPM programme. They are:

The first principle means that FFS participants will need to be able to apply good agronomic practices and understand plant biology. This should help alumni to optimize their yields as well as grow plants that can withstand disease and pest infestations. The second principle implies that FFS alumni will reduce their use of insecticides. To do this, FFS participants will need to understand insect population dynamics and rice field ecology. The third principle asserts that IPM requires of farmers the ability to regularly observe, analyse and take informed decisions based on the conditions of their agro-ecosystems. The fourth principle posits that because of local specificity, farmers are better positioned to take the decisions relevant to their fields than agriculture specialists in a distant city. Hence, FFS alumni should be able to apply IPM in their fields and also help others to do so.

The FFS approach featured several new departures from earlier IPM farmer education models. Included among these innovations were season-long training for farmers, field experiments, a focus on plant biology and agronomic issues, a new method for agro-ecosystem analysis, the inclusion of human dynamics activities and a learning approach that stressed participatory discovery learning. (Training for IPM field trainers who facilitated these FFSs were intensive multi-season residential trainings. This approach to trainers' training was in itself an important innovation.) By the mid 1990, over 50 000 farmers had participated in the first set of field schools in Indonesia. The IPM farmer field school was on its way to becoming the single most effective new approach to farmer education in Asia. At the 1999 regional meeting of countries who make up the membership of the FAO community IPM programme, extension education expert Niels Roling stated that "IPM FFS is the model for farmer education across the world. Other extension methods have been exposed as lacking the capacity to provide the education that farmers require in the increasingly complex agricultural systems that they manage" (FAO Community IPM Programme 1999)

Policy support: IPM and FFS implementation were supported by a fairly comprehensive policy promulgated in 1986 by then president Suharto. The new policy departure resulted from concern over:

Scientists were able to persuade several ministers of the ineffectiveness of intensive insecticide use (notably, the Department of Agriculture remained unconvinced). The scientists proposed an IPM programme based on a farm-level IPM strategy, IPM training for technical personnel who would train farmers, and limiting the availability of broad-spectrum insecticides. The inter-ministerial coalition supported the proposal and took it to the president. The result was Presidential Decree No. 3, 1986. The decree called for farmer and field worker IPM training, the banning of 57 broad-spectrum insecticides from use in rice production and the eventual elimination of subsidies for insecticides (Oka 1991). The decree created a policy environment at all levels of government that ensured support for rice IPM FFS implementation.

2.5 The spread of FFS implementation

Farmers throughout the region have responded enthusiastically to IPM FFSs, wherever they have been organized. Some farmers are primarily motivated by the reduced costs and reduced production risk obtained through application of ecological principles to crop management. Some are intellectually stimulated by the subject matter and excited by the experience of designing and carrying out their own experiments. For others, the main attraction is the group interaction, discussions and debates that are an important part of every FFS. The most striking confirmation of this enthusiasm has been the spontaneous appearance of farmer-to-farmer FFSs, in which field school graduates began to organize season-long FFSs for other local farmers.

Indicative numbers from member countries of the FAO community IPM programme in Asia implementing IPM field schools (through 2000):

Table 2.1 Country data


Year FFS began

Rice FFS

Farmers trained

Other FFS*

Farmers trained

Farmer IPM trainers trained



5 490

141 470


9 410





20 000


2 500




1 306

37 877



1 817



37 429

935 152

6 388

159 600

29 522



6 302

189 683







7 767


1 350





5 415






6 000

180 000

1 200

336 000


Sri Lanka



9 700







12 027




Viet Nam


19 876

515 927

1 993

55 098

6 178

* Primarily vegetable FFS, but also includes soybean and mung bean FFS

Table 2.1 provides some indicative numbers concerning the implementation of FFS in Asia through 2000. The IPM FFS has become the approach for IPM training in the countries listed in the table. Most of these countries have also adopted national policies supporting IPM and limiting the use of insecticides.

The success of IPM FFSs has opened up a new approach to the development of sustainable, small-scale agricultural systems. Farmers, having demonstrated their enthusiasm for learning and applying ecological principles, have pointed the way forward to a future when they will no longer be viewed as passive recipients of recommendations generated in far-off research laboratories or central government offices. Farmers have displayed an intellectual curiosity to understand rice agro-ecosystem ecological processes and an eagerness to formulate community-wide approaches to increase the impact of IPM in their villages. They are not only taking part in IPM activities; they are taking over IPM activities.

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