By Jennifer Moore
Small farmers in the hills of Honduras are improving their lives through seed saving and on-farm experimentation.
With ongoing support from the Foundation for Participatory Research with Honduran Farmers (FIPAH), funded in part by the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada – USC, farmers have been organizing local agricultural research committees, known as CIALs. Through these voluntary committees, farmers are preserving and improving a wealth of genetically diverse seed, crucial for addressing issues such as climate change.
By working to keep young people involved in agriculture, FIPAH is also fomenting youthful innovations that they hope will sustain rural life, which is vitally important to local urban markets. Listen here:
The vast majority of small producers in Honduras live in hilly areas, working the country’s poorest soils on small plots of land to which they may or may not have title. A 2005 United Nations World Food Program study found that seventy percent of those who own less than 5 hectares occupy only ten percent of all farmland in Honduras, while only one percent of Honduran landowners hold twenty five percent. Often cut off from principle transportation routes designed to serve agro-export business, small farmers also tend to live in poverty with an average per capita income of $0.65 per day according to the World Bank (2004).* As a result, seed saving and seed improvement to suit conditions in communities such as these is often a question of survival.
In the 90s, when FIPAH was getting started, they found that farmers often failed to harvest or store enough grain to put enough food on the table for two to five months of the year. In early June, corn and beans would typically run out and families would have to tighten their belts or start to buy back grain they had already sold at higher prices, in order to get by until the September harvest. Now, many of the over eight hundred farmers participating in CIALs have started to make nutritional ends meet by making better use of local resources. As they start to meet their basic needs, they are able to start diversifying their production and further improve their home economy.
Marvin Cerna, a FIPAH facilitator, has lived and worked for the last five years in the rural area of Vallecillo. He describes FIPAH’s goal as food sovereignty. “The government says that they want to ensure food security,” comments Cerna, “suggesting that we could bring in corn and beans for rural families to purchase. But this would not achieve food sovereignty, nor improve farmers’ quality of life. Instead, it would lead farmers to exchange their coffee harvest income for rice and beans. But if communities can produce what they need, farm families become less dependent.”
For this reason, Cerna believes that strengthening local organizations and knowledge toward improving seed conservation techniques and other on-farm solutions is key to making lasting change. “Once a farmer can meet their basic needs – to have food sovereignty – from there they can begin diversifying their production and generate greater income that will help send their children to school, etc. In other words, by building on the foundation of food sovereignty, they can start filling other needs.”
José Jimenez is Executive Director of FIPAH. During the 80s, he worked for the government’s rural extension program and saw first hand how seeds developed in experimental stations often failed to meet the needs of small farmers living in the hilly areas. “But I didn’t identify the lack of producer participation in the process as the problem,” he says, “until the end.”
Now, after nearly two decades of working with FIPAH, developed in partnership with Sociologist and Associate Professor Sally Humphries from the University of Guelph who studied participatory research methods at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, putting farmers first makes complete sense to Jimenez. Through their work with farmers in three different regions of Honduras, Jimenez says, they have identified at least 52 different varieties of beans, which are helping farmers improve production and adapt to changing weather patterns, along with new diseases that are arising.
Improving a farmer’s chances of producing enough basic grains throughout the year includes soil improvement techniques that farmers can apply with locally available materials, as well as making sure that they produce at least two or more varieties of grain at a time. In one community where FIPAH has worked for years, Jimenez knows one producer who now maintains nine varieties of beans. “He told me that having more variety means he can eat the beans that ripen first, leave others for consumption later, and the best of all for last, to sell,” says Jimenez, clearly impressed with the farmer’s wisdom. As CIALs gradually become self-sufficient, Jimenez hopes there could be a time when FIPAH’s support is no longer be needed.
For now, however, with some big challenges ahead and upwards of 80 CIALs involved, FIPAH has plenty of work to do. FIPAH has joined a network of organizations trying to prevent the introduction of GMO crops into hilly areas. Although legal for production in the valleys of Honduras, FIPAH sees potential genetic contamination as a grave risk to farmers in the hills who cannot afford to pay cash for their seed and whose local seed diversity is essential for their future security.
Off-farm migration of youth from rural farming communities is another big issue. Many youth are leaving in search of work and a more secure future than what small scale agriculture can provide. While they might send remittances back to family members, farmers are running short of labour.
Youth like José Matute, however, now involved in a youth CIAL might be less likely to leave. Matute says his group of 16 young men and women have been experimenting for the last six years with new agricultural-based products and marketing techniques to create opportunities for themselves at home. They are just one of at least twenty such groups and have begun experimenting with greenhouse tomatoes and peppers, as well as a small nursery where they grow ornamental plants and trees to sell as in the nearest town. They also hope to plant their own trees to produce high quality wood that they could make into furniture in the future. For the time being, none of the youth in the group have left the community since “they have a place to work,” says Matute.
FIPAH’s programs for youth also include in-community schooling, small business development and youth rights education. Working to preserve the young population, full of ideas and energy, just like they are working to preserve the genetic wealth of local seed, so crucial to adapt to changing conditions, FIPAH hopes to improve lives and livelihoods in these communities for a long time to come.
*See: Classen, L. et al., Opening participatory spaces for the most marginal: Learning from collective action in the Honduran hillsides, World Development (2008), doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2008.04.007