Surveying diversity

The kind of survey where a researcher turns up at farmers’ houses and starts asking a lot of standard, rigid questions about the problems they have been having with their crops and livestock has been somewhat unfashionable of late. In fact, one of the reasons for the explosion of rapid rural appraisal (RRA) methodologies in the 1980s, followed by more participatory, often qualitative, methods (PRA) in the 1990s, was so-called “survey slavery: questionnaires surveys which took too long, misled, were wasteful, and were reported on, if at all, late.” ((See this note prepared for participants in a workshop on PRA.))

A way — in fact, a whole menu of ways — was found, as a result of the pioneering work of some NGOs and universities, of allowing people, even marginalized groups, to set the very agenda of research, as opposed to just answering a bunch of questions that researchers thought interesting.

But there is a place for well-designed, carefully tested and sensitively-administered surveys to document and analyze the ways farmers manage their resources — including their agrobiodiversity — and to provide a baseline against which to gauge the effectiveness of interventions or other possible changes. I want to talk about two recent papers that use farmer surveys to characterize farming systems, as examples of the kind of thing there might be more of in agricultural biodiversity work.

The first paper, on surveys of smallholder families in northern Pakistan, focuses on livestock production. ((Abdur Rahman, Alan J. Duncan, David W. Miller, Juergen Clemens, Pilar Frutos, Iain J. Gordon, Atiq-ur Rehman, Ataullah Baig, Farman Ali and Iain A. Wright. Livestock feed resources, production and management in the agro-pastoral system of the Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalayan region of Pakistan: The effect of accessibility. Agricultural Systems, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 5 July 2007. The surveys were done along two transects which contrasted markedly in their transport infrastructure. One of the things the researchers looked at was the percentage of cross-bred animals per household. They found that there was a higher proportion of such improved animals in the transect with well-developed transport links and more accessible markets than in the more isolated area. As the roads get better in this latter area, the researchers think that “the proportion of traditional, unimproved animals … is likely to diminish,” and there are also likely to be “changes in land use towards higher-value commodities such as potatoes.” An interesting conclusion about likely genetic erosion — in both crops and livestock — in the region. One could imagine using this kind of information to identify areas throughout the country which are at high risk of genetic erosion due to impending road building or improvement.

The second paper looked at the adoption of soil conservation practices in Kajado district, in the Rift Valley province of Kenya. ((Jane Kabubo-Mariara. Land conservation and tenure security in Kenya: Boserup’s hypothesis revisited. Ecological Economics, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 9 July 2007. The researcher, Jane Kabubo-Mariara of the University of Nairobi, was particularly interested in whether population density and land tenure arrangements had an effect on the likelihood of farmers constructing soil bunds and terraces and planting trees. She found that as population pressure increases, there is a “significant shift towards increased individualization of tenure” and also a “higher probability of adoption of soil bunds and planting drought-resistant vegetation.” Now, that’s fascinating enough, but what caught my attention was the dog that didn’t bark. Wouldn’t it have been interesting to know whether farmers in high density areas grew more or fewer crops, and more or fewer varieties of each?

2 Replies to “Surveying diversity”

  1. Add to this the extractive nature of research approaches that rely on structured surveys and similar tools as an important reason for their becoming unfashionable. Having ownership of local information and knowledge, and the enhanced community empowerment that should go along with good participatory process, are important components of providing appropriate ‘spaces’ to allow community and farmer groups to set the research agenda, or at least participate in it. That does not mean that one should necessarily subsribe to one approach at the expense of the other. This will obviously be dictated by the nature and context of the research in question. Researching such factors, as highlighted in this message, in relation to agrobiodiversity could benefit from an approach that uses an appropriate balance of qualitative and quantitative approaches but one that is guided by the important principles, attitudes and behaviours as outlined in the note by Chambers.

    Not only would such an approach be useful in exploring the questions posed in this current message but also those posed in an earlier message on this blog, ‘Small Farms and Biodiversity’. The assumption is that farms in areas with better infrastructure and proxiimity to markets, and most likely in areas of higher population density, are more likely to maintain lower levels of agrobiodiversity than those farms that are more isolated or in marginal areas. The majority of small farms are located in marginal areas or areas of low potential compared to large farms which are usually found in areas of medium to high potential which includes better access infrastructure, transport, markets and information. Farms in these areas are obviously influenced by markets and the socioeconomic and ecological benefits of maintaining high levels of agrobiodiversity are usually not rewarded in the marketplace, whereas small farms in low potential areas maintaining high levels of agrobiodiversity these benefits are recognised.

    I wonder how many of these types of questions could be answered by agrobiodiversity and other socioeconomic data that already exists, combined with mapping techniques?

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