Integrating Agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR): Lessons from Central America
2. Characteristics and Principles of PAR
2.1. PAR Characteristics and Principles
- PAR is a complex, negotiated process, where each partner articulates potential contributions, advocates for specific interests and names tangible benefits that they hope to obtain from the process. Through these ongoing negotiations, actors must actively work to identify and name implicit benefits, in addition to confronting traditional power imbalances related to race, gender and class, among others.
- PAR processes rarely follow a predictable timeline, and often result in periods where focus is more heavily directed toward one of the components of a cycle (i.e., research, reflection or action). Some stakeholders may see the fruits of their labor earlier than others, but the goal is to communicate openly and collaborate for long enough that each party realizes their desired benefit(s).
- Patience, flexibility and accountability are key to identifying and assessing emergent features. Each contribute toward PAR processes surviving the changing interests and/or agenda(s) of the partners involved.
- Long-term collaborations cannot be sustained without significant investments of time and effort (requiring sufficient resources). This often points toward institutional and/or organizational connections that facilitate the succession of active participants without losing forward momentum.
- Shared interest in research—PAR facilitates the identification of appropriate solutions (or at least reasonable responses) to real-life problems, through diverse methodologies and with triangulation from multiple perspectives. Partners who are not convinced that research can contribute to their interests will rarely last long in a PAR process.
- Belief in collective power—Partners believe that engaging in the PAR process is a way to achieve ends that go beyond what is realized through other approaches and there is an intrinsic valuation of each partners’ potential contribution.
- Commitment to participation—Beyond just showing up, all partners share ownership of or have contributing roles in as many phases of the research as possible—starting with defining research questions, through data collection, analysis of results, and eventually engaging in actions that represent co-created solutions.
- Humility—Space to honor the depth and acknowledge the limitations of each partners’ knowledge is fundamental to transdisciplinary work where contextual, practical and technical expertise are each valued.
- Trust and accountability—Partners recognize that actions, not words, are what establish a strong base for ongoing collaboration, and intentional design includes opportunities for partners to share leadership and mechanisms for resolving conflict.
- Communication—Partners amplify traditionally marginalized voices and perspectives, acknowledge biases, establish an expectation for transparency and prioritize disseminating results in multiple formats to increase accessibility.
2.2. Challenges and Conflict in PAR Processes
3. Integrating Agroecology and PAR
4. Case Study 1: Agroecology and PAR with Smallholder Coffee Farmers in El Salvador
4.2. Application/Integration of PAR and Agroecological Principles
- Shared interest in research—The lead researcher pursued his research agenda on agroecology, biodiversity and livelihoods, without much input from farmer partners at the beginning of the process. Given that farmers were not a part of setting the initial research objectives, they were not as engaged in the project and more interested in negotiating different types of support that the lead researcher could provide, such as networking, capacity building and helping them get their farms certified as organic or fair trade. As the process evolved, farmers were able to re-direct the research towards food security, which had become an issue of higher relevance at the time. In turn, the research team was able to contribute its agroecological perspective to developing farming alternatives, whereas other projects in the region focused on more conventional approaches (e.g., using synthetic inputs for production). When farmers were able to choose the research theme, they became more involved in the research process.
- Belief in collective power—Although the lead researcher had a belief in collective power, farmers were initially skeptical. This shifted when farmers were able to attain tangible benefits from the process, such as organic certification and learning about the factors affecting food security levels in the different households. It is important to recognize that the cooperative sector in El Salvador has had a tumultuous history, affected by issues of corruption and mistrust, which also hindered farmer confidence in collective processes. Many of the cooperative members are very distrustful of external actors and this made it harder to establish a sense of collective power.
- Commitment to participation—In this instance full participation increased as the process evolved, and once established, both farmers and researchers became more fully committed. That said, a culture of paternalism infused the process throughout. Farmers had had very few experiences of having full participation in initiatives with external actors, so their commitment to being active participants was sometimes ambiguous and inconsistent. For example, at times they would be very eager to participate in a variety of activities and at other times they wanted the research team to do most of the work. Participation and the level of available resources was a regularly negotiated issue throughout the PAR process.
- Humility—Humility was a key principle for this process throughout. During Phase 1, the lead researcher was very transparent and humble in terms of accepting a lack of knowledge of the context and realities that farmers faced, and a willingness to learn from farmers. This opened the door for deepening a relationship of trust. During later stages, as decision-making led to discussion and debates, humility was a principle to be intentionally remembered and practiced. It was easier to maintain this between researchers and farmers, than between farmers from different cooperatives. Although humility may not be an explicit principle of agroecological practice, it is implicit when valuing the different types of knowledge held by different actors. Farmers will seldom share their knowledge with outsiders who act and/or believe they bring a superior understanding or perspective.
- Trust and accountability—Trust and accountability was a principle brought to the process from the onset. It started with the lead researcher communicating a commitment to pursue a relationship with farmers through a process that was grounded in trust, and where people held themselves accountable. This intentionality and commitment to trust and accountability was well-received by farmers but they were clear that it was something that had to be proven by concrete actions and over time. All actors constantly revisited this throughout the process. One area that could have been improved was to define clear accountability mechanisms. In this case, it was loosely assessed by taking inventory of tangible actions or outcomes, rather than an explicit monitoring of the process that examined if partners were doing what they were committing to do.
- Communication—A commitment to clear and constant communication was a strength of this project. This meant that energy and resources were invested in assisting farmers who lived far away to be able to come to meetings (i.e., providing transportation and meals), and providing access to a phone in the office maintained by researchers in the town of Tacuba. An important first step was for the lead researcher to spend a considerable amount of time (the first two years) living in the town. This allowed for constant and consistent conversations that led to finding the best modes of communication among different partners.
5.1. Phase 1 (1999–2003)
5.2. Phase 2: Supporting Actions, Continuing Research and Sharing with Others (2004–2007)
5.3. Phase 3: Changing Direction, Academic and Action Outcomes and Process Hiatus (2008–2013)
5.4. Lessons Learned
- This case study shows that, over the long-term, a research process that did not necessarily start as PAR can be transformed into one if there is intention and commitment from the partners.
- A key part of this process was the establishment of open and transparent negotiations. This allowed for both researchers and farmers to pursue goals and benefits of interest. Sometimes these goals were not the same, but the benefits obtained by each partner exceeded the costs of time and resources to continue to support the process as a whole.
- When farmers were able to participate in deciding the research themes and contribute to research planning, they were much more engaged in the research and the potential resulting actions.
- It is important to have the right partners that align well with desired outcomes. Although the outcomes of the work, over 14 years, were considerable in terms of academic output and tangible benefits for farmers (actions), this process was missing a key partner that could more consistently support farmers in implementing the actions and initiatives emerging from the process. This additional actor would have ideally been an organization ‘on the ground’ (i.e., a local NGO or a government extension unit), which could provide accompaniment as farmers implemented new practices and worked as a new association. Researchers were limited in terms of time and resources to be able to maintain a presence with the level of stability and focus on implementation that seemed to be required.
- Reflection is very important and needs explicit intention and attention. In this process, reflection was implicit and somewhat ad hoc in practice. Making it more explicit and intentional may have served to better evaluate and direct the process.
- Although this was a long-term process with a considerable investment of time from the research team, there is uncertainty that it was as expensive as might be perceived. This points to a need to better analyze the costs of PAR processes, as many question the validity of PAR due to being too slow and too expensive.
6. Case Study 2: The Community Agroecology Network’s (CAN) Agroecology and Participatory Knowledge Production and Exchange in Mexico and Nicaragua
6.2. Application/Integration of PAR and Agroecological Principles
- Shared interest in research—CAN pursues partnerships with researchers and local organizations to conduct collaborative research focused on the development of evidence-based actionable results. Partners share an interest in addressing injustices in the food system and working toward food sovereignty. PAR begins by opening a dialogue and organizing intentional spaces for focused discussion with various stakeholders, in order to determine research agendas and methods, so that results will be relevant and scalable.
- Belief in collective power—CAN functions as a network and a learning organization. It brings together researchers, local organizations and the communities they serve to share lessons learned from the ground-up. It recognizes and values different ways of knowing, and promotes intercultural exchange of knowledge and practices as a key tool to achieving food system transformation.
- Commitment to participation—Smallholder farming families and farmworkers are engaged with CAN and local organizations in collaborative research processes that build capacity and identify solutions connected to their particular context and aspirations. In order to achieve broad participation, PAR should integrate methods for addressing power relations and diversity within and across stakeholder groups. The goal is to democratize knowledge production by making science work for the people. It focuses on capacity-building with community partners, so that community mobilizers (i.e., youth promoters in the case study discussed) learn to conduct research in their own communities, and support their communities in making evidence-based decisions for food systems change.
- Humility—Humility refers to a process of self-reflection that addresses inequality. It requires that we commit to life-long learning, recognize knowledge and perspectives other than our own, and build mutually respectful and dynamic partnerships with others to work toward systemic change . Agroecology is a concept with roots in indigenous knowledge systems—ways of knowing and interacting with local ecologies that emerged from peoples with deep connections to soil, land, plants, animals, and growing food (see www.canunite.org). Scientists that developed the academic field of agroecology learned from observing farmers, trying things out together and communicating across knowledge systems . Those most affected by the injustices of the food system—people of color, indigenous communities, women, farmers and food workers—are now shaping agroecology into a people’s science movement and practice [43,44]. PAR offers an approach to learn from alternative agrarian histories and the challenges marginalized producers and consumers face in their daily lives. It is crucial that we listen and learn from these struggles. Otherwise, we risk furthering the power imbalances that create deep inequities in our food system, and losing knowledge with the potential to transform food systems from the ground up.
- Trust and accountability—Partners recognize that actions, not words, are what establish a strong base for ongoing collaboration; intentional design includes opportunities for partners to share leadership and mechanisms for resolving conflict. By the time the YLFS Project began in 2011, CAN had already established a close relationship with the farmers, their communities, and the cooperatives to which the farmers belonged. Ongoing reflection throughout the YLFS Project enabled partners to raise concerns and remain accountable to commitments.
7.1. Phase 1 (2011–2013)
7.2. Phase 2 (2013–2015)
- Strengthening the focus on women’s income generation;
- Youth capacity building and leadership training;
- Nutrition education;
- Water access for consumption and irrigation during the dry season;
- Soil health;
- Access to quality seed; and
- Access to staple foods during months of food scarcity.
7.3. Key Characteristics of the Process
- Long-term relationships based in solidarity, trust and accountability. CAN’s projects begin with a three-year commitment (which have grown into 7+ year partnerships) to accompany partners through the change process with capacity-building in PAR and collectively-identified areas of need, horizontal learning exchanges and direct investment in community development. In the case of the YLFS project, CAN built upon earlier relationships established by affiliated researchers, which then led to direct accompaniment for five years, supporting community development to advance in food sovereignty. CAN recognizes that systemic change is a long-term process, and continues its relationship with the UCA San Ramon through AgroEco® Coffee and a revolving fund to support women’s economic initiatives.
- Although the AgroEco® coffee model has had success with a small number of farmers in Nicaragua and Mexico, it has been challenging to upscale it. This is because managing higher volumes of coffee would require a significant increase in investment of both human and financial resources towards AgroEco within CAN. The organization is currently assessing the challenges and benefits of pursuing an expansion of AgroEco.
- A focus on increasing the participation of youth, coupled with intergenerational interactions, was a key component and innovation of this project. The importance of young people to continue and improve the livelihoods and landscapes of coffee regions is a theme that has persistently arisen throughout CAN’s long history of work in Mesoamerica. The leadership of cooperatives, which tend to be older men, has frequently raised it as an important issue. This project sought to explicitly and directly respond to this issue, and contribute to a better understanding of how young people perceive and engage with some of the challenges these coffee communities are facing.
- Gender equity was incorporated as a transversal strategy across the different components of the YLFS Project. This created an opportunity to ensure broad participation across social groups involved in the project and a recognition of women’s reproductive and productive work by both men and women. As the YLFS project worked to increase women’s leadership in decision-making and income generation, the intergenerational partnership with youth leaders was crucial in providing support to women-focused initiatives, which could inadvertently create a burden of additional labor on women.
7.5. Lessons Learned
- Careful systemic investigation of issues (i.e., participatory monitoring and evaluation surveys, reflection workshops), result in more robust solutions, continually refined and adapted to context-specific conditions.
- Adequate investment of time in consistent reflection with all stakeholders is critical to identify what worked and what did not, and why. In addition, power relations and diversity across and within each stakeholder group must be addressed in order to create an inclusive reflection process that builds solutions from multiple perspectives.
- Cross-generational collaboration, in this case teaming up youth promoters and women’s’ groups, amplified marginalized voices and generated creative alternatives. This was a particularly powerful approach for addressing gender inequality at the household and cooperative level, ultimately exposing alternative pathways towards agroecological transition.
- Identifying ‘testers’ or farmers willing to engage in experimentation (i.e., vegetable-focused homegardens and agroecological renovation of coffee) can lead to behavior change as other community members have the opportunity to observe positive outcomes (i.e., seeing is believing).
9. Conclusions: Future Directions for Integrating Agroecology and PAR
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Méndez, V.E.; Caswell, M.; Gliessman, S.R.; Cohen, R. Integrating Agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR): Lessons from Central America. Sustainability 2017, 9, 705. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9050705
Méndez VE, Caswell M, Gliessman SR, Cohen R. Integrating Agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR): Lessons from Central America. Sustainability. 2017; 9(5):705. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9050705Chicago/Turabian Style
Méndez, V. Ernesto, Martha Caswell, Stephen R. Gliessman, and Roseann Cohen. 2017. "Integrating Agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR): Lessons from Central America" Sustainability 9, no. 5: 705. https://doi.org/10.3390/su9050705