“Farmers helping their brothers and sisters so that they can help themselves to find solutions and not be dependent on a technician or on the bank. That is Campesino a Campesino.”
– Argelio Gonzaleze, a campesino in Santa Lucia, Nicaragua
The origins of the Campesino a Campesino (farmer- to-farmer) movement go back to the 1960s, when smallholders in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and Nicaragua developed a working method and a set of practices to defend their livelihoods and way of life from the so-called Green Revolution, which brought industrialised farming to the Global South.
In the early years, farming communities set up small-scale agricultural improvement projects in which they were supported by progressive NGOs, and encouraged to trust in their intimate knowledge of their environment. Projects followed a set of simple principles: to start from your own needs, put the simple things first, then the complex; progress gradually step-by-step; work with your own capabilities and local resources; develop small-scale experiments; limit the introduction of technology; and develop a multiplier effect by holding farmer-led workshops for neighbouring communities.
The first projects concentrated on increasing productivity by improving the soil and its water-holding capacity,
often by adding organic matter to soil. Impressive increases in yield were obtained (sometimes as much as 400 per cent), and, naturally, this brought about an increase in confidence and enthusiasm, as farmers realised that they didn’t need the industrial agriculture tools and the huge burden of debt they brought with them to improve their farms. From these small beginnings, farmer-to-farmer projects have developed a wide range of sustainable approaches to pest and weed management, diversification of crops, green manures, reforestation, and agro-ecological biodiversity management.
The movement grew steadily through the 1980s and 1990s, fed by the failure of the Green Revolution to bring any benefits to smallholders and by structural adjustment programmes that led to worsening conditions. But the movement and its methods were largely dismissed as lacking in good scientific basis by international agricultural research, dominated as it still was by the drive to mechanisation, monocultures, and high chemical inputs.
In the 1990s, however, two things happened that brought attention to the famer-to-farmer methods.
The first was the food emergency in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union. In this crisis, Cuba turned to the farmer-to-farmer methods and transformed a large part of its agriculture to low-input organic systems. In this effort, farmers were joined by scientists at government agricultural research stations and universities. In contrast to conventional systems, where small-holders are the passive recipients of ‘expert advice’, farmers and scientists worked as equals to develop bio-fertilisers, integrated pest management, and other techniques for low external-input agriculture. Reforms were enacted to scale down collectives and cooperatives, placing greater control over farming and marketing directly into the hands of smallholders.
The second event came in 1998. Hurricane Mitch, one of the Caribbean’s five most powerful hurricanes of the 20th century, slammed into Central America, causing extensive damage. In the aftermath, scientific research showed that the organic low-input farms had incurred considerably less damage than neighbouring conventional farms.
Hurricane Mitch uncovered a conspicuous ‘policy ceiling’ in sustainable agricultural development. While the farmer- to-farmer movement has been successful in developing the technical and methodological aspects of sustainable agriculture, with the exception of Cuba, it is limited in its ability to influence policy. Lack of political will on the part of national governments appears to be holding back grassroots efforts at scaling up sustainable agriculture. The next task confronting sustainable agricultural development is to translate farmer-to-farmer successes on the ground into the broad-based, public pressure needed to influence national policymakers.