Empowering farmers for rural development: the MASIPAG experience


Charito P. Medina

Correct citation: Medina, C.P.(2002), "Empowering farmers for rural development: the MASIPAG experience." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 49, p. 15-18.

Problems for farmers in the Philippines created by the Green Revolution have led to the emergence of organizations seeking alternative solutions. Highly successful amongst these is the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG), started in 1985 as a response to growing concerns by farmers over their dependent situation. The phenomenal growth of MASIPAG is due to its commitment to improving the quality of life of resource poor farmers through supporting their participation and empowerment in the development process. Farmers adapt or develop their own technologies and maintain access and control of production resources such as seeds, technology and land.

In developing countries, agriculture is not just about food production; it is about survival and a way of life. Before the Green Revolution (GR), farmers produced food but also developed knowledge and technology such as improving and exchanging seed. Such technologies accumulated as local, traditional or indigenous knowledge. Farmer-developed technologies are actual manifestations of the coping mechanisms of farmers to a myriad of environmental challenges. These were all shared freely between community members and passed on from generation to generation.
Introduced in the early 1960s, the GR modernized and changed the configuration of farming. The new technology was centered on new High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) that required high inputs of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. Support services such as credit and extension personnel were also put into place. The result was a dramatic increase in yield that contributed to a substantial gain in food production at the national and global levels. To the resource-poor farmers, who constitute more than 60 per cent of all farmers, the increase in yield has not compensated for the increase in external inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides) that they use in the new production technology. Indeed, they have had to borrow capital to buy the inputs and pay the interest on their loans. The burden was multiplied by uncertainties like the incidence of pests, diseases or other natural calamities such as drought, typhoons or flash floods. Natural calamities caused poor harvests reducing the capacity of the farmer to pay off interest on loans. Next season farmers forced to borrow again causing a debilitating cycle of indebtedness. The situation worsened over time and indebtedness became more serious. The hungry remained hungry.
Most of the varieties that had been developed by farmers were lost, displaced by HYV monocrops. The drastic reduction in biodiversity resulted in more frequent outbreaks of pests and diseases as natural barriers such as predators disappeared. Farmers started to experience new health problems, often related to exposure and use of chemical pesticides or malnourishment due to a reduction in the variety of foods sources. For example traditional sources of protein, like fish, birds, frogs and snails were all eliminated in the farm by pesticides.
The GR also had social costs. Farmers lost control of their production assets like seeds, technology and land. Seed selection and improvement as well as seed saving and exchanging them with other farmers, were replaced by commercial seeds developed in research institutions. Rice farmers even 'forgot how to grow rice' because these modern technologies were developed with the total exclusion of farmers. The farmers were disempowered and had become passive recipients of technology.

The response: Farmer-Scientist Partnership
In a series of symposia that culminated in a national conference on rice in 1985, farmers complained that the GR had not made their lives any better - quite the reverse. Born out of need, the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG) was organized. The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life of resource poor farmers and empower them through:

There are three stakeholder sectors in the partnership:

This development approach has five strategies:


The farmers decided to start with the traditional varieties because they do not require much capital input and are ecologically adapted to diverse agro-ecological conditions. The traditional rice varieties could also be improved later. To join MASIPAG, farmers simply have to signify their intention. Aspiring partner members either need to have an existing organization or have to start one. Support is available from several sources. There may be a Community Organiser or Peoples' Organisation (PO) in the area to give advice on organizing a local group. Roving technicians from MASIPAG or partner NGOs will also be available to help.
Initially, an orientation workshop about local and global trends in agriculture as well as alternatives like sustainable organic agriculture is conducted by farmer trainers from the nearest PO, or technical staff from either the regional office or from the national secretariat. Then the farmers must establish a trial farm where they plant 50 to 100 traditional varieties and MASIPAG rice 'selections'. MASIPAG uses the term selection for seed that cannot technically be called a variety because it does not meet the criteria for purity and uniformity. Use of these seeds is intentional to maintain more genetic variability, giving wider possibilities to match selections to environmental conditions.
The farmers observe the characteristics of the different varieties and selections to assess them for suitability to the local environmental conditions and pest resistance. The top ten performing locally adapted varieties are then chosen for planting. Some farmers also do further verification trials in their farm by planting the top 10 to 15 varieties before they finally select two to five. Farmers are given between a hundred grams to one kilogram of seed per variety so that initially the farmer must re-learn the important skill of mass-producing seed.
An important spin-off from the community level organizing is that the mosaic effect of the different neighbouring varieties creates a barrier to pests and diseases because of the differential resistance between varieties. The trial farm involves no cost to the farmers except for the collective work required for its maintenance. By planting several varieties on their farms, farmers also benefit from the different rates of plant maturity. Harvest is spread over a longer period allowing the farmer to spread out the work, rather than having to hire in costly outside labor.

Scaling up
The positive personal experiences of farmers, and a common cultural and language context, led to the rapid farmer-to-farmer spread of the MASIPAG concept and technology (both material and knowledge). The farmer-to-farmer diffusion has been made more effective through the organizing efforts of farmers and peoples' organizations. Initiated with five Peoples'/Farmers' Organizations (PO/FO) in 1985, by 1999 MASIPAG had grown to 484 farmers' organizations and a total membership of 20,864 farmers. That same year 62 per cent of the members planted MASIPAG rice varieties on 17,165 hectares of cultivated land. Today, land area has increased along with membership, which now includes 46 NGO partners (from an initial three) and 24 academic scientists.

Empowering the farmers
To empower farmers they should be active participants, not passive recipients, of technological developments. A bottom-up approach becomes imperative to increase the socioeconomic and cultural relevance of agricultural technologies. But this is easier said than done. Often remaining as a conceptual model, attempts have tried but failed. Under Philippine local conditions, MASIPAG was fairly successful at employing the bottom-up approach through POs. The POs became a vehicle for consolidating and coordinating farmers' collective interest and knowledge, while the local leaders were the facilitators of such technological developments. Through their organizations, they were able to articulate, process and implement development approaches and solutions appropriate to specific situations. Sustainability of this development work was also enhanced by local Pos, which remain highly effective at spreading the concept at the local level through workshops and training, depending on a minimum of resources. The scientists in the end, simply provided technical backstopping and the NGOs assisted in organizational strengthening and networking.

Farmer-managed trial farms
Every PO who wants to become a MASIPAG partner must be willing to establish and maintain a trial farm. Currently, there are 230 farmer-managed trial farms throughout the country (see box above). Farmer-led research is done with the trial farm as their laboratory. About 50 to 100 MASIPAG rice selections are usually provided. These are planted side by side and the farmers are taught to observe, measure and monitor certain agronomic characteristics. Locally adapted varieties are then selected. Breeding is mostly done on the central back-up station, but also takes place on the trial farms or by individual farmers. The trial farm also serves as a seed bank for in situ conservation of genetic resources.
There are multiplier effects of the trial farms. For example, just before harvesting, field days are organized where non-member farmers and local government officials are invited to evaluate the performance of the varieties. Thus, the trial farms provide an advocacy tool to lobby local government officials and to convince other farmers of the effectiveness. Farmer-managed trial farms are important for creative organizing. Inactive members of POs usually become active upon knowing the concrete benefits. Non-member farmers often volunteer to become members of the PO so that they can access the seeds and technology or else organize their own farmer organization.

Results and impacts


Organic MASIPAG farming versus conventional farming

Item Conventional MASIPAG
(Pesos)1 (Pesos)1
Straw application 0 225
Land preparation 1,500 1,500
Seeds 3,000 450
Uprooting/transplanting 0 1,500
Seed broadcast/seedbed 100 150
Herbicide 542 0
Insecticide 1,829 0
Chemical Fertilizer 3,600 0
Harvesting/threshing 2,948 2,948
Total production cost 13,519 7,148
Yield/Gross income: 4560 kg (PhP 7.40/kg)
/4620 kg (PhP 7.40/kg)
Net income 20,224 27,040
Net profit: cost ratio 1.49 3.78

Cost and return analysis per hectare of conventional farming (HYV) and organic MASIPAG rice (Sinayawan, Valencia, Bukidnon, 1997) 1One US$ = 51.5 Pesos (as of Feb. 2002)


Social equity and cultural sensitivity
Local socioeconomic structures in most developing countries had always been shaped in favor of the big landowners. Resource-poor farmers were often the victims, not the beneficiaries, of agricultural developments. High input technologies, often beyond the means of small farmers, have proved unsustainable. Export crops, not staple crops, have also been the focus of many countries in the South even when there are so many people going hungry in these countries.
Through MASIPAG, farmers are not only articulating their needs but are now addressing and solving their own problems. They are developing technologies to improve production of their staple food and emphasizing low cost production systems. Volunteer farmer-trainers are now teaching other farmers. Through their local POs, farmers can now also negotiate with local government to address farmers' concerns.

Challenges in the future
The greatest threat to this Farmer-Scientist partnership initiative is the second wave of Green Revolution, the 'Gene Revolution', and its transcendent issues of patenting life forms and processes. Genetic engineering might provide initial gains, but in the long run, its effects and impacts on resource poor farmers in the South as well as on the environment could be worse than the GR.
Intellectual property rights or patenting is a tool for consolidating control of our food systems by the patent owners, mostly giant transnational corporations. The implications for MASIPAG farmers are that seed could be effectively stolen through patenting, thus preventing the storing, exchange, sale or improvement of such seed. MASIPAG farmers are becoming more resolute in advocating what they have started as their only alternative. They contend that MASIPAG was their alternative to the green revolution and it will still be their alternative to the gene revolution. For as long as the seeds are in their hands, they have the capability to develop and improve technologies, and for as long as they remain organized, they are insulated from the damaging effects of the new technology. The farmers will determine their own history.

Charito P. Medina
Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development (MASIPAG),
3346 Aguila St., Rhoda Subdivision, Anos, Los Baņos, Laguna, Philippines.
Phone: +63 49 536-6183, Fax: +63 49 536-5549,
Email masipag@mozcom.com

Guilaran, L. (2000), "Farmer-led biodiversity and seed breeding initiatives." In: Proceedings of enhancing sustainability of the rice economy in the Philippines. June 3-4, 1999. IIRR, Silang, Cavite, Philippines. pp 89-90.

MASIPAG (2000), "Laboratory without walls." In: SUHAY (Special Edition), April 2000. pp. 23-26.

MASIPAG (2001), Mid-Project Evaluation Report. Feb. 2001. Yap, E. (2000), "Farmer-led seed breeding technologies." In Proceedings of enhancing sustainability of the rice economy in the Philippines. June 3-4, 1999. IIRR, Silang, Cavite, Philippines. pp 84-88.


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