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Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area – DAPA

Invisible Liabilities… how do we understand constraints in agrarian communities?

A few weeks ago I posted on invisible assets and the need to put a price tag on environmental resources.   Farmers, in particular, often feel the pinch or prod of these “hidden assets” which includes assets like quality soil, favorable weather conditions, functioning credit systems, or access to water (via adequate rainfall, groundwater wells and nearby lakes and rivers).  Putting a price tag, as I mentioned, is riddled with controversy.  Yet these assets make cultivation of healthy products less expensive, less risky, and more appropriate for crop diversification which translates to higher potential incomes, higher flexibility to changes in international markets and preferences, and overall productivity.

Matching Assets with Liabilities: Considering Guatemala

But resources are not distributed equally.  Neither are the incentives for using them sustainably and ethically.  What translates as a high-cost constraint for one farmer (for example, water, or labor) may come free or more easily to another.  In a country like Guatemala, for example, water access for farmers in the Central Highlands, where a majority of the export-agriculture of the country is done by poor, indigenous Mayan communities.  As an aside, check out this great article on sustainable water use which discusses green vs. blue water sources and the impending water crisis.

For communities like the indigenous Mayans in the Central Highlands, this is a major asset; and yet they remain incredibly constrained in terms of production capabilities.  Investments in irrigation, a popular trend in development projects, would likely do little to increase productivity.  Where then, are the hidden liabilities constraining full production potential?  Fertilizer?  Labor?  Land?  How can the accurate identification of these constraints inform better government policies and interventions?  At the moment, fertilizer is relatively cheap and available (although costs are rising), thus policy or program objectives to further subsidize costs of fertilizer may do little to significant change constraints (at least as of November 2010).  Ample labor in Guatemala had originally why Guatemala had an advantage for export-oriented production in the first place.  In fact, a large migratory workforce, occurring  both from internal conflict and displacement as well as movement for greater economic remittances, has been a pressing public health and social justice issue.   Indisputably, land rights and land availability, however, has remained a critical issue for indigenous communities for over a century.  One benefit of non-traditional export crop cultivation in Guatemala has been that farmers with very little land were able to achieve high incomes – but increasing needs for more land on account of a booming population as well as a desire for export-oriented crop producers to use  has had  both ecological and political consequences.

How can we best direct policy and programs to attack hidden, perhaps even invisible constraints?

Innovative modeling technology may give us an idea at where the constraints lie, but significant progress can be made by simply asking farmers themselves.  Here’s a few resources that struck me as interesting and innovative this week:

Aline.org.uk (Agriculture Learning & Impacts Network) offers some interesting areas of insight into how to collect farmer-driven feedback, assess how efficient/inefficient service provision is for citizens within a particular community (which can include resource distribution like fertilizer, water, seeds, etc), and more macro-community scorecards on regional access to critical necessities, in order to uncover where constraints may lie.   When we finally understand the reality of both assets and liabilities for small growers,  or at least know ways to uncover what they are, can we steer policy and programs towards maximum effectiveness.

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