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How to build local leadership? Listen to the local leaders

“If you give me a fish, you have fed me for a day. If you teach me how to fish you have fed me until the river is contaminated or the shoreline seized for development. But if you teach me to organize then whatever the challenge I can join together with my peers and we will fashion our own solution.”

Farmer to Farmer development is simple: experiment with a new technology, analyze the results, and tell your neighbors about it. Yet overarching those three basic components is the invaluable element of leadership. It takes leadership to organize a community. It takes leadership to ignite development. It takes leadership to start a movement of agricultural sustainability in a country. So, how do we truly establish local leadership within development projects?
At Semilla Nueva we have an idea. If we really want to be an NGO that promotes leadership and community ownership of development, then beneficiary feedback and consultation need to be regular practices. The best way to find out how to build local leadership is to ask the local leaders, and that’s what we plan to do. Last Monday, as the sun rose over the volcanic skyline of the coastal plains of Guatemala, 22 members from each of our ten partner communities packed in the bed of SN trucks and took a drive out to our Experimental Farm Coordinator’s house (Noe Estrada ) for the first Semilla Nueva Farmer Leadership meeting of 2014.

Why are we all here?

SN staff along with community promotores took turns giving a short introduction including who they are, which SN technologies they are experimenting with, and the problems their communities are facing. This allowed promotores to meet other community leaders from all over the region, opening up the dialogue and revealing that this agricultural movement they are part of is much bigger than themselves. Representatives came from a variety of backgrounds with a range of skills; but they were all there for a reason – they are all local leaders, promoting the sustainable practices they learn while creating a movement in their communities.

What is SN’s long-term goal?

To start off, we took a few minutes to explain why we do what we do, and the way we do it. First, we explained sustainable agriculture technology research, and our aim to be the link between international research institutions with the best sustainable technologies and smallholder farmers that need them. SN Programs Director Trini Recinos explained to the group, “For example, all the experts keep saying No-till! No-till is the best technology for smallholders. But it’s a general suggestion. How does it actually work for each of you farmers. That is what we want to know.” Next, we outlined our strategy of Farmer to Farmer Development, a method many farmers are already familiar with. Once we have the technologies working, we use local social capital to share the good news and get these ideas into the hands of more families that need them. Lastly, we described our vision for long-term sustainability via institutionalization. Curt Bowen, SN Executive Director explains: “What we want is for this stuff to be sustainable and to last. What happens when the NGO leaves? Government institutions like the ICTA (Institute of Agricultural Science and Technology) and MAGA (Ministry of Agriculture) are made specifically to serve you. We want to find a way to make those work better, and make Guatemala less dependent on outside aid.”

Que podemos hacer con nuestros propios manos? (What can we do with our own two hands?)

With the overview laid out, it was time to get some feedback from the farmers. Each representative had the opportunity to give one success they experienced this year with SN, and one critical feedback or suggestion for how SN could improve. Promotores suggested new local herbs to promote in our Food Security groups. Promotores shared safe, non-toxic ways to save seeds that they would like to see their neighbors adopt. (This one we actually implemented right away – over the last 2 weeks we trained over 75 women how to store seeds easily at home!) Promotores suggested better strategies for working with local village councils. And promotores shared their experiences with technology experimentation this year, telling us the problems they encountered and the technical problems they would like more technical assistance with.


This year my no-till test plot was great. But a few years ago I lost nearly all of my sesame production on the no-till plot because of too much rain. Of course agriculture is always a little risky, but if SN could help us get information on how to improve sesame production in no-till, it would make it a lot more attractive to more people in the communities as a sustainable technology.” — Jose Escobedo, Semilla Nueva Promotor


Catarino and Gabby

“The biggest success of the year I can share is my wife and the rest of the women in my community now know a very nutritious drink they can make with a local herb grown in their backyard: Lemonade with Chaya. But the point is that someday Jennifer (SN Extensionist) won’t be there. We have to take advantage of the ideas SN is sharing with us and use it as a guide to continue to development in our community.” – Catarino Solis, Semilla Nueva Promotor

Hands were raising and heads were nodding. Ideas were flowing like waterfalls; innovation was leading the way. This meeting was the beginning of what will become a tradition of collaboration that we are proud to establish and promote. In 2014, we plan to host Farmer Leadership Meetings on a monthly basis with representatives from all of our communities. SN staff and farmers agree, we look forward to the next installment.

Call it what you will, Participatory Development, Community Mobilization or a number of other technical development terms. The bottom line: if you want to serve the people better, you have to ask them what they want. And listen when they respond.

An extra little piece of the story was when we took all of these promotores down the road to the Semilla Nueva Experimentation and Training Center (SNETC). Here, in addition to 21 soil conservation test plots, 56 corn variety trials, a growing chaya forest and organic agroforestry experimental parcel, we are testing 26 different pigeonpea varieties. Promotores walked through the lines of various pigeonpea varieties and voted for their three favorites based on color, size of the bean, size of the tree, amount of natural fertilizer produced in leaves, and size of the trunk that could be used for firewood. This method of Participatory Variety Testing with local farmers (a little idea we got from ICRISAT ) is a practice we will continue at SNETC for years to come! Stay tuned for updates!

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