Tales of the unpredictable : learning about institutional frameworks that support farmer management of agro-biodiversity

    Research output: Thesisexternal PhD, WU


    In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was signed by a large number of countries in Rio de Janeiro. This Convention constitutes a framework linking biodiversity conservation and development. CBD also emphasises the in situ strategy for biodiversity conservation. In the years following CBD, the strategy and agro-biodiversity management received much attention. This book reports on some of the initial efforts to develop and implement in situ conservation through the support of farmer management of agro-biodiversity. Because of the dynamic nature of the human and natural components of agro-biodiversity the strategy aims to maintain, it is referred to as "on-farm management" of agro-biodiversity. While studying efforts to develop the strategy, social and institutional aspects of the strategy's development are addressed; these are referred to as the strategy's social construction and social organisation.

    The book reflects on experiences of a team that worked at the Centre for Genetic Resources, the Netherlands between 1990 and 1998. The team was involved in the development of agro-biodiversity projects in many developing countries. The experiences of the author, the team and their colleagues from the South form the foundation to the book.

    The strategy has been studied within a framework of experiential learning. Two socio-ecological perspectives have been used to provide the theoretical framework for reflection. These perspectives are used for the development of "windows of reflection" that guide and structure five case studies on agro-biodiversity projects and organisations.

    Adaptive management is the first socio-ecological perspective used. It has been developed by ecologists involved in the management of large ecosystems. Policy and management organisations form a triangle with citizens in an adaptive framework for ecosystem management. Research provides feedback between the management system and the ecosystem and facilitates linkages between components. Social learning is considered an important attribute to adaptive management, as it strengthens management and policy organisations and citizens in their capacity to adapt management practices and policies to the managed ecosystem's ecological and social dynamics.

    The second socio-ecological perspective is based on the ecological knowledge system. It addresses the social and institutional aspects for the development of sustainable agriculture. Its dimensions are farmers' practices, learning, facilitation, supportive institutions and networks and conducive policies. The book uses these perspectives in an area application foreign to the field in which they have been developed. The perspective's dimensions have been used in the development of four "windows of reflection" that have guided the organisation of information gathered. The four "windows" guide and focus the case studies on (i) actors involved; (ii) flows of germplasm, knowledge and information; (iii) the social organisation of projects, organisations and the strategy's development; and (iv) the social construction of the strategy and efforts to link conservation and development.

    The first case study is located in the Netherlands, the author's home country. Institutional aspects of CGN as the National Plant Genetic Resources Programme (NPGRP) or "genebank" have been described. Zeeuwse Vlegel is introduced; it is a farmer organisation involved in the production of more ecologically sound and regional bread. In the case study, an attempt to establish linkages between the "genebank" and a farmer organisation is analysed. The study reveals that both actors are operating at the far ends of a crop development chain. CGN is not in a position to directly support a farmer organisation in its search for appropriate wheat varieties. It illustrates how dominant institutional frameworks and actor networks limit actors to collaborate and promote utilisation of agro-biodiversity. This situation is worsened by the gradual shift of agricultural research from the public to the private domain and by the unclear CGN's institutional framework.

    The second case study describes a project to establish an Agro-Biodiversity Centre in Bhutan. It emphasises an integrated conservation approach to the development of an NPGRP. Important elements include the use of agro-biodiversity surveys as tools for prioritisation of conservation strategies ( in situ , ex situ and on-farm), and targeting conservation actions at crops and locations. Another element is a decentralised organisation. It was proposed to develop local and regional agro-biodiversity platforms. The third case study stresses the formation of platforms in the development of biodiversity products. It describes a project to establish a Centre for Biodiversity Utilisation and Development in Ghana. This Centre plays a facilitation role in the initiation of activities and establishes linkages between social actors necessary for development of and marketing biodiversity products. Both the Bhutan and Ghana case studies are primarily based on formulation missions and only cover to a limited extent the projects' initial activities.

    The fourth case study describes and analyses institutional aspects of the in situ project of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). It undertakes activities in nine countries across the world and has been set up as a global effort to strengthen the scientific basis of in situ conservation on-farm. The project is implemented within the framework of NPGRPs, which through participation of NGOs and farmer groups are gradually opened up to new partners. The case study reveals that during the project's initial years IPGRI and its partners have added a strong development orientation to the project. The chapter also illustrates in what way the focus has shifted from science and conservation to utilisation of agro-biodiversity within a context of sustainable agriculture.

    The fifth case study describes and analyses efforts of the Community Biodiversity Conservation and Development (CBDC) Programme to develop and construct the in situ and on-farm conservation strategies. This programme is implemented by a group of NGOs complemented by some governmental genebanks, research organisations and university groups. It is operational in 16 countries on five continents. CBDC's focus is on strengthening community agro-biodiversity management. The case study illustrates CBDC's effort to develop a protocol for collaboration linking a diversity of organisations in one programme. It also illustrates attempts to link global and local objectives to support farmer management of agro-biodiversity. It is concluded that the programme in its initial years emphasised local capacity building and community empowerment. In its local orientation, CBDC is complementary to the IPGRI in situ project that operates within national frameworks and focuses on globally co-ordinated research. CBDC is above all considered an institutional experiment bringing together a diversity of locally operating organisations in an interactive and "bottom-up organised" programme.

    Conclusions have been drawn on the socio-ecological perspectives and institutional frameworks that support farmer management of agro-biodiversity. A key output is that "on-farm management" of agro-biodiversity should be considered by actors in the institutional crop development system an emergent property of an agro-biodiversity system formed by farmers and other actors involved. In the initial technical efforts, conservationists had considered it difficult to develop the strategy. When considering "on-farm management" a human activity system, it is evident that these conservationists were constrained by their "hard" and technical approach. The ecological perspective on agro-biodiversity as an agro-ecological service has been recognised, when placing agro-biodiversity in a context of increasing agro-ecosystem resilience. An important lesson is that "on-farm management" should not only be perceived as a conservation strategy but rather as a strategy that supports and strengthens farmer management and utilisation of crop genetic diversity.

    In an application of grounded theory, some lessons can be learnt about adaptive management and the ecological knowledge system as socio-ecological perspectives. An important lesson learnt is that rather than ecological objectives emphasised in both perspectives, political, institutional, scientific and conservation objective should motivate actors in agro-biodiversity projects. A second lesson refers to the boundaries drawn for the application of both perspectives on agro-biodiversity management. When using soft system thinking, actors socially construct system boundaries. Because of the mobile and reproductive nature of agro-biodiversity, system boundaries may be defined at various local levels. In an application of adaptive management, each agro-biodiversity system may construct institutional frameworks in which management, policy and citizen organisations are linked. Various case studies illustrate that the establishment of agro-biodiversity platforms and facilitation in processes of social learning and joint experimentation are prominent components in an adaptive organisation of agro-biodiversity management.

    NPGRPs' opportunities to support farmer management have been explored. Interactions with other actors involved in crop development have been elaborated. Barriers into institutional frameworks and professionalism are described. Some of the case studies explore the ways in which these barriers can be bridged. It is further emphasised that the flow of germplasm, knowledge and information within the institutional crop development system should be modified from a linear to an integrated organisation in which conservationists, breeders and seed specialists link with farmers' local systems. When building an agro-biodiversity management system, the boundaries between institutional and local (farmer) crop development fade away. Farmers become crop development organisations' partners in conservation, breeding and seed supply.

    Efforts to construct "on-farm management" and its social organisation are placed within context of current policy trends and changes in institutional agro-biodiversity frameworks. It is evident that the Convention cannot be isolated from other policy fora such as the FAO-IU/PGR and WTO/TRIPS. In this context, attention to the strategy may be viewed as a reaction to processes of "appropriation" of and limiting farmers' access to agro-biodiversity. The strategy emerges as a civil reaction to a decreasing public and increasing private presence in agro-biodiversity management. With respect to the institutional frameworks, the social contract between NPGRPs as public entities within society is emphasised. Conservation, but also other public and private organisations can only operate through a social contract with civil society; they are socially and politically accountable to civil society. This issue links this book with the current GMO debate in which the modern biotechnology's social contract is a major issue.

    Based on the adaptive management perspective, the activities described and analysed in this book are placed within a historical perspective on institutional renewal in the agro-biodiversity arena. A preliminary conclusion can be drawn that the activities and projects described should be considered to open up a path to a more adaptive approach to agro-biodiversity management and more ecologically sound agriculture. However, it is too early to draw conclusions whether or not they form alternative projects or comprise initial attempts that contribute to a new configuration and organisation of agro-biodiversity management and crop development. The book describes and analyses projects initiated shortly after the Convention was signed. It is considered too early, to analyse their impact on and potential contributions to the processes of institutional renewal required for institutional frameworks more actively to support farmer management and utilisation of agro-biodiversity.

    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Awarding Institution
    • Röling, N.G., Promotor
    • Engels, J.M.M., Promotor, External person
    • Hardon, J.J., Promotor, External person
    Award date27 Jun 2000
    Place of PublicationS.l.
    Print ISBNs9789058082381
    Publication statusPublished - 27 Jun 2000


    • agriculture
    • biodiversity
    • farmers
    • management
    • plant genetic resources
    • in situ conservation


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