Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in the world. The civil war, which ended in 1986, left its marks, and the country is still recovering. An estimated 75% of citizens live below the poverty line, and most of them are farmers. Guatemala is marked by inequality, especially between urban and rural areas. The result of these disparities is exclusion, only causing the gap between different classes to grow bigger. Farmers in particular have difficulty escaping the situation -- they are caught in a cycle in which the way they farm is slowly eroding their livelihoods. In Guatemala over 780,000 families grow corn, 78% of which are living in poverty. The income from agriculture is less than $1,500 USDannually, if the weather is good, and excluding the costs of family labor. This means most farmers are harvesting at a loss or barely breaking even. Besides its low income, Guatemala has the fourth highest rate of malnutrition in the world due to the poor agricultural situation. Lastly, the way these farmers plant and harvestis detrimental to the environment: 72% of agricultural lands in the country are categorized as severely degraded.
Despite the millions of dollars spent throughout the past decades by international organizations and the government of Guatemala, rural farmers remain stuck in the same situation due to a mismatch between perceived and actual needs. The problem has three components. First,nearly allfarmers lack the education and access to extension services for learning new techniques, so they use conventional farming systems which include burning and excessive tillage, leaving fractured ecosystems and impoverished soils that produce less and less. The degradation is hastened by the number of people working on the land and using these detrimental techniques. Nearly 65% of citizens generate income solely from agriculture, and others try to make ends meet with the most productive source of income apart from actually growing crops -- harvesting sugarcane. However, this process is expected to mechanize up to 80% within 5 years, eliminating thousands of jobs.Not only is commercial production made impossible with degraded soil and these labor intensive approaches, but production for family consumption alone is difficult,leading to widespread malnutrition.
Second, while the government is positioned to intervene, it lacks motivated and well trained staff and a strong research base to properly design programs to reach farmers. The lack of demand from citizens and development organizations and the lack of continuity (programs and employees usually only last one administration) prevent the government from switching to long-term solutions. The government does offer free fertilizers and seeds to the farmers; however, these services reach only 3% of farmers. Furthermore,the soil degradation and inappropriate farming techniques in play prevent these free resources from being effective. Above all, the distribution of free goods is just a temporary solution that does not address the root cause of the problems.
Lastly, the coordination between social organizations working in the country is inadequate, leading to inappropriate or ineffective solutions. Often, these NGOs do not work together and avoid engaging with local governments because of distrust towards them. Therefore,theylack scale and continuity and focus more on short term results which please donors. As a result,only a small group of farmers is temporarily assisted. This neither pushes local populations to lobby for better government services nor establishes an example for government services to look to for improvement.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Curt Bowen’s organization, Semilla Nueva --“New Seed” -- systematically changes the way that agricultural research and extension services for farmers work by ensuringthat these interventions respondfarmers’ actual needs. Through a new approach to farmer to farmer education, Semilla Nueva shifts ownership of the insights back tofarmers. Then, using experiments and data sourced from and shared by the farmers, Semilla Nuevascalessuccessful solutions by institutionalizing the practices within the government and CSOs.
Semilla Nueva´s mission is to develop a fully functional system of agricultural development, first in Guatemala and then Central America,to ensurethe food security, increased income,improvement of soil, and general wellbeing of the region´s farmers. Semilla Nueva does this by putting in place the right incentives for each stakeholder in the system. The strategy is based on three tiers: 1) Find, teach, and share the best appropriate agricultural technology for small holder farmers through international collaborations, participatory technology trials, and in house research; 2)Institutionalize research practices and successful services for farmers, working with government agencies and CSOs; and 3) Generate a new standard for development organizations creating synergies between them and with the government to result in systemic change.
By understanding the motivations of each of these actors, Curt has designed a strategy in which the work of one group feeds intothat of others, creating a virtuous cycle that has the farmer´s needs as a general starting point and that provides an easily translatable solution for the broken agricultural system that reignsin the region. With the help of Semilla Nueva, farmers are able toresearch and prove new technologies, and thendemand the right kinds of tools and services to grow themselves out of poverty. In turn, governments can provide these appropriate resources more effectively, and development organizations can work beyond their own programs in a more structured, accountable, and systemic way. Through partnerships with different actors, Curt is setting the stage for a social movement around agricultural development, and with this approach, the movement has begun to naturally spread throughout rural areas without a concerted effort from Semilla Nueva.