Strengthening People’s Awareness of their Own Capabilities

Submitted by admin on 10. June 2022 - 20:55

Strengthening People’s Awareness of their Own Capabilities

Contribution to the Panel “Empowering Local Sustainable Communities” as part of the
26th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
4 June 2022
Neil Whatley


Early in my career, I was attracted to Paulo Freire’s empowerment-based adult learning methodology that was eventually termed “Participatory Action Research” or PAR. PAR is a framework for generating knowledge centered on the belief that those who are most impacted by knowledge, in my case, farmers, should be equal partners in framing the questions and the modes of analysis of research and extension. The framework is rooted in the belief that there is value in both knowledge generated by conventional research scientists and knowledge that has become de-legitimized, such as knowledge generated within rural communities by farmers themselves. (1)

I have spent most of my career trying to refine PAR in my work with farmers along with incorporating principles of the Baha’i Faith. And now we are fortunate to have a deeper understanding of the Baha’i-inspired conceptual framework for engaging in social action which is nicely encapsulated in Ruhi Book 13, Unit 2. Along the way I’ve also learned from Michel Foucault’s theory on power & Pierre Bourdieu’s work on structuration theory in society. Fritjof Capra’s popular writings on critiquing reductionist science and promoting holistic or systems thinking have also been beneficial.

So, when I enter into dialogue with a farmer or group of farmers, from the onset I aim to create a safe social space wherein which we can have a healthy, equal conversation, free of power. I do this with both small holder farmers in the tropics and with large-scale conventional farmers in the temperate climatic zone of Western Canada. I’m aware that my position as an agricultural specialist usually makes me appear to be superior in knowledge than the farmers because this is how contemporary society has influenced us to behave. So, I immediately try to mitigate this and create a space of empowerment as opposed to power – my aim is to “strengthen people’s awareness of their own capabilities” and enhance a “culture of learning” where both the farmer and specialist learn together.

While some situations require a straightforward answer to a direct question from a farmer, I’ve found many scenarios to be a matter of choosing the most appropriate solution to a problem or set of problems. This is when I can create a social space where the farmer’s knowledge and my knowledge as a crop specialist commingle. So, I ask the farmer, or group of farmers, questions to bring forth their ideas. I attempt to create a social space where the farmers speak more than I do. I try to limit my talking to 50% of the time or less and I do this by asking them questions, and depending on the answer, I try to continue asking questions along themes that they tend towards.

When I began working with a community of Indigenous farm families in Latin America at the onset of a social and economic development project, I began by asking questions about their agriculture system. This can be problematic at first because most of the farmers automatically tell me what they think I want to know. The farmers informed me of their monoculture cropping system of plantain that they were growing for the market economy. They often took me to their farms to show me their plantain crops. They would discuss the straight rows with four metres between plantain trees, and rows that follow a straight line for 50 meters in two separate directions. Unfortunately, a monoculture crop of plantain in a region that receives 3,000 mm or 9.8 feet of rainfall per year will become infested with a serious fungal disease called black sigatoka that can greatly reduce fruit yield and optimal control of the disease would eventually require up to 50 applications of fungicide per year. But these farmers also informed me that they had always raised crops organically and hoped to continue farming without applying synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. When sprayed with a fungicide, some of the fungicide will run off the tree leaves into the surrounding soil and the rainfall carries it into nearby water systems that the local people use as drinking water. With 3,000 mm of rainfall per year, this can be disastrous for human and environmental health. I realized that these farmers had recently converted to this new system and as such, neither their soils nor their plantain crop were in great need of external inputs. I knew they must have had sustainable farming systems for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years prior, however, when I inquired about these systems, they said they didn’t exist anymore or they weren’t important enough to talk about. Like so many farmers I’ve met, they think their own knowledge is inferior. So, I found and read anthropological reports about how these people had once grown a vast array of crops together in polyculture systems. So, I inquired about these traditional, polyculture farming systems. At first, very apprehensive due to being somewhat ashamed of their Indigenous systems of knowledge, but through my encouragement, the farmers slowly began telling me about their traditional farming systems. Through my use of PAR, over time the farmers realized that I wanted to learn from them more than I wanted to share my own, western-based agricultural knowledge. I wanted us to recognize the value of their traditional knowledge and how it can help with their current social, economic and environmental predicament. I was facilitating them with reading their local reality through consultation. The Universal House of Justice says in their 1983 letter on Social and Economic Development, “Progress in the development field will largely depend on natural stirrings at the grass roots, and it should receive its driving force from those sources rather than from an imposition of plans and programs from the top.”

It turned out that they continued to maintain 200 different crops (mostly tree crops) that included edible crops, trees that were grown for nitrogen fixation, for firewood, for building construction, medicinal plants, etc.. Some farms had upwards of 165 useable plant species per hectare that mimicked the plant architecture of the natural rainforest. So the sustainable natural rainforest had been their original teacher, which in turn made their traditional, Indigenous farming system sustainable. Some farmers maintained this extensive polyculture system and a monoculture plantain system in two separate areas. The polyculture system allowed them to be almost self-sufficient with food, lumber, etc. and is a system of cropping they had used for a very long time without the use of synthetic inputs. However, these wise farmers were caught between becoming so-called modern by planting monocultures of crops like plantain for the market or growing their vast polyculture system solely for subsistence.

So, we blended the two systems. Diseases like sigatoka are species specific. We incorporated various other useful species into the monoculture plantain system while widening the plantain rows so that while growing a majority of plantain trees, we also grew several other types of tree crops. So, although there was some sigatoka disease on some of the plantain trees, the disease spores were prevented from spreading widely because most spores were intercepted by other tree types or species so the disease wouldn’t reach epidemic proportions in the plantain nor warrant application of fungicide. We planted in their traditional circular patterns instead of in rows because this followed the natural laws of ecology. They, in fact, already had some farming systems like this, so our study reinforced this thinking which provided them with income as well as preventing them from spending on inputs and protected the natural environment. Their local Indigenous identity is intertwined within the traditional farming system, so by using Indigenous knowledge, we were also retaining important aspects of their unique culture which helped ensure that these people are empowered to walk their own path to development.

Reference: 1. “About Participatory Action Research” Available at:

Last updated 10 June 2022