A methodological approach to work with custodian farmers

Custodian farmer Doña Viviana Herrera rescues potatoes from flooding along Lake Titicaca / Photo Giulia Baldinelli

Custodian farmer Doña Viviana Herrera rescues potatoes from flooding along Lake Titicaca / Photo Giulia Baldinelli

Custodian farmers have been the topic of a lot of discussion recently, being the subject of two international meetings organized by Bioversity International and partners in South Asia last year. These self-motivated and enthusiastic farmers who cultivate and promote the use of their traditional crops are quintessential actors in on-farm conservation of plant genetic diversity. They often maintain a large portion of their local agricultural biodiversity and hold a nodal role in their communities, providing seeds and knowledge on the cultivation and use of local crops to their fellow farmers. For these reasons custodian farmers are seen as viable entry points to support and strengthen on-farm conservation efforts in their localities. Determining how to effectively leverage and support their work is the challenge. This case study represents a first step in the development of such a methodology.

In the remote village of Cachilaya on the shores of Lake Titicaca, Plurinational State of Bolivia, four farmers were identified in a meeting with the local farmers’ organization as “custodians of agricultural biodiversity”. The selection criteria were discussed as a group and the farmers identified the people they agreed were most fitting of the description. Helga Gruberg, a master student at Wageningen University at the time, visited the community over several months and used an ethnographic approach to understand the characteristics and motivations of the custodian farmers and to explore with the community what they see as custodian farmers roles.

The stories of three custodian farmers Doña Viviana, Don Elias, and Don Ricardo are warmly recounted in the case study, revealing a strong picture of their personalities and motivations in conserving crop diversity. The case study offers a view into the challenges of on-farm conservation in this community that is faced with an increasing out-migration to the cities and a depreciating value for traditional crops – challenges that are similar throughout Bolivia and the world.

Through observations and discussions, the case study offers insightful recommendations for best-approaches in identifying and working with custodian farmers. The merits and pitfalls of the selection process that was used and the formalization of the custodian farmer role are discussed in detail. The authors emphasize the need to be as inclusive as possible in the selection process in order to involve shy or quieter farmers (notably women) who may be overlooked in participatory selection processes. The case study also advises that time is taken to understand the community dynamics that maintain diversity before deciding upon interventions. In this case, the community as a whole is very involved in agricultural biodiversity conservation, so the approach of working with individuals was contentious. Finding a balance between community-oriented approaches, such as community seed banks or community biodiversity management, and providing recognition and support to outstanding individual farmers is seen as a viable way-forward.

Working with champion farmers who are already committed and enthusiastic in the conservation and promotion of their traditional crop diversity is a promising approach to strengthen on-farm conservation. Yet working with such custodian farmers is only a small piece of the puzzle, as the challenge of on-farm conservation is society-wide. Markets, policies, social and environmental factors motivate farmers choice to plant or abandon their traditional seeds. Although it is a complex and immense problem it is also highly urgent and essential to take action as diversity in agricultural crops is vital to the productivity, resilience, nutritional value, sustainability and multi-functionality of food systems.

The publication by Gruberg, H.; Meldrum, G.; Padulosi, S.; Rojas, W.; Pinto, M.; Crane, T. – Bioversity International, Rome (Italy); Fundación para la Promoción e Investigación de Productos Andinos (PROINPA), La Paz (Bolivia) is available in English and in Spanish