Technical assistance and rural extension

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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

The Technical Assistance and Rural Extension policy must contemplate the system of the past and that of the future

Technical assistance and rural extension (ATER) is related to the complex chain of activities related to the way of producing in agriculture and livestock. Different production systems charge different guidelines for technical assistance and have to be considered when defining the policy.

Conventional agricultural production systems are based on the high artificialization of the environment, intensive use of chemical inputs, seeds of vegetable varieties and animal breeds improved by companies, large motor-mechanized monocultures and high consumption of fossil fuels. In these systems, all the knowledge necessary for the farmer or breeder is produced by science and disseminated by technical assistance.

The mode of operating this assistance is the technical advice of various specialists paid by the agribusiness companies or collective training courses and individual visits for family farmers, a system disseminated by the World Bank and baptized as "Training and Visit”. In one case as in the other, the previous knowledge of the producers is disregarded to be replaced by that of the technicians, coming from the research centers.

In agroecological systems, there is a minimum of alteration of the environment, seeking to maintain natural biodiversity and agricultural biodiversity as much as possible. The processes of fertilization and control of pests, diseases and weeds are based on the management of biodiversity and the use of organic inputs, preferably produced on the property itself or, eventually, acquired from external sources. They are integrated polyculture systems, planted interspersed and/or in succession, integrated with animal husbandry and afforestation.

These systems are much more adapted to family production, although larger productions can partially use their principles. In agroecology, the knowledge of family farmers, whether traditional practices or innovations operated by the producers themselves, plays an important role that combines with the knowledge brought by technical assistance and rural extension technicians, whether they are of scientific origin or those disseminated to from the practices of other farmers. The methods of Technical Assistance and Agroecological Rural Extension are participatory and involve experimentation by farmers so that they can discover the best techniques and the best combination of techniques for their specific situations and adapt them accordingly.

From this presentation, it is important to note that the role of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension in conventional systems is to disseminate scientific knowledge, while in agroecological systems this role is to facilitate the collective construction of knowledge, integrating knowledge from different sources, scientific and empirical.

These distinctions, which may seem difficult for lay people to understand, point to the need for financing policies for Technical Assistance and rural extension activities that are sufficiently flexible so that either one or the other system can be promoted. I say this not forgetting that conventional systems are unsustainable, but recognizing that we cannot replace them overnight. For this reason, the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension policy must contemplate the system of the past and that of the future, directing the transition from the first to the second.

During the popular governments of Lula and Dilma, the policy of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension was the subject of intense debate between the Government and civil society, within the framework of the ATER Committee of CONDRAF and at the National Conferences on Technical Assistance and Extension rural. This was, without a doubt, the public policy aimed at family farming with the highest incidence of civil society proposals. Its results, positive and negative, must be shared among the participants in the process, government and civil society.

As one of the active members of the Committee and Conferences, over 14 years, I have a critical evaluation of the results, as well as proposals for a new policy of Technical Assistance and rural extension.

The first Lula Government, with Miguel Rossetto as Minister of Agrarian Development, was marked from the beginning by the seminar on Technical Assistance and Rural Extension, organized by the late extensionist, agroecologist, public administrator and professor Francisco Caporal, who died early. The seminar, with the intense participation of social movement organizations and ATER NGOs, defined agroecology as the system to be adopted by family farming and the role of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension financed by the State as being to promote this model of development .

This definition was surprising, given the fact that agroecology was not the preferred option widely adopted, either by social movement organizations, by technicians and state entities of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension, or by most private entities of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension. rural extension. But the National Policy for Technical Assistance and Rural Extension, PNATER, was adopted by the MDA, an unexpected and sensational innovation. Putting it into practice was another story.

The Government financed the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension activities through agreements with executing entities, the public EMATER of the State Governments or the ATER NGOs of the civil society. In this format, the projects were presented by the proponents, who had complete control over the object of the action (type of public, location, size), the working methods, the definition of objectives and goals, the selection of activities, the evaluation processes , the definition of the size and qualification of the teams and the costs. The government only approved or rejected the projects, evaluating their coherence and the credentials of the proponents. In this procedure, the MDA financed not only technical assistance in the strict sense (the action of technicians), but several other important activities to make a rural development project work.

Other important actions in rural development projects were outside the scope of these projects. The most relevant was the financing of family farmers, defined in another policy, that of credit, known as PRONAF. This policy was guided by the conventional production model and had the effect of greatly expanding farmers' access to the use of chemical fertilizers, improved seeds, pesticides and machinery. Credit was the main driver of the transformation of polyculture systems, which prevailed in the traditional agriculture of family farmers, leading them to adopt monoculture systems, which are riskier and less sustainable.

The result was the differentiation between borrowers, with a better-off minority improving their results and income and a majority that got into debt and, in many cases, broke, leading to the abandonment of the field. Around 800 family farmers left the countryside between the 2006 and 2017 censuses. Not all of them did so because of problems with paying off credits, but the fact that social movements made debt renegotiation and requests for amnesty to insolvent the main claim in its annual negotiations with the Government shows the importance of this impact.

During Rossetto's administration, resources for Technical Assistance and rural extension were distributed evenly between state-owned EMATER and civil society NGOs. Although all projects had to be aimed at promoting agroecology, it was never clear what was actually done within the framework of EMATER's action to fulfill this requirement. An evaluation carried out at the end of the first Government indicated that much of EMATER's action was, with regard to agroecology, more formal than real. On the other hand, civil society entities were already engaged in the promotion of agroecology since its foundation. But it was also not clear, in this second case, if the invested resources had the expected results, since no evaluation was made.

At the end of this first administration, problems began to occur between NGOs and MDA's legal department. The system of agreements required an extremely heavy, complex and bureaucratic management of resources, governed by the bidding law, 8666. This law was conceived to control public expenditures agreed with large entities and private companies, in order to control eventual deviations. For entities handling much smaller resources, the requirements made no sense and ended up putting immense pressure on NGO accounting and management.

This phenomenon did not only affect technical assistance and rural extension NGOs, but all civil society entities that received government resources, regardless of the specific purposes of the projects (social, environmental, educational, etc.). Civil society reacted to these problems by formulating a proposal for a legal framework for non-governmental entities that would account for the specificities of these organizations in their relations with the State. This proposal was taken to President Lula in his second term and to President Dilma in her first, but it did not prosper.

Throughout President Lula's second term, clashes between civil society organizations and the legal departments of various ministries led to impasses and the almost systematic rejection of accountability. Several entities went bankrupt and many others stopped accessing Federal Government resources. In the case of technical assistance and rural extension entities, the impact was extremely heavy, delaying or paralyzing several agroecological development projects that had been financed by international cooperation until the advent of popular governments. These international financing were withdrawn over the first four years, as the cooperation agencies believed that their contribution was no longer necessary.

This first stage of funding for Technical Assistance and Rural Extension came up against another problem: the lack of technicians trained in agroecology and in approaches and methods for its promotion. The MDA was aware of this need and promoted a broad process of accelerated training of technical staff through intensive 40-hour courses, centered on the principles of agroecology and on some of its best-known and most widely used techniques. The part of approaches and methodologies was absent from these courses. In my opinion, the almost eight thousand technicians trained in this process did not receive more than a slight varnish of the set of knowledge necessary to be able to correctly operate the promotion of agroecological development.

The lack of technicians prepared for the use of agroecology remained unresolved, although there has been a strong expansion of agroecology courses, both in universities (at the master's level) and in technical schools. However, we still do not have integrated basic training courses in agroecology in our universities.

For the non-governmental Technical Assistance and Rural Extension entities, the process of training new technicians was carried out in the practice of the organizations' activities, an uneven and slow process that resulted in brakes on the intentions of expanding the projects in progress.

The crisis in the Government's relations with non-governmental Technical Assistance and Rural Extension entities was faced through the formulation of the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension law. This proposal was not discussed in CONDRAF's Technical Assistance and Rural Extension committee, having been elaborated in the newly created Department of Technical Assistance and Rural Extension of the MDA, where Caporal was in the minority, and technicians of EMATER origin predominated (Caporal also had this origin) and more conventional training.

The proposed law on Technical Assistance and Rural Extension made no mention of PNATER and agroecology as a model to be adopted by family farming. An intervention by the National Articulation of Agroecology, ANA, which I represented at CONDRAF, led DATER to incorporate into the law the reference to PNATER as a guiding framework and agroecology as a model to be privileged in technical assistance financed by the State. It should be noted that there was a change in definitions, as PNATER only contemplated agroecology as an option and I preferred to place it in the law as a priority, but not exclusively, understanding that there were no conditions to make it unique.

On the other hand, I introduced in the bill, with the support of DATER, the handing over of responsibility for formulating the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension program, which should govern the initiatives of each Government throughout its mandate, to a National Conference bringing together all interested actors, from rural social movements to ATER entities, whether governmental or not.

The great innovation of the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension law was the abandonment of agreements in the financing of projects, replacing them with contracts between the proponents and the State. This left the executing entities of the projects outside the reach of the bidding law and such was the impasse experienced throughout the end of the first and almost all of the second Government of Lula that all civil society entities celebrated. In fact, we had no idea what trouble we were buying, jumping straight from the frying pan into the fire. Justice be done, Caporal, who had abandoned the MDA for teaching agroecology and rural extension at the Rural University of Pernambuco, was the only one to see the trap we had fallen into and sharply criticized the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension law.

What is the impact of the contract model for the operation of Technical Assistance and rural extension projects?

According to DATER's understanding, it was up to the Government to define all the parameters of the rural extension projects that it wanted to finance. Location, size of audience, type of audience (modernized producers, women, young people, dairy farmers, farmers in agroecological transition, among others), specific object or theme (production of milk, vegetables, replacement of inputs, sustainable production, agroecological production, to give some examples of calls for projects).

Theoretically, all calls, or most of them, should be oriented towards the adoption of agroecology practices, but this requirement did not appear in all calls for projects launched until the fall of President Dilma, with the exception of the last two, the sustainability and agroecology. At the time, we argued that, by logic, all projects and calls for projects should be focused on sustainable production and, therefore, on agroecology. Having a call for sustainability and another for agroecology just showed that DATER didn't know what it was doing.

In addition to defining the objective and object of the projects, DATER also defined which methods should be used by the proposing entities. This definition appeared in a biased way, through the choice of all the activities that the contracted entities should carry out. The implicit method adopted by DATER was individual technical assistance. How many visits each technician should pay to the assisted individual, for what purposes and for what duration were established in the contracts.

DATER also calculated how long it would take, on average, to travel from the executing entity's headquarters to the assisted individual's property. These were complicated calculations that varied from location to location. In the Amazon, technicians often traveled by boat, while in the Northeast, the roads were very bad and the journeys longer. The size of each lot designed by DATER also influenced these carefully studied costs.

This contract project design was strongly contested in CONDRAF's Technical Assistance and Rural Extension committee. Some of us questioned the need for DATER to make all these decisions and it was explained to us that this was a legal requirement, as they had to define how much the State was willing to pay to run a given Technical Assistance and rural extension service. In order to be able to assess the cost, they had to define all possible expense items, from the size of the lot, the public, the team, infrastructure needs, core activities, such as technical visits, and any other things, including activities administrative.

Without being able to discuss the legal requirement, we proposed that DATER define how much it wanted to pay per assisted farmer per year, using the method it thought was best, but that it would allow the contracted entity to use the methods and means it found most appropriate, as long as it was active contractual values ​​and expected results. This proposal would completely unblock calls for projects, but it was not accepted by DATER yet with the argument that the legal department would not approve. I always found it strange that a contract between the State and a service provider was as rigid as this model. I regret that we have not challenged these definitions with MDA legal or even in the courts as I suspect there is no legal basis for this format.

The format of the calls was heavily questioned at the first Conference on Technical Assistance and Rural Extension, during the Dilma Government and with Pepe Vargas as Minister of Agrarian Development. The Government had to accept the relaxation of these rules in a working group of the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension Committee, known as GTO, or Operational Working Group. Many changes were introduced, but the framework remained intact. We did what I called, at the time, putting a ball in a square hole.

The impact of this process was to neuter all the participatory approaches to promoting development previously adopted by the Technical Assistance and Agroecological Rural Extension NGOs. Entities that had had great successes in promoting the agroecological transition, using a much smaller ratio between the number of technicians versus the number of farmers assisted than in the system adopted by DATER, found it impossible to continue using the same methods. This is explained because the whole logic of these contracts was to pay for technical assistance, leaving aside everything that was not an activity involving technicians. Participatory methods have a high involvement of the farmers themselves in the processes of generation and dissemination of knowledge and, for these, there was no provision for payment.

In addition to these fundamental problems, there were numerous operational problems. Payments were made by activity carried out and the executing entities had to advance the resources to later receive the return of the DATER. With little staff and a huge number of projects with a multitude of activities to be remunerated, the MDA administration collapsed and payments began to be increasingly late, leading several entities to default. Teams had to be demobilized and rehired between one payment and the next, leading to interruption of work with farmers for periods of up to six months. Most civil society Technical Assistance and Rural Extension entities abandoned the DATER calls and private technical assistance companies emerged, without any tradition in the subject and without any notion of agroecology. The program ended as a disaster and represented a huge setback for many projects that were already well advanced.

In this new government of President Lula, we are going to have to seriously discuss how to promote rural development. First, how are we going to expand the supply of quality and diverse foods necessary to supply a nutritionally adequate diet? I am aware that this cannot be done only with agroecological production, but even conventional production can be less toxic than the one in force today. On the other hand, the agroecological production of family farming can play the role of example or model to be followed in the medium and long term by this public as a whole.

But if a project to promote the agroecological transition depends on the existence of technical assistance and rural extension of technical and methodological quality, it is far from being possible to carry out this contribution alone. There are other important investments, in addition to the costs of technical assistance and rural extension, such as credit, processing, infrastructure, marketing, as well as support activities for training in management and cooperativism. The fragmentation of access to these resources makes the promotion of local development a diabolically complex activity for the promoting entity, since for each of them it is necessary to formulate a project and negotiate it with a different government paying source. The ideal is to have all the resources on the same exchange and negotiated with a single interlocutor.

I have been insisting on the creation of a Fund for the Promotion of Sustainable Rural Development, under the management of the MDA, and which concentrates all these resources mentioned. Development projects, preferably of a territorial nature, should be presented by at least two types of entities, one representing male and female farmers and the other being a Technical Assistance and Rural Extension entity. Other partners may become part of this endeavor, such as research or commercialization entities, but the aforementioned duo must always be present.

As for calls for technical assistance and rural extension projects of a more conventional nature, I maintain the suggestion I made in 2013/2014. The Government calculates the cost of assistance per farmer that it is willing to pay and leaves the definition of methods and activities in the hands of implementing agencies.

For this type of conventional production, the new MDA should guide technical assistance and credit projects towards the adoption of integrated pest management, the use of biological controls and the use of green manures, the planting of legumes in rotation with commercial crops, to supply nitrogen deficiencies in the soil. These practices, widely known by conventional technicians, are not as efficient as those of agroecology, but they allow food production to be partially “detoxified”, even in monoculture production systems.

The new MDA should make an assessment of the policies adopted during popular Governments before defining what it will do in the next four years, bringing social movement organizations, EMATER technicians and civil society NGOs to the debate. It would be important for those who participated in the formulation of previous policies to be involved in this debate, as they have important experience in this process.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).

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