by Raquel Luján Soto
Participatory Action Research (PAR) emerged in the 1970s as an alternative to the technocratic methods of top-down research, which continue to be widely used to this day in the field of agricultural sciences.
These technocratic methods have not proved capable of involving farming communities in sustainable land management and are often abandoned at the end of the research process.
On the one hand, PAR arises from the need to recover the local knowledge of grassroots farming communities and recognise the value of the diversity of the agricultural practices and natural resource management methods they use in food production, biodiversity conservation and in creating a multifunctional landscape, as well as the ways they have maintained agroecosystems sustainably over centuries.
On the other hand, it also emerges from the necessity that researchers and local communities jointly identify customised solutions capable of addressing their needs and objectives in order to ensure they are more positively received and more widely adopted in the long term.
The PAR approach involves the development of horizontal relations between farmers and researchers based on the premise that research should be carried out through a ‘dialogue of knowledge’ and with recognition and respect for the rural communities, their knowledge and the ways they manage their relationship with nature. This idea will be further explored in this post.
WHAT IS PM&E?
Participatory monitoring and evaluation is a horizontal approach used in PAR, which promotes the full involvement of the local population in the different phases of the research process.
PM&E encourages internal learning processes that permit participants to reflect on past experiences, examine the present situation, review objectives and define future strategies, recognising the different stakeholder needs and mediating between their interests.
This PM&E research was carried out in south-eastern Spain. It involved farmers and researchers monitoring and evaluating different sustainable land management practices over a four-year period. The practices were all drawn from regenerative agriculture, namely reduced tillage, no-tillage, and the use of green manures and cover crops. To monitor regenerative practices, a combination of technical and local indicators were used—the former by the researchers and the latter chosen and used by the participating farmers. They were then systematised in a field manual for farmers, which served as a visual guide for evaluating the sustainable management practices used on the land under study. One of the principal objectives of the PM&E process was to achieve a better understanding of the impacts of different regenerative management practices on reversing land degradation and improving crop production as well as helping redesign and better adapt these practices in the participating farms.
The advanced state of land degradation worldwide requires the restoration of agroecosystems through the large-scale adoption of sustainable land management practices, which should be adapted to each context and take into account environmental, economic, technical and sociocultural aspects. If a long-term adoption of sustainable land management practices is to occur, it is fundamentally important to stimulate the creation of collaboration networks involving the scientific and farming communities and other stakeholders, improve the acquisition and exchange of knowledge and encourage social learning.
It is hoped that the processes implemented in the PM&E of innovative sustainable land management practices, including those taken from regenerative agriculture, will foster social learning, facilitate its adaptation and adoption, and maximise its positive impacts on improved soil quality and agricultural productivity.
THE PM&E PROCESS
With the aim of supporting the adoption of regenerative agriculture in south eastern Spain, a four-year PM&E project was initiated with the participation of researchers from the Spanish National Research Council, the University of Cordoba and 12 farmers who have pioneered the application of regenerative practices in their almond orchards. The PM&E process was carried out in the high steppe plateau of south-eastern Spain, one of the European regions most affected by processes of desertification and soil erosion caused by unsustainable land management practices and the semiarid Mediterranean climate, which is characterised by scarce annual rainfall, delivered in sporadic torrential downpours.
The PM&E process consisted of seven phases:
The principal methodology used to develop these seven phases involved participatory workshops held every six months at one of the participating farms. Each participatory workshop employed different techniques to introduce topics including soil quality and the selection and prioritisation of indicators. They also included educational art displays, brainstorming sessions and social mapping and fuzzy cognitive maps.
After four years of participatory research, the results showed that the PM&E process contributed to social learning among participant farmers who strengthened and expanded knowledge exchange about different regenerative agriculture practices with other farmers from their area. They gained a more complex and broader understanding of the impacts of the different regenerative practices evaluated and their benefits for specific indicators, including improved soil quality, biodiversity and productivity.
The research also demonstrated the potential of different regenerative agricultural practices to restore the physical, chemical and biological quality of degraded soils in the semiarid Mediterranean region.
For example, the results obtained using TISQ showed that management practices that combined reduced tillage or no tillage with natural or planted crop cover and the addition of organic amendments achieved the best results with regard to soil quality and the physical, chemical and biological properties of the soil. Improvements demonstrated by LISQ included erosion control and tree vigour.
The results of this PM&E process show that different regenerative agriculture practices can improve soil quality and the sustainability of the agroecosystems in the semiarid Mediterranean region and, furthermore, that land management that combines various practices maximises the positive impacts. They also show that participatory research, and in particular PM&E, supports social learning and the scientific-practical interface, and has significant potential to improve the adoption of long-term large-scale sustainable land management practices.
conclusions from this four-year process
The research described here concludes that PM&E processes, and the joint development of solutions by researchers and farmers, foster self-evaluation and a critical reflection by farming communities on the data recorded both on an individual and community level. Approaches of this kind can also be useful in decision making so that the desired objectives of soil restoration and the increased empowerment of agricultural communities are achieved. Furthermore, it offers a powerful tool for supporting social learning and the long-term large-scale adoption of sustainable land management practices.