Section V. Influencing policy and practice

Farmer-led change: Addressing environmental and health problems caused by widespread pesticide use in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras

Laura Sims


Food security is essential to human survival. There exist major concerns about the environmental sustainability of agricultural production in Central America because of frequent occurrences of pesticide toxicities in rural communities, high incidences of elevated pesticide residues in food sold at local markets, and widespread environmental pollution (Sage 2012; Shiva 2013). Intending to address poverty-reduction strategies in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras by improving human and environmental health and increasing agricultural productivity, the Canadian International Development Agency’s (CIDA) Community-based pest management in Central American agriculture project (2006-13) focused on developing mechanisms that could impact local, national and regional methods, programmes and policies regarding the handling, storage and use of pesticides to increase farm income and productivity (Mulock and Herrera 2013).

Within the field of international development, participatory approaches to governance have been promoted as a way to engage communities in decisionmaking processes to increase the success of interventions, enhance perceptions of legitimacy, and ensure sustainable learning outcomes and capacity building (Rist et al. 2007). Development interventions should address local needs and reflect local priorities as they focus on poverty reduction, human health and/or environmental problems (Green 2010). In the food security and environmental sustainability sector, some international development agencies collaborate with local institutions to encourage agro-ecological practices and capacity building in rural communities (Taylor et al. 2012; Sims 2017). However, initiatives often fail for lack of meaningful public involvement in decision-making processes (Diduck et al. 2012; Guta et al. 2013). Within such contexts, research approaches that engage community members as researchers in their own communities can enable better access to marginalised communities, increase understanding of local realities, contexts and cultural practices, and involve local people in the creation of activities and services that more appropriately respond to community needs (Price and Hawkins 2002).

Community-based participatory research approaches involve a range of partners - including academic researchers, disadvantaged communities and public sector actors - in a research process, recognising their strengths while addressing issues of importance to the community (Logie et al. 2012). Such a ‘bottom-up’ approach tries to value contributions local people make to the shared development of knowledge, using that knowledge to inform action (Carlisle and Cropper 2009). The benefits of community involvement in research are many, including greater representation of marginalised groups in research, data that are more representative of community needs, and increased opportunities for local capacity building and empowerment (Guta et al. 2013). Peer research approaches - in which members of a target population are trained to participate in research studies as co-researchers - are often central to enabling more meaningful community involvement in research and subsequent action that arises from study findings. A key premise here is that peer researchers act as ‘key informants’, facilitating relationship building and authentic knowledge sharing between academic and/or professional researchers with the marginalised communities they seek to understand (Price and Hawkins 2002). Porter (2016) describes how peer research is usually part of larger, mixed methods research approaches to understanding particular contexts or communities, often with the aim of providing improved service delivery to them (Coupland et al. 2005; Elmusharaf et al. 2017).

Drawing on CIDA’s Community-based pest management in Central American agriculture project as a case study, this chapter examines the roles of farmers in collaborative research that aimed to bring about changes in agricultural practices and policies regarding the harmful use of pesticides. With a particular focus on the use of farmer-led demonstration plots and demonstration days, it explores the role of farmers working as peer researchers in data collection and analysis activities, and changes brought about through their sharing of innovative, beneficial agricultural practices with other local farmers.

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