Recognising the importance of equity and empowerment in improving the lives of women, children and other minority groups, ACIAR articulated empowering women and girls as a strategic objective in the ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027. Recognition of the role of capacity building to take equity a step further was also expressed as a strategic objective.
In addressing the challenges of productive and sustainable agriculture, fisheries and forestry, research-for-development outcomes may not always be accessible to all members of the communities where the work is carried out. In semi-subsistence farming, the potential of women and youth to contribute to farm management and earn household income is often under-recognised. Additionally, because of societal structures, minority groups and landless people are also at risk of not being able to benefit from ACIAR-supported research.
The inclusion and empowerment of women, youth and other groups plays a major role in ensuring more equitable distribution of project outcomes, improving livelihoods and economic security.
ACIAR has taken increasing steps to incorporate equity considerations into its research planning and delivery at all levels, supporting its strategic objective to improve gender equity and empowerment of women and girls. The ACIAR Gender Equity Policy and Strategy 2017–2022 formally articulates the organisation’s commitment to gender-inclusive research. A new strategy and action plan will be implemented in 2023 to focus and guide work
in this important area.
With the goals of inclusivity and empowerment embedded in ACIAR-supported research programs and projects, all members of a family, community and society are able to benefit from the outputs of agricultural research for development.
Peace building through landcare
In Australia, the empowerment of neighbourhood groups through landcare was a grassroots revolution in environmental management and agricultural extension. Since the late 1980s, landcare has evolved into a strong framework to support community groups to improve the sustainability of Australian landscapes and food production systems. Landcare initiatives are based primarily on trust. The landcare approach brings together communities of farmers to collectively act to bring improvement to their environment and their farming endeavours. This relies on farmer participation, capacity building, self-help and social capital to succeed, and gives rise to social benefits as well as improving the condition of the land.
Extension methods based on the landcare model exist worldwide, including methods that have arisen from ACIAR projects.
The ACIAR Mindanao Agricultural Extension Project is one such project, with farmers becoming a key stakeholder group rather than passive ‘end users’ of project outputs. The project was focused on conflict-vulnerable areas in the southern Philippines and was designed with sensitivity to help build cooperation and trust in the region.
Based on more than 20 years of research, the project started in 2013 and ran for almost eight years in the provinces of Zamboanga Sibugay, Maguindanao and South Cotabato. Australian and Philippine researchers developed an enhanced landcare model with a strong emphasis on livelihoods. The LIFE approach – Livelihood Improvement through Facilitated Extension – develops farmer groups and appoints trusted and well-connected members of the local community to become their facilitators.
The facilitators and farmer groups then work together to identify and launch initiatives that can improve and diversify their income, moving away from the standard local practices of monocropping and environmentally destructive practices such as charcoal production. Support is also drawn from local governments, non-profit organisations, university researchers and others to help the farmer groups when needed.
Dr Mary Johnson, Mr Noel Vock and Dr Ken Menz, all research fellows at RMIT University, were co-leaders of the project.
‘Key to LIFE is farmer-centred decision-making, where they frame the issues and test innovations, and are supported along the way. Formerly, extension processes have come from a position of “Here’s a problem; here’s a solution; this is what you do” but this is not the approach we took. We focused on working with farmer groups and communities – people as the solution, not the problem,’ said Dr Johnson.
LIFE was a huge success. Participating farmers’ incomes increased by up to 80%, while trust and cooperation greatly improved between previously disparate Christian, Muslim and Indigenous communities. The LIFE approach was adopted by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST-PCAARRD) in 2016, and the agency continues to develop and apply the approach in conflict-vulnerable areas. In 2022, DFAT launched a separate pilot LIFE study, building on the ACIAR research to broaden its reach.
The distinctive Australian expertise of landcare has informed several ACIAR projects over the last 30 years, and many other projects have emerged across more than 20 countries. In 2022, ACIAR partnered with Global Landcare to publish a book, Building global sustainability through local self-reliance: Lessons from landcare, in which researchers and practitioners from 11 countries share their expertise and experience of landcare around the world.
Inclusive dairy farming empowers women
Smallholder dairy farms are a vital component of Pakistan’s mixed crop–livestock farming systems and the national economy. Although milk is the primary product, male calves and cows past milking age are a key source of meat.
Demand for high-quality meat and milk is rapidly increasing in Pakistan’s urban and regional centres, creating significant opportunities for smallholder dairy farming families, of which only a small proportion currently make any profit from dairy. Increasing profit from the meat component of dairy farms is critical to address the economic viability and competitive advantage of smallholder dairy farms.
The outcomes of ACIAR dairy projects in Pakistan highlight a key advance in community outlook – a deeper understanding of the importance of involving the whole family in farming practices, and new ways of working that ensure all groups in society have an opportunity to participate in projects and research. In this project in Pakistan, both women and men were meaningfully involved, with female and male advisers brought in to facilitate and ensure that all perspectives were considered.
ACIAR supported three projects over 15 years, which focused on transforming the local dairy farming industry and empowering Pakistani farmers. Starting in 2007, the country had 9 million smallholder farmers who were struggling to make any profit. Pakistan ranks among the world’s top milk producers, with 95% of all local milk generated by smallholder farmers, but many of those farmers barely make a living, largely due to a lack of basic information on how to raise and manage healthy cattle.
The first two projects centred on understanding the smallholder farming system and helping farmers increase milk production and subsequently improve their livelihoods. The third project, which ran from 2017 to 2022, was led by Dr David McGill of the University of Melbourne and focused on the local farmer advisory system.
To help increase broader understanding of the overall farming system, the researchers developed a ‘whole-family extension approach’.
‘Traditionally, Pakistani dairy advisers are male veterinarians and conduct extension activities with male farmers,’ explained Dr McGill.
‘In the project, female advisers were trained alongside male advisers, and they then hold discussion sessions with the women in the villages. Both male and female farmer advisers share and discuss similar information, but they tailor it to the unique needs of each gender.
‘For example, male farmer advisers might address off-farm activities that men often engage with, such as growing agricultural produce, while female farmer advisers might focus on feeding or watering the animals, tasks often carried out by women and children.
‘There is more to do in the whole farming system, starting with the essential on-farm building blocks of animal nutrition, housing and calf rearing. The veterinary components can then complement the system.’
To continue this valuable extension approach beyond the project’s timeline, the project researchers have partnered with a wide range of organisations, including government, private and non-government organisations, to continue applying the learnings of the project.
Getting more from farming with a team approach
For generations, smallholder farming families in Papua New Guinea have produced food for their families through subsistence farming. Rural women farmers provide most of the labour for farming activities by growing essential crops, while also attending to social roles such as being the main caregiver in a family. Most women farmers hope to improve their family livelihoods, but very few have the necessary agricultural and business acumen. Many are also educationally disadvantaged.
A major change to these established roles occurred by viewing each family’s agricultural work as a farm business and each family member as being part of a team. The ‘Family Farm Teams’ approach not only produced better farming outcomes but also resulted in a more equitable sharing of workloads.
The Family Farm Teams program offered one female and one male family head from a household the opportunity to participate in a series of experiential learning workshops with follow-up family activities that enabled them to work as a family team. Training was given in financial literacy, banking and savings, and agricultural planning techniques, so each family could plan the further development of their agricultural activities together.
The program, developed by the University of Canberra Centre for Sustainable Communities, and working with the National Agriculture Research Institute, Pacific Adventist University and other institutions, across five different provinces in Papua New Guinea, has gained increased traction across the country.
Through the research, Professor Barbara Pamphilon, project leader from the University of Canberra, found that women and men did not really know what the other did in a day, although they all agreed that women had a double burden of farm work and family responsibilities.
The Family Farm Teams program gives families understanding and skills to become more effective and profitable in their farming activities and make farm work more equitable for all members in the family. The research shows that when men and women work together across generations, with more gender-equitable and effective farming practices, livelihoods can be improved.
For families participating in the program, outcomes were tangible. Many went from bush huts to having permanent houses within 18 months. Children were able to stay in school. Most importantly, families developed plans to build their ‘gardens’ into a small family business that would give them a sustainable family future. This approach has been integrated into a major project of US$48 million awarded in 2017 to the Fresh Produce Development Agency by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Papua New Guinea Government, which aims to reach 25,000 farming households in four provinces.
Engaging young people in farming was another focus. Professor Pamphilon said the project team explored other options for participation in the agricultural value chain, such as raising seedlings to sell to other farmers.
The Family Farm Teams project also responded to the women’s interest in literacy through the development of bilingual early reading books, each of which had an agricultural storyline drawn from the project research.
‘Women farmers told us they want to learn to read and write. The set of “Maria” books was developed in the first phase of the project to begin the process of meeting that need, as women shared the simple text with their children and together learnt about good farming practices. The books are now used in schools, churches and community agencies across PNG.’
Despite some initial reservations about the program, many men were quickly won over. Not only did they see tangible outcomes for their families – permanent homes, education, clothes, increased incomes – but they felt less pressured when they were able to make decisions as a team with their wives and the young adults in their families.
The project reaped impressive outcomes. Following a pilot in East New Britain and the Western Highlands in 2012, the program has been rolled out across the country to eight provinces, including Bougainville and New Ireland. In 2020, the Family Farm Teams approach was the framework adopted for a new ACIAR project in Solomon Islands, to facilitate opportunities for equitable and effective agricultural development for female smallholder farmers and their families.