Participatory Extension for Natural Resource Management

by Jonathon Landeck

We are wise to consider farms and farming in the larger context of local natural resources: soils, water, vegetation, animals, climate and people. Food production depends on these resources and, conversely, has some impact on their condition. A key question is how research and extension specialists can better communicate with farmers about the link between food production and natural resource management (NRM). One way to improve this communication is to provide extension workers with a tool to guide their conversations with farmers, a tool that is cognitively portable, a mental map to carry to the field. One such tool is the NRM Analytical Framework (NRMAF). One type of NRMAF has been developed by the United States Agency for International Development for planning and evaluating agricultural development projects that they support worldwide.

Farmers' Goals

Very often extension proceeds with an assessment of farmers' technical and informational needs without a precise definition of farmers' goals. While it may be obvious, even implicit, that greater yields would be most farmers' primary goal, it may not be their only aim. It is important that extension specialists understand the range of farmers' aspirations in order to design specific research and information exchange programs to meet those needs.

Let's say, for example, a group of farmers working with an extension specialist state in general terms that their short-term goal is to increase the net household revenue they obtain from crop production and their long-term goal is to enhance the local natural resource base.

Knowing and understanding goals such as these is essential to using the NRMAF, one which all other elements of the framework must ultimately address.

NRM Impacts

Any technological intervention when implemented will have some impact, either negative or positive, on the local natural resource base. An extension specialist working with farmers can attempt to predict the potential and expected impacts of the technology through discussions with farmers and from past experience. Whatever the expected and actual impacts are, they ought to relate directly toward attainment of farmers' short-term and long-term goals. In other words, we should be able to say, "If this technology has that impact, then the goals will be achieved."

Given the aforementioned goals, to increase the revenue and enhance the local natural resource base, an ideal impact on the soil resource might be an improvement in the soil's chemical and structural status. An ideal impact on vegetation might be an increase in economically useful biomass per unit area of the farm. The impact on animals might be an increase in average daily weight gain. It is not necessarily true that the technological intervention has a significant impact on every natural resource, and any particular resource might be affected in more than one way. The essential point is to plan for the measurement of impact, so that the intervention can be properly evaluated by farmers and extension specialists alike.

Expected Outcomes

The key question at this level of the NRMAF is, "What results are expected from the adoption or adaptation of the technology?" Generally, the number of people who adopt or adapt the technology is an important expected outcome. However, use of any technology also carries with it impacts on soil, water, vegetation, animals or people. It is important to maintain the distinction between people outcomes (or results) and the impact of those results. In other words, one must be able to say, "This result has led to that impact," where an impact is a change in conditions, status or behavior.

Technology Choice

Suppose that a number of farmer would like to increase their net household revenue and enhance the local natural resource base, primarily by inducing positive impacts upon their soils, vegetation and animals. What single technology or set of technologies, once adopted or adapted by these farmers, lend themselves to bringing about these impacts? Too often, following the "Great Idea" approach to agricultural development, research and extension specialists already have a technology in mind that they plan on promoting.

In using the NRMAF coupled with genuine participatory methods, where discussion between farmers and non-farmers takes precedence over lecture or persuasion strategies, any mention of technology is preceded by analyzing farmers' goals and expected or desired impacts. Afterwards, a menu of technological interventions can be presented to farmers for discussion. In the course of this discussion, additional potential impacts on the natural resource base can be identified, and the impacts previously identified can be reviewed.

Let's say that the use of soil-improving legumes is one technology that interests farmers when presented to them as one of a number of technological options. There are reasons why certain farmers will use this technology on their farms while others will not. These reasons usually relate to conditions which either facilitate or inhibit use of the technology. Most of the time we think in terms of constraints to adoption of technology, rather than incentives. In the use of the NRMAF, the incentives which favor the adoption or adaptation of the technology in question are called "enabling conditions."

Enabling Conditions

For the case of soil-improving legumes, perhaps seed is not available or is too costly. Perhaps farm labor is not available at the time when the legume should be sown. Perhaps information about using the legumes is inadequate. In any case, knowing the constraints to adoption or adaptation, especially constraints articulated by farmers themselves, allows us to identify the conditions which enable farmers to use soil-improving legumes.

These enabling conditions are variable, but are generally of an agronomic, economic, social, political or historical nature, or some combination of these. An "availability of labor" condition could be economic or social in nature. A "seed availability" condition might be agronomic or economic. An "information availability" condition could be social or political. The bottom line is that an extension specialist must know what the enabling conditions are. To know what these enabling conditions are, an extension specialist can ask farmers, "What makes it easy (or difficult) for you to use soil-improving legumes on your farm?"

Enabling conditions vary from farmer to farmer. Good extension works to ensure the establishment of enabling conditions that apply to the least advantaged farmers. Naturally, the more incentives or enabling conditions already in place to assist the least advantaged farmers to adopt the technology, the better. A thorough examination of policies which could create additional incentives for the least advantaged farmers to adopt a particular technology can be a good idea.

Once the enabling conditions are identified, one may test the logic of the relationship between those conditions, potential adoption of the technology, expected impacts on the natural resource base, and farmers' goals. The hypothesis is: If these enabling conditions are established, then a certain type and number of farmers are likely to adopt soil-improving legumes. If these farmers adopt the technology, then certain impacts on the local natural resource base can be expected. If these impacts occur (or are minimized in the case of negative impacts), then the farmers' goals can be achieved. If that sequence of logical statements doesn't hold true, then something is amiss.

Finally, extension specialists can prepare a set of recommendations, perhaps not only for farmers, but for researchers and policy makers, on what is needed in terms of activities to ensure the conditions to enable widespread adoption of a particular technology by farmers.


The NRMAF is presented in Figure 1, using soil-improving legumes as the example. Two columns constitute the NRMAF, one for Objectives and the other for Indicators. Goals, impacts, outcomes, adoption, enabling conditions and activities are all called Objectives, because they are things we have in mind as we use the NRMAF. Indicators identify what we need to measure to assess goal achievement, impacts, whether or not outcomes have been realized, the nature of adoption and the enabling conditions and activities necessary to establish the enabling conditions.

Among other uses, the NRMAF is a simple structure for organizing, planning and evaluating the process of technology adoption or adaptation at the farm level. Extension specialists can use the NRMAF as a guide to ensure that the questions they ask farmers address farmers' goals. As a resource, NRMAF can help define the potential impacts on the natural resource base anticipated from the new technique, and the conditions which enable farmers to apply those techniques to food production. The NRMAF also serves to remind extension specialists that food production occurs within a broader context of soil, water, vegetative, animal and human resources.