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Going Public

At a busy passenger truck stop in Bolivia, men, women and children crowd around a small stall covered in leafy material. Several people ask questions, while others just stand and listen. The man behind the stall talks animatedly but, unlike the food vendors standing nearby, this man has nothing to sell but plenty to talk about.

Public meetings are an opportunity to give and gather information
credit: Daniel Vasques, CABI Bioscience

Daniel Vasques is an agriculturist from Chuquisaca who has worked with farmers for over twenty years. He is a highly experienced técnico (agricultural extension worker) and he knows that when farmers have little or no contact with support services, it's difficult to know what problems they face. But he also recognizes the difficulties in reaching large numbers of farmers, particularly those in very remote areas. The simple solution is to have more técnicos but there will never be enough to reach all the farflung farming communities of Bolivia. So, in an effort to make better use of his knowledge Daniel, along with Juan Amlanza, who has worked as a técnico for PROINPA in Cochabamba for nearly ten years, has decided to try the approach of 'show and tell' to inform the general public how to recognize and respond to potato and peach pests.

Not all extension can be done from the back of a pick-up truck or indeed from a table at a passenger truck stop but both are means of reaching a varied group of people in a short period of time. Using the opportunity of a big fair held at Tiraque, Juan Almanza was able to demonstrate the effects of nematodes on potato crops. Using a stereomicroscope in the back of a pick-up, Juan used several simple techniques to describe nematodes and how they attack potatoes. For instance, he used a simple test to see whether soil contained nematode cysts, which allow these pests to persist after potatoes (and other susceptible crops) have been harvested. As a result, one farmer repeated the test for nematode cysts, but with his own soil sample.

Truck stop information point

After the success at the fair when Juan had over 60 visitors in two hours, Daniel decided to use the local passenger truck stop, where people wait each morning for trucks to take them back to the remote regions of North Potosí. Using a borrowed, table plant samples collected from the previous day are laid out and Daniel immediately begins to attract attention from passing onlookers. He begins by explaining the causes for different peach disease symptoms, which farmers tend to confuse as some symptoms are very similar. He also talks about the effect of pesticides on the natural enemies of insect pests, and uses photographs of beneficial insects to show to his audience. Despite competition from vehicle noise and vendors hooting their horns to the assembled crowd, Daniel still manages to attract over 30 people in under two hours.

Daniel and Juan's public speaking experience has undoubtedly proved a success; they both speak fluent Quecha and Spanish and they have demonstrated that they are able to maintain a rapport with their audience and answer direct questions, despite the surrounding hustle and bustle. They have also found that one of the great advantages of talking from a stall is that the audience stays because people are interested. Women, hovering at the edges of the crowd in Tiraque, eventually come forward, although few ask questions. The fair not only provided an opportunity to talk to farmers, but also to traders and agrochemical salesmen - who may be the only source of advice to farmers in some areas. However, "Going Public" was not a one-way flow of communication; it also provided an opportunity for Daniel and Juan to ask questions of the farmers.

Observing these public meetings were Jeffrey Bentley, an agricultural anthropologist living in Bolivia and Eric Boa of CABI Bioscience, which is based in the UK. By listening to the answers farmers gave to Juan and Daniel's questions, they were able to gather more information in a few hours than could have been gained in several days of fieldwork, particularly as the farmers had come from far and wide. For instance, diseased plant samples were shown with symptoms with which the scientists were unfamiliar, but farmers in the audience were able to confirm that they recognized the problem and could even name places where they said the disease occurred.

'Going Public' is the not the only means of 'show and tell'; some exercises are definitely more suited to the field and most farmers still require on the spot advice. However, if setting up a stall helps to reach communities that otherwise would never meet a técnico, plus providing a means to identify where support should be targeted, then a few hours spent at the local truck stop can surely prove worthwhile.

More information contact: Eric Boa

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