Thursday, 18 September 2014

Voicing the needs of women farmers

“Women farmers are vital, in the poverty-ridden Eastern Gangetic Plains of South Asia”, says Dr Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, of the ANU.

ACIAR, with DFAT, funded a report by Dr Lahiri-Dutt highlighting the ‘feminisation of agriculture’ and the challenges facing women-headed farming households, in the Eastern Gangetic Plains. This is one of the poorest parts of the world – marked by male out-migration and deteriorating livelihoods.

Social and economic factors, and the need for off-farm income, have seen men increasingly move away from rural areas, to the point where up to 70% of South Asia’s agricultural work is done by women.

Dukhni Safi runs a farm of less than a tenth of a hectare in the Madhubani district of Bihar, India.
The farm is now so small it can only provide 4–5 months of the food required yearly for the household.
Women have emerged as the key producers, performing a wide range of tasks related to planning, cropping, managing, processing and marketing, in and around the agricultural fields.

The resulting women-headed farming households are often poor with small landholdings. These families and their livelihoods are further constrained by the lower levels of education and training afforded to women, and the discrimination to which they are subjected when accessing agricultural technologies.

Dr Lahiri-Dutt’s report is based on a detailed survey of the serious constraints being faced by women living in this extremely poor setting. She knows this region and its challenges for women farmers intimately. Dukhni Safi and Sajjan Devi are farming women whose voices can be heard in two short but insightful case studies featured in the report.
Dr Lahiri-Dutt canvasses the opinion of these women – of their perception of obstacles and constraints, and of possible local solutions.

Dr Lahiri-Dutt recommends a series of strategies, that are gender sensitive, to improve education for women-headed farming households – for example, introducing women to more productive agricultural methods and extension services.
The burden of work on women is exemplified by the case of 30-year-old Sajjan Devi, a widow of 7 years pictured here with two of her three young children.
She also sees knowledge sharing among peers, and in group situations, as a necessity. Dr Lahiri-Dutt suggests that these informal and safe peer groups could evolve into cooperatives, aimed at securing training and improving access to money, resources and equipment.

In the Eastern Gangetic Plains region gender roles have significantly shifted in the past 50 years. Feminisation holds implications for agricultural productivity, food security and gender equity issues. It’s of interest as much for agricultural scientists as it is for development agencies.

Ultimately, Dr Lahiri-Dutt’s report adds substantially to the field of agricultural knowledge by incorporating the voices of women. It will assist agricultural scientists and development agencies alike, in ensuring their programs and project activities are in tune with the actual needs expressed by women.
To reiterate, and as Dr Lahiri-Dutt says, the need to empower these women in their farming households is vital.

By Mr David Skinner (ACIAR Program Support Officer) and Dr  John Dixon (ACIAR Principal Adviser)

More information and further reading

ACIAR publication TR083 - Experiencing and coping with change: women-headed farming households in the Eastern Gangetic Plains

Dancing with the River: People and Life on the Chars of South Asia by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt and Gopa Samanta (Yale University Press, 2013)



Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Helping women revive natural dye-making traditions

Some of the naturally dyed yarns produced by the village women.
In Indonesia, hand-woven and dyed textiles play an important role in the spiritual, social and economic aspects of life. These textiles are worn in ceremonies, traded, bartered and given as wedding gifts. They are made by women, with the traditions passed down through generations. Increasingly these textiles are produced using synthetic dyes. However, new research is encouraging women to revive their natural dye-making traditions, and increase their incomes in the process.
An ACIAR-funded project in eastern Indonesia is supporting the development of integrated agroforestry and non-timber forest product systems. The project partners include government researchers and non-government organisations, including a Bali-based fair-trade organisation—Threads of Life—that uses culture and conservation to alleviate poverty in rural Indonesia.

William Ingram, founder of Threads of Life, discussing dying with Halena Kase at Bosen.
Threads of Life works directly with over 1,000 women in more than 35 cooperative groups on islands from Kalimantan to Timor. The proceeds from sales of the textiles help weavers establish cooperatives, manage their resources sustainably, train younger generations, and keep their traditions alive while alleviating poverty. Threads of Life staff also teach the members of the cooperatives simple business skills, as well as how to manage and protect the plants used in dye making.

Under the ACIAR project, with the support of Threads of Life and the project researchers, women in the village of Bosen, East Nusa Tenggara, are reviving their ancient traditions of making natural dyes for use in weaving to enhance their livelihoods. Since the project started a year ago, the local researchers introduced the Threads of Life staff to the potential opportunities around the Bosen village study site. Women in this village were practising weaving but they had made the transition to using synthetic dyes. Only the older women in the village could remember which local plants had been used to make dyes and what the traditional practices were.

Margarita Liukae reducing indigo dye.
When we visited Bosen during the project’s annual workshop in August 2014, the local women were making a purple dye from the plant Indigofera—a plant that’s been traded around the world for centuries. Interestingly the genus Indigofera is widely distributed with local species occurring in Indonesia and Australia. However, the most commonly planted species in Indonesia is Indigofera tinctoria, which originated in India and was brought to Indonesia in the 19th Century. 

The plants, which are nitrogen fixing, are grown in the village gardens and the leaves are then used to make the indigo dye. Following soaking and partial fermentation, lime is added to reduce the indigo and make it more colour fast.

Halena Kase using the indigo to dye threads for weaving.
By reviving and adopting the traditional dye-making processes, and then using these dyes in their textile weaving, the women of Bosen are receiving up to four times as much for the textiles as they did when they used synthetic dyes. The project staff are supporting these activities and researching how the natural dyes can be made more uniform and colour fast.

By Tony Bartlett, ACIAR’s Forestry research program manager

More information
ACIAR project FST/2012/039 – Development of timber and non-timber forest products’ production and market strategies for improvement of smallholders’ livelihoods in Indonesia, led by World Agroforestry Centre

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

PAC to Perth

On landing in Perth one sentiment was common amongst our group: are we really still in the same country? Flying 4–5 hours in most of our group’s home countries would involve passing over at least more than one country.

We were in Perth as part of ACIAR’s annual meeting of the Policy Advisory Council (PAC), a group made up of representatives from the developing countries ACIAR works with.  The meeting consists of 2 days in Canberra , followed by a short field trip somewhere in Australia to meet with key research partners, policymakers, farmers and agribusinesses. This year I had the pleasure of organising the meeting and the field trip to Western Australia.

the Hon. Julie Bishop and members of ACIAR's PAC and Commission

After a busy 2 days in Canberra, meeting with ACIAR’s Commission for International Agricultural Research and the Foreign Minister, the Hon. Julie Bishop, we had landed safely in Perth and were looking forward to the 3-day tour ahead. 

Day 1 – Perth

University of Western Australia
PAC members with UWA researchers and chickpeas
First up was the University of  Western Australia (UWA) with researchers from the UWA Institute of Agriculture. It was a beautiful sunny day and the historic campus was showing off its best side. The group discussed common global issues for universities including research priorities, funding and how to attract students to agriculture. It was clear that everyone was passionate about agriculture and determined to engage future generations for development and sustainability of the industry.

After a busy start to the week, Dr Bo (Vietnam) was intrigued by the Centre for Sleep Science but especially interested in the Chickpea experiments. The research into water use efficiency and salinity tolerance was of particular interest to our South Asian colleagues. 

CSIRO – Floreat
We spent the afternoon with the CSIRO team at their Floreat facility. Our group was taken through the soil science basics in a demonstration of how CSIRO engages with farmers through training and field days.

Dr Bo demonstrated his soil science background by taking and examining a soil core from the CSIRO lawn

We were also shown a sheep nutrition study into the effect of diet on methane production and productivity, a new saltbush variety, and productivity testing of new lupin accessions recently collected from the Fertile Crescent region. 

Day 2 – Bunbury

Department of Agriculture and Food

Day 2 was a bus tour with Western Australia’s Department of Agriculture and Food (DAFWA). We visited a seed potato farm, a dairy farm and a vegetable packaging facility. The group gained a lot from interacting with the farmers and learning about the industry from their perspective. 

Wearing biosecure and fashionable plastic shoe covers to inspect the seed potato crop

At the DAFWA office we learned about the wine industry (even tasting a couple of new varieties) and a fledgling jujube (Chinese red date) industry. Some PAC members wondered why they weren’t exporting jujube to Australia at those prices!

Day 3 – Perth

Crawford Fund
We started the final day with a breakfast hosted by the Western Australian committee of the Crawford Fund. PAC members were very interested in the potential collaboration and training opportunities for their researchers back home.

Ruth Oniang'o (Kenya) and Leah Buendia (Philippines) show off their fluoro vests
Australian Grains Centre and Murdoch University
Next we headed off on the bus for a tour of the impressive Australian Grains Centre at the CBH bulk grain storage and handling facility, and a visit to Murdoch University

In an example of projects delivering benefits to both Australia and our developing-partner countries, we were shown an experiment focused on improving legume productivity through development of the rhizobia (nitrogen-fixing bacteria). Legume species collected from South Africa were being tested for their potential in improving Western Australian grazing systems. Ruth Oniang’o (Kenya) was particularly impressed with the African focus of the Murdoch team and was interested in further engagement with the researchers. 

Kings Park and Botanic Garden

Mr Xaypladeth from Laos taking a selfie with Perth in the background
We finished the day with a visit to Kings Park and Botanic Garden, and were fortunate enough to be guided by our enthusiastic, former botanist, bus driver Laurie. After a couple of quick snaps overlooking Perth and at the end of a very busy week, there was still some time for exploring the city and shopping! The tradition of gift-giving remains strong amongst our Councillors and they welcomed the opportunity to buy some Australian souvenirs to present to colleagues back home.  

It was a very productive, interesting, funny and exhausting week. Everyone seemed to have confidence in my calm exterior and trusted I had everything in control. Underneath though I was extremely relieved each day as we arrived and departed on time, didn’t get lost and, most importantly, didn’t lose anyone along the way.


Rebecca McBride, Communications Officer