Simple questions help solve complex problems

In Bolivia, residents make a list of resources like forests, fields, and streams.

In Bolivia, residents make a list of resources like forests, fields, and streams.

To give people what they need, it helps to know what they already have. That’s the premise for community and household surveys that SANREM CRSP researchers are completing, the first step in figuring out what people in developing countries need most to improve their lives and incomes.

Some surveys focus on family life: How many people live on your farm? Do any of them have jobs in town? How old are your children, and where do they go to school? Others send researchers into the community to ask broader questions: Where does your village get its water? How do farm products get to market? Who maintains the roads? Using such information, researchers can list a community’s assets and liabilities, a first step in determining how development programs such as SANREM can help them to do more with their resources.

Virginia Tech Professor Jeffrey Alwang is the lead researcher for SANREM’s Long-term Research Award (LTRA) Program 3, titled, “Watershed-based Natural Resource Management in Small-scale Agriculture: Sloped Areas of the Andean Region.” His project in Bolivia and Ecuador just completed a baseline survey covering land holdings and labor, natural resources, and other economic, social, political, and environmental facets of farm life in the Altiplano – the Andean Highlands. Analysis of researchers’ findings will be completed in February.

“The analysis will focus on why people do what they do,” Alwang said. “Do farmers earn more when they diversify their crops? How does diversification affect soil and water quality? Does higher education translate into more market participation? Do household incomes rise when people are better educated?” His research will address a range of challenges faced by residents of the region: climate and market change, reduced agricultural and natural-resource sustainability, increased risk of food insecurity.

Having mapped the region’s strengths and weaknesses, his team will apply principles of agronomy, integrated pest management, watershed processes, soil and other sciences to develop a model that government officials can use to predict how their decisions might lead to land-use changes and how those  changes are likely to affect people. Fertilizers and pesticides may improve crop yields, but will they pollute drinking water? A new road may make it easier for farmers to get crops to market, but will it cause soil erosion?

Three other SANREM projects also are completing surveys and analyzing the data. LTRA-1, which focuses on decentralization and property rights in forest communities of Uganda, Kenya, Mexico, and Bolivia, is researching how changing government policies will affect local people. In Bolivia and Peru, the LTRA-4 team is gathering information on climate and market changes with the aim of helping rural communities adapt to those changes. LTRA-5 researchers are studying data on marketing strategies and challenges for small-scale farmers in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Philippines.

In all cases, researchers hope their survey results will show which changes in policies and practices would most improve people’s livelihoods while protecting the environment. Alwang said the ideal use of the facts gathered by his team would be to understand how policies and other actions affect land use, incomes and livelihoods, and environmental quality. This information could be used to show officials making land-use policies that, if you do X, then Y will happen. Ultimately, that would improve decision-making.

“The ultimate utility of research is determined by whether it is applied to improve people’s lives,” Alwang said. “We are engaging community residents in the research process to build their confidence in it. With confidence in the research, localities will use the findings to make land-use decisions that both improve household well-being and are consistent with environmental sustainability.”