5 Aiding the recovery of agriculture and farmer livelihoods
Building the capacity of extension staff, NGO workers and farmer groups was a crucial component of the ACIAR projects in Aceh. Technical knowledge gained by Aceh extension staff enabled them to diagnose constraints to the re-establishment of crop production and associated income generation after the tsunami, and improved the advice and information available to farmers.
One of the biggest challenges in restoring agriculture in Aceh was encouraging farmers to be independent, rather than dependent on external aid. In Aceh, only one-third of farmers could afford to plant rice three times per year after the tsunami. The rest planted only once per year because of poor infrastructure and lack of capital, and many consumed the profit from aid-assisted crops that was intended to support them for the next planting season. Farm production suffered as a result of lack of capital, which farmers used for restoring other aspects of their farms after the tsunami.
Involving farmers in field trials and monitoring activities was vital to the success of the ACIAR projects. The projects’ emphasis on communication and information sharing through meetings, interactive workshops, newsletters and publications enabled rapid exchange of information on practices that could be used to recover from the tsunami and improve productivity. Productive crops motivated others to return to farming. Farmer-to-farmer learning visits enabled farmers to learn techniques of crop production in other areas and apply new ideas to their own farming systems. Aid-assisted farmer training in production management, compost making, crop rotations, soil management and stubble management could be useful in these cases.
Immediately after the tsunami in Aceh, there was a need for training of farmers and agricultural officers in restoring inundated farmland. Major difficulties in delivering this training included lack of local agricultural staff because of the high death toll, and lack of information about post-tsunami agricultural management. Although aid groups were generous with seed, fertiliser and equipment after the tsunami, there was often little follow-up support or advice. This is not surprising, given the lack of knowledge about post-tsunami agronomic problems. Aid groups, local agricultural advisers and farmers need training in what to expect and how to overcome production problems caused by seawater inundation and sediment. If training activities are coordinated and delivered to a wide cross-section of aid and extension staff, a consistent message is distributed, ensuring that farmers and field staff receive the same information and the appropriate support.
The training topics could include:
- soil salinity, including operation of electrical conductivity (EC) meters and electromagnetic field measurement (EM38) equipment
- soil acidity, including operation of pH meters and pH kits
- soil sodicity
- soil texture, including use of the ‘ribbon’ test (see Section 3)
- soil structure, including visual assessment
- soil organisms, including visual assessment
- the importance of organic matter
- sampling protocols for soils to be used in laboratory analysis
- monitoring and recording of test results
- typical crop responses to salinity, nutrient deficiencies and waterlogging
- assessment of sites and crops for salinity and nutrient impacts, especially visual indicators
- remediation methods to improve crop production.
Demonstration trials to compare varieties and nutrient amendments could form part of the training.
Soil testing facilities
The 2004 tsunami destroyed the Assessment Institute for Agricultural Technology (BPTP) Aceh’s soil laboratory. Restoring the laboratory was a high priority to enable rapid testing of tsunami soils for salinity and nutrient levels. Tests required included pH, electrical conductivity, chloride, and the major nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Basic equipment needed for BPTP’s soil laboratory in the Banda Aceh laboratory included:
- end-over-end shaker for preparing soil extracts
- chemicals for soil and plant analysis
- distilled water for preparing samples
- computer and printer
- power supply regulator.
Rebuilding technical and quality assurance capacity was crucial to ensure that testing and results were reliable. Partnering with an established quality-assured laboratory to analyse replicate samples would enable data checking and build confidence in the laboratory.
The Aceh projects showed that training sessions needed to include ample time for discussion, interaction and sharing of stories. Practical demonstrations of new practices or technologies were also needed, coupled with hands-on experience of techniques until participants were confident.