Large scale irrigated rice farming: the state must take farmers’ perspectives into account

06 June 2014 | News story

A new report published by the Global Water Initiative (GWI) regional programme in West Africa “Spécialisation ou diversification ? Perspectives divergentes sur la riziculture irriguée par trois grands barrages dans le Sahel” stresses the importance of taking farmer perspectives into account in agricultural policies if food security and returns on investment in large scale rice farming projects are to be achieved. The report is based on recent research by the GWI on large scale irrigated rice farming in Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Specialisation or diversification?

The report published this week by the GWI highlights a clash of approaches. On the one hand, State agricultural policy – which is essentially one of specialisation – prioritises increasing production to meet national food security needs through rice monoculture, usually by promoting agribusinesses.

On the other hand, there is the approach taken by family farms and small producers. Family farms, although they vary in terms of their characteristics or available resources, generally share a different strategy from that of the State: that of diversification. Rice production may play a part in their vision of the future as a means of livelihood, but it is practised alongside other activities such as livestock, rain-fed farming of other cereals and vegetable crops, and gold washing. This diversification strategy enables family farms to reduce the risks attached to economic and climatic change, but does not necessarily result in the increased production aimed at by the State.

Supporting family farms to bring about local development

The GWI report concludes that the lack of fit between these two approaches is having a negative impact not just on the working of irrigation schemes and hence on self-sufficiency in food, but also on the poorest producers. In the words of Jamie Skinner, director of the GWI in West Africa, “we must seek to reconcile the aims of the state with those of smallholder farmers by strengthening the mechanisms of mutual accountability and supporting the inclusion of producers’ organisations in decision making”.

The report also highlights the fact that there is little evidence to support the idea that the agribusiness model is more productive than family farms, but, on the contrary, that there are concrete examples to demonstrate that these farms can be highly efficient. However, this depends on their having access to credit, secure land tenure, and agricultural advice which is appropriate to their needs.

The GWI hopes that the outcome of this analysis will be the beginning of an essential debate involving decision makers in the countries of the region, and that this will result in concrete policies which take into account the perspectives of farmers and support their livelihoods.