Hamish John Appleby/IWMI

Resource-poor women farmers benefit by forming collectives

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Collectives enhance productivity and improve livelihoods

Poor and landless farmers can sustainably improve their livelihoods by pooling their land, labor, capital and skills in self-organized collectives. These benefits are especially important for rural women who, through these collectives, can further develop their skills and knowledge to sustainably increase their farm productivity and create viable livelihoods for themselves and their families. Very importantly, collectives enable tenant farmers to increase their bargaining power vis-à-vis landlords in feudal contests. That is the overall conclusion of our research based on an action research project in Nepal and eastern India, recently published in the Journal of Agrarian Change.

In 2015, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) along with a network of local NGO partners initiated a project that aimed to address the needs of marginal and tenant farmers, especially women. In the region, the Eastern Gangetic Plains, these farmers are often landless or work on tiny, scattered plots. They are further challenged by climate change and the migration of men to cities for work. At the same time, communities in this region have long experienced deep-rooted inequalities of caste, class, gender and ethnicity, as a result of which most development initiatives to date have largely benefitted medium to large male farmers who own land and have access to capital.

This project adopted a collective approach, building on research on similar initiatives undertaken elsewhere, focusing especially on women's farm collectives in Kerala and Telangana in India, which have demonstrated that they were typically more productive --- and gain higher profits --- than individual family farms.

Levels of cooperation

The project goal was to introduce irrigation as a way to improve yields, and to do so by encouraging landless and marginal farmers to work together as a group. In six villages, two each in Nepal’s Terai region and the states of Bihar and West Bengal in India, the team followed a participatory process of networking and dialogue to facilitate landless and marginal farmers, including women, organize themselves into collectives.

Of the 20 farmers’ collectives formed (each with 4-10 members) four different categories could be observed, based on the extent of cooperation and whether land was leased or privately owned. “Fully-integrated cooperation” involvedfarmers pooling their land and labor for all crops across all seasons. “Medium-level cooperation” involved pooled land and labor for some crops and seasons, but not all. In terms of gender composition, five collectives were of women only, three of men only and 12 included both genders.

Pooled resources produce more

Despite the diversity in their levels of cooperation and gender composition, some benefits accrued to all the collectives, while others were stronger under fully integrated cooperation. All collectives reported much higher yields of wheat and rice than they had achieved as individual farmers prior to forming groups. Many factors drove this encouraging result, the pooling of contiguous plots of land being especially important. This helped enlarge plot size, making the use of the irrigation pumps by the project more economical and, indeed, even feasible. The irrigation technology would not have been adopted on small, scattered plots. Working together also enabled the speedy and timely completion of agricultural operations.

An important social benefit was the greater bargaining power the collectives gave to farmers. They were able to negotiate lower rents for land leased from powerful landlords and also refuse to provide landlords with unpaid labor which was customarily demanded of them before. In Nepal, collectives were better able to access government subsidies.

Women empowered

Women especially benefitted from the skills they learnt, such as operating irrigation machinery, and taking on tasks previously done by men, thus promoting their independence as farmers. As Janaka Devi Chaudary, a woman in one of the Nepali collectives, commented, “When we were girls, we were not allowed to ride bicycles or go to school. I have learned … to cycle and to write. Similarly, I have learned to operate pumps and spray machines.” (Additional aspects of gender are discussed in another publication).

Of course, there were difficulties too, mostly in terms of labor coordination (such as group members not always turning up for work on time) and gender equity (such as the limited voice women had in groups with few women). Notably, fully-integrated collectives where members had little private land outside the group experienced fewer labor-sharing problems, since they faced less conflicts of interest. We expect that over time, as groups with medium-level integration enjoy greater economic benefits and build trust, they will bring more private land into joint cultivation. This could be further facilitated by connecting the groups in each region into a federated structure. 

Overall, our research shows that forming collectives can help farmers challenge long-entrenched power relations in feudal settings, adopt new technology and improve productivity. In so doing, the collectives can sustainably improve livelihoods for resource-poor and landless farmers, especially women. We hope that other development efforts will adapt this approach in order to give poor women farmers the skills and mutual support they need for economic empowerment. 

Additional reading:

We thank Deepa Joshi (WLE/IWMI), Arunima Hakhu and Bryce Gallant (both consultants with CGIAR's research program on Water, Land and Ecosystems), and Stephanie Leder (researcher, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Uppsala) for their valuable inputs.

Bina Agarwal is Professor of Development Economics and Environment, Global Development Institute, The University of Manchester, and Fraser Sugden is Senior lecturer of Human Geography, University of Birmingham.

This study was funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) with additional support from the CGIAR Research Program on Water Land and Ecosystems (WLE).

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Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDFIDDGISSDC, Sida and others.