Costa Rica

Women take-up a role in the national advocacy platform

Jean-François Le Coq

In Costa Rica, the focal National Farmer Organisation (NFO) for the ESFIM programme is the Peasant Women’s Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Mujeres Campesinas – CMC). This organisation was established in 1995 as a sub-committee of the National Peasant Platform (Mesa Nacional Campesina – MNC), which became an autonomous association in 1999. This organisation aims at supporting economic and social initiatives for women in rural areas. The CMC is actually an affiliation of 42 active women’s organisations throughout the country, representing approximately 700 women involved in productive projects.

Costa Rica is characterised by good democratic functioning of its government institutions. Although the power of the State and public institutions are still important, they have been gradually reduced in the last 20 years. The CMC as well as other small and medium producers’ organisations have been engaged in a rather complex and difficult political struggle to defend their interests since the 90s, when Costa Rica shifted towards more liberal policies. The resulting orientation of the country regarding agriculture has been towards the promotion of agricultural export. Small-scale agriculture has received only minor support from agricultural institutions. Moreover, Costa Rica underwent an economic transition in the 1990s, with the development of a service sector and the reduction of the agricultural sector’s share of the GDP to less than 10 per cent. Hence, Costa Rican agriculture is characterised by the coexistence on the one hand of highly intensive, generally large farms oriented towards the export market and small and medium family farms on the other. Small-scale farmers have trouble obtaining resources for investment and reaching markets with their products in good condition.

Representation of small and medium farmers has been fractured since the 90s, with the creation of several organisations having different leaders, orientations and strategies. The quality and intensity of dialogue between these farmer organisations and the Ministry of Agriculture has fluctuated greatly during the last decade, depending on the government’s focus. Even though new strategies for dialogue have been developed, the position of small and medium farmers on the whole has been very marginally taken into account during the past decade.

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Development challenge

The challenge for small and medium farmers to access markets has been identified through various activities. First, a national congress with more than 50 representatives of farmer organisations throughout the country was held in 2005 to consider small-scale farmer issues. Then, in 2007-2008, a National Farmer Organisations’ Platform (NFO-P) was consolidated within the framework of the Costa Rican component of the “Regional project to support rural business organisations in Central America”, implemented by CIRAD under supervision of the Regional Unit of Technical Assistance (RUTA). This platform, denominated “Plataforma de Organizaciones Rurales y Empreseariales (PoryE), helped to identify development challenges. A research agenda to investigate the issue of small farmers’ access to markets was detailed during the first ESFIM phase, in 2009, and especially during the workshop that took place March 24-25, 2009. During this workshop, in which representatives of national and regional organisations participated, the issues and obstacles hindering small farmers’ access to market were defined, and three areas for action were identified (CMC, 2009): 1) organisational support, 2) bolstering negotiation capacity, and 3 ) policy lobbying.

Based on the results of this workshop and taking into account the current policy process, a dialogue was conducted within the NFO-P in 2010. This NFO-P is an open platform of farmer organisations for the entire country. During the ESFIM project, members of the NFO-P included representatives of national organisations such as CMC, ANAMAR (Asociación Nacional de Mujeres Agro-industrial Rurales), MNC (Mesa Nacional Campesina), JNFA (Junta Nacional de Feria), UPA National (Unión de Pequeños y Medianos productores agrícolas), CORFOGA (Corporación para el fomento ganadero), and grassroots organizations such as AFAR (Asociación de Familias Agricultoras Ramonenses) and ACOAGRO (Asociación Cotobruseña de Agricultura). In October 2010, two initial study themes were identified in consensus between the NFO-P participants: 1) an assessment of information on market in Costa Rica; and 2) an assessment of small farmers’ limits and constraints to access international markets. These two first research activities were launched in early 2010.

During ESFIM phase II (2011-2012), the research goals were updated in the period from August to October, 2011 to take into account the evolution of local needs and policy developments. Specifically, four elements were included. First, it became apparent from grassroots interactions in different regions that it was necessary to study the new food safety regulations and its implementation in rural areas. Second, following the demand of local organisations in the south of the country, the reactivation of regional markets was considered. Third, the importance of farmers’ fairs (Ferias del agricultor) as a way for small farmers to access markets and the debate around the JNFA management programme led to research on farmer fairs. Finally, with an emerging opportunity to develop a lobbying process on food sovereignty jointly with national assembly parliamentarian, a study of food sovereignty regulations appeared as an important new research subject.

The process of choosing the research themes was discussed in the NFO-P meeting. The choices were transparent and there was broad consensus among the participants. The main criteria were the concerns of grass root organisations and the opportunity for reviewing policy processes.

A coordinator was assigned to the project to help prioritise activities in ESFIM phase II, which were more oriented towards broadcasting information than conducting real research. In addition, CMC leaders and AGRINATURA representatives (WUR, CIRAD) adjusted plans and terms of reference of the activities in order to strengthen their research nature. One of the main difficulties in defining the thematic and research agendas was to reduce the number of possible research activities, as there were many topics and potential obstacles for policy process.

Collaborative research process

The structure of the NFO-P was used to monitor the entire process of ESFIM phase II. Regular meetings of the NFO-P (at least once per month during the 2010-2012 period) ensured dissemination of information about current policy situation and issues, progress on the various research topics, preparation of the workshops and future plans. The composition and participation of the NFO-P was relatively stable during the whole process. While certain groups were involved in only some aspects of the project, depending on their agendas and the specific theme, permanence of the process was ensured by the consistent and dedicated involvement of six members of national and local organisations.

A total of six research proposals were identified during ESFIM phase II (Table 7).

During the first phase (2009-2010), two research proposals reflected obstacles identified in the workshop that had taken place during ESFIM phase I:

  • Availability and accessibility of market information in Costa Rica for small farmers.
  • Assess barriers keeping small farmers from accessing international markets.

For the second step in 2010-2012, four new assignments were defined which were more in line with evolution of the policy agenda and identification of local needs:

  • Assess the operation of the SENASA law in Costa Rica: this was defined as a priority, as it affected a large sector of small farmers (raising cattle throughout the country). There was evidence that farmers had an unclear understanding of this new law, making it difficult to implement it and enforce compliance.
  • Study the condition of regional markets and how to improve them, with particular reference to the development of the southern region, following the request of the representatives of farmer organisations from the south.
  • Evaluate the impact of regulations on the Farmers’ Fairs (FF), as FF are an important means for farmers to access markets (as shown by the results of first study on market information). The discussion centred on the five-year policy planning of the national board of the farmers’ fairs, as well as the demand of local participants such as the Heredia regional committee.
  • Food sovereignty was considered as a possible flag theme for the various small and medium farmers organisations. Moreover, there was the possibility of an alliance with a national parliamentarian to address this subject.

Lessons learnt

  • The political context is an important factor for the output of the ESFIM project, as the lobbying process during the project (especially regarding food sovereignty) depended on the opportunity of alliance with parliamentarian groups. Moreover, the use of research products for advocacy process was limited by time constraints. The research reports were delivered late (between May and August 2012), thereby limiting their usefulness in the advocacy process. Adapting research material to the policy advocacy process is time consuming and needs careful planning. Moreover, the advocacy process can be managed without the development of specific technical material. For example, the important results in term of advocacy output in the southern region were not obtained with high-quality research inputs, but rather with the activation of the important participants using the social capital of one farmers’ representative.
  • Several issues would need to be addressed in order to strengthen NFO-led research into advocacy processes. First, the interest that the national farmer organisation has in conducting research and advocacy should be more carefully assessed. In the case of the CMC, although there was an interest in market issues, there was no experience in advocacy on this subject. Therefore it would have been useful to develop a training course on public policy analysis and advocacy. Secondly, a project should analyse the workings of the various parties concerned with policy decision making, and this should be linked to capacity building. And finally, the time available on the part of the national farmer organisation to participate in the programme should be more clearly defined.
  • There was no evidence of precise institutional change at the national farmer organisations, AGRINATURA nor at the national research level as a result of this project. This may have had to do with the fact that there were many different parties involved in the programme. Policy process and policy incidence are long-term processes that are affected by many variables and conditions. Technical studies are only one component of the process, and are usually not the key factors involved in new policy changes. To better grasp the relative importance of technical and other factors in policy process, it could be interesting to analyse a specific change in policy process with a monitoring and evaluation approach of advocacy support such as ESFIM programme.
  • The future of research-based evidence for policy processes in Costa Rica will depend on the main objectives of the future programme. If the main objective is to obtain better research and advocacy results, the challenge will be to develop a stronger platform of national farmer organisations involving cooperatives that have greater advocacy power and more technical resources to define solutions. During the final phase of the project and its follow-up, this problem has been partially solved with the creation of the national Agro-Food Platform (Mesa Agro-Alimentaria). Nevertheless, as this is very recent, we are not certain about the sustainability of this platform. If the objective is the strengthening of capacity, the main challenge will be to strengthen the existing platform in terms of advocacy and research. This may be difficult, as research is not the main priority of these organisations. Moreover, a change in how academic researchers are viewed should be effected; there is much reluctance on the part of national farmer organisations to contract consultants and national academic researchers.
  • There are several other lessons to be learned that could also be used in other countries. One is to create trust in the NFO platform. The human factor should also be considered. Organisation platform success not only depends on the organisations’ interests but also relationships between their representatives. Hence, members of the platform have to develop from the beginning a level of trust and confidence that enables them to overcome conflicts and differences of opinions in an atmosphere of mutual respect. This is one of the keys to sustainable functioning. Another key is the proper selection of the members of the platform (regarding genuine motivation, goals, capacity and experience) and the theme to be developed.