Action research by WLE and its partners has enabled marginalized smallholders and landless women and men to pool land, labor and resources – gaining access to irrigation infrastructure, agricultural inputs and markets, in ways that substantially increase their bargaining power socially and politically.
The Eastern Gangetic Plains that spread across Bangladesh, India and Nepal are characterized by fragmented and small landholdings, and high rates of landlessness and tenancy. A large share of the rural population are landless tenant producers or people working on tiny, scattered plots. They experience disparities shaped by caste, class, ethnicity and gender – and face limited access to agrarian innovations and interventions which are critical to support climate change adaptation. Agrarian stress, combined with limited off farm labor opportunities, result in male out-migration, driving the feminization of agriculture. In these locations, marginalized and tenant farmers, particularly women, report increasing workloads and high food insecurity aggravated by constrained access to land, water, credit and other resources. Conventional approaches that focus on individual women fail to tackle deep-rooted, systemic issues of power divides and complex, contextual experiences of disparity.
Building on initiatives undertaken elsewhere on women’s farm collectives, an IWMI research project funded by the Australian Centre of International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) allowed WLE researchers and partners to support landless and marginal female and male farmers to self-organise into farmer collectives in six villages in Nepal’s Terai region and the states of Bihar and West Bengal in India. The project, initiated in 2015, resulted in the evolution of four models of farmer collectives which allowed groups to pool labor and share input costs, produce and profits, opening opportunities for future joint investment. The models, developed by the farmers themselves and adapted to diverse local contexts, showed differences in the levels of cooperation between members, and in whether land was leased or privately owned. The project aimed to enable a participatory process of networking and dialogue to facilitate landless and marginal farmers, particularly women, to jointly lease or consolidate land, facilitating the expansion of irrigation. The increased ability of members to invest in and access water and energy efficient technologies was a major incentive for the members to join the groups. An initial 16 collectives, established with the support of a consortium of government, research and NGO partners, spontaneously increased to 20 later on.
Ex-post analyses of the 20 farmer collectives undertaken over a period of four years show that the local social structure and individual situations of landlessness and marginality determined economic gains, levels of cooperation and whether the collectives experienced conflict, most notably over labor contributions, and how the conflicts were resolved. Regardless of the challenges, all collectives gained improved access to irrigation, were productive, and enabled marginalized women and men to challenge entrenched power relations. Independent analyses of the collective farming experience in Nepal and in India, documented as videos five years after production began, show that the collective farming approach successfully shifted entrenched power relations in water and land management to the benefit of marginal farmers, particularly poor, landless women. As of 2021, the groups in India have diversified into agro-processing, under the support of a new 3ie funded project. Groups in West Bengal now collectively produce organic bio-inputs, while in Bihar they are engaged in makhana processing. This opens up an exciting opportunity for integrated cooperation across the agricultural value chain.
The project’s approach of non-extractive research and learning from the groups’ experiences allowed researchers to document the everyday struggles of marginalized women and how they coped with domestic household tasks, family care and the increasing demands of subsistence – and productive – agriculture in constraining situations of climate vulnerabilities, male out-migration and contested access to water and other resources. This research shows how the deeply contextual nature of social, economic and political disparities impact productivity and inclusive agricultural and food security outcomes.
In sum, in highly stratified social settings marked by patriarchy such as in South Asia, collective action works best in enabling meaningful representation in decision-making, with collective boundedness and mutual vulnerability helping to negotiate and tackle entrenched gender inequalities at home, and on the land.
This four-year action research project showed that various factors – historical, contextual and individual – determined benefits and challenges experienced by different farmers’ collectives. These pilot collectives demonstrate the need for policy and institutional support, if such models of collective agriculture are to be sustained. In the words, of Bina Agarwal, whose work on women’s farmer collectives in India, guided this project, “Much work remains to be done to test, tailor, and develop multiple models of collective production, suitable to” diverse local contexts.