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

A report published on 3 June by the Global Water Initiative (GWI) regional programme in West Africa 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.

Women smallholders replanting rice in the irrigated area around the Bagré dam in Burkina Faso (Photo: Barbara Adolph/IIED)

The report (in French) is based on recent research by the GWI on large scale irrigated rice farming in Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso. Two workshops are taking place this week in Bamako, Mali, to share the results of this research and launch a debate among those involved in these issues. The first is on the theme of secure rights to irrigated land, and the second on the theme of agricultural advisory services.

The workshop on irrigated land tenure is organised as part of a partnership between the Global Water Initiative, CILSS (the Permanent Interstates Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel), ARID (Association Régionale pour l’Irrigation et le Drainage) and ILC (International Land Coalition). It began on Monday and brings together the main stakeholders at national and regional levels. For producers in the irrigated perimeters in Mali, and also in Senegal, Niger and Burkina Faso, securing land tenure rights is essential not only to enable the most productive farmers to develop, but also to help the most vulnerable groups, such as women and young people, to work their way out of their insecurity.

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 and of the discussions this week in Bamako 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. 

The full report is available to download.


Notes to editors 

Global Water Initiative (GWI) – The Global Water Initiative (GWI) in West Africa is part of a global programme of action-research and lobbying funded by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation.  The programme is carried out at local, national and regional level by IIED and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal and Guinea; it focuses on agricultural production linked to large dams and irrigation schemes. Its multi-stakeholder approach aims to support and to transfer responsibilities to small producers – both women and men – in order to place them at the centre of effective water management and food security policies with the aim of ensuring sustainable and secure livelihoods. More information is available from the GWI West Africa website.

IUCN – The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) assists in finding practical solutions to current environmental and development problems.  Valuing and conserving natural resources, ensuring effective and equitable management of their use, and developing nature-based solutions to meet the challenges of the world’s climate, of food supply and development are some of the areas in which IUCN works.  The union supports scientific research, manages projects across the world and brings together governments, NGOs, the UN and private enterprise with a view to generating policy, law and good practice.

IIED– The International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) is an independent, non-profit research institute. Set up in 1971 and based in London, IIED provides expertise and leadership in researching and achieving sustainable development (see: