The social lessons of Project Puebla

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The social lessons of Project Puebla
Whyte, William Foote,
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by William Foote Whyte

Paper prepared for the Program on Policies for Science and Technology in
Developing Nations, Cornell University.

November I, 1975


by William Foote Whyte

The publication by CIMMYT (International Maize and Wheat Improvement

Center) of its final report on the Puebla Project (CIMMYT, 1974) provides

an opportunity to examine the lessons learned in an important and highly

publicized project in agricultural development. .The monograph presents

systematic and comprehensive agronomic and economic data, whose evaluation

I must leave to specialists in those fields. I shall concentrate here

on the social lessons to be learned from this project.

My purpose in writing this article is to point out that what seems to

me the most important social lesson to be learned from Project Puebla can

only be inferred from the monograph itself and is never clearly stated by

the authors. Since this conclusion seems to me to involve a veritable

revolution in the thinking of those undertaking agricultural development

projects, it is important that this interpretation be clearly stated and

documented. The basic point is that, while Project Puebla started out as a

program to demonstrate to small farmers the benefits they could achieve by

applying the findings of modern plant science research to the growing of maize,

the Project changed direction radically so as to incorporate knowledge that

the small farmers had gained from practical experience. The nature and

importance of this shift is the focus of this paper.


When Project Puebla was launched in 1968, building on the base of a

Rockefeller Foundation research program beginning in 1943, CIMMYT had already

achieved large Increases in wheat production In Mexico, and the new high

yielding varieties of wheat were having major impacts in other developing

nations. No comparable successes in corn yields had been achieved. The

differences in results may be attributed partly to the differences between

the two plants but also to differences in land tenure; The spectacular

Increases in wheat yields in Mexico had been achieved on large tracts of

irrigated land. Most of Mexico's corn was grownby small farmers in areas of

rain-fed agriculture.

These comparisons led CIMMYT planners to recognize the need to orient

their Maize program so as to demonstrate how small Maize farmers could profit

from the findings of research.

In consultation with INIA (the Mexican National Agricultural Institute),

CIMMYT selected a part of the State of Puebla for its research and develop-

ment project. Puebla suited the purposes of the project both in terms of

size of land holdings and importance of maize. The average farm size in

1967 was 2.7 hectares, with 68.4% of the farms being two and a half hectares

or less. 69.4% of the cultivated area was devoted to maize, the second

most important crop being beans (15.9%). We should note, however, that

even those living on farms in Puebla derived a large part of their incomes

from other activities than the growing of maize or beans. A project survey

of 251 farmers In 1967 yielded an average family income of $666.80 from the

following sources: (p. 7)

Sources of Family Income Percent

Net Income from crops 30.4

Net Income from animals 28.4

Off-farm wage income .23.7

Other non-farm income 17.0


"The monograph reports that (ix)

...The action program of the Puebla Project was organized
Initially to include four major components: (a) varietal
Improvement of maize, (b) research to develop efficient
recommendations on maize production practices, (c) assis-
tance to farmers in proper use of new recommendations, and
(d) coordination of the activities of the service agencies,
the project team, and the farmers. Another component -
soclo-economic evaluation was added during the first year.

While the Project was planned and financed primarily by CIMMYT, on the

basis of grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, it was carried out primarily

by Mexicans, and in fact the coordinators were Mexicans.


In keeping with the mission and expertise of CIMMYT, the original plan

called for concentration of agricultural research and development exclusively

upon maize. The project planners, of course, recognized that the farmers

would gain little benefit from information coming out of the research program

unless they had assistance in financing the new and increased inputs needed

and in securing the delivery of these inputs. They also recognized the

need to help protect the farmers against risks through crop insurance. There-

fore much of the field activity was concentrated upon working with agencies

providing credit, supplies, and crop insurance. But note that all of this

activity at first was focused around maize.

The Project's own figures (p. 85) give an estimate of a 30% increase

in maize yield among those adopting the new techniques over the years of

1969 through 1972. As the writers acknowledge, there is no way of determining

how much of the increase might have been achieved without the Project.

While this increase can be considered substantial, t -is hardly spectacular,

In comparison with the much higher increases achieved with high yielding

varieties of wheat supported by the new wheat technological package. (In

the judgement of the planners, hybrid corn seeds, which the farmers would

have to purchase, were not substantially better than the native varieties,

and therefore the emphasis in Project Puebla was not oh the introduction of

new varieties but rather on the improvement in agronomic practices.)

Probably the best index of the adoption of new maize technology by

farmers is found in the credit lists, since the new technology had higher

credit requirements than the technology traditionally used by farmers. In

1968 103 farmers were in the Puebla Program and the number grew rapidly to

4833 in 1970, covering an area of about 15.8% of that devoted to maize in

Puebla. After 1970, the number of adopters and the percentage planted with

the new technology continued to increase but at a much slower rate, reaching

only 7194 farmers and 25.8% of the area in 1973. The slowing down of this

Increase indicates some limitations in the effectiveness of the package the

Project was recommending which is now the focus of our attention.

Faced with this slowing down of progress, project staffers shifted their

efforts from trying to recruit farmers for the program to doing field

studies of the farms of the more successful non-adopters. The intellectual

revolution sprang out of the discovery or re-discovery of peasant rationality

in agricultural practices.

As Mauro Gorez put it to us,

In Mexico we had been mentally deformed by our professional
education. Without realizing what was happening to us, in
the classroom and in the laboratories we were learning that
scientists knew all that had so far been learned about agri-
culture and that the small farmers did not know anything.
Finally we had to realize that there was much we could learn
from the small farmers.


To oversimplify a complex set of findings, the researchers discovered

two agricultural production systems in use among the more successful non-adopters,

one involving the rotation of corn and beans, the other involving the inter-

planting of. the two crops.

In the rotational system, the farmer began with a planting of corn supported

by a rather heavy application of chicken manure. The second year, the farmer

planted beans without any fertilizer at all. For the third year, the farmer

reverted to corn but this time applied a small amount of chemical fertilizer -

or else he shifted back to the first year strategy, with another generous appli-

cation of chicken manure.

In the inter-planting system, the farmer planted beans between the rows

of corn, either at the same time or several weeks after he had the corn in.

With this system, the bean plants used the corn stalks to climb on, and, by

approximately doubling the intensity of the use of his small plot of land, the

farmer was able to increase his income from the land very substantially.

Inter-planting of corn and beans was strictly against the recommendations

of the planners of Plan Puebla. Struck by the obvious success of this violation

of the rules laid down by the experts, the researchers asked themselves: "Why

have we been telling people they should not inter-plant corn and beans?" The

first answer was that the experts claimed that such inter-planting complicated

the task of insect control. With the obvious success of the inter-planting

farmers, the researchers recognized that this was not a convincing argument.

When they had exhausted their efforts to discover a solid rationale for'the

expert ruling against Inter-planting, the researchers came upon the real origin

of that doctrine: "That is not the way the corn farmers do It in Iowa."

Fortunately, these discoveries did not lead the researchers to reverse

their previous orientation and go to the opposite extreme of assuming that the

farmers know everything and the professionals knew nothing. The researchers

found that, while the farmers were getting good results with the systems described

here, their strategies could yield still better results if modified by integra-

tion with knowledge coming out of laboratories and experiment station tests.

For example, the change agents explained to the farmers with the rotational

strategy that, while chicken manure was rich in certain elements needed by the

the plants, it was also totally lacking in some important plant nutrients. The

new recommendation called for application of a relatively small amount of

chemical fertilizer especially mixed to supply the nutrients lacking in chicken

manure. Furthermore, for farmers practicing both systems, the change agents

sought to point out that, when fertilizer was applied in the right amounts at

the right times, corn would flourish when seeds were planted half as far apart

as had been customary in Puebla. Such an integration of knowledge of profes-

sional and farmer produced markedly better results than were possible when only

one source of knowledge was used.


The advantages of integrating indigenous knowledge and practices with

research findings proved to be enormous, as CIMMYT's own report documents.

The report on research results four years into the project states (p. 28)

The studies of the maize-bean association demonstrated that
net income from the association was approximately double
that obtained with either maize or beans alone.

A year later, summarizing research results for 1972, the report states (p. 29)

Bean production increased remarkably when ten ton/ha of
chicken manure was added to the treatment (of other recom-
mended fertilizers)..... The common maize-boon association,
fertilized with nitrogen and phosphorous, produced 59% more
lysinethandid opague maize alone. The common maize-bean

association, fertilized with nitrogen, phosphorous, and
chicken manure, produced 2.39 times as much lysine as
opaque maize alone.'

It was not until 1973 that CIMMYT offered farmers recommendations which

"now included packages of production practices for the maize-pole bean associa-

tion as a result of research conducted during 1970-72"' (p. 52). Furthermore,

it was not until 1973 that CIMMYT adapted its organizational strategy to this

combination, the Union of Progressive Maize and Bean Farmers of Zone III

being formed in August of that year. These facts suggest that if CIMMYT had

begun to study the actual farming practices in Puebla with the beginning of the

project in 1967, project recommendations for the associated cropping of maize

and beans could have been ready three years earlier. In all probability, this

would have resulted not only in a gain in time but also in the level of accep-

tance of CIMMYT recommendations by the farmers, who had naturally tended to

discount even the valid recommendations of CIMMYT because some of them had

learned from experience that they could do better with their own customary


The report states (p. 81)

Clearly, the job of adjusting and delivering adequate tech-
nology, as well as that of inducing farmers to use the
recommended technology is very difficult, and is far from
being accomplished in the Puebla area.

The results reported by CIMMYT itself make it clear that the job would

have been much easier to accomplish if the planners had recognized at the outset

that the problem was not simply one of "adjusting and delivering adequate

technology" and "of inducing farmers lo use the recommended technology" but

1. Lysine is an amino acid which is present in only very small quantities in
ordinary maize. The great increase in lysine in the new opaque-2 corn makes
of a staple food product which was highly deficient in utilizable protein
a well balanced food capable of sustaining human life without any other food.

rather depended upon a creative Integration of the results of research with

the most effective agricultural practices prevailing among Puebla farmers.


The CIMMYT report contains many interesting practical conclusions

regarding problems of farmer organization and of the delivery of services.

Since those are well stated and documented in the report, I shall not deal

with them here.

My concern is with social lessons which can be drawn from the Project

but which are not brought out with sufficient clarity in the published


The Puebla Project provides important evidence regarding the limita-

tions as well as the potentialities of the crop specialization style of

research carried out by CIMMYT and other international agricultural research

Institutes. While we agree that specializing research on a very small number

of commodities is the best strategy for yielding the genetic advances

embodied In the high yielding varieties of the green revolution, this

strategy has important limitations particularly as it is applied to the

problems of small farmers in developing nations. As the report makes

clear (p. 15), leaders of CIMMYT came to recognize such limitations:

CIMMYT decided in early 1972 to terminate its participation
in the Puebla Project at the end of 1973. The project had
begun in 1967 as an experiment to learn how to rapidly increase
maize production among small, low income farmers. As the
project evolved, however, it became clear that the Project's
objectives would shift to more efficient strategies for in-
creasing production, net Income, and the general welfare of
small farmers in rain fed areas. CIMMYT felt that its man-
date was not broad enough to encompass all the activities that
clearly should be Incorporated in so extensive an undertaking.
This position was made known to the Governor of Puebla and the

Secretary of Agriculture, making clear CIMMYT's reasons for
withdrawing support, as well as the conviction that the project
should continue.

At this writing, the continuation of the Puebla Project has been

assigned to the Mexican National Agricultural University at Chapingo,

and, with strong backing from the Ministry of Agriculture, the new program

is undertaking to extend the lessons learned at Puebla to all of Mexico's

rain-fed agricultural areas. While the project promises to make a major

impact upon the development of agriculture in a large part of Mexico, it is

important to recognize that the Puebla lessons that leaders of the expanded

program are now seeking to apply are different in important respects from the

lessons that CIMMYT planners expected to teach with their original research


The Puebla experience also raises questions about the ability of

international research organizations such as CIMMYT to contribute to

national agricultural research and development programs. According to

the official rationale of leaders of such international centers, they

expect to serve the needs of world agriculture by working with and through

national agricultural programs, rather than by working directly with the


To strengthen national programs, the international center provides

not only information and materials (such as seeds of the new high yielding

varieties) but also extensive training of research and extension professionals

from developing nations and consultation with government and university

people regarding the establishment and development of national programs

in agricultural research.

While the leaders of such international centers are highly qualified

to advise national agricultural planners on what it takes to build a high

quality research program, the Puebla experience Indicates that the building

of a research and development program is beyond the boundaries of their

mission. They assume that the linking of research to development is the

responsibility of the national program, and yet very few national programs

have as yet demonstrated any competence in creating such effective linkages.

Furthermore, there is a danger that the well deserved prestige of the

international centers will lead planners in developing countries to imitate

that model in building their national programs. If they follow that road,

they may reach high research standards in highly specialized research on

particular crops without making any progress in linking that research to

development programs.

This does not mean that the present international centers should

seek to fill the gap cited here through developing their own research and

consulting program focused upon the human and organizational problems of

agricultural development. I am inclined to agree with what CIMMYT Deputy

Director Keith Finlay said to me: "Just because somebody can point out an

important need that is not being met by anybody else does not persuade me

that CIMMYT should undertake to meet that need."

While there is much to be said for this interpretation of the CIMMYT

mission, it Is important to recognize that, even as we add together the

international centers and national programs, we are left with important

gaps that are holding back progress in food production and distribu ion.

The chief gap is most simply expressed in the linkage indicated in the under-

lined word in the following phrase: research and development. If the inter-

national centers are not about to fill this gap, can national programs

demonstrate how It Is to be done?

and researcher
We should recognize that the importance of Integrating farmer/knowledge

is not simply the inspiration of the present writer. I grasped what seems

to me the most important social lesson of Puebla when Mauro Gomez (Project

Director 1970-73) told me flatly that Project leaders only began to realize

the potentials of the project when they recognized the necessity of studying

the agricultural practices of the small farmers and then eventually arriving

at a fruitful integration of the results of research in the plant sciences

with the most effective agricultural practices prevailing among small farmers

in Puebla. This was clearly no news to Heliodoro Diaz (Project Director

1970) who joined us in this conversation. In an informal seminar at Chapingo,

when I presented the same conclusion, it obviously came as no surprise to

Leobardo Jimenez Sanchez (Project Director 1967-70).

This situation presents us with an interesting paradox in the Sociology

of Science. If the project directors had already learned the major lesson

I am reporting here long before they explained it to me, why was this lesson

not clearly stated in the project report in whose writing both Jimenez

and Diaz participated?

One possible interpretation is that the writers were inhibited because

it might embarrass CIMMYT to acknowledge that the professionals were only

able to make satisfactory progress when they realized the necessity of

learning from the peasants. While such an explanation is plausible, it

does not accord with my impressions of the frankness and openness of both the

North Americans and Mexicans associated with CIMMYT and the Puebla Project.

Furthermore, since this conclusion seems to me an important advance in theory

and practice, it should hardly be embarrassing to CIMMYT to report that

It had overcome initial errors to gain important new knowledge.

It seems to me that the problem involves the theoretical framework

In which to place information. A conclusion only assumes its proper signifi-

cance when placed in a theoretical context. While I cannot speak with author-

ity on these matters I have the impression that the writers systematically

fitted their voluminous data into the theoretical frameworks provided by

the disciplines of agronomy and agricultural economics. The conclusions

reached, therefore, did not simply stand by themselves but rather assumed

broader significance in the context of an established theoretical framework.

For the analysis of behavior and organizations, no such generally accepted

theoretical frameworks yet exist. To present their own theoretical framework

in behavioral science terms would have required much more space for exposi-

tion and explanation than was necessary for the commonly accepted frameworks

In agronomy and agricultural economics, and this kind of emphasis might

well have seemed out of place in a publication of an institution dedicated

to the improvement of wheat and maize.


The Puebla case indicates that tradition and habit may be present in

the professional man or scientist as well as in the peasant. Why did the

professionals of Project Puebla at first insist that good practice required

leaving open space between the rows of corn? When I used this case in my

teaching, several :students misunderstood the point and thought that the

professionals were trying to persuade the Puebla farmers to use tractors.

Of course, this was not the case. The professionals were sufficiently

familiar with the problems and conditions of farming in Puebla to know that

a recommendation for the use of tractors by small farmers made no sense.

The point here is a more subtle one: the professionals failed to reckon

with the mutual dependence of the various parts of a farm management system.

In the farm management system of the corn farmers of Iowa, the empty

spaces between the rows of corn were required for efficient utilization of

the tractor. In turn, the tractor made rational economic sense under the

the prevailing conditions of Iowa farmers: large land holdings, relatively

large financial resources, low fuel costs, high labor costs, and a scarcity

of farm labor in relation to the large expanses of land under cultivation.

As Schumacher (1973) points out, in the long run the rationality of that whole

system must be questioned because of its heavy reliance upon now high priced

fossil fuel, which is bound to be exhausted early in the next century.

The point is important but beyond the scope of the present paper.

In Puebla, conditions for small farmers were drastically different:

small properties, scarce financial resources, and an abundance of labor (of

the family) in relation to the land under cultivation. Under this combination

of conditions, the more successful small farmers recognized that they had to

make the most intensive use of their small plots that was possible. It

was irrational to leave any large amount of space between the rows of corn -

particularly when the pole beans could climb on the corn stalks.

The point is that the recommendation regarding empty spaces between

corn rows was simply based upon habit and tradition among those who were

accustomed to thinking of good farm practices in terms of the most successful

farmers in the United States. The same conclusion can be drawn from the

failure of Project Puebla to include chicken manure in any of its early

recommendations. It simply was not customary for Iowa corn farmers to use

this fertilizer.


This conclusion suggests the importance of a reformulation of our

Ideas regarding the process of research and development in agriculture.

We are dealing here with ways of thinking about problems. If an existing

pattern of thinking is basically unsound, improvements in research are not

to be made with minor tinkering, but must involve a re-examination of

the pre-existing pattern and a basic reformulation. ;We need to deal first

with problem definition and underlying assumptions because they will

necessarily shape the research design. The problem definition of the

Puebla Project is clearly stated in the published report in the following

two points: I) "adjusting and delivering adequate technology" and 2)

"inducing farmers to use the recommended technology." The basic assumption

underlying this strategy, in the words of Gomez, was that "the small farmers

did not know anything." This is a statement of what I have called "the

myth of the passive peasant" (Whyte, 1975).

If you put together the problem definition quoted above with the

assumption stated by Gomez, then everything else in the planning for the

first several years of the Puebla Project naturally follows. The planners

assumed that they knew in principle what adequate technology was but had

to do some local research on conditions of soil, rainfall, etc. to learn

how to adjust this technology to Puebla. The planners recognized that

there would be problems in delivering this adequate-technology to the

farmers and therefore included in their plans some research and action on

the delivery system. The problem definition and the assumptions allowed

no room for research on the existing agricultural practices of the small

farmers of Puebla. Surveys were done to provide estimates of the acreage

devoted to corn, beans, and other crops, the size of land holdings, etc.,

but it did not occur to anyone until at least two years into the project

that the more successful among the farmers might have evolved a technology

that merited careful study.

A new design for research and development projects should provide a

sharp contrast to the strategy and policies of Puebla. The new strategy

begins by defining the problem as one of integrating knowledge gained by

agricultural researchers in their laboratories and field plots with know-

ledge gained by the more successful small farmers through their years of

practical experience. The underlying assumption here is the opposite of

that involved in "the myth of the passive peasant." We assume that profes-

sionals can be just as much influenced by traditions and habits as the

peasants and that, while the peasants do not know everything that would be

useful for them to know, they do have a solid base of knowledge gained

from experience and are no more resistant to change than the agricultural


This combination of problem definition and underlying assumptions

dictates a research design in which intervention is preceded by field

research in the local area, giving major attention to the agricultural

practices of the farmers with a view to learning about more and less effec-

tive native farming systems. Note that this strategy contrasts not only,

with that generally followed by plant scientists but also with that often

recommended by anthropologists and sociologists. In the past behavioral

scientists have seen the need for local area research primarily in terms of

learning about the social structure and culture of the community. We have

been Inclined unconsciously to assume that traditional agricultural prac-

tices were necessarily inferior to what would be recommended by the techni-


cally trained change agent, so we too have fallen into the trap of assuming

that the problem was one of helping the change agent to overcome "resistance

to change."

In this new approach, we would assume that the agricultural professional

may indeed have much of practical value to contribute to the farmers but

that the potential value of his contribution can only be achieved if profes-

sionals and farmers work together to integrate their diverse sources of


' f





The Puebla Project: Seven Years of Experience, 1967-1974.

El Bataan, Mexico.

Schumacher, E.

1973 Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.

New York: Harper and Row.

Whyte, W. F.

1975 Organizing for Agricultural Development. New Brunswick,

N.J.: Transaction Books, Inc.