Last Wednesday, I sat down with visiting farmers from the delta region of Burma to encourage them to consider story-telling as a way of reporting while troubleshooting issues in the field. Pressured in the past by well-meaning foreign development workers or rigid project criteria, some farmers think that numbers are the only type of information acceptable. I’ve watched UHDP staff freeze up during monthly meetings and refuse to talk about on-going research projects because they’re convinced their observations and gut-feelings weren’t valuable. In my first year working with Kitichai, he repeatedly told me his Zanthoxylum rhesta nursery research was worthless because it wasn’t producing any numerical data.
Stories are natural ways that farmers communicate their observations and well-honed intuition. Farmer wisdom is actually years of research stored in their minds and orally transmitted, and uses words relating to taste, texture, temperature – words that don’t fit “research language” but are pearls to those smart enough to know the value. It was fun to see lightbulbs going on with the Burmese farmers when I was telling them to use mundane observations, unexpected results and simple vocabulary to weave a story about a problem they were trying to solve. And three years later, I was able to produce a report (Zanthoxylum – A Low-Profile Asian Crop with Great Potential) on the challenges of propagating Zanthoxylum tree seedlings in nurseries based on Kitichai’s “worthless” observations that they didn’t like receiving rainfall or standing in puddles of water.