The Malleability of Participation: Agricultural research and neoliberalism in Bolivia

A new paper title: ‘The Malleability of Participation: The Politics of Agricultural Research under Neoliberalism in Bolivia’ with Kees Jansen and Carolina Gonzalez has been published online in Development and Change Journal

Please see below my post/summary of this research in Bolivia.

At the beginning of the 2000s, the public research model represented by the experimental stations of the Bolivian Andes collapsed.  As part of the administrative decentralization law enacted in 1995 the Bolivian Institute of Agricultural Technology (IBTA) was closed in 1998 and replaced by the Bolivian System of Agricultural Technology (SIBTA) four years later.  The decentralization process was part of broader policy packages starting in 1985 that advocated for a reduced role of the state in rural development, bowing to pressure from international financial institutions as the IMF and the World Bank (Assies, 2003; Perrault, 2007).  SIBTA dispensed with the experimental stations. They were transferred to the departmental governments that did not have either the budget to maintain the stations and research staff nor the experience to manage these centers.  The institutional gap generated during this period of transition facilitated their progressive abandonment. Some stations were at the mercy of the civil unrest of the social struggles in the Andes under the leadership of Felipe Quispe and the Pachakuti Movement, along with the demonstrations against water privatization (water war) in Cochabamba and the coca farmer blockades in the Chapare region against the neoliberal economic project (Albó, 2003)[1].  Some stations were dismantled while in others the abandonment and time corrode the infrastructure, machinery and laboratories.  Gene banks of crops such as tubers and Andean roots, minor cereals, forages, camelides, sheep, and fruit species, as well as documents and passport sheets were lost, making it impossible to continue with any on-station research (Coca 2010; Quispe, 2005).

New PictureSIBTA contributed to the advent of non-state actors, especially non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in agricultural research and extension services. These organizations were seen as an alternative to the ineffective, politicized and bureaucratic state-driven research centers (Kaimowitz, 1993).  It was thought that their privileged presence at the local level and their technical capacity away and protected from political control of the state gave them a privileged position to generate research processes relevant to society (Hartwich, et al., 2007a; 2007b). Words like participation, market-based demand for technology and the strengthening of farmers’ capacities started to be dominant (Ranaboldo, 2002). A new way of governing science production lead by neoliberal politics emerged.

Using the case of PROINPA, a national NGO and a forerunner in agricultural research in the Bolivian Andes, our new paper discusses how neoliberal restructuring embraced an increased use of participatory methods by research organizations that once were part of the state system for agricultural research but had become privatized.  Inspired by Foucault’s work on governmentality and neoliberalism, we conceptualize participation as a productive new way of governing people, a technology of government, rather than a simply repressive tool through which power is exercised.  We show how PROINPA shaped participatory methods to create moments of ‘real’ participation. Although PROINPA used participation mainly for their managerialist effectiveness, it also had to play politics to balance its notions of technical expertise, globalizers and developers wishes with local contexts and demands.  We argue that participation is not only about power, social relations and processes, but is also about reconnecting people and things and whether it makes sense to people, researchers and farmers alike, heavily relies on technological success. Our new paper seeks to contribute to the ongoing debate of participation in development and the normalization of participatory methods in agricultural technology innovation and its implications for thinking about technological improvement and politics

[1] The invaded statation were: Patacamaya station in August 2002, the Kallutaca and Huayrocondo stations in September and October of 2003, and the Belén station in 2004 (El Diario, 2004; El Diario, 2005).


Albó , X. (2003). Pueblos indios en la política. La Paz: Plural-CIPCA.

Assies, W. (2003). David versus Goliath in Cochabamba: Water rights, neoliberalism, and the revival of social protest in Bolivia. Latin American Perspectives, 30(3), pp.14–36. Available at:

Hartwich, F., Alexaki, A., & Baptista, R. (2007a). Innovation systems governance in Bolivia: lessons for agricultural innovation policies: Intl Food Policy Res Inst.

Hartwich, F., & Jansen, H. G. (2007b). El rol gubernamental en el proceso de innovación agropecuaria: La experiencia de Bolivia. Research briefs.

Kaimowitz, D. (1993). The role of nongovernmental organizations in agricultural research and technology transfer in Latin America. World Development, 21(7), 1139-1150.

Perrault T. (2007). ‘De la ‘guerra del agua’ a la ‘guerra del gas’: gobernabilidad de recursos, neoliberalismo y protesta popular en Bolivia’. In, Crespo C. and Spronk S. (eds) 2007. Después de las Guerras del Agua, Plural Editores. La Paz, Bolivia.

Ranaboldo, C. (2002). Asistencia Técnica y Sector Agropecuario Campesino: Y si dejáramos de pensar en “un sistema”?, Condiciones y Posibilidades Productivas del Campesino Andino en el Libre Comercio. La Paz.

The Return of the State in Agrarian Development and its Contribution to Food Sovereignty in Bolivia

A summary of my paper in the Journal of Agrarian Change on the return of the state in Bolivia, and in general in Latin America!

  In the 20th century several Latin American countries turned to state control of agricultural production and commercialization to meet domestic demands for food (e.g. through marketing boards), but since the mid-eighties this state intervention declined due to a strong process of liberalization.  More recently, we see a return of the state in Latin America, driven by the so-called ‘New Left’, of which the Bolivian case is one example (besides Argentina, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela).  Once in power, the Movement towards Socialism (MAS) government officially rejected the dominant food regime led by large-scale industrial agriculture in the east of the country.  It prioritized peasant and communitarian economies and conceptualized the state as the main instrument to realize change.


A recent study led by CIAT in collaboration with the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group at Wageningen University, and funded by the Collaborative Crop Research Program from McKnight Foundation, explored the current role of the Bolivian state to enhance food sovereignty.  It asked how the Bolivian state has tried to implement agrarian policies in the agro-chain as an alternative to the dominant food system in the country to benefit small farmers and national food sovereignty.

To address this question, the study examined the case of the Empresa de Apoyo a la Producción de Alimentos (EMAPA, Company for the Support of Food Production).  EMAPA, created in 2007 as one of the 18 new public companies financed with revenues from hydrocarbons and minerals, has to support production, commercialization, and stabilization of the agricultural market (rice, wheat, maize and soybean).  EMAPA offers seeds, agricultural inputs, and technical assistance to small and medium producers with 0 per cent interest loans and purchases from small and medium producers to offer an alternative to the vertically integrated systems of commercialization dominated by the agribusiness sector.



By focusing on EMAPA, we studied the capacity of the Bolivian state to intervene in rural development, to enhance food sovereignty, and to increase their control over regional elites and international non-state actors that dominate in Santa Cruz, the department where EMAPA concentrates most of its intervention. We examined three aspects of this state intervention for food sovereignty: a) The institutional arrangement to meet its goals; b) the relative autonomy of the state to formulate and implement alternative views on agrarian production and its independence from actors who may affect the fulfillment of its objectives; and c) the capacity of state organizations to carry out these alternatives that enable food sovereignty in favor of small farmers.


Far from the often-heard criticisms of the State intervention, this study shows how the Bolivian government has extended the much needed state’s support (credit and inputs) to places and people where it did not exist, helping small farmers to carry out agricultural production.  However, for the most part the findings question the lack of state leadership in generating technological changes to break small farmers’ dependency ties with the agro-industrial sector and adapt agricultural technology to local problems. It also makes clear the immense difficulties that the Bolivian government faces in bringing food prices under control and enabling food production for poor people, especially in the cities. These have included popular protests against EMAPA, the skyrocketing of food prices in 2008 and 2010 and the lack of state capacity to intervene in food production and commercialization.

If you want to read more about the findings of this study, please visit this link or e-mail us.