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Participatory Guarantee Systems: A Transformative Public Policy to Boost Organic Farming in Bolivia

26 Jan 2018

  • Author(s): Eduardo Lopez Rosse

Participatory Guarantee Systems: A Transformative Public Policy to Boost Organic Farming in Bolivia
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series Linking Resilience Thinking and Transformative Change, launched to coincide with the Resilience 2017 Conference, Resilience Frontiers for Global Sustainability, hosted by the Stockholm Resilience Centre and the Resilience Alliance in Stockholm, Sweden in August 2017. In this series, experts discuss examples of policy reform and their potential to foster transformative change and social-ecological resilience for sustainability. The series contributes to a better understanding of the political processes underlying a range of policy approaches and reforms, and aims to inform global policy debates about the kinds of change processes that promote sustainability and resilience. It complements the UNRISD panel organized at the conference.

A social and industrial revolution is underway in Bolivia. With a new Constitution in 2009, based on the Vivir Bien, or Living Well paradigm, the country is promoting an eco-social approach to development. As well as nationalizing the main fossil fuel and water services, there is a strong emphasis in the Constitution on the right to safe and nutritious food for all. This think piece reviews policy reforms introduced to guarantee the right to food and considers their transformative potential.

Eduardo Lopez Rosse is a Postgraduate Researcher in Socio-Environmental Economics at the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (CATIE) in Costa Rica and a PhD candidate at the CIDES-UMSA-UNAM Programme. He has worked actively in organic farming associations in Bolivia, including contributing to the PGS scheme discussed in this think piece.

Living Well and the drive for food sovereignty

The Vivir Bien or Living Well Paradigm was adopted by the Socialist Political Party (MAS-IPSP) of Bolivia as the principal slogan for its development public policy before its candidate Evo Morales Ayma, distinctive for his indigenous origins, defeated the right-wing political parties in the 2005 presidential election. Living Well is based on the idea of living in solidarity, equality, reciprocity, and in harmony with mother earth rather than seeking growth, consumerism and competition (Villalba 2013). It refers back to indigenous traditions and represents an alternative to the Western development model. An important part of Living Well is ensuring food security and food sovereignty, defined by Via Campesina as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”

Of the policy reforms implemented in line with the new Constitution, the most significant in this context are those surrounding the decolonization of food production. It involves unlearning what the Green Revolution taught, such as the misuse of agro-chemicals that are dangerous for native species, farmers and consumers in the mid- and long term, and reversing the introduction of imported GMOs (genetically modified organisms) such as soy in Bolivia, which is endangering local grain varieties such as quinoa and amaranth.

Quality assurance to promote organic agriculture

One of the key goals of this new paradigm is to increase organic agriculture and promote short organic food supply chains as part of ensuring the right to healthy food for all. Bolivia faces two main challenges in developing organic agriculture: The first challenge, which this piece will focus on, is how to ensure that organic farming standards (such as not using chemical pesticides) are properly applied throughout the food supply chain. In addition, more needs to be done to link organic farming to other legal frameworks such as Law 775/2016 on Healthy Food Consumption, and Law 388/2013 on Peasant Economical Organizations. It remains challenging, however, to increase the share of organic produce being farmed and to satisfy the increasing demand for organic produce which is used both to supply national procurement programs and for local consumption.

To respond to the first challenge, an innovative and participatory quality assurance mechanism, the Participatory Guarantee System (PGS), was introduced as part of the new legal framework (Law 3525/2005). The PGS is a third party certification system with peer-to-peer verification of organic farming standards. It is based on trust and inclusiveness, which reduces certification time and costs. The PGS follows global IFOAM (International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements) guidelines such as transparency, horizontality and inclusion for all actors. The standards to which participants in the PGS have to adhere are set out in Law 3525/2005 and include
  • avoiding the use of chemical pesticides;
  • using organic inputs in farming;
  • avoiding parallel farming of organic and conventional crops in the same area.
The law also requires all organic farmers to gain certification via the PGS. At national level, standards are monitored by the Unidad de Coordinacion del Consejo Nacional de Produccion Ecologica (UC-CNAPE), which involves both public and private actors, and the Servicio Nacional de Sanidad Agropecuaria e Inocuidad Alimentaria (SENASAG).

Batallas organic farm and PGS committee inspection (Lopez 2013)

The Participatory Guarantee System as a mechanism of transformative change

Two elements of the PGS make it transformative. First it creates short organic food supply chains, reducing the number of intermediate links and where possible making the link between farmer and consumer a direct one. This creates closer commercial relationships between farmers and consumers, as well as improving the quality of the produce as it moves quickly from field to fork.

Bio-Fairs (or Bio-ferias) are a second transformative element. Run by farmers, service providers and consumers, Bio-Fairs are held periodically in 6 Bolivian provinces where local farmers sell surplus produce. As well as being an opportunity for these different actors in the community to come together to exchange organic produce, money and experiences, they also create awareness of civic ecology or local environmental stewardship.

The PGS also has the advantage of being a very flexible measure, each PGS varying depending on the natural, financial, physical, social, human, political and social makeup of the area in which it functions. They can differ in geographic scope (national or municipal), composition (public or private), and social and cultural context (indigenous, peasant farmer or community). The most successful PGSs tend to be at the municipal level, particularly when they receive budgetary support from local government. In a private PGS, the members develop their own standards for organic farming based on guidelines from the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movement (IFOAM) but without necessarily following the national organic guidelines which sometimes compromises the organic certification process.

Produce on display at a Bio-Fair (Lopez 2014)

Key successes and benefits of the Participatory Guarantee System

In the 12 years since its introduction, the Participatory Guarantee System has produced solid results. Since 2012, 7000 farmers have been trained in agro-ecology and there are 17 functioning PGSs. There are 650 certified organic farmers and 2700 are classed as in transition, totaling around 3400 organic farmers in the highlands, valleys and tropical regions. Overall, organic farmers have seen increases in their incomes, in particular when farming potatoes, beans and broad beans.
Promoting organic agriculture through the PGS contributes to all three dimensions of sustainable development.

  • Non use of agro-chemicals
  • Environmentally-friendly agricultural practices
  • Non-timber forest products as well as agricultural ones can be certified as organic

  • Inclusion for all actors in the short organic value chains
  • Peer-to-peer verification (social control)
  • Participatory certification
  • Flexible implementation model
  • Recognition of ancestral and traditional community practices (cosmovision)

  • Short organic value chains
  • Reduced transaction costs
  • Direct marketing
  • Better incomes for farmers

The PGS promotes transformative change, including for organic family farmers who can ensure healthy food security for their children and sell their surplus at local Bio-Fairs, improving their livelihoods and contributing to the well-being of the community. In spite of the remaining challenges for organic agriculture, these farmers promote a new and clean alternative to mainstream products which are more beneficial for health and the environment.

A facilitating mechanism like the PGS makes organic farming more resilient by allowing the active participation of all actors in short organic food supply chains which reduces transaction costs. They are also a means to lobby for the adoption of favourable public policies at national and local levels. Resilience is also built through Bio-Fairs where all actors’ ability to face up to shocks is strengthened by interaction with others. Finally organic crops themselves contribute to community resilience: they are more diverse and more resistant to diseases than mono-cultures, meaning that family farmers have more options to secure their livelihoods when facing extreme weather events such as heavy rains and drought.

DeLind, Laura. 2002. "Place, work and civic agriculture: common fields for cultivation." Agriculture and Human Values, 19 (3): 217-224.
Villalba, Unai. 2013. “Buen Vivir vs Development: a paradigm shift in the Andes?” Third World Quarterly, 34(8): 1427-1442.



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.