Larry Wong, Institute for Strategic & International Studies, Malaysia and
K.L. Heong, International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines
A: Farmer spraying his fields, B: 2 weeks later hopperburn occurs. Photo credit: P.V. Quynh
Planthopper outbreaks are stimulated by insecticide use that disrupt ecological balance and destroy biodiversity and ecosystem services (Way and Heong, 1994). Often known as the Green Revolution problem, planthoppers, monophagous and completely dependent on rice cultivation, are insects that naturally inhibit in rice in low numbers and have no effects on production. They are r strategists with high growth potentials that can explode exponentially when they “escape” from the natural control mechanisms. Insecticides are biocides and thus kill both pests and other animals in sprayed fields indiscriminately. Being able to take refuge between rice tillers and as eggs embedded into the stems, planthoppers tend to be less affected by insecticide sprays thus favoring their growth to outbreak proportions. The natural enemies on the other hand are mobile, often smaller in size and live in the water and are thus more vulnerable to the sprays.
Most insecticide sprays rice farmers in Asia use are applied as routine time schedules or for control of minor problems, like leaf feeding insects. Often the insecticides used have high toxicity to spiders, hymenopteran parasitoids, bees and other predators which are important providers of ecosystem services. Thus such practices do more harm than good and coupled with the dense canopy created by high seed and fertilizer rates, planthopper development is further enhanced. However the routine spraying continues despite government issuing bans, training of farmers, developing and promoting new resistance varieties and ecological methods. Unlike developed nations, pesticide marketing in Asia is inadequately regulated and as such pesticides are being sold as FMCGs with widespread non compliance to the FAO Code of Conduct. Farmers become victims having to finance their insecticide applications and subsequently suffer crop failure and descend into debt and poverty.
A common feature in a wicked problem is stakeholders have different perspectives of the best solution to the problem and continue to adhere strongly to them.
The persistent planthopper outbreaks caused by insecticide misuse thus constitute a complex problem with social-environmental issues that had been termed “wicked problems” (Rittel and Webber 1973 ). Scientific solutions are unlikely to succeed in solving such “wicked problems” because of the nature of the problem as much as the societal and policy complexity in which it has to be resolved. The planthopper outbreak problems are perhaps one of such, as scientific products, such as resistant varieties for the last 50 years have not succeeded; the training of farmers to make “ecologically smart” decisions have also failed to be sustained; insecticide banning have failed; and insecticide reduction campaigns gradually eroded. Scientific solutions can be developed for “tame” well defined problems that can be solved in isolation, can be broken down into parts which can be solved independently by different groups of people. Solutions to different parts of a larger problem can then be integrated into an overall solution. The same does not hold true for “wicked” policy problems.
There is an old Japanese saying (also ascribed to A. Maslow), “If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail” and trying to solve “wicked problems” using “tame” problem solving techniques will always be a similar exercise in futility.
“If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail”
A wicked problem is complex, ill-defined and connected to other intractable problems. It is dynamic (changing), systemic (interconnected), and generative (with continuously emerging issues and new dimensions). Therefore, there can be no final, optimal one-off solution to it and solutions are not true good or bad but “best that can be done” on a continuing basis as new dimensions and inter-relationships emerge. Because of inherent differences in governance, cultural, motivation and attitudes among stakeholders surrounding the problem, resolution will require a new approach to conduct research and to make decisions based on this research.
One such approach is Kunz and Rittel’s (1970) “Issues Based Information System (IBIS)” which is an argumentation-based approach designed ‘to support coordination and planning of policy/political decision processes. IBIS is a framework that guides the identification, structuring, and settling of issues raised by problem-solving groups, and provides information pertinent to the discourse.’
A recent implementation of IBIS is a web-based platform developed in Malaysia using an “information relationship management” engine. Unlike previous implementations of IBIS, MctIBIS includes a topic list and place holders for pertinent documents and web links (including literature support of a position, policy, factual reference), information sources, and contributors. The information relationship engine allows the information resources to be managed as a nexus and the users can explore the information from different perspectives, for example entry type, issue, position, idea, and contributor.
MctIBIS - An online tool for Dialogues or Thinking Together
MctIBIS is being used to address Malaysian energy security via shared display of issues, facts, positions of stakeholders, questions, ideas, argumentation (pros and cons) and solutions. The main outputs are issue/dialogue maps which document the process and basis for arriving at shared understanding, shared commitment, and solutions. This approach/methodology can be adapted to address the persistent and recurring planthopper outbreaks and insecticide misuse problem as well.
A training workshop to introduce this new approach and methodology for policy engagements to address the wicked problem of planthopper outbreaks and insecticide misuse involving teams from Malaysia, Thailand and Viet Nam is scheduled to be held on 14th to 15th May in Bangkok Thailand.
Kunz, W. and Rittel, H. 1970. Issues as Elements of Information Systems, Working paper No. 131, Studiengruppe für Systemforschung, Heidelberg, Germany (reprinted 1979).
Rittel, H. and Weber, M. 1973. Dilemmas in General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4: 155 – 169.