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Background
          Soil doctors, a stereotype of personnel of the Land Development Department (LDD) who technically assist farmers in managing their land, were known to the public for the first time in 1992. This initiative is one of the strategic approaches that the LDD uses for the public to easily understand its tasks and responsibilities. At first, they merely provided technologies and recommendations for soil improvement and conservation practices to create sustainable agriculture. Since then, the initiative has been extended by responding with a partnership approach for resource management; thus, people and community participation has become an increasing essential means for most development activities until now.

Who are Volunteer Soil Doctors?
          Initially, the so-called “Soil Doctors” refers to the staff of the LDD. As a result of population increase as well as long-term economic and social development, the LDD faced with rising problems of land degradation, therefore it was no longer able to successfully deal with these issues solely by its own limited staff. Thereafter, a certain number of selected farmers were recruited to work in partnership with the LDD staff. They are assigned to be representatives of the LDD and play a key role as collaborators between farmers in their own villages and the LDD staff for almost all land development programs. These famers are well-trained and assigned on a voluntary basis. Therefore, the name given to them is widely accepted as “Volunteer Soil Doctors (VSDs)” 
          The LDD initiated the Volunteer Soil Doctors Program in 1995. It is not only a participatory approach that the LDD wishes to shift to from a traditional extension, but it is also a good response to the problems of decreasing number of the LDD staff. Therefore, the prospect of having many more projects under their responsibility in the near future is possible. At present, there are approximately 55,000 of VSDs that represent the LDD at the village level. The total number of VSDs including other levels covering the whole country is close to 65,000. 

How are they selected? 
          Farmers who are in good health, at least 20 years of age, keen on land development activities, residing in the concerned areas, willing to work with the LDD, will be recruited. They receive a training to be aware of the importance of land resources management, conservation and basic practices.
          After completing the general training course, a higher level training course will be further provided for 10 selected innovative farmers from each village. After that, one of these ten persons will be appointed and registered as a Village Volunteer Soil Doctor who will represent his/her village either by selection among themselves or by trainer’s judging from one’s performance.
          Three continual selections for higher sub-district, district, and provincial levels are also made amongst themselves. The same selection process is made for sub-district representatives, where all concerned Village Volunteer Soil Doctors choose only one Sub-district Volunteer Soil Doctor for each sub-district. Accordingly, the District and Provincial Volunteer Soil Doctors are also selected in the same way as stated.

What is their mission?
          Basically, Volunteer Soil Doctors cooperate in assisting farmers to obtain better understanding and to practice soil conservation and sustainable land resource management. Therefore, Volunteer Soil Doctors will be fully supported with tools, maps and manuals from the LDD to help them perform their tasks effectively. Moreover, they will receive the privilege to carry out demonstration farms in close cooperation with the LDD. Five basic missions so far are:                                                                                                                                                              
(i).
 They are entitled to carry out public relation activities in making announcements,    delivering messages to farmers, inviting farmers to participate in observation,
 study  tours, workshops, and others.
(ii).
 Being service center for information and technology transfer, especially through  demonstration farms.
(iii).
 Volunteer Soil Doctors will be able to give basic recommendations and answers to  possible questions they may receive from farmers.
(iv).
 They are also entrusted to distribute to farmers some specific agricultural materials  such as lime, fertilizer, seeds, etc.
(v).
 They are assigned to inform farmers about the type and cropping suitability of the  lands they own, so farmers may practice sustainable agriculture effectively.
(vi).
 They are also assigned to help farmers prepare their farm plans and execute them,  especially in relation to soil improvement and conservation.
(vii).
 They will act as messengers who receive and present feedback, needs, problems and  queries from farmers to the LDD for consideration.
(viii).
 In cases where the LDD starts a new project, they will be asked to gather most of the  required information for the project.
(ix).
 Occasionally, they will be invited to join in a group of instructors for interested  agencies.




What does the network look like?
          As mentioned earlier, the Volunteer Soil Doctors are representatives of the LDD as well as collaborators at different levels. Collaboration is made systematically through an established network as can be seen in Fig. 1.



Figure 1. Network of Volunteer Soil Doctors


What is their benefit and honor?

          After having completed the provided training course and being selected, each Volunteer Soil Doctor will be officially registered and given a certificate of completion, which will be awarded with a logo and tools. Consequently, some specific training courses will be further provided to suit the different localities that they take care of. As appropriate, the LDD will organize additional capacity building courses for them periodically. In addition, they will be appointed as associate instructors. To facilitate their roles and activities, the LDD provides them both in kind and in cash as follows: 
                    - Free inputs for demonstration plots
                    - Payment for data gathering
                    - Expenditure for communication among themselves and with the LDD
                    - Payment for giving instruction
                    - Right to produce soil improvement and conservation materials

What are projects they participate in?

          Besides its own initiative, the LDD follows a present policy in which people participation is the prime concern in developmental activities. For this reason, Volunteer Soil Doctors are equipped to implement almost all research and development projects of the LDD. A number of projects and activities they have been involved with are as follows:
                    - Land Development Village
                    - Tambon’s Technology Transfer and Learning Center (Tambon = sub-district)
                    - His Majesty The King’s “New Theory”
                    - Land and water conservation at regional level
                    - Soil improvement and fertilization by LDD’s regional officers
                    - Vertiver grass plantation and demonstration
                    - Utilization of organic materials for soil improvement

Evaluation of the success
          For the time being, this type of participatory approach appears to be successful at certain levels, but is still a learning experience and certainly needs improvement. The LDD realizes that to some extent Soil Doctors can contribute to the success or failure of the research in the development projects that they are involved in. Hence, this project has been annually monitored and evaluated. There are some gaps of communication though. Support in terms of incentives seems not enough. Lack of time and readiness of some Soil Doctors due to excessive work load reduces their level of performance. However, the survey results have shown that majority of farmers responds with a good attitude towards the performance of most Soil Doctors; the service of seedling and agricultural material, distribution of leaflets and publications are few of them.
          Some positive results are that farmers apply less fertilizer than ever, and utilize more organic material for soil improvement. They can observe positive changes on soil fertility with increased soil productivity. Thus, it can be concluded that the Soil Doctors Program has proven a success of the LDD. Still, further improvement is need.

Following photos show various phases of Volunteer Soil Doctors Program’s activities.



    
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