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[HYDERABAD] Researchers in China and India have joined forces to explore the best ways of turning unpromising drylands into productive farming land.

Public and private sector organisations from both countries are participating in a 'learning platform' to share experiences of what works in the field.

Both countries have examples of successful dryland agriculture but these rarely gain exposure, said Rajeswari Raina, a researcher at India's National Institute of Science, Technology and Development Studies, at a workshop to launch the platform held at the Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture in Hyderabad last week (27 November).

Funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the learning platform is part of a five-year series of activities looking at how innovation systems in China and India can include the rural poor.

The idea is to "bring the best research evidence [on dryland agriculture] in front of decision makers," said Stephen McGurk, regional director of IDRC's South Asia and China office.

Raina, who will coordinate the project in India, said that there are many success stories. An example is an experiment with 'zero pesticide' villages supported by Andhra Pradesh state government in India.

It involves using local natural resources such as plant products, cattle dung, neem cake (the by-product of making oil from the neem tree) and compost instead of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Networks of self-help women's groups have been set up to act as a decentralised agricultural extension system.

The project, which started in 2005, aims to cover two million acres by the end of 2009, about a tenth of the state's cultivable area.

And in China, the poor, remote mountainous region of Shanxiahu — which can support little agriculture — now has clusters of small companies culturing freshwater pearls. It has become one of the largest pearl-producing hubs in the world.

Shanxiahu's success hinges on government support, independent research and development to solve bottlenecks in pearl processing, as well as informal, patent-free innovations to promote knowledge transfer, said Zuhui Huang, a professor at Zhejiang University and a member of China's team on the learning platform.

"Innovation systems are often mistaken for only high-tech or original technological contributions," added Raina.

"But innovation also comes about through combinations of technological improvements and institutional changes in the economy and other support systems such as market incentives and participation of local communities."

Ye Chunhui, a scientist at the Center for Agricultural and Rural Development at Zhejiang University, agreed. "A bottom-up, participatory model of agricultural technology innovation is needed," he said.