Agriculture—the ability of people to produce their own food supply—is perhaps the most basic of all human enterprises and possibly the most important. More so today as world population continues to grow while the natural resources needed to feed them continue to shrink and are adversely affected by climate change. Aside from being a key to ensuring food security, growth in the agriculture sector has been known to be about twice as effective in reducing poverty compared to growth in other sectors. As such, agriculture remains a centerpiece of national development programs, including those of countries in Southeast Asia.
In light of these challenges and problems the region is confronted with today, it is with strong appreciation of the keen insights and astute long view of SEARCA’s founders that the Center retraces its roots to its very beginning:
The education ministers of Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, together with a representative from the United States government, met to explore possible venues for regional cooperation in education, science, and culture.
The historic meeting paved the way for an interim Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Secretariat (SEAMES) to be formed for the purpose of drawing up suggested priority projects for the region, including instituting a Center for graduate study and research in agriculture.
Having established an impressive reputation in the field of agricultural education, the then University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA) was considered as the ideal site. Dr. Dioscoro L. Umali, then Dean of UPCA, immediately called a select few of his colleagues to draft a position paper which advocated using the resources of existing institutions for the project instead of starting a new institution from scratch.
The Philippine delegation submitted the position paper to the SEAMES Technical Workshop held in Kuala, Lumpur, Malaysia. A Task Force was then formed to thoroughly evaluate the advisability of establishing an institute for graduate study and research in agriculture, recommend a framework for its operation, and the probable institution that would serve as its host. UPCA was recommended to be the host of the new institute of higher learning in agriculture.
The Second Conference of SEAMES held in Manila witnessed how the Philippine delegation stood steadfast in developing a plan for the merging of the proposed institute with the UPCA system. Encouraged by then Philippine Education Secretary Carlos P. Romulo, Dr. Gil F. Saguiguit, Dr. Umali, and Mr. Onofre D. Corpuz reworked the proposal until its approval on 27 November 1966. The institute was official named “Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).”
From 1967 to 1969, SEARCA operated on an interim status in which guidelines for the establishment of SEARCA were firmed up, including the following milestones:
Convening of its Agricultural Advisory Council (later renamed “Agricultural Governing Board” and now simply called “Governing Board”) composed of representatives of the five founding member countries of SEAMEO
Conduct of a series of national seminars in SEAMEO member countries and a regional seminar to complete the Blueprint for the Center, which was further revised and then approved by the Advisory Council in October 1967 in Bangkok. The Blueprint stipulated the processes to be followed in the organization, staffing, studentry, academic programs, and financing of SEARCA.
Crafting of its Constitution (renamed “Enabling Instrument of SEARCA” in 1971) based on the approved Blueprint.
This period saw an Interim Project Office organized on 1 July 1967 with Dr. Umali as Director and Dr. Saguiguit as Assistant Director. Originally only set for one year, the Interim Project Office was extended for another year by the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Council (SEAMEC), the policymaking body of SEAMEO, during its third conference in February 1968 in Singapore.
The interim phase ended in June 1969 when the Letter of Agreement regarding SEARCA’s establishment, operations and funding for a five-year period was signed by the SEARCA Director, SEAMES Acting Director, the Philippine Education Secretary representing the host government, and a representative of the Unites States government, which was the principal donor of funds during the interim period and the first five years of permanent existence of SEARCA.
Since 1969, SEARCA has evolved and operated under the guidance of nine Five-Year Plans (FYPs). Each FYP embodied an overall strategic theme that SEARCA operationalized through its core programs of graduate education, research and development, training, knowledge management, and project development and management.
During the First and Second FYPs (1969-1974 and 1974-1979), SEARCA’s priority thrust was the generation and transfer of productivity-enhancing agricultural technologies, reflecting the Center’s desire to take advantage of the newly-developed high-yielding varieties at that time (called “Green Revolution”).
The more notable research projects implemented by SEARCA to operationalize said strategic thrust included the following: Water Resources Management, Protein Gap, Gene Bank, Agricultural Information Bank of Asia, Corn Commodity Systems in Southeast Asia, Social Laboratory, Downey Mildew of Corn, Institutionalizing Research Management in Asia, and Social and Economic Implications of High-Yielding Varieties.
In its Third FYP (1979-1984), SEARCA shifted its strategic thrust to the management of the sub-systems that constitute the agricultural system, including the development and management of Irrigation Systems, Research Systems, Extension Systems, Post-Production Systems, and Farming Systems. In 1982, SEARCA adopted Farmers’ Community Development (FCD) as the umbrella theme of its institutional efforts to improve the agricultural and rural conditions in Southeast Asia.
Agricultural and Rural Development was the overall theme of SEARCA’s Fourth FYP (1984-1989), principally through technology generation, verification, packaging, dissemination, and utilization. This strategic thrust was a reinforcement of the theme of the First and Second FYP, an indication of the unfinished task of bridging the technology gap in agricultural production.
Looking back at the preceding five years, it was noted that the pinnacle of technological progress is always a moving target, which implies that the pinnacle is always pursued but never achieved. As a development institution, SEARCA periodically reviewed and updated its research agenda, with a focus on the evolving technological imperatives of agricultural growth and development.
SEARCA’s Fifth FYP (1989-1994) focused on Evaluation and Testing of Agricultural Development Technologies and Models, with the goal of customizing them to the needs and conditions of the SEAMEO member countries. This theme was operationalized through applied and integrated R&D projects that consolidated the results of previous projects, instead of just conducting more new research. The emphasis then shifted to pilot-testing, application, and utilization of findings and insights from previous research.
In SEARCA’s Sixth FYP (1994-1999), the Center intensified its thrust on Developing and Testing Methodologies and Approaches on the broad and complex area of Agricultural Development. Its major R&D projects included Development of Upland Communities, Agro-industrialization, Gender and Development, Management of Agricultural Information, Coastal Area Agriculture, and Bio-fertilizer Research.
In cadence with the changing conditions of the Southeast Asian region, the strategic theme of SEARCA’s Seventh FYP (1999-2004) shifted to Natural Resource Management (NRM) and Agro-Industrial Development. This theme was a response to the need for SEARCA and its partner development institutions to assume the dual roles of stimulating agro-industrial progress, and at the same time, preserving the integrity of the natural environment on which agricultural production is dependent (e.g., land, water, flora, fauna, biodiversity).
The sub-themes of the Seventh FYP included Food Security, Biotechnology, Water Resource Management, Biodiversity Conservation, Climate Change, and Environmental Risk Management. The R&D projects that sought to advance those sub-themes also included the cross-cutting issues of Gender, Policy, and Environmental Sustainability.
The Eight and Ninth FYPs (2004-2009 and 2009-2014) of the Center both adopted similar strategic themes: Natural Resource Management (NRM) and Agricultural Competitiveness.
NRM projects implemented were in the areas of Sustainable Land Use and Water Management, Climate Change and Risk Management, and Biodiversity Conservation, while the Agricultural Competitiveness projects covered Trade and Investment, Technology Management, Governance, Institutional Reforms, and Policy Studies.