Credit: Fabricio Vanden Broeck/IPS
Lessons From a Unique Decade
By José Graziano da Silva *
Abundant harvests are no guarantee of food
security, and big business is here to stay in
agriculture, warns Brazilian José Graziano da Silva
in this column.
ROME, Oct 1 (Tierramérica).- The fight against poverty and hunger cannot waste
time, nor disdain any scales of action. Public and
private initiatives are critical and must include
both family farming and so-called agribusiness. It
is up to governments and international cooperation
to harmonize this collective economic effort and
to ensure that bigger harvests translate into
increased food security for the needy.
The futures of real people are at stake. How a
society responds to this challenge will define
what happens to people on the outside of society.
This response also helps shape patterns of
development and influences relations between
markets, states and democracies.
Our decisions must be guided neither by theory nor
by ideology. The best advice to hear when making
these choices is the voice of experience.
Latin America, for example, has been an advanced
test plot for coexistence between large-scale and
small-scale farmers. Ten years of social
protection and agricultural production policies
implemented in a context of economic expansion
provide a unique gamut of regional experiences.
To what extent has this combination generated the
conditions necessary to break down cycles that
perpetuate poverty? Both the question and its
answer are important for the agenda of the global
fight against hunger and extreme poverty.
In the 1980s, the end of a cycle of international
financial liquidity laid bare the fragility of
Latin America's growth model. The 1990s'
allegiance to canons of self-sufficient markets
subjected the region's economies to one financial
collapse after another and debunked the existence
of self-regulating counterbalances promised by
The social cost was devastating. Thirty-one
million Latin Americans became extremely poor in
Once that damage had been quantified, space was
opened for rectifying policies, which were
progressively incorporated into the region's
A single figure reveals the scale of this new
approach: one out of every five Latin American and
Caribbean citizens - nearly 113 million people -
now participate in conditional income transfer
This action has tempered the impact of the world
crisis that began in 2007. The region's gross
domestic product (GDP) fell by three percent in
2009. In contrast to previous crises, however,
progress made did not all turn to dust. After 41
million people in the region had stepped out of
poverty since 2002 and another 26 million had
broken their chains of extreme poverty, nine
million fell back to where they were before.
Structural weaknesses do indeed persist, favoring
relapses back to poverty and hunger, particularly
in rural areas, where exclusion is most present.
Today, 13 percent of the region's population is
extremely poor: 35 million live in the
countryside; 35 million live in the cities.
That apparent symmetry is misleading; 30 percent
of those who live in rural areas are extremely
poor, four times more - proportionally - than
those in urban areas (eight percent), according to
the Economic Commission for Latin America and the
The data leaves no room for delusions about
spontaneous and automatic economic processes that
set social inequities right.
From 1980 to 2010, and particularly over this past
decade, the region's agricultural exports have set
one price and volume record after another,
propelled by global demand for commodities.
Over the same period, nonetheless, the retreat of
rural poverty has been negligible in Latin America
and the Caribbean: from 60 percent in 1980, down
to 53 percent in 2010, as we learn from a joint
study by ECLAC, FAO and the International Labour
Organization, entitled “Agricultural Boom and the
Persistence of Rural Poverty in Latin America and
The fact that the greatest proportion of the
region’s extremely poor lives in rural areas
forces us to face two parallel but undeniable
The first is that abundant harvests are no
guarantee of food security, even for the people
who live there. Second, big business is here to
stay in agriculture and plays a strategic role in
generating foreign reserves for developing
countries and in supplying world markets.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, we have
learned once again that supply is not synonymous
with access. Hunger can coexist perversely with
This paradox underlines the importance of
consolidating a third dimension to harmonize the
whole, namely the responsibility of public
policies to consolidate workers' rights in the
countryside, eradicate precarious labor, respect
tenure on small farms, make and foster investments
for the food security of vulnerable people, topple
gender barriers, support family farming, multiply
small-scale farmer cooperatives and boost yields
to generate surpluses, income and adequate supply
for domestic markets.
The concentration of poverty and hunger in rural
areas does not happen only in Latin America and
the Caribbean, which is why the lessons of this
experience apply far beyond the region. Worldwide,
900 million people are hungry and at least 70
percent of them live in rural areas.
The vulnerability of people whose livelihoods
depend on the land is also greater. A third of the
people in the world live on small farms less than
10 hectares in size, only two percent of which are
technified and 70 percent of which depend
exclusively on their own muscle-power for
production. In the 21st century, 40 percent of
humanity still depends on agriculture, the world's
Latin America's anti-hunger and anti-poverty
agenda therefore echoes transcontinental
deficiencies. The same can be said of the need for
public policies to expand labor rights,
investments and citizenship in rural areas.
* Jose Graziano da Silva is the director-general of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).