Farmers’ Forum opens: “The future is in our hands”

The fourth global meeting of the Farmers’ Forum kicked off today at IFAD headquarters in Rome with a grassroots focus on the challenges faced by smallholder farmers and fishers around the world. The two-day event is part of a continuing dialogue between rural producers’ organizations, IFAD and governments.

About 95 delegates from farmers’ and fishers’ networks, and an equal number of observers, are attending the Farmers’ Forum. Many have travelled thousands of miles to participate.

As a new member of IFAD’s staff, I’m experiencing the forum for the first time. Still, having previously spent more than a decade working with UNICEF, the UN children’s agency, I felt right at home at a Farmers’ Forum pre-meeting held here on Saturday. At that all-day special session, about 30 delegates from rural youth organizations put their heads together to develop an action plan on making agriculture a viable option for young people in developing nations.

It was a promising and forward-looking prelude to the rest of the forum, which is about making rural livelihoods generally more viable and environmentally sustainable – and reducing poverty in the bargain.

A matter of survival
Speakers at this morning’s packed opening session came from diverse backgrounds and regions. Yet their over-arching message to the leaders of governments and multilateral agencies was singular. To feed a growing global population while simultaneously adapting to climate change, they said, you have to consider – and act upon – the perspectives of small-scale food producers.

“It’s not a battle for fishers alone. It’s not just a battle for farmers,” said Ujjaini Halim of the World Forum of Fish Harvesters and Fishworkers. Instead, the task at hand is a matter of basic survival, she said, adding: “The future is in our hands.”

Halim is one of the members of the Farmers’ Forum Steering Committee, all of whom represent networks of small producers. In their statements, many of the committee members credited IFAD with advancing the idea that smallholder farmers are central to food security and poverty reduction. Several noted, however, that the devil is in the details of translating that idea into concrete policies and programmes.

The road ahead
Djibo Bagna of the West African producers’ network ROPPA listed a series of specific policy questions that must be answered as a prerequisite for rural transformation. For example, how will smallholders gain access to credit and markets? And how can we empower rural women and youth, and build the capacities of producers’ organizations?

“The road ahead is still very long,” said Bagna.

Other speakers asserted that small-scale producers should be more directly involved in the design and implementation of rural development plans at all levels. For instance, the UN Year of Family Farming – scheduled for 2014 – will be meaningful only if it involves smallholders in policy advocacy, said Estrella Penunia Banzuela of the Asian Farmers’ Association.

In addition, Steering Committee members urged IFAD and its partners to support pro-smallholder policy initiatives. For his part, Herman Kumara Wijethunge, of the World Forum of Fisher Peoples, called for concerted action on FAO’s recently drafted Voluntary Guidelines on Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries.

Learning and collaboration
IFAD President Kanayo Nwanze also spoke at the opening session of the Farmers’ Forum, offering his own take on key issues of sustainable agriculture and environmental stewardship.

President Nwanze had visited the youth session on Saturday, where I saw him in a public setting for the first time. I was struck by his warm connection with the participants. He referred to that session today, reaffirming his commitment to “strengthening IFAD’s support of young women and men so that they can choose and build their futures in rural areas.”

Citing the droughts in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel, and other recent weather shocks, President Nwanze added that “farmers are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather and shifts in climate patterns.” In the run-up to the Rio+20 climate conference in June, he said, IFAD and its grassroots partners – including young people – “must strengthen our collaborations.”

Speaking of collaboration, President Nwanze explained that 90 per cent of IFAD’s projects have benefitted from the input of producers’ organizations since the last meeting of the Farmers’ Forum two years ago. “But we are well aware that there is still more to do in terms of inclusiveness and consistency in these partnerships,” he said.

The Farmers’ Forum is nothing if not inclusive. It seems an ideal opportunity to strengthen partnerships. For me, it’s also a unique chance to learn about the hands-on issues that make up IFAD’s everyday operations. I look forward to learning more.