In the past 20 years, Latin America and the Caribbean have seen the most dramatic decline in malnutrition of any developing region. The percentage of undernourished people in the region has fallen by almost two-thirds since the early 1990s, and currently stands at 6.1 percent. The region has not only met the UN Millenium Development Goal (MDG) 1.C—reducing by half the proportion of undernourished people between 1990 and 2015—it is close to achieving the more challenging World Food Summit target of halving the absolute number of undernourished people.
As the UN’s International Year of Family Farming (IYFF), which ended in December, highlighted, family farms are critical to continuing and building on these successes. Family farmers produce most of the basic foods consumed in a majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries—from 27 percent in Chile to 67 percent in Nicaragua. Family farms in the region employ 60 million women and men and account for about four-fifths of all farms or agricultural holdings.
Nevertheless, family farmers in the region face many challenges, including a changing climate; one-size-fits-all agricultural policies; scant rural investment; absent, unresponsive or inefficient institutions; insecure rights to land and water; poor access to markets; and weak organizational capacity of the farmers.
The IYFF was meant to highlight the role of family farming as well as the challenges this sector faces, and provide the framework for a variety of important steps taken in Latin America and the Caribbean to support family farmers.
New spaces for policy dialogue were created both at the regional and national level. The Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) created a dedicated working group on Family Farming and Territorial Rural Development. Additionally, 17 countries established national committees for family farming as permanent spaces for stakeholder dialogue on rural development.
Policy and legal reform is another area of success for the region. The Parlamento Latinoamericano (Latin America Parliament—Parlatino), the legislative organ of CELAC, developed and negotiated a framework law for family farming last November. It is expected to be approved in February 2015, and will support national congresses seeking to pass similar legislation.
A number of countries have already developed family farming-centered policy initiatives, including Guatemala, Peru, Nicaragua, and Colombia. Meanwhile Bolivia´s Law No. 144 mandates new forms of credit access and marketing support for family farmers and revitalizes existing support institutions. Many countries have adopted or are exploring mechanisms to purchase food from family farmers. Whether targeting basic food baskets, hospitals, prisons, or schools, such mechanisms can reduce hunger when combined with public food assistance programs for vulnerable populations. They can help reduce obesity and promote healthier, safer and fresher food consumption habits; and they can reduce poverty and promote rural development by ensuring a stable market for small farmers.
Finally, a number of countries have initiated new programs or created dedicated offices within their national ministries to assist family farmers. Argentina´s Secretaría de Agricultura Familiar (Secretary of Family Farming)—nestled within the country’s Agriculture Ministry—and Mexico’s program to support family farming as part of its Cruzada Nacional Contra el Hambre (National Crusade Against Hunger) are two examples.
Brazil offers ample evidence that such programs can make a difference. In 2014, it announced that the financial programs it began in 1996 had enabled 5.8 million people in the following two decades to ascend above the poverty line while continuing their agriculture and livestock activities.
Policies benefiting family members that have already been adopted internationally—such as the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests and the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems—need to be adopted and applied at the national level.
More public investment in agricultural innovation, research and development, extension, and advisory services is also needed to shift agriculture toward resilient and climate-smart approaches that can close existing yield and labor productivity gaps. And, if farmers are to overcome current barriers to access to products, services and knowledge, Latin American and Caribbean countries need to strengthen family farmer organizations, cooperatives and federations.
Finally, although Latin America and the Caribbean is the developing region with the lowest share of women in the agricultural workforce, this share has increased significantly over the past 20 years, especially in South America (from 19.1 percent in 1980 to 24.6 percent in 2010). This has not been accompanied, however, by an increase in policy and service support for women farmers. As a result, the gender gap in access to inputs, productive resources and markets persists.
The good news is that we know what to do and how to do it. Some responses to the challenges cited here have already been tested. The bad news is the political will to learn from these experiences and to ensure that they are incorporated into public policies and programs on a massive scale is still lacking.