A letter to the minister on Rio+20

A letter to the minister on Rio+20


Last week we wrote a letter to Minister Magnette, head of the Belgian delegation in Rio. The Minister replied to our letter, stressing that family farming is indeed crucial to combat hunger and poverty and that he wants to stress the social dimension in the debate on poverty and sustainability.

Letter to Minister Paul Magnette

Dear Minister, Dear Paul,

Before long you are flying to Rio. This time not to attend a climate summit, but one on sustainability. President Obama will not show up and the average Belgian does not seem to be losing any sleep over this ‘Rio+20 Summit’. It is rather badly timed too – in the midst of the European Soccer Championship. Let’s not talk about a ‘crucial’ summit – that would be inviting disaster. But still, this summit concerns us all immensely.

Growth has been put forward as the main topic of the summit. Excuse me: ‘green growth’. All kinds of pressure groups quickly decried this ‘green growth’ as a pure takeover manoeuvre by the private sector. Capitalism with a green appearance, business as usual with a sustainable label.

As Minister of Development Cooperation you know better than anyone else that in a lot of countries growth is still absolutely necessary. Without growth, how would we be able to feed the almost one billion hungry people on our planet? Without growth, how can we give the 2,47 billion people who live on less that two dollars a day, a prospect of a better future?

The main question is not whether we should grow or not – we should indeed. The question is even not whether that growth should be green or not – that is self-evident. The planet has its limits and by now every one realises that continuing in the same way is not an option anymore. The question is how we, apart from overblown statements and high-flown analyses, can reach a turning-point in the field. And as far as that’s concerned we can learn a lot from Brazil. So, Dear Minister, don’t forget to leave the stuffy conference room for a visit to the Brazilian countryside. There a few places where problems and solutions can be found so close to each other.

The fact is that the agricultural system is part of the systemic crisis that we are finding ourselves in. Crazy as it may seem, two-thirds of the people suffering from hunger live off the land. Together with other activities, agriculture causes global warming and nitrate pollution, etc… But agriculture can also provide a solution to a lot of those problems. At least if we opt for a model of sustainable family farming, which forms a marked contrast with large-scale industrial agriculture. The latter type may impress us with its technological gadgets, but it is essentially highly dependent on scarce input resources and responsible for high greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover it provides little local employment. Read: a lot of farmers leave the countryside and end up in large city slums, where there is no economy that can offer them a job.

In contrast to what many think, family farming can feed the world: in spite of the concentration of land in the hands of the industrial farmers, family farms in Brazil succeed in producing 38% of the national food on just 24% of the farmland.

Obviously that result did not come out of the blue. Former President Lula and current President Dilma took a variety of measures to support family farming, which enabled Brazil to drastically push back hunger and poverty. On this, Brazil scores better than India or China, although they are growing faster. Brazil’s success is mainly due to political vision: the ‘Fome Zero’ or ‘Zero Hunger’ programme links poverty reduction with food security and small-scale family farming. The various parts of the programme focus on better access to food for the poorest people and support for family farmers so that they produce more food of better quality.

In spite of the successes, there remain great challenges in Brazil. Because you can also see there the dominant agro-industrial complex at work, the profits of which are concentrated in the hands of a few giant companies and which is constantly swallowing up ever larger areas of the rainforest.

If we want to eradicate poverty in an ecologically sustainable way, then growth should be absolutely decoupled: the economy can grow, but at the same time the use of natural resources should diminish. For the time being hardly any country succeeds in this, and neither does Brazil.

Traditionally farming is an important driving-force for economic development. And family farming has the potential to produce in a better way: less damaging for the environment and with greater welfare and redistribution effects. You do not need to invent something new. In the 2008 IAASTD report – an initiative of the United Nations, the World Bank and the Global Environmental Facility – 400 experts globally studied how we can make better use of our farming knowledge and technology to fight hunger and poverty and to promote sustainable development.

Twenty years after Rio and forty years after Stockholm, where sustainable development was on the agenda for the first time, it is time to link economic development with ecology and the fight against poverty. The Rio+20 Summit is a very good opportunity to start changing course. Please don’t miss it.

With kind regards, Karen Janssens, policy advisor Vredeseilanden