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LATIN AMERICA: Family Farms – Durable but Fragile

Daniela Estrada

SANTIAGO, Oct 4 2006 (IPS) - Family farms are not disappearing in Latin America, but they are becoming more vulnerable, requiring government policies to ensure their economic and social inclusion, experts and farmers said at a seminar organised by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in the Chilean capital.

The income earned by family farms has declined markedly between 1990 and 2003 in most of the countries of the region, except Chile where it has risen slightly, said Martine Dirven, an expert with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Dirven was one of the keynote speakers at the international seminar on “Proposals to Face the Present and Future of Small Scale Family Farming”, organised by the FAO regional office under the auspices of the Inter-Agency Group for Rural Development, which ends on Wednesday.

“In Chile, a small farmer earns on average about five times the income defined as the poverty line, while in other countries many earn around the same income level as the poverty line,” Dirven, chief of agricultural development at ECLAC, told IPS.

Although there is no global consensus on the definition of small farms, the World Bank defined them in 2003 as smaller than two hectares, and having a limited asset base. ECLAC adds that the work is done by the farmers and their unpaid family members.

Worldwide, there are 525 million farms, 85 percent of which are smaller than two hectares.

In Latin America, small-scale family farms make up 63 percent of total farmland, on average. In Ecuador, 91 percent of the 843,000 farms are smallholdings of this kind; and in Peru, smallholdings account for 80 percent of a total of 1.6 million farms.

“Small-scale family agriculture is not disappearing, but many young people are migrating to the cities. Self-employed farmers are ageing, a phenomenon that is also seen in Chile,” noted Dirven, who said this means countries must work directly with the farmers and their organisations.

She proposed incentives to motivate farmers’ “children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews” to continue working on the land, in order to prevent “fields from lying idle, or being inherited when the heir is 60 years old, especially if we want to see family agriculture develop dynamically, and the preservation of rural smallholder values.”

Rigoberto Turra, representing the United Peasant and Ethnic People’s Movement of Chile (MUCECH), said in his presentation that an international congress of peasant and indigenous peoples’ organisations one month ago had concluded that the only countries developing policies for small-scale family farmers were Brazil and Chile.

However, Turra criticised the impact that the numerous free trade agreements signed by Chile have had on small farmers, pointing out that it has not been easy for them to “stand up to market globalisation.”

“We need new treatment for farmers, a differential policy,” to enhance the “economic, social, cultural and land stewardship potential of this sector, which is so important for the country’s development,” the MUCECH representative argued.

“Nowadays it’s much harder to design differential policies and credit subsidy and technical assistance programmes because small farmers no longer need access to seeds and fertilisers, but to computers and the Internet. The demands have become more complex and are even further beyond the reach of the capabilities of governments,” José Graziano Da Silva, the FAO regional representative, explained to IPS.

The seminar concentrated on the situation in Chile, since the government’s Agrifood and Forestry Policy in effect until 2010 is based on “vigorous support for small-scale family agriculture and the sector’s productive and management links with agroexport chains and national markets.”

But the emphasis is not only on the economic and productive aspects, but also on social and cultural development in this rural sector, with a view to preserving national identity.

During his presentation, Agriculture Minister Álvaro Rojas recalled that last August, President Michelle Bachelet announced a programme for 2006-2010 to promote competitiveness in small-scale family agriculture.

The actions contemplated in this initiative are: improving access to markets and strengthening strategic alliances and production chains; improving quality and differentiation of family farm products and services; and upgrading and specialisation of skills.

Furthermore, it provides for a new financing platform involving debt rescheduling; enterprises and innovations involving special groups and specific areas of the country; improvement of the productive resource base; and modernisation of institutions and streamlining of procedures. “The measures taken by the Bachelet administration could be a good model for other countries,” ECLAC official Marta Maurás told IPS.

Debt is the main problem facing Chilean family farms, but it will be solved by the measures announced by the president, Minister Rojas told IPS.

“What needs to be done now is to draw up a plan in each region of the country to link up more farmers to the regional production chains of products like maize, milk, beef and wine, and gradually build up their productive capacity in line with the national strategy,” Rojas said.

The minister also told IPS that on Wednesday, Bachelet would announce the creation of a permanent public-private commission, whose task it will be “to generate forums for reflection, supervision and monitoring of the progress towards our major objective, which is to make Chile into a world-class agrifood producer.”

Rojas stated that “small farmers (particularly those who grow maize and rapeseed) may have a part to play in the development of biofuels such as ethanol or biodiesel.”

Da Silva said that “channelling surplus production of crops such as rapeseed, soya, sunflower and sugarbeet into biofuel production would be an important market (for family farms) in the region.”

Da Silva told IPS that the future of family farming depends on three factors: the role of the state, the capacity of small farmers’ organisations to act and intervene in public policies, and the fulfilment of the Millennium Development Goals, especially the goal of halving the proportion of the world’s population suffering from hunger.

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