San Jose, 30 November 2022 (IICA) – The single most important common denominator in Latin America and the Caribbean is social inequality. This painful reality must be addressed with policies aimed at transforming agri-food systems and tackling climate change that include efforts to combat poverty and exclusion. This was the shared opinion of ministers and secretaries of agriculture from the region who took part in a dialogue organized by the Wilson Center and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).
The participants in the virtual meeting were Cecilia López Montaño, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Colombia; Laura Suazo, Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock of Honduras; Juan José Bahillo, Secretary of Agriculture, Livestock and Fisheries of Argentina; and Senator Avinash Singh of Trinidad and Tobago, who also serves as a minister in his country’s Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries.
Benjamin Gedan, Director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and Argentina Project, gave an introductory presentation, while the Director General of IICA, Manuel Otero, summed up the conclusions reached at the end of the event. The moderator was Diego Moreno, Associate Researcher at the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC).
“In Latin America, half of the rural population lives in poverty and a quarter in extreme poverty. The approach to the issue of rural women also continues to ignore the fact that these women struggle with impossible time pressures in performing their dual roles of homemakers and producers. If we fail to acknowledge this as one of the substantial changes that we have to make to reduce inequality, we are failing to address half of the agenda,” López said.
The Colombian minister also emphasized how important it was to establish the relationship between inequality and climate change.
“I’m afraid that the impact of climate change is masking inequality. Inequality is the most serious crisis in Latin America, but we are focusing entirely on climate change, forgetting that inequality is our really big issue. So long as we live in a sea of misery in rural Latin America and other parts of the world, the transition to sustainable agriculture, which requires much more knowledge, is impossible,” she said.
Honduran minister Laura Suazo stressed that State policies for the agriculture sector must be sustainable, as the activity is vital for the economy and for inclusion.
“One of the biggest challenges we now face is working within a context of growing poverty. This is why agriculture, guided by an effective, equitable and inclusive State policy, can contribute to the economy and bring down the poverty rate,” Suazo remarked.
The minister added: “Agri-food systems must be transformed. COVID-19 highlighted the fact that no nation was capable of dealing with an epidemic and providing health services to producers. The lockdowns did not apply to farmers, who just went out and did their jobs, producing food so we could still be here after the pandemic, without health or agricultural insurance or pensions, policy issues that were vital before COVID-19 and remain just as important.”
Benjamin Gedan then reminded the meeting that the pandemic and the war in Ukraine “altered global trade, production, and consumption patterns,” with a significant impact on Latin American and Caribbean countries. “And those events have had a major impact on the agriculture sector, especially because of higher fertilizer prices and reduced supplies. This has complicated the efforts of farmers in the region to increase production in order to take advantage of high world food prices and address global food insecurity,” he commented.
He also noted that “farmers in the region have experienced these impacts directly, as droughts have devastated soybean and wheat crops in South America and worsened conditions in Central America’s Dry Corridor, while floods and hurricanes are directly affecting Caribbean farmers.”
Greater regional solidarity
Argentina’s Secretary of Agriculture, Juan José Bahillo, said that Latin America and the Caribbean had to develop cooperation and solidarity policies. “We have social asymmetries that we have to address, and policies must be aimed at eliminating them and bringing our citizens a better quality of life,” he observed.
Because of the pandemic, the most disadvantaged groups have become more vulnerable over the last two years, Bahillo said, with the situation aggravated by the higher costs of energy, inputs and fertilizers due to the war in Eastern Europe, which is creating even more instability in the economy.
“The armed conflict has cost Argentina five billion US dollars, due to the increased cost of energy, import freight services and fertilizers. Already in a weak and vulnerable position, these external challenges are placing the country under even greater pressure,” the Secretary acknowledged.
Bahillo also called on the countries to defend the region’s food production model; though not perfect, it could be part of the solution to the world’s food problems.
Trinidad and Tobago’s Avinash Singh warned that urgent action on international cooperation was needed to achieve climate change adaptation. “Priority areas for investment include technology, innovation and best practices, which would enable our farmers to continue to grow their traditional and regenerative crops.”
The senator reported that around 90% of Trinidadian farmers are currently having to deal with the serious effects of recent floods, caused by heavy rains in the past few days. “Climate change is real, it’s already here, we have to think about what we can do globally to ensure that safe food is available,” he said.
In summing up the conclusions reached in the virtual dialogue, Manuel Otero, Director General of IICA, pointed out that no region of the world was more vulnerable to climate change than Latin America and the Caribbean. This made the design of a new generation of policies imperative ¾ policies that were “pro-farmer, pro-nature, pro-society and interinstitutional.”
Cautiously optimistic, Otero cited the actions aimed at tackling climate change and equipping producers with financial and innovation tools, highlighted by the ministers from Colombia, Honduras, Argentina and Trinidad and Tobago, as examples of how agriculture and rurality are now at the top of the agenda, “something that never happened previously.”
He mentioned that IICA could participate in the study suggested by Colombia’s Minister López aimed at pinpointing the support that producers require in order to focus public policies more narrowly.
“Perhaps cooperatives are the way to go. We could coordinate a study that would produce proposals, as we transition towards much more knowledge-intensive agriculture, geared to agroecology and underpinned by science and innovation,” Otero said.