May 3, 2018 / 1:59 PM / 7 months ago

FEATURE-Campaigners fear Latin America is rolling back on eco-farming promises

ROME, May 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The world map, beamed on a large display screen, shows a stark contrast between Latin America, where dark colours cover most of the continent, and the rest of the world, where there are few.

This map’s focus is nations that have laws and policies supporting eco-farming techniques, a practice known as “agroecology”. Fewer than 30 countries worldwide have such laws, and more than half of those that do are in Latin America.

But in practice, campaigners told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, some Latin American governments are ignoring these laws and policies, while Brazil is accused of rolling them back.

That threatens the environment and, cumulatively, the livelihoods of tens of thousands of farmers, they said.

“For the last three years ... we have been losing resources to sustain agroecology policies,” said Maria Noel Salgado, a Uruguayan farmer and coordinator with the Agroecological Movement of Latin America and the Caribbean (MAELA), a network of indigenous people and small-scale farmers and fishermen.

“The laws are there but there are no resources. We now have a lot of governments who only believe in the power of markets and biotechnology,” she added, referring to the rise of conservative leaders across the region.

Agroecology, as its name implies, shuns chemical inputs. Instead it uses nature-friendly methods such as planting trees on farms and rotating crops to improve the soil and protect against pests.

Its proponents say it can provide more nutritious and environmentally-friendly food for a growing world, increase farmers’ earnings and make farms resilient to climate change.

“There is growing evidence that these systems keep carbon in the ground, support biodiversity, rebuild soil fertility and sustain yields over time, providing a basis for secure farm livelihoods,” said a 2016 report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).

GOOD ON PAPER...

The world map showing Latin America apparently leading the way was the centrepiece at an international meeting on agroecology in early April, organised by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The laws and policies that are now in place in the region are the result of decades of campaigning by farmers and campaigners, Angela Cordeiro, a Brazilian agronomist, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the meeting.

“Despite the fact that we have a very strong agribusiness sector in Brazil ... civil society and social movements managed to influence some laws,” Cordeiro said.

Ross Mary Borja, director of Ecuador-based charity EkoRural, said her country’s progressive laws were due to pressure: its 2008 constitution, which includes specific rights for nature, was a result of constant campaigning by groups, including hers.

Both Brazil and Nicaragua have laws and policies on agroecology and organic production, for example, while El Salvador is considering a similar approach.

Brazil, for instance, stipulates that 30 percent of food for its school-feeding programme must come from family farms, which earn a premium if they use agroecology.

And in December, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an intergovernmental grouping of 33 countries, agreed to strengthen policies “that contribute to the development of agroecological family farming”.

...LESS GOOD IN PRACTICE

That said, countries’ implementation of laws that support agroecology and sustainable agriculture has been uneven, said Jean-Francois Le Coq of the French Agricultural Research Centre for Development (CIRAD), a French government agency.

Nicaragua has not implemented its agroecology law at the grassroots level, for example, and Costa Rica has only partly implemented its law to promote organic agriculture, said Le Coq, whose organisation in 2017 studied how agroecology is practised in eight Latin American countries.

Another problem, campaigners said, is the gap between what is in the law and what happens on the ground.

Despite Ecuador’s constitutional protection for nature, for example, its biodiversity is under threat from industrial agriculture, oil exploration, mining and poverty, they said.

There are other gaps too, said Stephen Sherwood, Borja’s colleague at EkoRural and an organic farmer.

Instead of promoting cheaper and proven solutions - such as using crop residues to improve soil and non-chemical means of pest control - Ecuador’s government offers farmers free synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, he said.

Borja said the government’s motives were flawed.

“The government thinks small farmers are inefficient so the way to help them is through these (giveaways),” said Borja.

Ecuador’s agriculture ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Borja said support for family farmers to follow an agro-ecology path is key given that they produce 60 to 70 percent of food consumed in Ecuador. That holds true elsewhere too: FAO figures show smallholders in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa provide up to 80 percent of the food supply.

Meanwhile in Brazil, the national policy on agroecology is in limbo, said Cordeiro, and austerity measures are affecting the Food Acquisition Program, a public procurement programme based on buying produce from local family farmers.

A change in government has caused support for agroecology to wane, she added.

In a statement Brazil’s ministry of agriculture acknowledged government purchases had suffered budget cuts, but insisted its commitments to agroecology were “concrete”, and said the national policy had been in force since its publication in 2012.

Changes in governments, dominance of industrial agriculture and the power of agrochemical businesses play a role in the challenges agroecology is facing in Latin America, but there is hope, said CIRAD’s Le Coq, who is based in Colombia.

Although agroecology remains small-scale, many policies are in place, he said, and there is growing recognition it could help to solve the region's environmental and social challenges. (Reporting By Thin Lei Win, Additional Reporting by Karla Mendes in Brazil, Editing by Robert Carmichael. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)

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