Complementary Strategy on Small-Scale Family Farming
In 2017 the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) published its first Study on Small-scale Family Farming in the Near East and North Africa Region: Synthesis, along with country-specific studies on the application of the strategy in Egypt, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia.
While Housing and Land Rights Network – Habitat International Coalition (HIC-HLRN) welcomes the effort, it also has taken a critical eye to these publications and strategic approach in light of the independent outcomes of HIC-HLRN’s periodic Land Forums, related activities and the biennial FAO consultations with civil society organizations (CSOs) held in the Near East and North Africa since 2016. This perspective has raised several methodological and programming questions and observations, resulting in the development of a complementary strategy to FAO’s reports.
HLRN-HIC identified a number of points of concern in the study:
1. The study seems to presume the inevitability of regional demographic and economic transformations, such as rural-urban migration and a move away from agriculture as a main livelihood source. The corresponding policy guidance, therefore, promotes enhancing technical and social efficiency of small-scale family farming (SSFF), but does not set out to challenge or mitigate the processes of these transformations and/or the structural factors that cause such transitions.
2. The synthesis report states that the policy recommendations were decided at “national briefing and discussion workshops.” However, the publication does not indicate where, when, how many or who participated in these workshops. Questions remain concerning the extent to, and way in which small-scale family farmers—including youth, women and older persons—and concerned civil society partners were selected to participate, their roles in the workshops, how they were consulted and how their advice and observations were incorporated into the strategy, if at all.
3. With its focus on transitioning and exiting agriculture, the strategy places significant emphasis on “multi-activity” and non-farming activities, acknowledging that families already engage in non-farming activities and that intensive agriculture is not the strategic objective or an answer to their livelihood challenges. However, we have observed that farmers take on other work out of duress, as they are not sufficiently remunerated for their on-farm work and contribution to wider society. Multi-activity, therefore, should be interrogated as a coping mechanism necessitated by other factors.
4. The strategy identifies remittances from family members who have migrated elsewhere as a principal means to improve the living standards of small-scale farmers. Furthermore, the trend toward urbanization—which is highly detrimental to rural communities—is framed within the strategy as an “opportunity,” because it “monetizes food demand” (p. xix). These strategies promote activities that might encourage small-scale family farmers to move away from farming, ending their contribution to food security and leaving large-scale producers to take their place, rather than strengthen family farming and improve livelihoods of farmers so that they are able to continue being small-scale family farmers.
5. References to solidarity point to national, intra-family and inter-generational forms in the particular context of cash transfers within social protection schemes and remittances from non-farming family members. Meanwhile, social and solidarity economy (SSE) is not discussed and, consequently, many forms of SSFF solidarity—including the sharing and swapping of seeds and plant varieties, maintaining local surpluses for times of need, stewardship of water and land, including rangelands—are not valorized or considered. The strategy could benefit from a section that identifies the forms of solidarity and evaluates the relevance of social capital, information and knowledge capital and local social protection as set out in the strategy’s two objectives.
6. The study acknowledges that in areas of land reclamation the local economy and national policy realm are “dominated by a class of agricultural entrepreneurs, technicians and local executive staff, with public policies that neglect rural areas and favour the new lands, despite these accounting for significantly smaller proportion of agricultural areas and population. However, it proffers no course of action to address the apparent imbalance of policy support that clearly disadvantages the majority of small-scale family farmers, neither its causes or effects.
7. The critical situation arising from the over-use of groundwater due to insufficient control is noted (p. 56); however, the corresponding policy advice does not reflect a corresponding sense of urgency. It instead makes general recommendations to suggest remedial action is needed (p. 118). Questions arise, therefore, as to prospects of current sustainability of groundwater use, the relative share of its extraction for SSFF and other uses, and the corresponding policy advice, especially for countries with such scarce often-unrenewable natural capital.
8. A lack of coherence in terms, and subsequently meaning, was identified in the Sudan case study. The area of intervention Improve the policy and institutional framework was reframed as promote technological development, technological transfer and innovation,” which, when applied, would evade the broader policy changes needed to rectify structural anomalies.
9. According to small farmers consulted in the course of CSO work, high on the list of livelihood challenges is the crushing debt they typically face in plying their profession. Rather than address the reality of debt, the strategy promotes “access to credit” (p. 108) and “access to finance” (p.107) and makes multiple references to credit and finance only as beneficial to farmers, without acknowledging the associated risks.
10. Although the subject of principal obligations of each state receiving FAO’s strategic advice, “human rights” are not mentioned, not even once perfunctorily. That is taken as a silent invitation for the public-interest civil society partners to make that policy-coherence connection and uphold the human rights pillar of the UN Charter for another Charter-based specialized organization of the United Nations.
In order to ensure wider perspective in FAO strategy going forward, HLRN-HIC pointed to a key recommendation of the 2016 CSO consultation that called for the establishment of a small producer platform, forum or mechanism to enable the region’s small-scale farming families’ exchange, free expression and eventual policy input. Such an initiative would provide for an organized and readily recognizable collective of small producers with which FAO could consult in the development of any strategy directed at this group.