ASEAN should not forget smallholder farmers

Green Lotus wishes to spread this opinion column from: Dr Ohnmar Khaing, U Shwe Thein, Ms Marlene Ramirez and Ms Esther Penunia, published on Monday, 29 September 2014, in Myanmar Times.

Civil society representatives from a range of ASEAN countries met on September 18 to discuss regional agricultural policy. Their recommendations were directed to the annual meeting of the ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry (AMAF) held in Nay Pyi Taw from September 23 to 25.

Participants at the September 18 meeting called on the ministers to protect smallholder farmer interests in future policy and argued for increased protection from land grabs.

All ASEAN countries should adopt the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure. Farmers can then register their land more easily, which will encourage investment and increase production. Other key priority areas discussed include nutrition, trade liberalisation, rice policies and agricultural investments.

Participants warned that free trade policies between ASEAN countries offer threats and opportunities for smallholder farmers, and the risks need to be addressed. Government should closely monitor the impact of this liberalisation and put in place measures to protect smallholder farmers. Governments should also ensure farmers are competitive against larger agribusinesses, through measures such as ensuring they can trade their products freely within their own countries, without monopolies being developed on certain products.

Civil society also called for agricultural policies to ensure that production contributes to improved nutrition. Crops that ensure a balanced diet should be promoted, alongside education on healthy eating, especially among pregnant women and young children. Improved rice policy is an important issue. Participants called on ASEAN countries and the ASEAN Secretariat to ensure the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve is an effective buffer in case of calamity. Rice reserves at the national level should be administered efficiently, without corruption, and should support stable rice markets.

Regulatory frameworks should be put in place to protect small farmers, agricultural workers and the environment. In recent years agricultural investments have increased significantly in a number of ASEAN member countries. Investment is needed to improve and increase production, and should be welcomed. But responsible investments that work with smallholder farmers on their own land are preferred over large land acquisitions that dislocate farmers.

Agriculture is the main source of income in most countries in the ASEAN region and the dominant farm model is small scale. Significant investment across the region is going toward large-scale agribusiness but research – such as by Oxfam, which published Delivering Prosperity in Myanmar’s Dry Zone in July – shows that with the right policies, investment in small-scale farming can help to reduce poverty and inequality, and strengthen food security. So that this happens, ASEAN ministers must ensure that inter-regional agreements listen to farming communities and address the investment needs of small-scale farmers.

As general recommendations participants called on ministers to put in place effective monitoring mechanisms and inter-ministerial coordination for the implementation of the ASEAN Integrated Food Security (AIFS) Framework 2015-2020, which was on the agenda of last week’s meeting. Finally, they called for enhanced involvement of civil society organisations in policy discussions at both the national and regional level. Together we would like to work toward a food-secure ASEAN region.

Ohnmar Khaing is coordinator of the Food Security Working Group, Shwe Thein is chair of the Land Core Group, Marlene Ramirez is secretary general of AsiaDHRRA and Esther Penunia is secretary general of the Asian Farmers Association for Sustainable Rural Development.

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Dr Ohnmar Kaing, Coordinator of Food and Security Working Group in Myanmar, is a full member of the Myanmar Platform for Dialogue on Green Growth (organized by Green Lotus): she participates to Committee 2 “Investing in Climate change adaptation and renewable energy”.

U Swhe Tein, Chairman of the Land Core Group, gave a presentation on Land Grabbing issues at the second session of Committee 1: “Investing in Natural Capital”.