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Blog 30: The WIFI is weak but our call for support for smallholder family farmers is strong

In blog 30 in our series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, Esther Penunia - Secretary General of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), discusses the challenges faced by smallholder farms across Asia, and how they are working to overcome them. She calls on governments and the international community "to build sustainable, resilient food systems with family farmers, through their organisations and cooperatives as key frontliners, partners and stakeholders, towards the common goal of ending hunger and poverty in the world."

The Covid19 outbreaks in many Asia Pacific countries happened during the harvest season and the lockdowns imposed by many governments to contain the spread of the virus have dramatically affected our livelihoods and incomes.

Many family farms had good yields, but we cannot sell our products, either because markets are closed or because transportation restrictions prevent traders and buyers from coming to our farms and prevent us from going to the markets. Even if we reduce our prices three or four times less, no one comes to buy. Many small-scale family farmers do not have our own storage or cooling or processing facilities, so we are forced either to sell low, to dump our produce, or to simply donate them to help feed hungry residents of nearby suburbs and towns.

My organisation has been collecting COVID19 stories from farmers across the Asia Pacific region. Noy from Xiengkhouang province in Laos describes how the markets are closed or empty and the lack of storage and processing facilities for the cabbages she can’t sell mean that she is resorting to feeding her crop to animals. Another farmer in Bangladesh has made a video describing his situation. He has been unable to check his crops because he has been told to stay at home, he hasn’t been able to buy fertiliser because the shops have closed down. His rice crop is being ruined. He has no money. Support of last resort has in the past come from NGOs, but their movements are also restricted at the moment. These stories are repeated over and over again in Asia Pacific, home to 70% of family farmers in the world.

No markets, no buyers, no processing, no storage, means no incomes for family farmers during harvest time when they should be earning to keep them afloat until the next harvest. Next it will be planting season, but lockdown restrictions are hampering supplies of inputs for production such as seeds. This pandemic highlights the need to put priority on domestic production and supply of healthy and nutritious food. Because food is basic and healthy and nutritious food is essential to good health, to building the body’s immune system and resistance to the virus. The pandemic also confirms the need for shorter food chains, and for stronger involvement of farmers in the value chain through their organisations and cooperatives. 

So we are also collecting stories about how farmers organisations are stepping up to these challenges. Sara Bangla Krishak Society, a national federation of farmer organisations in Bangladesh, has established 57 Virtual Call Centers across the country, allowing farmers to continue selling their commodities and buying essential inputs and services. The call centers not only help ensure that farmers can continue to provide food for their families and the country at large, they also provide them with vital information about how to keep themselves and their families healthy and about support they can receive from government and other actors. In Laos, an organic vegetable production group affiliated with the Lao Farmer Network, has partnered with the local government, and a private trading company to transport their products to the capital. In the Philippines, KGAT, an all-women cooperative of the Dumagat indigenous community, made a deal with a homeowners’ association to establish a farmers’ market in their area. In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an all-women national farmers’ organisation, has distributed free face masks to farming families. 

 

 

Farmers organisations cannot do this on our own. We need support from our own governments and from the international community. Every region, every country, every small processing business, and every farmer faces different challenges. And so the support, if it comes, needs to build from the bottom up, starting with the daily reality of the farmers working on the ground and listening to our concerns. This month I was meant to be in Europe urging support for the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP) so that it can help smallholder farmers and farmers’ organisations to build back better out of this crisis. GAFSP is unique in the way it gives farmers’ organisations like mine a voice on its Steering Committee, which serves as a good opportunity to help shape its directions and strategies.

Instead of being in Europe I am locked down in the Philippines. But I have been remotely visiting governments and NGOs in the UK, Germany, Brussels, Denmark, Spain, and Switzerland. The WIFI has sometimes been weak, but our message is strong. Now is the time to build sustainable, resilient food systems with family farmers, through their organisations and cooperatives as key frontliners, partners and stakeholders, towards the common goal of ending hunger and poverty in the world.

 

About the author

Ms. Ma. Estrella “Esther” Penunia is Secretary General of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), a regional farmers organisation (FO) , currently with 20 national FOs in 16 Asian countries, with around 13 million family farmers as members. AFA promotes a five point agenda which includes rights natural resources, sustainable, integrated, diversified,organic , agro-ecological systems in farms, fisheries and forests, viable farmers cooperatives and their enterprises, women empowerment and youth in agriculture. Its programmes include capacity building, knowledge management, policy advocacy and internal governance. AFA co-manages a capacity building programme for FOs called MTCP2, that is supported by IFAD, SDC and EU and is implemented in 17 countries in Asia Pacific region. Esther spent more than three decades of professional years in the field of rural development, working in various capacities as community organiser,primary health care worker, participatory action researcher, trainer, gender advocate, consultant, campaigns coordinator, chief executive officer, board member and networker.

 

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