Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific

Hiroyuki Konuma

FAO Regional Representative for Asia-Pacific

OPENING REMARKS
by
He Changchui
Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific
at the

ASEAN Launch of the International Year of Rice

Jakarta, 13 January 2004




Excellencies
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen


On behalf of the Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation (FAO), Dr. Jacques Diouf, I wish to express my gratitude to HE Ong Keng Young, Secretary-General of ASEAN, for inviting FAO to be a part of the launch of the International Year of Rice 2004, in Jakarta today. I also wish to extent FAO’s appreciation to HE Bungaran Saragih, Minister of Agriculture and senior officials of the government of Indonesia, the Ambassadors of the ASEAN members and other countries present today at this launching ceremony of the International Year of Rice by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Agriculture’s historical sweep in Asia in well known. Natural scientists report that Oryza Sativa or rice was sown to the north and west of the Deccan plateau in India during the first millennium BC, and by the seventh century BC rice fields had spread eastward to the Ganges Delta. It is further recorded that by the fifth millennium BC, Chinese farmers were harvesting millet; and that peas and water chestnuts were grown in the Spirit Caves in Northern Thailand as early as 7000 BC. Human kind’s cycle of life and death in Asia has always blended with land and water, and their offerings have reached out for values beyond food and physical survival.

Agriculture’s critical importance to the men and women of this diverse region is obvious. The year 2004 has been declared the International Year of Rice because rice is the staple food for more than half of the world’s population. Rice is grown on all the continents of the world, except Antarctica. In Asia alone, more than 2 billion people obtain 60 to 70 percent of their caloric intake from rice and its derived products. Rice has a large influence on human nutrition and on the fight against hunger all over the world. Subsequently, FAO recognizes the significance of rice and rice-based livelihood systems for food security, economic development, the people and cultures of the South-East Asian region, and values the commitment and inputs of ASEAN nations for the International Year of Rice action campaign.

In 1999, FAO and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) formally expressed the need to raise global awareness and promote concrete actions for sustainable rice development, resulting in their joint desire to have an International Year of Rice declared. As many of you may recall, this was pursued by interested member countries and led to the submission, and approval, of a proposal for the International Year of Rice at the 31st session of the FAO Conference in November 2001. On 16 December 2002, the United Nations General Assembly, at its 57th session, approved a draft resolution of the proposal submitted by the delegation of the Philippines and co-sponsored by 43 member countries. By adopting this resolution, the General Assembly reaffirmed “the need to focus world attention on the role that rice can play in providing food security and eradicating poverty in the attainment of the internationally agreed development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration.”

I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to ASEAN’s early, full and continued commitment for the IYR campaign. In this connection, allow me to reiterate that the International Year of Rice logo was autographed by the ASEAN Plus Three Leaders at their Bali Summit in October last year. This symbolic act signifies not only their recognition of the importance of the rice-based livelihood systems, but also the priority support they accord to sustainable agricultural development and poverty alleviation in the region. FAO highly commends the Secretary-General of the ASEAN Secretariat for his efforts in promoting this initiative.

Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

The Director-General of FAO officially launched the International Year of Rice at UN Headquarters in New York on 31 October 2003. It is encouraging to know that throughout 2004, many important programmes and events will be held at the international, regional and national levels in support of the International Year of Rice, including the International Rice Conference at FAO Headquarters on 12 and 13 February and the side events on the occasion of FAO regional conferences in the different parts of the world during the present year. The 27th FAO Regional Conference for Asia and the Pacific, scheduled for 17 to 21 May 2004 in Beijing will have, among others, an agenda item on Rice in Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development in Asia and the Pacific.

Today’s launch of the International Year of Rice, organized by ASEAN, is certainly one of the first events to take place in the world. In this regard, I wish to congratulate the ASEAN Secretariat for this initiative as well as to thank once again those who are present at this gathering.

FAO is aware that many IYR events and programmes are planned at the national and community levels by ASEAN and other countries in Asia. The Organization welcomes the active involvement and contribution of all major stakeholders such as policy makers, research institutions, the private sector, non-governmental organizations and other segments of civil society, school children and – above all – rice farmers and rural women. I am confident that the International Year of Rice will provide an opportunity to millions of people all over the world to reflect on the importance of rice to the livelihoods and cultures of mankind, today and in the future.

Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Although the share of agriculture in the GDP of ASEAN nations has been steadily declining to around 11.5%, the proportion of the economically active population in ASEAN dependent on agriculture is still over 50 percent. They plant and harvest food and agricultural products to meet spiraling needs of over three billion Asian people within less than a third of the world’s arable land. Over the last decades, regional cereal production grew at a rate of almost 3 percent a year, thus pulling ahead of the region’s population growth. Full granaries mean enhanced food security, and most countries in the region have worked their way into cereal self-sufficiency.

ASEAN countries have definitely shed the spectra of widespread hunger and famine in the recent past. There are deep human values in these gains: the number of chronically undernourished people in ASEAN has dwindled rapidly between 9971 and 2002. Nonetheless, some 66 million go to bed hungry every day, representing 12.8 percent of their population.

In line with commitments made at the 1996 World Food Summit – including by the heads of state or governments of the Southeast Asia countries – the number of poor and hungry people needs to be reduced by half within a 20 year period. This means that the ten ASEAN countries have to further reduce – between now and 2015 – the number of hungry people to 38 million, or by around 2.5 million per year. This is a very feasible scenario, as also confirmed by FAO’s latest Food Insecurity report which shows that Southeast Asia is on track to meet the target of the World Food Summit.

However, despite this encouraging sign, I should like to emphasize that progress has been unequal between and within the ten countries. I therefore feel that a call for further action is still needed. In particular, the Southeast Asian countries should commit themselves to eradicating hunger entirely in each and every country. In fact, the FAO regional office is already responding to requests for assistance from countries to achieve zero hunger. Strategies for achieving that goal should include key elements of a twin-track approach that combines immediate interventions to give hungry people access to food with development initiatives to increase employment, incomes and food production.

This is a challenging task ahead for all. FAO is calling on the governments and civil society in Southeast Asia to fight against hunger, and to work together more closely, so that the people of the region can escape the vicious cycle of poverty and insecurity. The commitment by ASEAN to the International Year of Rice will go a long way in meeting this challenge.

In conclusion, I should like to express FAO’s appreciation to all those concerned for their support for and involvement in the International Year of Rice.

Thank you.