Family farmers should be at the heart of all agriculture, food security and nutrition agendas

Interview with Ms. Estrella Penunia, International Year of Family Farming Special Ambassador

Ms. Estrella Penunia, or Esther, as she is known to colleagues, is Secretary General of the Asian Farmers’ Association (AFA), a regional alliance of national farmers organizations or FOs in Asia. Established in 2002, AFA is currently composed of fifteen national FOs in twelve countries, representing around 12 million small-scale farmers (both women and men).  

As a social development worker, Esther spent more than three decades working in the field of rural development alongside farmers, fishers and indigenous peoples as a community organizer, participatory action researcher, trainer, gender advocate, consultant, campaigns coordinator, NGO executive/manager and networker.

1. What is your role as an IYFF Special Ambassador?

My role as a Special Ambassador is to promote family farming. I attend IYFF events and coordinate with the FAO Director-General and other IYFF Special Ambassadors in order to deliver concerted messages and a coherent campaign. 

2. What do you think are some of the biggest challenges facing family farmers around the world today?

I can speak of family farmers in Asia and the Pacific. Our region is home to 70% of the world’s family farmers who are working on farmlands of no more than five hectares, with an average of two hectares. In this region, women farmers carry out 50-90% of the work on farms.

Despite the small landholdings, family farmers in Asia and the Pacific produce 80% of the total food needed to ensure food security in the region. This is due to higher use of labour and family-owned inputs as well as cropping intensity and diversification despite the smaller invested capital.

However, our region is also home to 63% of the poorest and hungriest in the world, particularly in the rural areas of South and East Asia. 

The most common concern is limited access to land or landlessness. Other challenges include lack of access to basic necessities like water, sanitation and electricity. Access to resources like credit, farming implements and technology is also severely limited. Furthermore family farmers are inhibited by other factors, which include lack of information on markets, limited entrepreneurial skills and bargaining power—making them vulnerable and less competitive.

Extreme weather events are also increasing farmers' vulnerabilities. The region is particularly at risk of flooding and storms.  Last year, Typhoon Huaiyan caused major destruction and left 6190 dead and many still missing.  Small-scale fishers and farmers were the most affected.

The continuing decline of farming incomes and the resulting poverty is causing family farms to disappear as many choose to migrate to urban areas in search of better opportunities; a high number of these are young people. Sometimes, those who want to stay farming are threatened by displacement because of absence of clear policies on land use and security of tenure.

3. How can these challenges be overcome? What can international organizations, governments, farmer organizations etc. do to continue to support family and small-scale farmers beyond 2014? In your opinion, what specific areas should be targeted?  

Basically, there should be more investment in family and small-scale farmers as they represent the vast majority of farmers in the world. This would enable them to play their role in achieving food security, nutrition and sustainable development.

Public policies and investments in the following specific areas should be in place: family farmers' rights over their basic production resources such as land, water, forests, seeds; policies that help upscale and outscale sustainable, integrated, diversified, resilient, ecological agriculture; policies that help establish viable farmer-owned or farmer directed agro-based enterprises and build the entrepreneurial and self -reliant spirit of farmers; policies that attract youth to agriculture; policies that provide the necessary infrastructures such as farm to market roads, post harvest facilities, irrigation, credit, insurance, accurate and timely weather information, risk insurance; policies that empower women farmers and promote gender equality in family farms; policies that recognize family farms; and policies that institutionalize significant participation and involvement of family farmers in decision making bodies related to agriculture. 

4.  As Secretary General of the Asian Farmers’ Association (AFA), how important are Farmer organizations (FO's) in the sector? Could you provide some examples of how AFA supports family and small-scale farmers in Asia? 

Family farmers should be at the heart of all agriculture, food security and nutrition agendas; their well-being and their sustainable livelihoods should be top priority. 

AFA's main mission is to empower small-scale family farmers in Asia so that they can effectively influence governments and other institutions. We do this through our programmes on policy advocacy, knowledge management, enterprise development and governance. 

AFA conducts policy information, policy analysis, and campaigns as well as dialogues with decision makers at both national and regional levels. We develop the knowledge and skills of our leaders and members through various participatory and learn-by-doing approaches, including farmer exchange visits.

We also provide technical and managerial support to members' initiatives on sustainable agriculture and agro enterprises.

5. As a social development worker, you have spent much of your career working in the field of rural development alongside family and small-scale farmers, what have you learnt from them?

I have learned a lot of simple but profound things from farmers. Family farmers shouldn't be viewed as victims but as solution providers. In spite of the adversities they face, they remain resilient and hopeful. Constant interaction with them helps me to stay grounded and inspired, ultimately it makes me a better person.

6. What do you hope this international year will achieve? And how can the successes of the year continue beyond 2014? 

For IYFF 2014, AFA’s main campaign objective is to strengthen the commitment and capacities of family farmers and the national and regional organizations which represent them. We want to promote family farming and push for policies and programmes that will support small-scale farmers, in partnership with other multi-stakeholders.

Beyond 2014, we hope there will be an International Decade of Family farming.  After all, we need to feed 9 billion people by 2050 amidst a changing climate, and since family farmers feed the world and care for the earth, we must continue to care for family farmers.