Latin America Focuses on Attacking Pockets of Rural Poverty

(IPS) – Identifying territories where rural poverty is most entrenched in Latin America and the Caribbean to apply new tools and innovative policies to combat hunger is the new strategy that will be discussed at a ministerial meeting to be held in early March.

FAO regional representative Julio Berdegue (R), and the deputy regional representative Eve Crowley, during the presentation of the organisation’s 35th Regional Conference objectives, to be held in March in Jamaica. Credit: FAORLC

Julio Berdegue, regional representative of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), announced this in the Chilean capital, explaining the objectives of the organisation’s 35th Regional Conference, to be held May 5-8 in Montego Bay, Jamaica, with the presence of ministers and representatives of the 33 countries in the region.

“We have over 43 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean who go to sleep every day with empty stomachs. We also have an epidemic situation of malnutrition and particularly of overweight and obesity,” warned Berdegue, who is also FAO’s Deputy Director-General.

The population of the region stands at 651 million, according to the latest projections.

Berdegue said the eradication of hunger is an uncompleted task and described as “terrifying” that “hundreds of thousands of children suffer from hunger.”

The proposal to identify these pockets of poverty, which are about a hundred, arises from the fact that the fight against hunger “is becoming increasingly difficult because we are reaching the hard core of the problem, the hunger that is concentrated in remote indigenous rural populations, and among women and the elderly,” he said.

“To eradicate hunger and extreme poverty, we have to deal with the problems of ethnic, gender, economic and territorial inequality and these are major challenges,” he explained.

The most recent figures from FAO show that hunger increased dramatically in Venezuela, affecting 1.3 million people there. In addition, the fight against hunger was stalled because of the high rate of extreme poverty in Haiti: 47 percent of the population.

“To eradicate hunger and extreme poverty, we have to deal with the problems of ethnic, gender, economic and territorial inequality and these are major challenges.” — Julio Berdegue

To this is added a small upturn in the proportion of people suffering from hunger in Argentina or Peru.

The regional representative also warned about the effects of climate change which threaten agriculture, and lamented that millions of rural dwellers in the region live in extreme poverty.

Poverty affects 46 percent of the rural population, while 25 percent live in extreme poverty, “a startling fact in a very rich region, with a very strong agricultural sector,” Berdegue said.

Asked by IPS about the role of rural and indigenous communities in the face of these serious problems, Berdegue responded that “they play a crucial role in food security.”

“First of all, the role of their own peoples, because the persistence of hunger is very high in indigenous populations. In many countries it even quadruples the national averages,” he explained.

Therefore, he said, “if indigenous communities are not central actors, there is no way to solve hunger in those places. This will not be solved by bringing food in helicopters.”

“In these communities we have an important issue of gender inequality, and inequality in access to land, access to political power within local communities, and access to participation, and that is a sensitive issue because of the norms and customs of native peoples,” he said.
According to Berdegue, “the empowerment of indigenous women is part of the agenda in the fight against rural poverty and hunger in indigenous communities.”

The conference in Jamaica will also discuss the problem of overweight, which affects half of the population in the region, and the obesity suffered by some 90 million people.

According to FAO estimates, in 26 countries of the region, diseases associated with obesity are responsible for 300,000 deaths each year, compared with 166,000 people killed in homicides.

The 15 million family farmers of the region who produce fresh vegetables and traditional foods that contribute to a healthier and more diversified diet play a major role In the fight against obesity and overweight.

Another crucial issue in the 35th Conference will be the conservation of natural resources described by the regional representative as “key for a healthy life and for our survival and of all other species on the planet.”

Berdegue called for a discussion of “how we shall continue producing crops, how rural populations shall continue to live in the countryside in this era of climate change, and how to establish more effective risk prevention and management systems at a time when these risks and threats are much more intense. ”

“There is concern among the population, specialists and governments, because we cannot continue with agriculture that consumes 70 percent of the fresh water. It is no longer tolerable to say that we produce more food but on the basis of destroying tropical forests. Intensive agriculture based on the use of fertilisers that end up in rivers causing pollution is no longer acceptable,” he said.

Meanwhile, Eve Crowley, secretary of the Regional Conference and FAO deputy regional representative, said that the conference will discuss the problem of migration that affects thousands, who flee due to violence, lack of opportunities, poverty and environmental risks.

“We want migration to always be an option and not a necessity,” she said.

Crowley also highlighted the issue of conflict, saying that “conflict-ridden societies with political instability have higher levels of hunger than societies without conflicts.”

“When conflict decreases, there is less food insecurity. When food prices rise, as in the 2008 crisis, there is an increase in demonstrations and political instability,” she said.

In the first years of the century, Latin America and the Caribbean made significant progress in combating hunger, and became the first region in the world to reach the first Millennium Development Goal by 2015, by halving the proportion of hungry people, from 1990-1992 levels.

According to Berdegue, “with respect to hunger and the reduction of poverty, Latin America and the Caribbean have done their job well… the problem is that we have been losing speed.”

“We were advancing very fast and the world was seeing how well the region was doing it… They were looking at our public policies. But in recent years we have lost this great speed. What we want to discuss with the countries is how we can put our foot back on the accelerator,” he explained.

“We have been improving our capacity to eradicate hunger. Today we have instruments and tools that we did not imagine 15 or 20 years ago. The problem remains, but the specific answers to the problems have been changing and I would say that they have been improving,” he concluded.

If this continues, it would seem that the goal set by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) of reaching zero hunger by 2025 is moving away rather than getting closer.

The new commitment that FAO will now put on the table in Jamaica to the 33 governments of the region will be for the fight against hunger to focus on rural pockets that make up the hard core of extreme poverty.