Farmers provide more than food; they are the cornerstone of rural economies
No matter where you are, the food on your plate comes from a farmer. This isn’t a particularly shocking revelation, and development assistance to farmers is vitally important if we are to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals around ending hunger and improving food security. This makes intuitive sense; helping farmers make sustainable, long term increases to crop yields means more food. But I want to caution against a narrow vision of farmers as simply a means to the end of putting food on the table. By framing assistance to farmers solely in terms of food security, we might be missing the larger picture about the role of agriculture in development. What if helping farmers is a way to address social challenges like gender inequality, migration, and crime?
Honduras struggles with a variety of issues related to violence, lack of economic opportunity, and weak government institutions. These factors help drive migration, both internally to cities and externally to neighboring countries, creating a negative feedback loop that only exacerbates these challenges. As is usually the case, the regions most prominently affected by these issues are highly impoverished rural communities. In some areas most of the men and young people have left, looking for work elsewhere. This destabilizes the individual household and the broader community leaving the elderly and children left to tend the land and few qualified people to run basic institutions such as schools and clinics, and provide basic services such as sanitation, water, and road maintenance.
When Global Communities began working in southern Honduras through the USAID COSECHA program, we were not focused on preventing migration. Rather the goal was to assist drought-prone farmers with access to water. A dry climate and high temperatures compounded the problems caused by a lack of irrigation, leading most farmers to abandon farming during the dry season. In their words: “We have the land, but without water, we have nothing”.
To help address this problem, The COSECHA program is building reservoirs to collect rainwater and to install a more efficient and affordable drip irrigation system. With the ability to use the water collected in the rainy season, the farmers are now able to grow crops year-round, increasing yields and income. The water supply also allows for crop diversification; adding melons, beans, and vegetables to the traditional staple of corn. The benefits go beyond agriculture though; as one farmer mentioned, thanks to the program, they can “keep and maintain their families”. A year-round growing season (and corresponding income) means that young people are no longer compelled to look for work in the cities or abroad. Communities are being strengthened, with civic organizations like local water boards being created, and many farmers wish to form cooperatives since they are already united by a shared water source. While farming in southern Honduras remains a daunting task, in many respects, they now have hope for the future.
Another example is in Rwanda, where the USAID-funded Integrated Improved Livelihoods Program known locally as Ejo Heza (which means “Brighter Future”), worked to help rural smallholder households increase their incomes through increasing yields. As the program was implemented, it became evident that a lack of communication between spouses about the division of farming labor, decisions surrounding how to use limited income, and feeding practices was a problem. To address this, Global Communities adapted Oxfam’s Gender Action Learning System (GALS) to the Rwandan context. GALS promotes communication and joint decision making between women and men, leading to a more equal partnership. Many groups reported that GALS helped them better understand the meaning of gender equality. One female participant explained how GALS helped her better understand the meaning of gender equality, and that it includes discussing household farming problems and jointly planning household income and expenditures.
In both Rwanda and Honduras, programs ostensibly about agriculture have had benefits far beyond increased yields. In Honduras, the social and economic changes brought about by improved irrigation have reduced the need to migrate. In Rwanda, women were empowered and gender equity was promoted. The lesson here is that strengthening farmers doesn’t just affect the crops. The role these people play in food production is obviously important, but so is their role in society. While the world is undoubtedly and rapidly urbanizing, in the developing world rural populations remain critical. Farmers are the backbone of such communities and when they thrive, we all thrive.