This year is International Year of the Family Farm, and two recent reports, from United Nations and European constituencies, make the case for a return of support for smallholder farmers.
The reports argue that an empowered population of smallholder farmers is a more direct route to alleviate poverty and restore depleted environments. They acknowledge that smallholder households are a huge human resource equipped with local knowledge which should be recognised for their contribution to food supply and local environmental management, and suggest that international aid needs to focus on helping smallholder farmers to improve their agriculture skills and water and land management.
Hunger and malnutrition are mainly related to lack of purchasing power and/or inability of rural poor to be self-sufficient. Meeting the food security challenge is thus primarily about empowerment of the poor … the world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development from conventional, monoculture-based industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems … the fundamental transformation of agriculture may well turn out to be one of the biggest challenges of the 21st century.UNCTD Trade and Environment Review 2013
Permaculture in a Sri Lankan aid project
The ‘Permaculture, livliehoods and nutrition’ project in Sri Lanka (2008–12) was a great example of permaculture being used to assist family farms in a practical way.
For much of the past thirty years Sri Lanka has been constrained by internal conflict and political uncertainty. Many rural households have had little opportunity to learn and develop their farming, and local employment opportunities are limited and low paid. Many smallholder farmers have not been producing enough food, have been on very low incomes, and child malnourishment is common. Many households have ceased using their land with some owners working elsewhere, living away from home for months at a time.
Over 1000 households participated in this project, from six districts in different climate zones and war resettlement areas. The average farm size was one acre. The project provided practical training, community organising, seed supply and a start-up poultry flock to establish mixed-purpose farms and food gardens.
Results indicated improvements in harvests and household food supply, mainly in fruit and vegetables, eggs and poultry meat. Some produced milk and curd from goats or a cow provided by the program. Seed collecting was encouraged, and in all six districts the farmers had organised themselves into groups; by the end of the project twenty-five community seed banks had been formed.
The project was much appreciated by households, and considered a success by World Vision who implemented it. The project evaluation identified some contributing elements.
- The training workshops and farmer meetings were practical, good fun and community building experiences.
- The project put more food on the table and cash in their budgets – in the drier districts as well as the wet – and the pressure for the men to go away for work was reduced.
- The project did not focus on creating a model farm, rather it supported the 1000 households to be local examples. It took a community development approach, empowering community with knowledge and ownership of seed and animal banks.
- The project staff understood permaculture ideas and integrated them into their approach. All had valued their copy of A permaculture guidebook from East Timor created by Permatil (Permaculture Timor Lorosa’e, written by Lachlan McKenzie with Ego Lemos, second edition 2008).
Actions readers can take
- support Australian NGOs – including Permafund – in their work with smallholder farmers
- let your parliamentary representative know that you support family farmer programs and do not see industrial farming as the model that will solve global hunger, climate and environment issues
- promote the UN’s International Year of the Family Farm – see www.fao.org/family-farming-2014/en/
Agriculture – the need for change, 2008, International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology of Development (IAASTD) report
Wake up before it is too late; making agriculture truly sustainable now for food security in a changing climate, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Trade and Environment Review 2013
John McKenzie is a committee member of Permaculture Australia; he worked for World Vision in 2000–09 and helped to establish the Sri Lanka Permaculture project.