How will a new era of agribusiness affect women and power relations?

Thursday, October 15, 2015 - 08:22

Speech by Laura Sullivan at European Commission DG Agriculture event on Agribusiness

 I’ve spent the last eight years working with an NGO called ActionAid International, being totally inspired by smallholder farmers from around the world, a lot of them women. Preparing to speak at the European Commission’s event on agribusiness and farmers organisations today (, I thought about what they said and what they might have to say about Europe’s plans to step up agribusiness in developing countries in partnership with farmers' organisations.


First, I thought about the landless women processing the babassu coconut in Brazil. They told me that land ownership in their country hasn’t really changed for centuries. Some of the quilimbolo women or descendents of slaves told me that they are in the same situation of powerlessness that their great grandparents were in. Today they have higher incomes, such that they might be able to buy a mobile phones for example. But ultimately they don’t own the land under their feet, and that this puts them in a highly vulnerable place. Vulnerable to poverty. How will a new era of agribusiness affect land and power for women?

What about the women in Senegal who tell you that ‘land is life’, that without it there is no livelihood, no life, no dignity.  Those women are at the front line of efforts to secure land rights for women, and to stop land grabbing so that there is some land left to go around.

What about the women farmers supported by ActionAid Haiti and their proud poster proclaiming the words ‘sans femme changement pas possible’ (‘without women change is not possible’). This is not just a poster or a slogan. There is a whole long history of strong theory behind it. What is that theory?

Around the world 2.1 billion people live in rural areas in situations of absolute poverty. About 70% of farmers in developing countries are women. Those women also produce 60-80% of the food there. Meanwhile only 15% of those women are exercising their right to land. All the projects, all the good intentions are useless if women have no power. If women are priced out of markets. If women have no access to land. No access to water. See their health affected by the pesticides used in the plantations all around them. Turning that around, according to the UN, if women had the same rights to land, water, access to training, seeds and so on, they could increase agricultural yields. Now, this is not about instrumentalising women. There are two factors here: supporting women’s rights to land and natural resources is about the political and economic empowerment of women. It is also about food rights globally.

So let’s link this theory to the reality. The good news story is this: there is some really excellent transformative work going on out there, some of which is actively supported by the EU. Like what?

  1. Support for the implementation of the Voluntary Guidelines on Land Tenure in Africa: this might sound technical, in fact, it’s very political. The guidelines, although still only voluntary, are a very important potential means of supporting women farmers on the land rights question. We acknowledge the role of the European Commission here.
  2. Organising people: some of the work being done to support farmers organisations is some of the most politically significant, particularly when its giving a voice to women. The EC has funded a project called the International Food Security Network, a group of 1400 local to national organisations in 4 continents reaching one million people advocating for pro poor policies.  Their work has so much potential.
  3. Backing up the only real example globally of participatory governance: the Committee on Food Security in Rome. Yes, you got it right, it’s the only one and it needs backing.

The European Commission needs to keep this good work up.

But against this, there are some bad to dangerous myths. What are they?

  1. The idea that smallholders and small producers can’t feed the world. A lot of evidence from a wide variety of actors, including the World Bank, testifies that smallholders can be more productive and more sustainable than large scale producers on a planet where we only have one planet (with the right support).
  2. Involving smallholders in agribusiness value chains is showing evidence of increased access, income and more jobs. We need to be careful not to mix up some micro good examples with the story of an overall model. We are told that there is evidence of farmers doubling and trebling income through value chains. That sounds like good news, but statistics are interesting. How much of the overall value is going to smallholder farmers, the main producers of the world’s food today, in value chains? (What of the cocoa farmers getting 6.8% of the sale price from chocolate which UNCTAD mentioned later yesterday?) And is doubling income really our aim when farmers are going from $1 a day to $2? Even if the income shifts are more significant, is this sufficient if we are not tackling the issue of power imbalances in value chains that are largely dominated by MNCs and supermarkets?  What does this mean for a new era of dependence of ACP farmers on rich country supply chains? What about free, prior and informed consent in cases where farmers land is being taken? What about the limits to inclusion in value chains when farmers need to take out large loans just to be able to qualify (for more on this one, see the case of EcoEnergy in Bagamoyo, where a Tanzanian community are still seeking justice: And if inclusion in the chain means hiring people as agricultural workers, isn’t it important to ensure that that is decent work? Where is the evidence for that? We need a qualitative approach to the discussion on value chains and their impact on people.
  3. The idea that trade and investment are a panacea that will end poverty. Let’s look at why taking the Latin example. Europe is the biggest FDI source for Latin America. But 70% of exports are primary goods with a whole lot of natural resource being extracted. Latin America is the most biodiverse region in the world. For now. It’s also the most dangerous place to be a land activist with 85 dead in 2014. Another palm oil activist was just killed two weeks ago.  Alongside this situation, there is again the question of equal relations. How can we say that trade will solve poverty when the trading partners are not operating on equal terms and starting points? How can the 2.1 billion mentioned above benefit, when global trade is controlled by a very small proportion of the population control trade? This is why supporting smallholders to engage in local to regional trade really matters. They can get access. They can hope to trade on an equal basis. Lets stop fooling ourselves into thinking free trade is a tool for tackling poverty full stop.

To finish, here are some dos and donts for the European Commssion to take on board:

  1. Do continue to support the amazing transformational work you are doing on reinforcing peoples’ rights and checking power imbalances: on land rights, on organising farmers, on participatory global governance as mentioned above. Remember to pay particular consideration to supporting the role of women.
  2. Don’t take an economists vision of something as sensitive as agriculture and by extension, food and land. They are sources of livelihoods first and foremost. Our end goal must not just be about increases in income. It must be about putting the rural poor, the main producers of the world’s food, back in the driving seat. It must be about tackling power imbalances.
  3. Do check your policies are fair. The EU calls this Policy Coherence for (Sustainable) Development and it is a Lisbon Treaty commitment that is being overlooked. All the money in the world will achieve nothing if your trade and investment policies are undermining peoples’ ability to develop.  Incentives from the EU, whether it be funding through the New Alliance, or targets for biofuels are generating land grabs that affect people. We must tread carefully in catalysing the private sector, particularly MNCs which are first and foremost focused on profit margins (they will tell you this themselves), that we may catalyse other challenges such as land and water grabbing, pollution, natural resource degradation.  Reform to your policies and programmes can stop this and make sure we do no harm, and rather, reinforce rights.
  4. Do not forget to support public policies in country and their efforts to regulate corporations and to create an enabling environment for smallholder farmers, the main producers of food.
  5. When looking at tackling poverty, do recognise the role of the private sector but within it, focus on supporting the domestic level  private sector, particularly smallholder farmers and particularly that rather substantial group of women. It’s not just about the amount of money you mobilise through catalysing. But also how you spend it.  There is real potential in supporting local markets for smallholder farmers and on fostering regional trade.
  6. Do support agroecology, or agriculture as mother nature would do it. This is not a technical thing, nor a process within a sector. It is a way of living sustainably, producing enough food for this planet, without destroying it. Smallholder farmers and small producers across the planet get it. European citizens are starting to get it. But the EC doesn’t seem to be backing this horse. Why not? In the era of sustainable development, and acknowledging the role of agriculture in tackling poverty, agroecology is the right model. For ACP countries, for Europe, for the world.
  7. Don’t forget what the women have told us: ‘land is life’. Every investment, every policy should consider and protect that first.