By Carol Thiessen and Virginie Levasseur
Carla Duran credits her successful career as a farmer, and her family’s food security, to a Bolivian cooperative supported by the Canadian government.
As a child, Carla’s parents grew maize and potatoes on their small farm in Bolivia. They could barely make ends meet.
Carla’s situation changed when her parents joined UNEC—Unidad de Negocios Especias y Condimentos—a subsidiary of an agricultural co-operative–that processes and packages high quality organic spice for export across Latin America.
Carla’s family now grows oregano for the cooperative, which has received support from the Government of Canada and SOCODEVI, a Quebec-based network of cooperatives that share technical expertise and knowledge with partners in developing countries.
SOCODEVI has supported UNEC since 2006 to increase its capacity to clean and grade herbs and spices, especially oregano, increasing its processing and packaging of herbs and spices from zero to 650 tons last year.
Carla’s family is one of 2,000 families in the Chuquisaca region of Bolivia who have reaped numerous benefits from their co-operative. In addition to increased income from this crop, their farming practices are now more sustainable.
Carla has transformed her life, too. She completed a degree in agronomy and found work at the UNEC factory. With her strong determination and dedication, she is now managing the whole factory.
Co-operatives like UNEC, and other farmer-led organizations, give voice to farmers’ concerns—especially those of women—and play a crucial role in sustainable agricultural development. They provide training and education opportunities, support efforts to engage government on agricultural policies, and improve farmers’ collective ability to innovate, negotiate and market effectively.
More support like this from the Canadian government is a key plank in a new proposal urging Canada to make a signature investment of $2.5 billion in aid for agricultural development over the next five years (see www.aid4ag.ca). This should be part of a growing aid budget.
More than 35 leading developing organizations and 10 prominent academics have joined together on this initiative, arguing that boosting aid for agriculture will allow Canada to show global leadership in enabling the poorest and most vulnerable—many who are women small-scale farmers—to flourish.
Canada demonstrated strong leadership in food security after the global food crisis in 2008, and increased its aid support for agricultural development to an average of $435 million/year from 2009-2011. Since then, aid for agriculture has fallen to an average of $328 million/year, a decline of 25 percent.
An investment of $500 million/year would vault Canada back to the forefront among donor countries working in sustainable agriculture for small-scale farmers, and help it achieve more successes like UNEC and for people like Carla. It would contribute to achieving many of the Sustainable Development Goals. And it would help Canada meet its key development priorities, such as empowering women, enabling poverty reduction, and responding to climate change.
The strategies needed to meet these goals include enabling agricultural innovation, creating opportunities for rural youth, improving nutrition through agriculture, and reducing inequalities for women so they can better access productive resources, participate fully in household decision-making, and be treated as full and equal members of society.
Farmer-led organizations, including co-operatives, have a proven track record in achieving these goals. A woman-led farmer organization in India has empowered more than 5,000 women from the lowest caste to use their traditional knowledge to reclaim degraded lands and turn them into productive, drought-tolerant and nutritious farms.
In Jarkhand State, India, self-help groups have enabled villagers to better stand up for their rights, protect their natural resources, and improve their community food security. Women in those villages report that they now speak up more in their homes and in village meetings and are treated with more equality.
That these kind of farmer-led organizations and co-operatives are so successful would come as no surprise to many Canadians. Agricultural co-operatives have a long and productive history in this country, with more than 1,300 co-ops continuing to support Canadian farmers in meeting their collective goals.
Let’s make agricultural development central to Canada’s development strategy. And let’s support agricultural co-operatives and other farmer-led organizations as part of an agricultural strategy. This will help build a more inclusive world—the kind of world where we work together to end hunger and poverty everywhere.
Virginie Levasseur is Director of Innovation and Advisory services at SOCODEVI (Société de coopération pour le développement international). Carol Thiessen is a senior policy advisor at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank. Their organizations support the Aid for Agriculture proposal. For more on SOCODEVI’s work with UNEC, visit http://socodevi.org/en/our-publications/videos/.