Africa: Will Agriculture Make It At Rio+20?

analysis

Photo: Frederic Courbet/Gates Foundation
The Rio+20 summit is envisaged as a conference at the highest possible level, including Heads of State and government or other representatives.

United Nations negotiations are always complex, but Rio+20 has an unusually complicated agenda.

Sustainable development by its nature is broad, combining social, economic, and environmental dimensions. In an attempt to roll these ideas together, the negotiating text introduces the concept of the "green economy", which is by no means an accepted term and has met with strong G77 criticism for its lack of focus on poverty eradication and related social issues.

Attempts to agree on the "institutional framework" for sustainable development at the UN, including the upgrading of the United Nations Environment Programme to a UN agency, are not only divisive between Europe and North America but have also forced a split within the G77.

So where do we stand now? The last negotiating round of this two-year process began with a text of 278 pages covering many thematic areas including: oceans, land degradation, energy, sustainable cities and food security.

By April 27th negotiations dropped the text to 157 pages but it is now again over 171 pages long. Of 401 clauses, only 21 are agreed and most of those are titles.

With so much left to agree before Rio, the UN has added an extra week of negotiations starting May 29. Still the pace is well behind what is needed to move through so much text.

Given the central role of agriculture, it is important it survives the negotiating process.

AGRICULTURE AND GROWTH

Agriculture provides significant opportunities for growth, investment and jobs. It feeds the world. Particularly in developing countries, agriculture contributes significantly to GDP growth, leads the way in poverty reduction and accounts for the lion's share of employment opportunities, especially for women.

Thankfully, the food security section has grown to include agriculture but has no agreed paragraphs - not even the title.

Key clauses that recognise the particular needs of rural communities, (specifically: women; the importance of agricultural research and extension; livestock and fisheries) are likely to survive.

Unfortunately a key paragraph on the needs of smallholders which covers topics such as credit, grain storage, and water harvesting is now loaded with trade and other contentious issues that were added during a complex evening of negotiations. Only the revised chairman's text, expected before the May 29 negotiations, can hope to save it.

Added to that are a variety of difficult issues, from the amount of overseas development assistance to technology transfer; from reproductive rights to "occupied territories" (which in UN-speak is one way of raising the Palestine question). There are a lot of trip wires in the current text.

So can an agriculture section survive? Agricultural organisations are teaming up in a day-long "Agriculture and Rural Development Day" event ahead of the Rio+20 summit in order to present a joined up call-to-action to negotiators and to share examples of best practices globally.

From the perspective of the negotiations themselves, if the thorny issues of trade and price volatility are managed or dropped, there are likely some areas where agreement can be reached on the agriculture text.

The question then becomes: do those items in specific areas like agriculture, transportation, and land degradation form the basis of a practical, though not particularly ambitious, outcome? Or do all of the areas of implementation get dropped in favour of a political declaration? Let's hope those are the options and failure is not.

The one ray of hope is the concept of Sustainable Development Goals. It seems increasingly likely countries will agree a process to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which expire in 2015, with a new set of "Sustainable Development Goals".

The review of the MDGs is already underway and adding to it a mandate to look at all of the dimensions of sustainable development is a possible outcome of Rio+20.

Robynne Anderson is with the World Farmers Organisation, an organising partner for the Farmers Major Group at the Rio+20 summit. Agriculture and Rural Development Day takes place on June 18 ahead of the summit.

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