No farmer, no food, no future!

An interview with Esther Penunia - Secretary General of the​ 
Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA)
Photo credit: Asian Farmers' Association

AMEA has initiated an IWA process - facilitated by NEN/ISO - in order to create a definition for professional farmer organizations. To ensure a broad inclusion of different stakeholders that work in agribusiness, the Alliance is organizing and supporting several regional workshops. One of those took place in Bangkok on 25th of May, and it was organized in cooperation with the AFA.


The AFA is one of the key representatives of family farmers in Asia, and therefore a very important actor in the feedback process of IWA. Its insight into the everyday lives of smallholder farmers and the challenges they face can contribute to a more inclusive definition, which is the final goal of IWA. To learn more about their views, we talked with Esther Penunia, Secretary General of the organization. She began with a short introduction to AFA, its membership and goals:

“AFA is an alliance of national farmers’ organizations. Currently we have 20 member organizations in 16 countries in South-East, South, East and Central Asia with a combined membership of 13 million - women and men, young and old - family farmers.


Before our establishment in 2002 our NGO partner AsiaDHRRA had a dream of bringing together their partner farmers’ organizations through a series of learning events. This meant for example travelling to the Philippines to learn about agrarian reform, to Japan and Malaysia to learn about food processing and marketing. There was a three-year series of learning events, and at the final event in 2002, the founding members of AFA said that they would like to have their own independent group. At the time all of the 5 founding members were South-East Asian members and it was a time when ASEAN already had a free-trade agreement among each other.


The founding members saw that they were having the same problems with regards to the free trade agreement and so they said: maybe we should come together in solidarity with one another, to share experiences and build capacities. That’s how AFA started in 2002 - last May was our 8th general assembly - and from the 5 founding members we grew to 20 members.“

The work of organizations such as AFA is highly valuable since they represent the voice of farmer organizations and farmers themselves. Their assessment of the position of farmers and the daily challenges they face can really help all other actors in agriculture to take this into account and support policies that address these challenges. Their decades-long experience and efforts in strengthening farmers’ capabilities in areas such as development and strengthening of farmers’ cooperatives, sustainable, resilient agriculture  practices, quality assurance and marketing is an important foundation for any further endeavors aimed at advancing professional farmer organizations. This is how Esther Penunia describes the condition of farmers in Asia today:

“In global statistics it’s family farmers who feed the world and 80% of the small scale family farmers are in Asia and Pacific. But the statistics of poverty and hunger also show that while there is around 800 million poor, around 60% of these poor people and hungry people are in Asia and Pacific. So why are we poor and hungry in spite of producing the food for the world?”

On the basis of these findings and the everyday living experience of AFA’s members, 5 key areas have been identified that need to be addressed and are summarized in their Priority Agenda:

“The first item on our agenda is access and control over our production resources -  we need land, we need water, we need forest, we need seeds. Many family farmers do not have access and control of these natural resources. Many are landless, there is land grabbing, and there are very unfair contract arrangements between farmers and companies. There are forest resources, but we cannot enter them,  bigger forest concessions exploit the forest resources. And when it comes to seeds - 70% of the global seed market is controlled by multinational companies already, while 70% of the seeds are produced by the informal sector - like farmers saving and exchanging seeds. But this informal sector and its producers are not recognized. So therefore, first item on our agenda is to promote our rights to access and  control  of these natural resources.


The second challenge is that our lands and waters  are degraded because of the many decades of monocropping and the high use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and inorganic inputs. Climate change and the unpredictable weather patterns, have aggravated these conditions – now our volume of harvests are unpredictable. So sometimes you have more, sometimes you have less, because of the floods, droughts and pests. So our second item on the agenda is to promote sustainable, climate resilient agriculture in farms and forests, using an integrated and diversified approach.


The third is the challenge on the market. We can produce surplus but when we reach the market we don’t have a fair price - because of globalization there can be an influx of imports, which are cheaper, so we cannot sell our products. We have very little market information, we only sell raw produce and we know that when you sell only raw produce, the prices are lower. The agenda of AFA is to promote farmers’ agriculture cooperatives who will be democratic in nature and will do collective bargaining, collective marketing, and collective value addition and processing. And there will be equitable sharing of dividends, of income and decision-making. But we need to build the capacities to run cooperatives and to manage their enterprises.


The fourth challenge is about the women farmers. We all know that women do at least 50% and up to 80% of the work in the farms but in many policies and laws of the government women farmers are not recognized as farmers. Women are not included when the government subsidies are given out or when rights are granted for land ownership. They’re also sometimes not given identity cards - even if for example the husband migrates to India or Russia to earn some more money and leaves the women to farm. Moreover they don’t have the decision-making powers in the farmers’ organizations, they are not represented in the leadership. The fourth item on our priority agenda is therefore on empowering women farmers, to get them to be more recognized,  to give them more rights, to give them more space to organize themselves, to have their own spaces for working together, empowering themselves in the process.


And the fifth challenge is about the youth. We have conducted consultations in the past, for example in 2014 - the international year of family farming - and we observed that the youth don’t want to go into farming. The population of farmers is aging, but there is no youth who wants to farm - so who will farm in the future? No farmer, no food, no future, that’s our slogan. So the fifth item on our agenda is to attract youth into agriculture so there will be someone to farm.”

In the context of the IWA process on creating a definition for professional farmer organizations, we asked Esther Penunia whether she thinks farmer professionalism has an important role to play in achieving the described agenda.

“If what you mean is farmers who can be entrepreneurs, farmers who can do much more - produce crops but also be able to process their crops into whatever other product, and then sell it at the market, yes. And of course they can not and they will not do it alone, they will need professional experts, who can help them in this journey of building their enterprises so that they do not remain only producers but also work as processors, distributors, marketers, suppliers. We have seen that in many other countries - we have members in Japan, in South Korea and Taiwan - they can really add value to their products where they can label their products, where they can innovate, but of course with the help of research institutes and other partners. And AFA is building the capacities of farmers as entrepreneurs and leaders of farmer organizations that are able to manage their own cooperatives and enterprises of their members.”

To conclude, we were curious about Esther Penunia’s thoughts on the global definition for professional farmer organizations - does she think there is a need for such a definition?

“A global definition that is acceptable to all and especially to family farmers would be good because it would help us strive to be that kind of a farmer organization. Of course our caution is that a definition should not marginalize other farmers’ organizations and can take the nuances according to region, according to location, and according to level. It should not be a certification. Because farmers organizations are in different continents, farmer organizations are operating in different cultures and political contexts, so we need to understand that. For example - we will say a professional farmer organization must have a legal personality. That is fine. But what if the country does not have any law on legal registration? What if the country does not recognize national farmers organizations? We have to understand that. We want a global definition that takes into account the context in terms of location, political context, social and cultural context and levels. Farmer organizations can be at the village level, at the national level, and even at the international level. Of course you might have to adjust the global definition with regards to these factors.”