By Riza Bernabe
With the establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) barely two years away, leaders in the region are busy trying to implement economic policies that will put into operation Asean’s vision of a common regional market. Asean aspires to become a single market by 2015, where goods, services and investments can freely flow among its 10 member-countries. It aims to become a vital segment in the global supply chain.
The expressed goal behind the creation of the AEC is sustainable and equitable development. But for millions of people in this part of the world, the true value and test of any regional development plan rest on its ability to sustainably and effectively address hunger and poverty.
In the last few decades Southeast Asia had made substantial gains in reducing hunger. The 2013 report of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization shows that the region has exhibited the biggest decline in terms of number of undernourished people—from 140 million in the 1990s to 80.5 million in 2008-2010, and most recently, to 64.5 million from 2011 to the present. The prevalence of undernourishment also decreased from 31.1 percent of the population to 10.7 percent over the same period. Poverty levels also went down, as the number of people in the region living below the poverty line of $1.25 per day dropped from close to half (45.5 percent) of the population in the 1990s to 14.7 percent in 2010.
Still, the challenge of meeting the food security needs of the 64.5 million undernourished people in the region remains. Moreover, new and emerging challenges threaten the sustainability of these gains.
Climate change, in the form of increased occurrences of extreme weather events like typhoons, droughts and heavy rainfall, changes in temperature and rising sea levels to name a few, is intensifying uncertainties in agricultural production and increasing the incidence of crop failures. Various studies have identified Southeast Asia as one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change impacts.
Land and water grabbing exacerbated by the unregulated entry of private-sector investments in the sector and in land and water resources are displacing small agricultural producers. All across the region, unregulated private-sector investments in agriculture and related land acquisitions are pushing farmers out of their farms, and depriving them of their source of food and means of livelihood.
Food price volatility is putting food beyond the reach of many, especially the poor. The 2008 rice price crises, which saw prices of the staple grain surging from $370 per metric ton to $764 per metric ton over the span of a few months, exposed the need for improved regional cooperation in addressing food (especially rice) price and supply issues in Southeast Asia.
Many of these challenges require regional solutions, and Asean is in a position to develop and implement region-wide responses to these problems. The passage of the Asean Charter in 2007 gives it the mandate to develop rules and policies to bring to life its vision of developing, in its words, a caring and sharing regional community.
The good news is that Asean need not start from scratch in addressing these challenges. It has existing platforms, such as the Asean Integrated Food Security Framework (AIFS), the Asean Climate Change Initiative (ACCI) and the Asean Multisectoral Framework on Climate Change: Agriculture and Forestry Toward Food Security (AFCC), among others, which can serve as the springboard in providing solutions to these problems. However, it is important that Asean enhance and broaden these platforms so that these tackle and adopt strategic regional responses to the challenges discussed earlier.
For instance, Asean must intensify current initiatives under the AFCC to implement regional initiatives on climate change. It must provide venues as well as systems through which member-countries can share knowledge and information on how to strengthen communities’ resilience and capability to adapt to changing climate patterns. It must also enhance the ACCI so that this plays an important role in encouraging Asean member-countries to follow low carbon development paths, such as by creating regional programs and initiatives that support sustainable and agro-ecological farming methods and the use of renewable energy sources, among others. At the global level, Asean can also draw upon members’ agreement under the ACCI to actively articulate and push for a common agenda for Southeast Asia in the international climate change negotiations.
Asean must also be open to revisiting its policies to integrate the interests and concerns of smallholder agriculture, and give voice to small farmers in its hallowed halls. It should adopt and implement policies that will respect and safeguard the rights and interest of peoples and communities against unregulated private sector investments in agriculture. More urgently, it must help address the problem of land and water grabbing by developing regional regulations that ensure that private sector investments in agriculture do not harm but support smallholder agriculture.
Asean must also enhance the AIFS, its blueprint to help realize regional food security, by ensuring that it integrates strategic programs toward stabilizing national and regional food prices and supply. It must also improve and update existing mechanisms to enable these to quickly help member countries cope with food emergencies.
More significantly, Asean must open all these platforms to engagement and inputs from civil society and various stakeholders’ groups. Its implementation of the Asean Agreement for Disaster Management and Emergency Response shows the benefits and potential of working with civil society groups in addressing emerging and urgent regional challenges.
The UN Report provides an instructive insight into what types of policies can help reduce hunger and promote development. It highlighted the importance of investing in agriculture, particularly in improving the productivity of smallholder agriculture and in increasing peoples’ access to food, as crucial to addressing food insecurity. It also highlighted the value of supporting women, noting that investments targeting women go a long way in improving farm productivity, incomes and food security. The fact that smallholder agriculture remains a significant segment in the economy of many Asean member countries underscores the value of this finding.
As Asean moves toward 2015, its leaders must keep in mind the mandate set out in its charter—to “ensure sustainable development for the benefit of future and present generations and to place the wellbeing, livelihood and welfare of peoples at the center of the community building process.” It is by adopting and implementing regional and national policies that support smallholder agriculture and safeguard the rights of small agricultural producers that Asean can deliver on this mandate.
Riza Bernabe is the policy and research coordinator for Oxfam’s GROW Campaign in East Asia.
Philippine Daily Inquirer