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Interview with Parviz Koohafkan, Director of the Rural Development Division of FAO and Executive Secretary of the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD)

Ubirajara Machado

"ICARRD helped to bring back the issues of agrarian reform and rural development onto the international agenda through participatory and multistakeholder approach."

In this interview, Parviz Koohafkan, Executive Secretary of the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD) shares with us the main outcomes of the Conference and how he foresees its follow-up.

Why a new conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development?

The last global meeting on these issues took place 27 years ago, in 1979, and was known as the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development. It was high time to meet again on this issue! With approximately 900 million people – three quarters of the world's poor – living in rural areas and depending on access to land and other natural resources for their livelihoods, calls have repeatedly been made to help the poor gain more secure access to land and to resources such as technology, credit, inputs and markets. Processes of agrarian reform have been implemented in many countries: some have succeeded, some have failed. But for millions of poor farmers, secure land access is still far from becoming a reality. And for most of them, insecure access to land is closely linked to poverty.

Therefore, FAO member countries welcomed the proposal made by the Brazilian Government during the Committee on Agriculture in April 2005 to hold the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD) in Porto Alegre in 2006. They endorsed the Committee's recommendation during the FAO Council in June 2005. While this gave a very short time to organize such a large conference, the ICARRD Secretariat got financial and technical support from various governments and several international organisations. All the staff of the FAO Rural Development Division was involved in its preparation, together with colleagues from the Information Division, the Legal Office, FAO Representations and Regional Offices as well as IFAD. Many countries and experts were also involved in the preparation of national case studies or inputs to the main conference issue papers.

What are the main outcomes of the Conference?

From 7 to 10 March 2006, 1 400 participants including 450 NGO observers, delegations from 96 FAO member countries, international experts and representatives from over 130 farmer and civil society organisations met in Porto Alegre. During the four days of the Conference, participants reviewed different experiences of agrarian reform around the world, analysed impacts, processes, mechanisms, reviewed the roles of the different actors involved, and then discussed proposals for future action.

A Final Declaration was adopted at the end of the Conference inviting all governments to adopt policies that promote agrarian reform and rural development to benefit the poor and most marginalized. Governments committed themselves to developing mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation to reinforce processes of agrarian reform and rural development at national and international levels and to establish mechanisms for periodic evaluation of progress in these areas. They reaffirmed that “ wider, secure and sustainable access to land, water and other natural resources related to rural people's livelihoods is essential to hunger and poverty eradication, contributes to sustainable development and should therefore be an inherent part of national policies ”. They also reiterated their commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and recognized that “ food insecurity, hunger and rural poverty often result from the imbalances in the present process of development which hinder wider access to land, water and other natural resources and other livelihood assets ”.

In parallel, Special Thematic Sessions made specific recommendations for follow-up to the conference and concrete suggestions or commitments for the implementation of activities related to the topics discussed. In addition, Partnership Initiatives were presented, out of which six were signed at ICARRD. For instance, an agreement was signed on 10 March between FAO and Portuguese-speaking countries to build national capacities in property arrangements, land management and related legal issues.

Which topics were discussed during the Thematic Sessions?

The dialogue between various stakeholders was particularly dynamic and fruitful in the various side events held during the conference. Not less than 27 Special Thematic Sessions were organised by NGOs, civil society organisations or networks, universities, governments or international organisations (FAO, IFAD, IFPRI, UNDP, World Bank, etc.). Eleven sessions related to specific country or regional experiences (Brazil, India, South Africa and Africa, Asia, the Pacific or Eastern Europe). Other sessions discussed agrarian reform or rural development issues from the point of view of specific groups: women (2 sessions on 8 March), the rural poor, Indigenous Peoples, youth, mountain populations, as networks on rural development issues; or related to a specific development problem: land rights, organic agriculture, traditional farming systems, research, sustainable agriculture and rural development (SARD). One session also discussed issues regarding indicators for agrarian reform and rural development and the related mechanisms for the collection and analysis of appropriate data sets.

Women went home claiming to have gained the most from ICARRD. The timing could not have been better since the 8th March celebration of the International Women's Day fell during ICARRD. A special celebration was spearheaded at ICARRD by two African women leaders, acting as chairs of the plenary – H. E. Angela Thokozele Didiza, Minister for Agriculture and Land Affairs, South Africa and H. E. Mary Margaret Muchada Ambassador of Zimbabwe to FAO - and a women's march brought together rural women and civil society representatives.

How did NGOs and civil society participate?

When FAO members agreed to organize this Conference, we knew that dialogue on the sensitive subject of agrarian reform would not be easy. However, one of the impressive results of ICARRD was the fruitful and constructive dialogue between government representatives and members of peasants´ and civil society organizations.

Civil and Social Movement society representatives participated actively throughout the entire ICARRD process, and had excellent opportunities to intervene at the opening, during and at the close of the plenary and technical sessions, including an afternoon session on equal rights to speak with governements. As a major precedent for FAO, a civil society declaration was included in the official documents of the conference. The Global Coordinator of Via Campesina addressed the Inaugural Ceremony of the Conference. On 8 March, a delegation from a Women's March was received in the Plenary and the Chair, the Minister of Agriculture of South Africa, shared a song at the end. A very fruitful Panel discussion on “Agrarian Reform, Social Justice and Sustainable Development” was organised with 7 representatives of Civil Society organisations and 7 governments. The final declaration of the parallel Civil Society Forum on "Land, Territory and Dignity" was presented to ICARRD by a large delegation. NGOs and Civil Society representatives were very active in the Special Thematic Sessions, participating in or organizing many of them. ICARRD also opened up the space for civil society to sit as observers during the Drafting Committee's negotiations on the Final Declaration. Civil society representatives provided substantive contributions during the preparation of the conference to documents (notably the case studies), and to the discussions.

In keeping with this spirit of excellent collaboration, the Final Declaration affirmed that governmental and civil society organizations play a fundamental role in the sustainable implementation of agrarian reform and rural development policies while recognizing “ the crucial role of the State to provide fair and equal opportunities and promote basic economic security for women and men, as equal citizens

There was also a Civil Society Forum in parallel to the Conference. How did the two events interact?

The Civil Society Forum gathered about 800 participants from over 120 organizations, representing groups of smallholder farmers, agricultural workers, the landless, women, youth, fishers, herders and indigenous peoples, thus including a broad range of constituencies critical to agrarian reform and rural development. The Forum was not dominated by Latin America, despite earlier concerns that the hosting country and region would have a larger representation.

The Forum was organised by the International NGO/CSO Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) which had earlier organised the Forum for Food Sovereignty in parallel with the World Food Summit: five years later, in June 2002. The IPC and Via Campesina were able to manage the inevitable political pressures in Brazil , including implications of the MST/Women's Land Group occupation of an agribusiness farm near Porto Alegre one evening. The Forum developed the concept of food sovereignty further as a common policy platform, which is now beginning to be used in governments' messages as for example, in the speeches by the Brazilian Minister Rosseto at ICARRD and the President of Mali at the 2006 FAO Regional Conference for Africa .

Given the short time available to organise the Conference and the complexity of the consultative processes required, ICARRD demonstrated civil society's increasing sophistication and capacity to mobilise itself independently, negotiate common positions and voice perspectives in a forceful, creative and politically astute manner. Through a consultative process, participants in the Forum identified civil society spokespersons, with a regional balance, for the joint debate with governments during ICARRD.

The combination of parallel and common events was a success, and proved stimulating for both civil society and the conference. The political support and advocacy roles of civil society organisations are clearly key assets in the challenge of promoting a global agenda on agrarian reform issues.

What are the next steps?

The Conference is over but it represents a starting point. The valuable exchange of experiences and the country case studies and best practices analysed and discussed during the conference and its preparation need to be continued. Several side events and partnerships also highlighted the need for continued networking on these issues. The question of indicators for monitoring progress was also highlighted.

In the Final Declaration of the Conference, it was recommended that FAO's Committee on World Food Security (CFS), whose next meeting will be in September 2006, adopt a set of additional reporting guidelines for monitoring progress in implementing the declaration with the participation of civil society, and other UN Organizations dealing with food sovereignty, food security, agrarian reform and rural development. The next FAO Council, in November 2006, would then be requested to examine possible follow-up mechanisms designed to assist countries in the implementation of the outcomes of ICARRD.

The IPC has already contacted FAO to discuss the follow-up of the conference and has proposed the creation of a working group on Agrarian Reform including representatives of farmers, the landless, fisher folks and rural workers, herders, women, youth and Indigeneous Peoples as well as FAO and IFAD participants. It is also ready to work on the preparation of technical documents, using the expertise of civil society organisations.

What role do networks play?

ICARRD has shown the value of FAO working through consultative mechanisms or networks, rather than individual organizations.

Four Special Thematic Sessions illustrated the role of networks in exchanging experiences and also in promoting advocacy for agrarian reform and rural development policies at national, regional or international levels. They insisted on the need to reinforce these networks through exchanges between these various levels. The UN System Network on Rural Development and Food Security, which helped to organise the Special Thematic Sessions during ICARRD, the International Land Coalition or the Spanish Network for Rural Development (REDR) are good examples of networks that could play an important role in the follow-up to the Conference.

What are your expectations following ICARRD?

ICAARD helped to bring the issue of agrarian reform and rural development back onto the international agenda through a participatory and multistakeholder approach. There is now increased awareness and capacity among member countries to address key rural development and agrarian reform challenges. The national reporting process enabled countries to reflect on their specific experiences in order to draw lessons and reflect on successes and unresolved challenges/issues. The dialogue between governments, international organisations and civil society has been successful. The media coverage was good. The organisation of the Conference strengthened the “team spirit” in the Rural Development Division in FAO.

I hope that all these positive outcomes will develop into a concrete and common agenda among FAO, civil society and governments with regard to the way forward, with a responsive approach by FAO, ensuring that adequate resources and staff time are allocated over the long run. With this Conference, the international community committed to develop mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation to reinforce processes of agrarian reform and rural development at national and international levels and to establish mechanisms for periodic evaluation of progress in these areas. There is a lot of work to be done and we are proud to be part of the dialogue and to process.

For more information on the ICARRD Conference, visit the ICARRD website at www.icarrd.org

The Final Declaration is available at http://www.icarrd.org/en/news_down/FinalDeclaration_En.pdf

Previous articles on the UN System Network on Rural Development and Food Security Website at http://www.rdfs.net/news/news/0512ne/0512ne_ICARRD_en.htm

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the UN System Network on Rural Development and Food Security nor of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.