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Derka, Ethiopia: Why supporting regional farmers is key to halving poverty.

The Guardian

24 September 2008

Fatima Muher Nur is one of the world's marginal farmers. On two small plots in the Ethiopian village of Derka, South Wollo, Muher Nur grows sorghum and a little teff - the national staple - for herself and her family. On a village plot she also cultivates grass to feed her few animals and to sell within the community.

A widow with three young children, Muher Nur struggles to produce enough for the whole year. In a bad year her harvest lasts for just six to eight months. When it runs out, she may have to sell livestock to buy food. Or go hungry.

Marginal farms like Muher Nur's make up the majority of farms in many developing countries. Varying in size from a quarter of a hectare to two hectares, these farms are home to most of the one billion people who live in absolute poverty. Across Africa, Asia and Latin America, marginal farmers, producing food mainly for their own families, are largely dependent on rain to water their crops. Few have irrigation. In good years they may have a surplus which they sell or barter in local markets. In bad years their food runs out long before the next harvest is ready.

The millions of farmers like Muher Nur have a limited impact on their country's economic statistics. The food they produce only counts in national income statistics if they sell it.

Rising world food prices are hitting urban dwellers and the rural landless in developing countries, and benefiting better-off farmers with produce to sell. Farmers like Muher Nur are largely unaffected either way.

But marginal farmers are affected by changes in the global environment. Climate change is already hitting farmers, especially the poorest, who have little margin for survival. And its impact is likely to worsen.

Rainfall is becoming less dependable, posing a huge threat to marginal farmers. Anything that reduces rainfall, or makes it more erratic, can be life-threatening.

"Croplands, pastures and forests ... are progressively being exposed to threats from increased climatic variability. Those least able to cope will likely bear additional adverse impacts," says the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, Adaptation to Climate Change in Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Ethiopian farmers interviewed by the non-governmental organisation Concern Worldwide were unanimous that changes in rainfall patterns are one of the major challenges facing them. Most indicated that rain patterns had changed dramatically over the past 10 to 20 years. In the past, changes to the rainfall patterns happened every few years and were the exception rather than the rule, they said, but now each year is unpredictable.

The FAO report says that to help farmers cope with climate change a strategy is needed that emphasises "conserving diversity, adapting varieties to diverse and marginal conditions, broadening the genetic base of crops, promoting locally adapted crops and under-utilised species".

Marginal farmers are at the heart of world poverty and hunger. But development aid for them has declined over the past 20 years. Supporting them seems essential if the goal of halving poverty is to be reached.