Rome - Development leaders and heads of state or government gathered for the opening of the 35th Session of the Governing Council of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) to discuss the world's most urgent problem: how to feed the world and protect the planet at the same time.
The theme of the meeting is sustainable smallholder agriculture. Small farms support 2 billion people. They provide up to 80 per cent of the available food in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. IFAD-supported projects help farmers deal with the effects of climate change and an already degraded environment, and transfer knowledge of "climate-smart" agricultural techniques to support improved productivity while protecting the environment.
In his opening statement Paul Kagame, President of the Republic of Rwanda, said his country is striving to rebuild its economy with coffee and tea production, which are significant sources of foreign exchange. Nearly two-thirds of the population live below the poverty line. But in the past five years progress has been made, Kagame said, noting that the country's gross domestic product has grown at an average of 8 per cent.
Kagame urged the international community to "be bold and try what has not been done before. We must learn from what has worked and adapt these models to suit smallholder farmers. The reality in most developing countries is that smallholder agriculture remains the source of livelihood and food supply. Every farmer counts."
IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze pledged to pull up to 90 million people out of poverty, saying that long-term rural development is the key to poverty reduction. He pointed to Member States' commitment to a target of US$1.5 billion in new contributions for IFAD's Ninth Replenishment of resources – a 25 per cent increase over IFAD's last round of fund-raising.
Nwanze promised that IFAD would continue to be "the voice of the smallholder farmer, fisherperson, pastoralist, the landless farm worker and of women and youth."
Mario Monti, Prime Minister of the Republic of Italy, in his first address to a United Nations agency since he took office, commended IFAD's focus on women and reaffirmed Italy's support for IFAD and the other Rome-based food agencies, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Programme.
Monti underscored the "interdisciplinary" nature of development efforts, involving a variety of factors including empowerment. "Giving women equal access to agricultural resources and inputs is one of the most powerful ways of reducing poverty and hunger," he told the packed room of international leaders and journalists. "I strongly encourage IFAD to continue to focus on this important dimension in all of its activities."
Speaking on behalf of the Liberian president, Joseph Nyuma Boakai, Vice-President of the Republic of Liberia, said that ending hunger in the country is a priority and strengthening ties with IFAD will make a real difference. "We can't keep falling back on emergency food. We must commit ourselves to sustainable agriculture," he added.
Despite plentiful natural resources and the potential for self-sufficiency in food, the West-African nation suffers from high unemployment, low literacy and the absence of basic infrastructure such as adequate roads, water and electrical services.
Speaking at a plenary session of delegates, Lindiwe Majela Sibanda, CEO of the Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), a regional policy and advocacy network for southern Africa, discussed the promise that the Rio+20 Conference may hold for agriculture.
"The last five years have been frustrating, when agriculture was outside of the discussions about climate change," Sibanda said. "For the first time in history, agriculture is part of the discussions."
The Rio+20 meeting, to be held in June, will focus on two themes: developing a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication, and an institutional framework for implementing these objectives.
Other events taking place at IFAD's headquarters in Rome included a panel discussion with government ministers on how conservation agriculture can improve smallholder livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa.
Nearly 1.2 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods. They are particularly important in Latin America where they cover 40 per cent of the region's land area. An expert panel drawing extensively on the experiences of Mesoamerica's indigenous people and forest communities discussed how best to support the sustainable management of forests in Latin America.
"Crops for the Future" was the title of a discussion that focused on how improved crop varieties can enhance the resilience of smallholder farmers in the context of climate change.
And the Diaspora Investment in Agriculture panel focused on the tremendous potential for migrant investment in rural development. South Sudan, for example, has welcomed over 360 thousand returnees since October 2010, which can be an excellent opportunity for developing the agriculture sector.
IFAD's Governing Council meeting concludes on Thursday 23 February with a keynote speech by Andrea Riccardi, Italian Minister for International Cooperation and Integration Policies, and a presentation by Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.