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Interview with Eve Crowley

Respecting The Autonomy And Decisions Of The Poor
The Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative

Johannesburg, South Africa
Dr. Eve Crowley is facilitator for an initiative that's being launched and developed in the context of the World Summit for Sustainable Development called the Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative (SARDI). The SARD Initiative is a civil society-led, government- and inter-governmental-supported, and FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)-facilitated initiative. Eve Crowley and the FAO are based in Rome, Italy. Also see on the FAO site: SARD Initiative, and SARD

Specifically, Eve Crowley's role within FAO is Task Manager for Chapter 14 of Agenda 21, one of the major outcomes of the 1992 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit. Chapter 14 deals with sustainable agriculture and rural development. In this interview, "the views that I’ll be expressing will attempt to represent a diversity of perspectives that civil society stakeholders have been putting forth. Clearly, an individual like myself cannot totally represent their views, although I’ll do my best.” (Eve Crowley).

This interview addresses the SARD Initiative approach to grassroots organizing, decision-making, and participation. The interview was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke for In Motion Magazine during the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 29, 2002.
  • Click here for frequently asked questions and answers about the SARD Initiative.
  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.


In Motion Magazine: What is Agenda 21?

Eve Crowley: Agenda 21 was a set of principles and calls for action that emerged from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. It covered a wide range of subjects relating to the basic resources upon which humanity depends. Issues relating to climate, forests, the oceans, water and most of all, people. One of the chapters (Chapter 14) in this agenda is the one focusing on sustainable agriculture and rural development. The summit today, 10 years later, is focusing on the people, the planet and prosperity and how well the goals of the Rio Earth Summit have been achieved.

Food sovereignty

In Motion Magazine: Is an element of this process food sovereignty?

Eve Crowley: Food sovereignty is an issue that has been growing in importance over the last ten years. It is definitely one of the issues.

In Motion Magazine: What is food sovereignty?

Eve Crowley: Food sovereignty is a people's and community’s right to food and right to control their own local production and consumption systems. It's a question of being able to have autonomy in their decisions about what food enters their systems and to ensure the quality and quantity of the food that they need.

In Motion Magazine: How can people develop the political power to bring that about?

Eve Crowley: Political power is something that's always a challenge for people at the local level. There are multiple disadvantages with which people are faced. This requires a very careful linkage from the micro to the macro level. For example, the majority of rural people and one of the key disadvantaged groups are women. For them to achieve food sovereignty it is not just a question of being able to have some say over the decisions within their households but also within their communities and at much higher levels as well -- local governments and national governments. It is no easy task.

Decision makers are not always in a position to understand the kinds of views that are expressed at the local level. Local people are not always in a position to consult among themselves to consolidate their views and to push them forward. One of the key challenges today is to enable communities to unite, to gain the capacity to express their perspectives and to be able to negotiate these in relation to governments.

One of the important ways of doing this is through international summits such as this one, but there's often a disconnect between the international summit and the local level. At every single level this kind of empowerment is essential.

Rural South Africa
Rural South Africa - the Valley of 1000 Hills, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
Responding to the needs of the people

In Motion Magazine: Is that what you see as one of the roles of SARD?

Eve Crowley: Absolutely. When we talk about sustainable agriculture and rural development, people often fixate on the agriculture side of it. But when you look in rural areas, people actually depend on a whole range of different activities to live. Governments, ministries, U.N. agencies tend to have their own mandates and their own perspectives on what is important and those perspectives may not be the same as the perspectives of the people on the ground.

A person in a mountain area may rely only partially on agriculture for their livelihoods. They may also need to do hunting and gathering in forests. They may keep small ruminants on their land. They may be interested in fishing or in ensuring access to water. The challenge is for governments, ministries, UN agencies and other development actors to be able to respond directly to the needs of the people on the ground rather than respond only to those limited needs that happen to fit into their mandates. This is a real challenge.

So, sustainable agriculture and rural development is not just about agriculture. It's about forestry. It's about fisheries. It's about employment opportunities. It's about food processing. It's about micro-enterprise development. It's about being able to organize to know what the market prices are in another region. It's about being able to go into a public service in a town nearby and be visible.

A lot of poor people from rural villages look, dress, and act differently from those in authority, speak their own indigenous or tribal languages and have difficulty expressing themselves in a language of another group or in a major international language. Because of these differences, they are often treated as if they are invisible when they walk into a bank, a healthcare unit, or other public or private service. How can we build the capacity of these people not to be invisible? To have an identity and to have some say so that at every level they are heard?

I can't emphasize enough how important this is. If you've ever walked into a little town with a poor person from a remote rural area, you would know what I mean. You would also have heard all kinds of words of disparagement and seen how they are subjected to daily deeds of disempowerment. They are derogatorily called “jungle-y” in parts of India as if they were uncivilized and from the jungle or bush. Empowering them just to be able to stay there, in front of those officials or shopkeepers and wait until their requests are answered is also an important part of rural development.

Sustainable agriculture and rural development are about people and their livelihoods and how to enhance them. SARD has environmental dimensions because most people in rural areas are concerned not just about their future but the futures of their children and future generations, all of which depend upon a healthy, safe, and productive environment. SARD relates to the economic viability of people’s activities. And SARD has to do with the justness of social relationships. Not just relationships between men and women, but also discrimination between castes, ethnic groups, physical abilities, and between people with different economic positions in their communities. It's about culturally appropriate work. For example, it's not right to bring a pig-raising initiative into a zone where people are Muslim because this is a form of pollution for them.

There are multiple dimensions. We have to be able to understand these multiple dimensions of rural development. We have to remain centered around people and their local priorities, as part of their own holistic vision of sustainable survival and well-being.

70% of the world's population

In Motion Magazine: What percentage of the world's population are we talking about?

Eve Crowley: About seventy percent of the world's population lives in rural areas. The vast majority of these people depend on agriculture either for their food, or for their income and employment. It's a very important area.

Over the last ten years, there has been an increasing focus on urban areas, and there's no doubt that there's a strong rural-urban shift, but the majority of people will still be in rural areas within the next twenty to thirty years. It's undeniable that if we really want to reduce poverty and hunger, we will have to focus on rural areas.

No country has ever embarked on a path of sustainable development without first developing its rural and agricultural sector.

Demonstration. Explanation. Learning.

Rural South Africa - organic farming
Rural South Africa - organic farming at the Valley Trust in the Valley of 1000 Hills, Kwa-Zulu Natal. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: What role does grassroots organizing play in the adoption by governments of the SARD initiative?

Eve Crowley: Because of their role in developing, negotiating and supporting relevant multilateral agreements, governments have a responsibility to implement sustainable agriculture and rural development. But progress has been mixed.

There have been some advances with the assistance of scientific organizations. There have been some advances on the ground among local communities. Insufficient political will of many governments and insufficient resources of developing country governments have hampered their ability to accomplish SARD.

But the main things that we've seen over the last ten years that have been positive have been the emergence of certain kinds of technologies like integrated pest management, organic agriculture, and conservation agriculture. Also, there have been examples of sustainable forestry management and sustainable fisheries management.

These provide some good examples of what might work. And these are subjects that have been recognized by governments and by civil society organizations as possible appropriate ways of moving forward. But that's only part of it because ultimately the only way we will make a difference is if it's people themselves who lead. And people themselves may not always have access to these different technologies.

For example, as I said, one of the successes has been integrated pest management. FAO and other organizations have adopted a farmer-field school approach where farmers use their fields as local sites for demonstration, explanation, and learning. Integrated pest management requires learning from the communities themselves about what they recognize as pests and helping them to come up with alternative methods of pest control, including, for example, ways of reducing pesticide use significantly.

Governments have a responsibility to promote good practices such as this, but it is essential to begin with the people themselves, with their own priorities and capacities. The time frame for policy reform and scientific advances can be slow. In the meantime, poor people need to eat and want to improve their livelihoods and their children’s future prosperity. These people are impatient for change. They want to try new approaches that will put food on their tables, money in their pockets, and might improve their environments and social and economic status. We need to find a way of facilitating that.

Capacity is based on people's knowledge and strength

In Motion Magazine: How are you going to do that without having the governments involved?

Eve Crowley: Well, governments have to be involved. Governments have an important responsibility and, without them, it would be impossible to achieve sustainable agriculture and rural development. But there's also a lot that communities can learn from each other at the grassroots level as well, if they are able to consult together through exchange visits focused around solving a specific problem. Sometimes the answer, the most appropriate solution, comes from another community that has faced that problem.

Our role, really, is to offer choices. To offer options, to help give rural communities a chance to decide what is the right solution for them. We can’t give them the answers. We have to give them the options. They make the choices themselves.

An example. There are a number of countries in eastern and southern Africa that are facing problems of limited water for agriculture and problems of water-use efficiency. And there are examples in Asia of watershed transformations: places where milk is cheaper than water and yet where rural people have managed to completely transform those landscapes. They have managed to green areas that were destitute and in the process begin to reduce some of the social inequalities among castes and between the landless and the landed peoples. I mention this because the exact problems that each community faces will be different. In areas where there are great social inequalities, these are an added issue that has to be addressed.

But there are also technological solutions for landscape transformation. In this case, in eastern and southern Africa and Asia, the idea would be for people from the communities in Africa, and also maybe some decision makers, to go and visit that Asian site. Ask questions. Learn how it's done. And then maybe have a return visit afterwards with people from the watershed project in India going and seeing how their sister African community is progressing afterwards. Because learning is not just a one-time event.

To bring about real change, we need to build capacity. Capacity is based on people’s knowledge and strengths, on what they already know how to do and on what they are able to mobilize. But it’s a long-term process and new problems come up as time goes on. We need to create enduring relationships between communities in different parts of the world.

Civil society

In Motion Magazine: How do you define civil society?

Eve Crowley: Civil society is a highly heterogeneous group. In the context of the World Summit and in the context of Rio, one of the big innovations was the development of what is being called Major Groups. These include nine groups: farmers and farmer organizations, women, youth, indigenous peoples, workers and trade unions, NGOs, the local authorities, business and industry, and the science and technological community. These are the nine Major Groups or social sectors of civil society, recognized as having distinct perspectives and capacities that are valuable for sustainable development.

In addition, there are lots of other groups and social movements, lots of other people who either do not feel that they are adequately represented through these Major Groups - or they feel they have a set of interests as stakeholders that will never be well represented through one of these nine groups.

For example, in the context of the SARD Initiative, consumers have identified themselves as a cross-cutting group that have a separate set of needs, interests and capacities related to SARD that need to be understood and mobilized to achieve sustainable agriculture and rural development.

Another example is media for agriculture who have been working here (at the Summit) over a number of days. They’ve created their own task force for media in agriculture. They believe that they have a role to play in transforming public awareness and not just as service providers. Depending on how well they understand the issues and the relationship between rural development and social hierarchies they can actually produce a shift in public awareness. They can help to change the way people relate to one another. They are another group with a unique perspective and special contribution to make to sustainable rural development that has been identified in this process.

One of the big challenges, and what the last ten years have proved, is that while the nine major groups are an important starting point, there is a real need for much better communication, discussion, and negotiation within those groups and with actors who believe that Major Groups are just not effective enough for them, and who would prefer to remain outside Major Groups as counter-movements.

Authenticity of voice

In Motion Magazine: Interaction based on autonomy?

Eve Crowley: Yes. It’s about autonomy. It’s about authenticity of voice. It's about respect for different processes. Indigenous peoples, for example, have a different mode of consultation than many of the other Major Groups. They believe you need to consult at the grassroots in the languages of the people. Spokespersons for indigenous peoples require legitimacy. They require a mandate from their communities to be able to speak on their behalf.

To do this effectively takes time. They cannot just read an email that proposes a direction favoring one substantive issue over another at local levels and throw back an answer. It doesn't work that way.

Now, how is an international process going to be able to adequately take into account viewpoints that require that form of consultation? If we have a sincere interest in involving indigenous peoples in this, it's essential that we respect the process and the time that they need to be able to put their views forth. And we have to be in a position to support these groups in participating in international processes, at all levels.

It's a question of negotiating capacity. It's a question of the influence of the poor over policies and programs that affect their lives. One of our key functions in this initiative is to build that capacity, focusing specifically on disadvantaged peoples, first and foremost. If we start there, others will benefit as well.

Joshua Sena Alouka.
Joshua Sena Alouka. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
In Motion Magazine: What about some of the issues that the youth caucus representative Joshua Sena Alouka (from Togo) raised at the forum on Monday (trade, capacity building, genetically modified organisms, local participation). How are they going to be dealt with?

Eve Crowley: Some I have spoken about, and some of the others were raised in the context of the NGO/ CSO (civil society organization) forum for food sovereignty that was held in parallel to the World Food Summit five years later in June of this year. They are essential questions. As they are raised more and more, as they were raised in the consultation last Monday, and as they have been raised increasingly over the last few months, it's becoming clear that we will have to address them. The question is “With what kinds of good practices can we start?” because what we would like to do in this initiative is begin with practices, technologies, and approaches that have been demonstrated to help people in rural areas. There’s an advocacy dimension in a lot of this, but what we really need is something that is going to demonstrate results. An initiative that is civil society-lead has to show the rest of the world that participation results in concrete outputs of benefit.

The food sovereignty issue, the trade issue, the dumping issue are really important subjects from the points of view of a number of stakeholders. What kinds of concrete actions can help to resolve these issues? Some examples of demonstrated methods and practices could be disseminated and possibly supported through the initiative.

In Motion Magazine: From what I know of U.N. functioning, the process that you are implementing is unique.

Eve Crowley: I believe that it is unique and that there may be no precedent, at least within FAO. And there are very few precedents elsewhere. We are going to have to see how it goes along because we cannot even imagine yet the kinds of hurdles that we will face. In the parallel event there was one NGO representative who clearly recognized this when she said that the initiative is going to take a great deal of thought, a great deal of work, and a lot of planning on the part of civil society to be effective.

There are some U.N. agencies that are very supportive. I think that many agencies recognize that if something starts on the ground, that's where things begin and that's where things end.

Governments change, agencies' mandates come and go, but the people on the ground are going to be confronting the same problems that they've been confronting over the last ten, twenty, hundred years and they are going to be confronting them again in the future. It's our job to be sure that they get the answers that they need and that we help to empower them by giving them the choices.

Published in In Motion Magazine, December 8, 2002
  • To see our full series of interviews and articles from the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, August 26 - September 4, 2002 - click here.