20 October 2014

Will the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems really protect the interests of rural communities?

After long negotiations, the Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems were approved by the 41th session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). They are presented as a real breakthrough towards securing more favourable investments for rural communities.

There is a general agreement that investment is required for enhancing food security and nutrition and supporting the progressive realisation of the right to adequate food. Indeed, the food crisis had been at least partially explained by the fall in agricultural investment during preceding decades.

But what is required now is not any kind of investment. Investments that would contribute to increased food and agricultural production but that would put rural people - those who suffer most from hunger - in a more vulnerable situation, would clearly be counterproductive in the quest for more food security and better nutrition. This means that a number of principles must be respected at the time of investing. This has become all the more critical since the higher food prices observed in the middle of the first decade of this century have triggered private investments that have often, on the ground, meant the appropriation by national or foreign investors of the land used by rural communities.

Unfortunately, the principles approved by the CFS ‘‘are voluntary and non-binding’’. This limits considerably their scope in ‘real’ life.They are set to fully respect national sovereignty of governments who can gladly violate them in their daily activities. even when they have approved them formally. This is something that, for sure, many of them will not fail to do.

What are those principles?

        1. 1.Contribute to food security and nutrition: sustainability and quality of production, equity in income generated, transparency and efficiency of markets, better conditions for food utilisation

        2. 2.Contribute to sustainable and inclusive economic development and the eradication of poverty: employment generation, respect of principles and rights defined in the ILO core conventions, enforceable and fair contracts, partnerships and cooperation, sustainable consumption

        3. 3.Foster gender equality and women’s empowerment: non discrimination, equity, access to land, participation

        4. 4.Engage and empower youth: access to land, training

        5. 5.Respect tenure of land, fisheries, forests and access to water: respect of legitimate tenure rights

        6. 6.Conserve and sustainably manage natural resources, increase resilience, and reduce disaster risks: air, land, soil, water, forests, biodiversity and genetic resources, wastes and losses, resilience, climate change, good technological practices

        7. 7.Respect cultural heritage and traditional knowledge, and support diversity and innovation: traditional knowledge, skills and practices, role of indigenous peoples and local rural communities in agriculture and food systems, contributions of farmers to seed selection

        8. 8.Promote safe and healthy agriculture and food systems: food safety, animal welfare, plant health, inputs and the environment

        9. 9.Incorporate inclusive and transparent governance structures, processes, and grievance mechanisms: rule and application of law, sharing of informations, participation, mediation, rights

        10. 10.Assess and address impacts and promote accountability: indicators, independent evaluations, appropriate and effective remedial and/or compensatory actions.

The responsibility for implementing these principle is collective, meaning that no-one is really responsible... not even governments who are however designated as having the primary responsibility for food security.

Moreover, according to the document approved by the CFS, the implementation of these principles by governments is subject to ‘‘their existing obligations under national and international law, and international agreements related to trade and investment’’.

In a nutshell, the principles are voluntary and their implementation is performed through ‘promoting, encouraging and facilitating’, but they remain subject to preexisting agreements which makes them at best auxiliary and will inevitably constrain their enforcement.

The approval of these principles by the CFS is, of course, a step forwards, but it is a small step. It is small as the principles will be enforced only on a voluntary basis and will not take preeminence over other preexisting principles and agreements. Besides, these principles themselves suffer from a major flaw: investments can be implemented without prior approval by impacted rural communities. The latter just need to be informed and consulted, meaning that, in fact, investments can be forced onto them.

We can bet, without taking much risk, that little will change on the ground even after this formal approval by the CFS and that we are likely to have to take stock in the future of the fact that many investments continue to threaten the livelihoods of many rural communities and that nothing much changed under the sun. Let’s hope at least that the evaluations mentioned in the 10th principle will really be independent, will help to get an unbiased view of what is really going on in the field, and, hopefully, lead to some future ‘‘remedial action’’.


Further reading:

- Committee on World Food Security, Principles for Responsible Investment in Agriculture and Food Systems, October 2014


Last update:    October 2014

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