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Economic Crises Accentuate Rural Poverty

By Mario Osava

RECIFE, Brazil, Nov 24 (IPS) - The impact of the financial crises in Asia, Russia and Brazil accentuated rural poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean in the past two years, turning around a positive trend, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

Up to 1997, the number of poor in the countryside was shrinking, ''not due to improvements in living conditions, but because they moved'' to the cities, where they joined the ranks of urban slum-dwellers, said Raquel Pea-Montenegro, director of the Latin American branch of IFAD, a United Nations agency.

In the absence of economic growth, unemployment in urban areas grew, and the rural exodus began to let up, with the subsequent upsurge in poverty in the countryside, the Chilean economist and sociologist told the Third Conference of Parties to the Convention on Combatting Desertification, which runs through Friday in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife.

Today, the poverty rate in rural areas of Latin America averages around 30 percent, she added.

Economic indicators show that rural poverty trends closely accompany economic performance. That is especially true in Central America - which furthermore was hit by hurricane Mitch in late October 1998 - as well as Argentina, Brazil and Chile, she said.

Progress was rolled back even in countries with social safety nets which extend to peasant farmers, said Pea-Montenegro, who cited the example of Venezuela.

A correlation between ethnic background and extreme poverty can also be seen in rural areas of Latin America, where poverty rates are much higher among indigenous groups, said Pea-Montenegro. She pointed to the cases of Central America, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, which have large indigenous populations.

That situation arose from the ''history of physical and cultural marginalisation'' which excluded indigenous groups from growth trends and from an educational system that does not recognise their languages, while their communally-owned land was expropriated when ''the laws of white society'' were imposed.

Indigence is one of the most serious and widespread problems in the countryside, where social infrastructure like schools, hospitals and public transport found in the cities - whether adequate or inadequate - does not exist. That only compounds the difficulty in reducing poverty in rural areas.

Any productive investment in the countryside requires additional investment in public services, urging even greater efforts from governments which are under pressure to cut social spending as part of structural adjustment programmes advocated by multilateral lending institutions, said Pea-Montenegro.

The difficulties loom even larger in the case of indigenous communities, due to ethnic and cultural reasons, she added.

But the UN official cited an initiative that emerged in Panama, where indigenous groups organised and set up their own administration recognised by the government, which negotiates programmes with it to be implemented at a local level.

IFAD currently finances 47 projects in 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, with loans amounting to 574.7 million dollars. In extending credit, the UN agency emphasises the gender perspective, seen as another key aspect in combatting rural poverty.

That means, for example, that project activities must be scheduled in such a way that women are able to attend, and that training courses are offered near the homes of local residents, making them more accessible to mothers.

Nor can projects involving rural production only focus on men, as in the region there are three million female heads of households in rural areas, said Pea-Montenegro.

Another error committed in the past was teaching animal husandry and veterinary care only to men, when women rather than their husbands tend to care for livestock.

The environment is another dimension addressed in projects approved by IFAD, which must be granted technical assistance on the question.

The Convention on Combatting Desertification confirmed the methodology used by IFAD, underlining that rural development must entail ''comprehensive, not just agricultural, solutions,'' said Pea-Montenegro.

The link between soil degradation, desertification and rural poverty was frequently reiterated at the conference in Recife, a city located in Brazil's impoverished, drought-stricken northeast, where arid areas are in continuous expansion.

Also stressed at the two-week gathering was the role desertification played in the emigration of 700,000 to 900,000 Mexicans a year to the United States. A full 85 percent of Mexican territory is affected by drought and threatened by desertification, the Secretariat of the Convention reported. (END/IPS/tra-so/mo/dm/sw/99)

Origin: Montevideo/DEVELOPMENT-LATAM/

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