'Good growth' conference raises questions about agribusiness

8 June 2019

The conference (13-17 May) brought more than 300 delegates to Lima, including government, private sector, farmers, and indigenous leaders. It took place under the auspices of the Good Growth Partnership which involves the UNDP, the UN Environment Programme, the World Bank's IFC, Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund.

The focus of concern was the role of agricultural commodities in deforestation. Over 2 million hectares of forest were lost in the Peruvian Amazon between 2001 and 2017, mainly as a result of small-scale migratory agriculture (data from the Global Environmental Facility) to quote the example closest to home. The UNDP estimates that agricultural commodities are responsible for 70% of tropical deforestation globally.

The most interesting aspect of the conference was that, after a so-called 'high-level' day in Lima, the delegates took off on a field trip to San Martín region, in north-eastern Peru, such field trips being the common practice of the Good Growth Partnership.

The destination makes it clear why Peru was chosen: San Martín has become a proud success story for the United Nations and other international cooperation agencies. From a very high level of poverty, high exposure to Sendero, and high coca production in the 1970s and 1980s, it has since seen remarkable rates of poverty reduction and high growth, with a reduction in poverty from 70% in 2001 to 31% in 2010.

Four agricultural commodities have been at the heart of this: cacao, coffee, palm oil and palm hearts. But there has also been strong regional government investment in infrastructure and education, and even in places support from good local government. The provincial municipalities of Tocache and Saposoa come in for special mention in the UN report. Also relevant has been strong international demand for the commodities produced.

Many questions remain over the narrative of ‘success’. Public opinion and much research highlights the negative aspects of palm oil among the 'success' products. Large-scale corporate development of this crop has been associated with environmental damage through deforestation, and with corruption. The cooperatives which have provided the alternative development model and have been supported by outside agencies, especially the UN, are potentially an important part of the solution, but their future alongside large private corporations has still to be assessed.

In terms of poverty and inclusiveness, the salient fact (from the point of view of rights, welfare and sustainability) is that to take part in the 'good growth' evident here requires holdings of no less than 3-5 hectares. This is clearly acknowledged in the report. It is to be hoped the delegates were able to explore what happened to the most vulnerable in this process.

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