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China, Latin America And The Benefits Of Traditional Farming

Ancestral agricultural practices can provide a sustainable and creative way to boost rural economies in Latin America. And China could help.

Summer farming in Jiangsu Province, eastern China
Summer farming in Jiangsu Province, eastern China
Patrice dos Santos and Enrique Fernández Flores

SANTIAGO — Since the Green Revolution began in the 1970s, integration policies in Latin America have to a large extent focused on meeting the basic needs of more vulnerable populations, most of whom live in the countryside and far from large cities.

In the meantime, in several Latin American countries, China has financed projects — and made decisions — aimed at transforming impoverished areas into productive or extractive zones. But in doing so it is helping perpetuate a development model that relies on sales of raw materials and ignores sustainable alternatives represented, for example, by our ancestral farming methods.

Indeed, traditional or ancestral farming practices that combine the use of inherited techniques with the potential to evolve with the cultural environment are one of the most important alternatives for improving, in a holistic way, the quality of life of many peasant communities. And unfortunately, they don't receive full and due recognition.

In the case of Peru, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has named Andean farming practices as one of its Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS). In Chile, the so-called Chiloé system — an agro-biodiversity approach to farming used on Chiloé Island — is another example of efficiency both in terms of productivity and the environmental considerations inherent in its activities.

Unfortunately, beside lacking suitable financial backing, these systems are vulnerable to the effects of human-induced climate change and are threatened by increased pressures on resources, both locally and globally. This exacerbates competition for natural spaces and resources, and without sustainable management, can lead to the uncontrolled imbalances we can already see in parts of the planet, and especially in Latin American regions where China is investing.

The idea of expanding farmlands or intensifying farming to maintain or "improve" production should not predominate in a world with finite resources, and where a good deal of unconsumed food products is wasted. Trade in agricultural products increased 2.3% in 2015, and 1.8% in 2016, according to the World Trade Organization (WTO). The increase helped meed global demand but also boosted greenhouse emissions. To improve food security worldwide, we need to better consider the complex dynamics of food production processes, and not think only in terms of volume.

Farming in Chile

China helped fund agricultural projects in Chile and the rest of South America — Photo:VW Pics/ZUMA

Within the framework of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals and World Agricultural Heritage, multifunctional and sustainable productive processes inside countries can be key to boosting yields without irreparably harming nature. This requires analysis not just of the work and responsibilities of producers, but of consumers as well.

In recent decades, food production systems have focused on creating commercially attractive and sellable products for consumers. As our countries develop, be they in the northern or southern hemispheres, we have lost sight of where and how our food is produced, of the effort that goes into it. And, despite such supportive mechanisms as Fair Trade or organic labels, we prioritize the consumer at the expense of the producer.

We believe that ancestral farming practices and other systems that recognize the value of the producer and environment deserve better support and promotion. These systems don't just favor equality; they can also be a model for technological innovations in Latin American's farming future. What's more, they're replicable in other regions.

More products from ancestral practices could be introduced into local food production systems today, and the different actors involved should improve communication with small and medium-sized Latin American firms that have already begun to commercialize and promote ancestral or traditional products. We can also use trading networks in our emerging economies as a basis to help introduce such products into the Chinese market.

In conclusion, we believe Latin America needs to insert itself in holistic and sustainable value chains, and abandon the present system of supplying raw materials or mass-scale farming commodities.

Reviving ancestral practices as part of a sustainable strategy is not just efficient and responsible, but also shows the importance of keeping close ties, in the past, present and future, with our territories and culture. And China, which itself has 11 GIAHS sites (such as the Fuzhou Jasmine and Tea Culture System or the Xinhua and other rice terraces systems), could use its extensive experience to aid the sustainable transformation in Latin America.

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