DESA News Vol. 13, No. 05 May 2009


Agriculture remains fundamental for Africa in the 21st centuryAgriculture remains fundamental for Africa in the 21st century

Agriculture is essential to sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa, where the sector employs more than 70 per cent of labour and generates about a third of GDP growth.

The poorest members of society are those who are most dependent on agriculture for jobs and income. Average agricultural value added per worker is low in many countries, reflecting a low degree of mechanization and limited penetration of improved seeds and inputs such as fertilizers.

At the start of the 21st century, only 7 per cent of farm land in African least-developed countries (LDCs) was irrigated – the same as in the 1960s – while in Asian LDCs the ratio has trebled to more than 30 per cent. The 2008 World Development Report notes that governments in sub-Saharan Africa spend far less on agriculture as a share of national budgets than the 11-14 per cent which helped fuel the Asian green revolution. While developing countries as a group now spend more than developed countries on agricultural research and development, sub-Saharan Africa shows a declining trend in real terms (from US$1.15 bn in 1981 to US$0.87 bn in 2000, at 2000 international prices).

Although the economies of South and East Asia used to be more dependent on agriculture than Africa in the 1970s, the importance of agriculture has declined in both regions, whereas the share of agriculture in the sub-Saharan African economy has only slightly decreased.

Commission on Sustainable Development

Agriculture and Africa are two of the themes of the third implementation cycle of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-17 and CSD-16 ), a functional commission of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). They are also a priority area for the United Nations’ activities as illustrated in the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation in 2002, where the special needs of the African continent were systematically identified.

The 3rd implementation cycle of the CSD also examines rural development , land , drought and desertification , themes that are of particular relevance to Africa, where most economies continue to be heavily rural-based and agricultural-dependent, and where poverty eradication will depend on boosting the productivity of the agricultural and rural economy.

Food production

Food production in most of sub-Saharan Africa has not kept pace with the population increase over the past four decades. Sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where per capita food production is either in decline, or roughly constant at a level that is less than adequate. In Africa as a whole, food consumption exceeded domestic production by 50 per cent in the drought-prone mid-1980s and more than 30 per cent in the mid-1990s.

At the subregional level, during the last 15 years only Western Africa has succeeded in increasing per capita food production significantly. In Southern Africa, food production has declined and suffers from high variability, reflecting vulnerability to weather conditions of rain-fed agriculture in arid or semi-arid regions.

Millennium Development Goals

Given that the most of poor people in Africa live in rural areas or rely on agriculture for part or all of their livelihoods, the prospects for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of eradicating extreme hunger and poverty and accomplish the health and education goals are essential to and clearly affected by the agriculture sector.

According to the Trends in Sustainable Development Africa report from DESA’s Division for Sustainable Development, at the midway point between the adoption of the MDGs and the 2015 target date for achieving them, sub-Saharan Africa is not on track to achieve any of the goals.

Financial and economic crisis exacerbating sustainable development

The world is currently facing the most difficult challenges for sustainable development and environmental management. At the Intergovernmental Preparatory Meeting (IPM) for CD-17, held in New York from 23-27 February 2009, many delegations expressed their concerns regarding the impacts of the financial and economic crisis on sustainable development, including on trade financing for food and other essential imports and on farmers’ access to credit.

The spike in food and energy prices in 2008 led to a severe food crisis. The subsequent fall of energy prices has eased some of the pressure on energy importing countries, but yet, food prices remain high. The global financial and economic crisis in 2009 has exacerbated Africa’s situation, resulting in falling growth rates, rising unemployment, deepening poverty, increasing hunger and malnutrition, and in jeopardizing of the achievement of the MDGs.

Enhancing agricultural productivity

The majority of future increases in food and agricultural production in developing countries will come from more intensive production systems based on higher yields and multiple cropping. Such production intensification will continue to rely on the use of adapted integrated crop-livestock that can make the most efficient and optimal use of production inputs while protecting the supporting ecosystem services and biodiversity.

Investments in agriculture development and incentives provided to local farmers must be complemented by macroeconomic policies to ensure sustainability. Actions need to be aligned and adapted to national and local conditions, taking into account global climate change and poverty reduction initiatives and including coordinated efforts by key stakeholders, particularly national Governments, civil society and the private sector. In addition, appropriate market regulations, improved information systems and security of tenure and access rights to natural resources motivate farmers’ investments in soil and water conservation

Strengthening the enabling environment for implementation

The international development community has a fundamental role in progressing the agriculture-for-development agenda, including creating fair trade rules, conserving genetic resources, controlling the spread of pandemic diseases and managing climate change.

To achieve agreed outcomes, actions need to be more coordinated and less conflicting at local, national, regional and global levels. Social and agricultural inputs made available to local farmers and other vulnerable populations must be complemented by macroeconomic policies to ensure sustainability. Actions need to be aligned and adapted to national and local conditions, while coordinated efforts by key stakeholders, particularly national Governments, civil society and the private sector, are vital to make progress.

Innovation for sustainable development

In Africa as in other parts of the world, many farmers are exploring new income generating opportunities by experimenting with new crops as well as environmentally less harmful methods of growing traditional crops. Africa has begun to discover the niche market provided by the developed-country market preference for organic and other eco labeled food products, but there is still considerable untapped market potential. Farmers are also actively diversifying to earn income from new sources.

For more information:

For more information on the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation:

Threefold discrimination of indigenous womenThreefold discrimination of indigenous women

Throughout the world, indigenous women continue to be discriminated against and marginalized. The threefold discrimination they suffer (for being women, indigenous and poor) marginalize them even further, compared with indigenous men, regarding economic and political opportunities for employment, social services, access to justice, and, more particularly, access to land and other productive resources.

Indigenous women tend to be over-represented in the migratory cycles of agricultural workers, domestic service and other ill-paid and poorly protected private jobs. They are also increasingly present in international migration, the informal economy and among the swelling ranks of urban poor. What is even more alarming is the victimization of many indigenous women and girls in drug trafficking, sex tourism and prostitution in vast regions of the world. To date, there has been little attention to these matters, and where there are social and welfare policies in place, they have not been effective in protecting indigenous women.

Indigenous women have sought to address these issues at the local, national and international levels. At the United Nations, indigenous women have been advocates and leaders since the very first year of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations, in 1982 in Geneva. Indigenous women were active participants and contributors during the two decades of negotiations regarding the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007.

Special attention to indigenous women’s issues is also evident within the United Nations. The special theme of the third session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was indigenous women. In March 2005, a resolution on Indigenous Women was adopted at the 49th Session of the Commission of the Status of the Women (CSW), which was the first ever resolution on indigenous women by this body.

Today, at the Permanent Forum, indigenous women participate in great numbers, have their own caucus and have a strong voice. The human rights of indigenous women should be protected by all of the provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Article 22 calls for particular attention to be paid to their rights and special needs, and calls upon States to take measures to ensure that indigenous women enjoy the full protection and guarantees against all forms of violence and discrimination.

Multiple discrimination

Many indigenous women are subjected to various forms of violence, exploitation and discrimination. Such violations tend to be very serious, including physical abuse, rape and sexual harassment; extreme economic exploitation; denial of their civil rights; discrimination in the justice system; racism; and exclusion from public social services, especially in the areas of health, housing and education.

The issue of discrimination was raised by indigenous women at the 4th World Conference on Women (Beijing 1995). The UN Permanent Forum, at its third session, in 2004, took note of the fact that the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) does not make reference to indigenous women and the specific nature of the gender dimension of racial discrimination. Hence, it recommended that “special attention should be paid to the issues related to maintaining the integrity of indigenous women and the gender dimension of racial discrimination against indigenous peoples”.

Socio-economic gap

The Human Development index of many countries shows that the socio-economic gap between Indigenous Peoples and non-indigenous peoples is increasing, while human development and empowerment between indigenous women and men follow a similar trend. The gap between indigenous women and dominant group women is even wider.

The poor health status of indigenous peoples in general, have been well documented and is linked to inequities in health determinants, including lower quality housing, poorer physical environment, lower educational levels, lower socioeconomic status, fewer employment opportunities and weaker community infrastructure. In many countries, indigenous women suffer higher rates of diabetes than indigenous men, even higher rates of gestational diabetes compared to non-indigenous women and higher rates of death caused by cervical cancer. They are also at higher risk for alcohol and substance abuse and do not have adequate access to sexual and reproductive health services.

Since the Beijing Conference on Women, some governments have taken the initiative to change discriminatory legal provisions towards women in order to improve their position in society. In some instances, indigenous women have also benefited from the amendments in legislation; however, there are still many legal provisions that continue to discriminate against them. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is still to address this important issue. Further, while some countries have introduced legislation that might be favorable to indigenous peoples, these advances at the national level are eclipsed by continuing human rights violations and problems faced by indigenous peoples in many countries. Indigenous peoples, in particular, indigenous women, are usually among the most marginalized and dispossessed sectors of society, because they suffer discrimination and face prejudices that are often perpetuated within societies. Despite the existence of protective legislation, the rights of indigenous peoples are very often denied in practice.

Access to land and natural resources

Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples have maintained a special relationship with the land, their source of livelihood and sustenance and the basis of their very existence as peoples and communities. However, economic interests have attempted to turn communal possession into individual private ownership, a process which began during the colonial period in many countries and intensified in recent years. The violation of indigenous peoples’ prior rights to ancestral territories, lands, waters and resources, including the requirement to obtain free, prior and informed consent on all programmes and projects affecting their lives, often results in community conflicts. For many indigenous women this is especially difficult as they are often excluded from decision making processes. Further, their customary rights are often violated in relation to their access to, and special relationship with, their lands and natural resources.

The loss of traditional territories and land, eviction, migration and eventual resettlement, depletion of resources necessary for physical and cultural survival, destruction and pollution of the environment and the social and community disorganization, impacts heavily on families. For example, indigenous women’s roles as self-reliant food producers, healers, artisans and spiritualists are increasingly eroded. As a result, indigenous women are forced into lowly-paid jobs and often seen by the tourist industry as objects of curiosity for the commercialized tourist market.


Indigenous peoples are suffering from violence and conflict in many parts of the world. Many indigenous women are particularly vulnerable to such violence within their own communities or within the broader society, in time of peace or in time of war. Some indigenous women suffer female genital mutilation, forced marriages, early marriages, polygamy, beatings, forced labour and lack of property and ownership rights.

In many instances, indigenous women and children suffer the brunt of militarization on their land, perpetrated by state forces, including vigilante groups and private armies of companies. Rape and sexual violence continues to be used as a weapon of war by the military to humiliate and attack indigenous communities. Girls, and even older women and children are not spared. In other instances, courtship and marriage by the military with indigenous women is used to gain acceptance in indigenous communities, however, soldiers often abandon local women and children upon transfer to other destinations.

The effects of military rule and the establishment of military detachments in indigenous communities continue to have a major effect on indigenous women. It curtails their movement and economic activities, disrupt the entry of food supplies and basic social services including the education of indigenous children. Violent conflicts and militarization fundamentally affect the lives of indigenous women and their families and communities, often causing violations of their human rights and displacement from their ancestral lands. At the same time however, indigenous women do not see themselves as passive victims. In many instances, indigenous women have bravely taken up the roles of mediators and peace builders.

Globalization and development

According to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, globalization presents additional challenges in many parts of the world. As a group, indigenous women have not benefited from economic globalization. If anything, they usually bear the brunt of the destruction of indigenous economies, increased out migration, and in some cases have had to fight against the privatization of local land, water, and biodiversity, the natural resources most critical to their survival.

Issues of resource development and other forms of exploitation in the name of progress are not new for indigenous peoples. Globalization is often considered to be the latest euphemism for continued colonialism due to the fact that the first anti-globalization activists were indigenous peoples who fought transnational corporations (TNCs) in the 1970s. What is new, however, is the increased pressure and exploitation on indigenous territories in the name of profit and the globalized economy. This situation continues to seriously undermine international instruments, constitutional provisions, national laws and policies safeguarding indigenous rights. The most central of these rights, indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, has been questioned and undermined as national governments bind themselves to new global economic treaties. There is also however, an opposite suggestion that weakening the sovereignty of nation-states through economic globalization, may provide new opportunities for indigenous peoples’ autonomy.

In some countries globalization often results in new agreement-making between indigenous peoples and governments to facilitate new economic development projects. This situation has a tendency to marginalize indigenous women in a number of ways. It often neglects the socio-economic and cultural implications that may disproportionately affect women in the form of disruption to family and social relations. More importantly however, indigenous women and their concerns are often left out of the negotiations. This is evident because land use and occupancy agreements tend to focus on traditional male activities such as hunting, fishing, and trapping. There is a view that, in general, development has not benefited indigenous women to any significant degree. Rather, it has contributed to the erosion of viable community economies and social structures, corroded the environment and marginalized indigenous women and children.

In the rural areas of developing countries, governments have drastically reduce subsidies in agricultural production, and as result, small farmers enter into a vicious cycle of debt, poverty and hunger. Trade liberalization has allowed monopolistic transnational corporations (TNCs) to control the trade and marketing of essential staples such as rice and wheat and other agricultural products which has resulted in the food crisis.

Indigenous women are disproportionately affected by the food crisis because they do not have access to productive resources and the market, due to the persistent patriarchal and feudal system governing rural areas. Furthermore, structural adjustment programmes call for cuts in government spending and for privatization of state owned enterprises and services. This results in cuts to various social services which are essential to indigenous women’s productive and reproductive roles. The disproportionate impact on indigenous women is further intensified by the imposition of extractive industries like mining, commercial logging and plantations on their lands in the name of greater profits for corporations and national development for governments at the expense of the survival of indigenous women and their communities.

Indigenous women’s roles and much of their work are not valued within the current neoliberal economic system which places primary value on paid labour. While indigenous women are the mainstay of small-scale agriculture and fishing, farm labour force and day-to-day family subsistence, they have more difficulty than indigenous men in gaining access to resources such as land and credit and productivity enhancing inputs and services in societies and communities.

Indigenous women in the agricultural sector and fishery have also been adversely affected by the promotion of export-oriented economic policies and trade liberalisation. Indigenous women in developing countries continue to struggle with multiple work responsibilities in food crop production, family agricultural activities, household and non-market work.

The way forward

According to the UNPFII, the dominant gender-neutral conception of equality prevailing in countries where Indigenous Peoples live has not been adequate in addressing the multiple disadvantages of indigenous women. It has become a daunting task in each country to repeal policies and practices that perpetuate sexual objectification of indigenous women, their disempowerment and victimization.

Reluctance of many states to implement conventions and adopt special measures is a major hurdle in overcoming educational, health, vocational, economic, and political disadvantages for indigenous women. Denial of Indigenous Peoples’ rights has disenfranchised women severely relative to male members of Indigenous Peoples in most countries.

The UNPFII further highlights in its analysis on indigenous women prepared for the 8th session from 18-29 May 2009 that demolishing structural barriers to eliminate complex oppressions experienced by indigenous women and to achieve a multi-cultural democracy is one of the major challenges for Indigenous Peoples gender equality throughout the world.

For more information:

For more information on the 8th session of the UNPFII:

Inadequate global economic governance

Inadequate global economic governance

Addressing the 2009 ECOSOC Spring Meeting on 27 April, the Secretary-General pointed out that the current global recession has revealed the shortcomings of global financial structures, calling for institutions to become more “representative, credible, accountable and effective.” Mr. Ban said that “the global economic and financial crisis is exposing dangerous weaknesses and flaws in the international economic system.” The United Nations, with its universal membership, must be fully involved in the reform process.

Video: (8 minutes)
Full coverage: (morning session) (afternoon session)
Secretary-General’s Statement: