Bridging the GAP: What do farmers want from the New Urban Agenda?

Farmers in the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam, 2011. What will the Habitat III process be able to offer them? (Kibae Park/UN Photo)

This is the second story in an occasional series. The General Assembly of Partners (GAP) is the main vehicle for civil society to organize and advocate ahead of Habitat III, the U. N. urbanization summit in October in Quito. The GAP represents a wide range of interests, which have coalesced into 14 constituent groups. Citiscope will profile these groups about their preparations on the road to Quito with a focus on why sustainable urban development matters to their constituents.

In classical economics, markets define cities. Producers from the hinterlands come together to buy, sell and trade in a central location, which over time evolves into the city.

Even in an era of high-speed trains and sprawling megacities, that fundamental fact has not changed. That is especially so in the developing world, where urban markets remain essential to the livelihood of rural farmers. Consequently, farmers have a key stake in the future of cities, even if they don’t live full time in urban areas — perhaps spending part of their week a city for market day.

[See: We can’t build better cities without improving nutrition]

Take Jamaica, the home country of Mildred Crawford, who artificially inseminates pigs. She is also the president of the Jamaican Network of Rural Women Producers and the co-chair of the farmers constituency for the Habitat III General Assembly of Partners (GAP).

“For a rural woman who is head of household to strengthen her economic life, she has to think of workable ways of survival,” Crawford said recently. She offered a typical example of the breadbasket parish St. Elizabeth, from where women will typically travel three to four hours to the capital, Kingston, in the back of a truck along with farm animals, produce and any children who are under school age.

“She gets there when it’s dark, but accommodation is not affordable to her because of her meagre income,” Crawford said. “So she is going to sleep in the market. She is exposed to all the environmental influences, positive and negative, and she is also exposed to gender-based violence and communicable diseases.”

[See: The challenges of land and inclusion for the New Urban Agenda]

The Jamaican Network of Rural Women Producers lobbies for better conditions in cities, and Crawford notes that no new market has been built in Jamaica since the country’s independence in 1962. She also serves as the English-speaking representative of the Caribbean Network of Rural Women Producers, an umbrella NGO recognized by the United Nations.

Indeed, Crawford already has international advocacy experience, having spoken out for rural women at annual reviews of the U. N. Committee for the Status of Women. In her regional capacity, she also speaks on behalf of thousands of farmers in her position with the GAP.

Thus far, she has successfully reached out to the Uganda National Farmers Federation. Her co-chair, Martha Andzie Yeful, represents an agricultural group from Ghana. Crawford hopes that others will join the fold soon, but she recognizes that the onus is on her to convince them.

“Farmers like to see results — and tangible results,” Crawford says. “It is for me to carry that kind of change that trickles down to the grass roots in order to get them buy into the idea.”

Mistrusting the urban focus

The Habitat III process will culminate in Quito, Ecuador, in October, where national governments are set to agree on a new 20-year strategy on urbanization — what’s being called the New Urban Agenda. The first draft of the document is supposed to be made available to the public in early May.

“Farmers like to see results — and tangible results.”

Mildred Crawford
Co-chair, GAP farmers constituency

Crawford says she is hopeful that with that draft in hand, she will be able to make inroads with the World Farmers Organization, a powerful lobbying group based in Rome, where the U. N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization meets.

But that will only be possible if the New Urban Agenda has something to offer farmers. For Crawford, that would mean that “consideration is given to equity, a balance in the use of lands — they would have access to arable lands — and that Habitat III respects decent work as a critical element in development.”

She also has some more prosaic hopes for the New Urban Agenda — that it will translate into, for instance, better garbage disposal and sanitation at public markets in cities to ease the burden on market vendors.

Such issues sum up what is meant by the clunky phrase “rural-urban linkages”. This is a term and idea that have received significant attention ahead of Habitat III as a way of assuaging the fears of predominantly rural countries ahead of what on its face would appear to be a very urban-focused conference and strategy.

[See: The New Urban Agenda’s rural-urban conundrum]

Indeed, the New Urban Agenda’s predecessor, what was known as the Habitat Agenda, focused far more widely on what are broadly referred to as human settlements, ranging from mega-cities to small villages. This wide mandate is part of what led UN-Habitat, the agency responsible for implementing the Habitat Agenda, to dedicate technical assistance to projects such as helping countries plan a village or provide housing in a rural province.

Consequently, these countries — predominantly in Africa and Asia — fear that the New Urban Agenda will take the U. N.’s attention and resources away from such areas and focus them instead on big-city problems. Even though the world’s rural countries are predicted to become more not less urban, they don’t necessarily see this trend as inevitable — and neither do they want to ignore the challenges of the status quo.

By arguing that there is a rural-urban nexus, which makes for a symbiotic relationship between the big city and the hinterlands, advocates hope to craft a New Urban Agenda that works for all parties. And for that, farmers in their fields need to have their say.

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