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The Hunger Project: sustainable farming helps reduce poverty, food shortages

By Juanita Teschner
Center for the Environment
Dr. John Coonrod, executive vice president of the Hunger Project, will speak on “The Frontline of Sustainability” at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday (Nov. 15) in Room 300 of the Center for the Environment facility on the Catawba College campus.
He talked recently with Juanita Teschner, center director of communications, about his organization and how its work is related to environmental stewardship. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Q: What is the Hunger Project and what does it do?
A: The Hunger Project has made a commitment to the sustainable end of world hunger. People often hear about famines and short-term hunger and emergencies, but that is only 8 percent of the deaths related to hunger each year. The other 92 percent is chronic, year after year, people living in profound poverty. Most of them are food farmers. They are working 16 hours a day to grow enough food to feed their families and sell a little for the essentials, but they are just not making it.
Creating a systematic approach to solving that problem is what we have been doing. We have worked in sub-Saharan Africa, countries in the West, East and South. We work in India; we work all across Bang-ladesh and we work in Mexico and Peru. So far, we have been working in about 35,000 villages, and over the past 20 years we have worked with people to help them restore control over their own lives and destinies. In each region we have a systematic approach that takes people on that journey from extreme poverty to sustainable self-reliance in a finite number of years.
Q: Where is your focus?
A: We focus in rural areas. Many people have a picture of a lot of poverty in the slums of the world, and there certainly are poor people in the slums, but the vast majority of hungry people live in the countryside, and most of the people who move to the slums have moved there because their farms have failed. They would much rather be back home in their village than living in the slums. So we focus exclusively on the rural areas.
Q: As I understand it, your talk will cover the environmental stewardship part of your work, so tell us about that.
A: Well, the people on our planet who are most responsible for environmental stewardship and whose lives are most immediately dependent on good environmental stewardship are small-scale women food farmers. Their livelihood depends on the quality of the environment in very, very immediate ways, and so many have a great deal of traditional wisdom on things like sustainable forestry, on sustainable water management, on sustainable land management. Because of encroachment of cities and other things, many of these people have been pushed onto very marginal lands, so one gets the sense that somehow poor farmers are the problem. But we see them as the solution.
The more I have learned about sustainable agriculture, the more I have learned that it is very knowledge intensive. It requires doing things in a very hand-tailored way, and that actually lends itself better to small-scale farming than to large-scale farming. So the kind of farming that will need to be done in the future in terms of capturing carbon and carbon sequestration and adopting a more earth friendly approach to food farming actually gives small-scale food farmers a competitive advantage because they tend to tailor their approach to each square foot rather than having big machinery trundling across the countryside.
Women are the majority of the food farmers all through the developing world. They need greater education, so they can adapt their crop patterns and cycles to the new reality that is already hitting them.
Q: So obviously empowering women is important to your enterprise and to the hope for their future.
A: And for our future. I titled my talk, “The Frontline of Sustainability” because when you look at who is on the frontlines of taking care of our planet, it’s hundreds of millions of very poor women food farmers. And so what they do will in very large measure be how our environment turns out.
Q: Give us an example of what the women are doing.
A: Some of the successes that we’ve had have been the introduction of drip irrigation to better steward water. That’s an incredibly important technological, labor-intensive initiative, but it’s extremely successful in terms of economically empowering women. We take a very integrated approach. One of the things we discovered early on was, if you just try to do one thing to empower women, you often can make matters worse. People can come in with a literacy program, but if the women are already working 16 hours a day, they have no time for that. Or if you come in and say, “Oh, these poor women are walking two hours a day to get water,” so you put in a good well but you don’t create any sort of women’s organization, all of a sudden women’s social life has been destroyed, and they are even more of a slave to their responsibilities than they were before.
So working with the community to really find ways to solve all of their priorities simultaneously — child care and water and literacy and better farm practices — is a lot of what we have been working on. We have found that when communities have a good health committee and a good food security committee and a good education committee and women’s empowerment committee, they can make everything work.
Q: What would you say is your greatest success from an environmental stewardship perspective?
A: This is a little indirect, but when you talk to the U.N. Fund for Population Activities about their studies that show the factors that reduce population growth, the things they list are an increase in women’s voice in decision making (No. 1), prevention of child marriage, provision of basic women’s health service prenatal care and counseling so there is proper birth spacing. When all those things start to work, which they do in our villages, you see very rapid drops in total fertility and infant mortality and stabilization of population growth, so that’s indirect, but it has longterm environmental implications.
I think good hygiene is another big success we have had. When you ask people what is the greatest medical breakthrough in human history (the invention of soap), they usually don’t know the answer even though they wash their hands every day. Getting proper latrines and getting communities able to protect their water supply are huge environmental factors that directly save children’s lives.
Q: I understand that in India, village councils are now required to fill one third of their seats with women.
A: In some of the states we have increased that to 50 percent.
Q: How is that changing the landscape?
A: Well, the biggest cause of malnutrition in the world is the mistreatment of women, and nowhere is it worse than India, so women have been devalued. Little girls have been taught to eat last and least and to give all the best food to the men, even during pregnancy, and that results in low-birth-weight children, which results in high incidences of diabetes and other diseases. Their immune system, their intellectual development, everything is harmed permanently and irrevocably when children are born with low birth weight, and that only happens because of the devaluing of women and girls.
So as women have gone into rural public life and people have seen that they make good leaders, we’re seeing measurable change in the valuing of women across rural India. That is going to save millions of lives and have healthier children and have greater women’s literacy and a more stable population. Since women are doing most of the farming and raising the children, they have a different set of priorities, so when they are governing, it really transforms the development priorities.
Another big change is an end to impunity for gender-based violence. The amount of silent, horrendous domestic violence that has gone on with impunity in these very traditional areas is changing as women are allowed out of their homes. They begin to have friendships and networks and associations, and if one of their members shows up battered and bruised, they can now do something about it.
When we first launched these women’s leader training programs, I got to interview the men. I said, “How has your life become enriched since your wife has become a leader?” And they all had answers. Some saw their incomes increase. Some saw their community status increase. But one of the things that almost all the men said was, “For the first time in my life, my wife is my friend.” That power gap that creates tension and bickering and frustration had vanished, and all of a sudden as the power gap narrowed, they found there was love and friendship in their home.
Q: What has inspired you most in your work with The Hunger Project?
A: I think it has been to see the kind of voluntary community action that can be unleashed when people break that mindset that they have to wait for the government to rescue them. When people are really restored to respect their own abilities, their own leadership, you see them take on big forestation projects and big improvements in sanitation and drip irrigation and things that really require a lot of people carrying a lot of rocks in hot environments.
You see people work as a community on their own, set these priorities, launch these projects and mobilize action. We’re not paying these people. They do it because they see their future can be better. As I’ve seen people do that, it’s endlessly inspiring not only as I think about them but about who we all are as human beings. That kind of reservoir of good will and community spirit is there in people, and when you break the mindset of dependency, you see these great things happening.
I have gotten to do that pretty much every month for the last 26 years, and it makes life worth living.

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