Food (in) Security in ASEAN

With the establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) barely two years away, leaders in the region are busy trying to implement economic policies that will put into operation ASEAN’s vision of a common regional market.

But for millions of people in this part of the world, the genuine success of a regional development plan rests on its ability to sustainably and effectively address hunger and poverty.

Over the last few decades Southeast Asia had charted substantial gains in reducing hunger. The 2013 report of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization shows that the region has exhibited the biggest decline in terms of number of undernourished people from 140 million people in the 1990s to 64.5 million from 2011 to the present.

The number of people in the region living below the poverty line of US$1.25 per day also dropped from almost half of the population in the 1990s to 14.7 percent of the population in 2010. Still, the challenge of feeding 64.5 million mouths remains with new and emerging challenges threatening the sustainability of these gains.

Various studies have identified Southeast Asia as one of the world’s most vulnerable to climate change impacts. The phenomenon, manifested in the form of increased occurrences of extreme weather events like typhoons, droughts and heavy rainfall, changes in temperatures and rising sea levels, has resulted in increasing incidents of crop failure. This not only hurts the region’s food security, but also further puts small-scale farmers under massive pressure.

The 2007-2008 food price crisis gives a perfect glimpse of what kind of social chaos food insecurity could cause when hundreds of thousands of angry people took to street calling for quick solutions.

The spike, which saw prices of the staple grains surging from $370 per metric ton to $764 per metric ton over the span of a few months, exposed the need for improved regional cooperation in addressing food — especially rice — price and supply issues in Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, this unrest also spurred a new trend — land and water grabbing.

Countries with weak land and resource management laws such as Asia, Africa and Latin America are prime targets of land investors. The unregulated acquisitions, which were often unlawful and without consent, have displaced hundreds of thousands of small-scale farmers and fishers, turning their farmlands and community forests into large commercial plantations of fuel or food crops aimed for export.

Many of these challenges require regional solutions and ASEAN is in a position to develop and implement region-wide responses to these problems.

The good news is that ASEAN need not start from scratch in addressing these challenges. It has existing platforms, such as the ASEAN Integrated Food Security Framework (AIFS), the ASEAN Climate Change Initiative (ACCI) and the ASEAN Multi-sectoral Framework on Climate Change: Agriculture and Forestry toward Food Security (AFCC), among others, which can serve as the springboard in providing solutions to these problems.

ASEAN must urgently help address the problem of land and water grabs by developing regional regulations that ensure private sector investments in agriculture support smallholder agriculture. It must be open to revisiting its policies to integrate the interests and concerns of small-scale producers. This means adopting and implementing policies that will respect and safeguard their rights and interests.

Through AFCC, members of ASEAN could actively share knowledge and information on how to strengthen communities’ resilience and capability to adapt to changing climate patterns. The ACCI must be served as a platform to encourage the ASEAN countries to follow low carbon development paths. At the global level, ASEAN can also draw upon the members’ agreement under the ACCI to articulate and push for a common agenda for Southeast Asia in the international climate change negotiations.

ASEAN must also ensure that AIFS integrates programs that stabilize national and regional food prices and supply as well as put in place improved and updated mechanisms that quickly help member countries cope with food emergencies.

More significantly, ASEAN must open all these platforms to engagement and inputs from civil society and various stakeholders groups. The regional coalition’s implementation of the ASEAN Agreement for Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) shows the benefits and potential of working with civil society groups in addressing emerging and urgent regional challenges.

As ASEAN moves toward 2015, its leaders must keep in mind the mandate set out in its charter, that is to “ensure sustainable development…and to place the well-being, livelihood and welfare of peoples at centre of community building process”. It is by adopting and implementing policies that support smallholder agriculture and safeguard the rights of small agricultural producers that ASEAN can deliver on this mandate.

The writer is policy and research coordinator for Oxfam’s GROW campaign in East Asia.