The time has come to generate conditions for the rural sector to be considered a place of opportunities and development, declared the Minister of Agriculture of Chile

Brasilia, 31 March 2021 (IICA). The time has come to change the paradigm within the rural sector. Rurality must no longer be considered a synonym of poverty, but rather an opportunity for development, in order to ensure a sustainable future for young people. To this end, it is essential to formulate public policies aimed at bridging the gap that still exists between the urban and rural worlds in terms of access to education, health, digital connectivity and infrastructure.

The Chilean Minister of Agriculture, María Emilia Undurraga has undertaken this challenge, which she defined as “leveling the playing field” during an interview with Agro America, a TV program which is broadcast on the Brazilian Agro Mais network.

The second woman to occupy this position in Chile, Undurraga revealed that although the Ministries of Agriculture tend to focus on sectoral policies, she is attempting to apply a different approach, under the premise that in order to promote food production and forestry, it is necessary to bridge the gaps that are so detrimental to the agricultural sector.

“We have drawn up a national policy for rural development”, she explained, “which has a territorial approach and puts 14 ministries of the country at the service of the rural milieu, with a view to improving opportunities. In this sense, we are working with the Ministry of Education to strengthen rural education, and with the Ministry of Public Works to advance in the construction of roads. We must also improve connectivity and access to healthcare services, thus generating the conditions needed to promote the development of rural territories and the production of healthy and sustainable food”.

With a degree in Agricultural Engineering, and Master’s degrees in Sociology and International Development Policies, Undurraga stressed that the agricultural sector of her country not only feeds Chileans, but also contributes to the food security of other nations and supports local economies, which represent the biodiversity, landscapes and culture of Chile. “Our ministry goes beyond a sector-based approach; it also focuses on social and environmental areas”, she stated.

During the interview, the Minister gave an account of the way in which Chile has faced the challenges of the pandemic.

“At the beginning, we declared agriculture an essential activity, by means of a decree. In this way, we protected producers and the stakeholders of the entire distribution and trade chain, to avoid interruptions in the delivery of food to Chileans and the countries we cater to. We always worked in coordination with the Ministries of Labor and Health. We developed protocols in conjunction with the private sector and universities, and we involved regional and local authorities. Thanks to this collaboration, we have been able to solve various problems, and can proudly say that Chileans never lacked food. We were even in a position to provide for other countries”, she reported.

Undurraga mentioned that the pandemic also presented the world with the opportunity to place the food issue at the forefront of the global public debate: “It has become clear that not only production is relevant, especially small-sized family farming, but its relationship with the distribution, sale and consumption chains is as well. Big cities have therefore turned their gaze towards food production and rural territories, responsible for producing healthy food while also respecting the environment and nearby communities”.

The Minister, who was previously a teacher and has vast academic experience with rural development, stressed the need to bring connectivity to the sector and explained that this is the main demand of rural dwellers.

In this spirit, she went on to say that she is working with the Minister of Transport and Telecommunications to deliver digital connectivity to the 263 rural communes in Chile.

“Rural communities cover 83% of our territory”, she explained, “and our goal is to reach every corner. Another major challenge is water. There is a percentage of the rural population, the most dispersed, which does not have access to drinking water. We are working with the Ministry of Public Works to provide a speedy solution to this problem”, she indicated.

Minister Undurraga believes that the sustainability of agricultural activity is crucial for the future, and engages in regular discussions with Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay within the framework of the Southern Agricultural Council (CAS). In this sense, she expressed her conviction that “agriculture is not part of the problem, but rather of the solution, vis-à-vis climate change and many other environmental concerns, as long as we apply regenerative agriculture and other sustainable models. We currently face economic, social and environmental sustainability challenges. In Chile, we are finalizing the development of a sustainability strategy for the food sector in conjunction with the private sector, the civil society and with universities. This approach has ceased to be just an option; it is imperative for production. It is important to produce food, but it also matters how we produce it”.

The empowerment of rural women is another priority of the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture.

In this sense, different actions are being taken, ranging from promoting female employment to fighting against domestic violence. On this last point, a survey is currently being conducted exclusively in rural areas.

“With quality information, we will be able to implement adequate public policies,” explained the Minister, who added: “We see rural women as a positive contribution to the development of the rural sector and the country as a whole. We have wonderful female artisans, farmers, beekeepers, livestock producers, and also leaders. Women have shown a growing enthusiasm towards participating in discussions regarding what type of country we all want. Chile is undergoing a process, in which things are being challenged and discussed, and where women, and especially rural women, will play a crucial role, by contributing their territorial perspective”, she explained.

During the interview, Undurraga also referred to two critical issues for Chilean rural territories: the water crisis and forest fires.

“Water is key to producing food. Chile has been affected by drought for the past 12 years, due to climate change. This constitutes a major challenge. In a large part of the country, we were used to having an abundance of water, and today it has become a scarce resource. We have had to adapt to this new condition, which apparently is here to stay. As a Ministry, we have doubled our budget to promote efficient water use, and since we have less water, the amount available will have to be used wisely and shared accordingly. Approximately one in three farmers in Chile uses modern irrigation systems. The Ministry of Public Works is responsible for major investments, and we work in coordination with them to promote the construction of reservoirs, which provide us with water and help address the shortage issue in the long term”.

With respect to forest fires, the Minister explained that these are also the consequence of climate change, and are caused by the increase in temperature and the decrease in humidity, but that over the years Chile has improved its preparedness for this issue by applying a preventive approach, which has yielded satisfactory results.

“We are currently in the middle of the season and cannot draw a definitive conclusion, but we can say that we currently have 63% fewer fires than at the same moment of the previous season. This year’s budget for fire prevention and control is the highest in history. The evidence indicates that the sooner we reach the fire, the better we can control it. The strategy is to strike the first blow and we are working together with the State and the private sector. Each of them contributes 72 billion Chilean pesos to fire control. Today there are only 27,000 hectares affected, which is positive when compared to the 78,000 that were compromised last year at this point of the season. Of course, our ultimate goal is for this number to be zero”.

The Minister also referred to the cooperation activities being carried out with IICA to promote the rural and territorial development of indigenous Mapuche communities in the Araucanía region: “We have nine native communities in Chile recognized by the law, the main one being the Mapuche people. Araucanía is the area with the greatest Mapuche presence. Together with IICA, we have developed technical assistance programs to promote fruit and vegetable growing and encourage associativity, as an important means to access markets. We support them not only by giving these communities lands, as has been the case in recent years, but also by providing them with technical assistance. Still, they are the ones who decide on their investments and development lines”.

Finally, Undurraga underscored the importance of the recent organic agriculture cooperation agreement signed by Chile and Brazil. “Both countries”, she said, “have a history of cooperation and collaboration, and organic agriculture is an area that we wish to continue promoting, as it fosters the development of many small villages in both countries. Our goal is to expand these areas of cooperation to include health and research issues”.

Agro América is a program on the Brazilian TV channel Agro Mais, belonging to the Bandeirantes Communication Group, and which is the result of an alliance with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA). The show features the current situation of the agricultural and rural sectors in the member countries of IICA. It aims at promoting the exchange of experiences and a discussion on challenges and opportunities in Latin America and the Caribbean in the area of agricultural and rural development.

Photo – María Emilia Undurraga, Chile’s Minister of Agriculture, in an interview with Agro America, a program broadcast on Brazil’s Agro Mais TV channel, gave details of her country’s public policies in favor of rural development.

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