Rod Oram’s Rio Blog #4

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Written By Rod Oram, Rod’s Rio Blog # 4, Monday 18th June:

The potential

Here are two stories to give you a crumb of comfort, a pinch of hope when later in the week the Rio+20 summit on sustainable development degenerates into weasel words about the future of the planet.

Both are excellent examples of how local action and targeted international action can make progress on crucial economic, environmental and social issues even when the global governance system fails utterly to set over-arching frameworks and commitments to at least slow humankind’s headlong rush towards ecosystem disaster.

The first story is about coffee growing in Ethiopia. History credits its enterprising citizens for being the first in the world to discovering how frisky the wild plant made its goats…so they began cultivating its beans to stimulate themselves.

Today, Ethiopia is the seventh largest coffee bean grower in the world. About 25% of its population depends directly or indirectly on the crop for their livelihoods. In most years, depending on commodity prices, it accounts for the biggest chunk of export revenues.

But Ethiopia faced a classic commodity trap. Middle-men would pay farmers a pittance for the beans and pocket most of the money themselves.

However, in late 2008 Eleni Gebre-Medhin founded the Ethiopian Commodity Exchange. An Ethiopian, she had trained as an economist at US universities and then worked for the World Bank and similar organisations. A study she began in 2002 led her to conclude that her country and its farmers would benefit much more if they could trade transparently on an exchange.

Since it started, the exchange has fulfilled its promise. Farmers are getting world prices and the middle-men have disappeared. To keep farmers in the loop, the exchange, co-ops, farmers associations and others have erected digital boards around the country displaying current prices.

Of course some consumers tried to resist the revolution. For example, groups of boutique coffee roasters and retailers in the US complained bitterly that they had lost access to their carefully chosen growers. Buying on the exchange, they said, meant they had virtually no control over the quality of beans they received.

But the solution was simple. All they had to do was to pay their chosen growers a premium over world price.

The United Nations Development Programme sees huge potential in this model of commodity exchanges and the bringing together of farmers and buyers. Costa Rica, for example, is doing similar work with its pineapple growers.

So, the UNDP, the agency run by Helen Clark, is ramping up its “Building Tomorrow’s Markets” programme. This type of private sector and government engagement was proving effective in transforming agriculture, she told the Corporate Sustainability Forum which is part of the Rio+20 summit.

The private sector can help build understanding of the markets for sustainable products and incentivize farmers while the government can help drive sector wide improvements through the likes of farmer access to credit, strong land rights, farming knowledge and help in forming associations and other vehicles through which small-scale farmers can co-operate.

This view was enthusiastically endorsed by a senior executive from Kraft, the world’s second largest food producer, who spoke on the same panel.

The other story is a response to climate change. If countries could take local actions to reduce short-lived pollutants that contribute to the greenhouse gas effect, they would help reduce global warming while reaping local benefits.

Examples of the pollutants are black soot from cooking stoves and from diesel vehicles and methane from oil and gas production.

The benefits are immense. For example, the United Nations Environment Programme estimates that 3bn people use biomass such as wood or animal dung for cooking fires. But the World Health Organisation estimates that leads to the premature death of 2m people a year, mostly women in developing countries.

To tackle these challenges the Climate and Clean Air Coalition was launched in 2011 by Sweden, the US, Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana and Mexico, together with the UNEP. Now there are 20 partners, with Germany the latest one announced at the Rio+20 summit.

Drastically reducing these pollutants “could buy us back 1/2c temperature change while the world community finds a global solution to climate change,” Achim Steiner, head of the UNEP, said at a Rio+20 presentation.  This was vital because limiting climate warning to 2c is now “virtually impossible to achieve. It is no longer a threshold we can work to.”

Jonathan Pershing, the US deputy special envoy for climate change, outlined some of the initiatives the Coalition was launching such as a programme by the Nigerian oil and gas industry to capture methane and by Mexico to curtail black soot from its brick kilns.

These are the sorts of exciting, practical programmes being showcased across the city while the negotiators pick away at the summit text.


About the author

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