By Julio Berdegué, FAO Regional Representative
Dafna Bitran, FAO consultant
RURAL areas are key spaces of interaction between humans and the environment. They are also important economic spaces where a large part of the environmental challenges must be faced, both in Latin America and the Caribbean as in the rest of the world.
Special attention must be placed on these areas if we are to reach the targets of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the 2030 Agenda, which constitute a veritable roadmap to guarantee fundamental living standards without leaving anyone behind.
Rural areas are fundamental for the fulfilment of this Agenda. Indeed, almost eight out of 10 of its indicators are closely linked to what happens with rural societies. And two out of 10 can only be achieved in rural areas or with their help. Rural livelihoods depend on a healthy environment, but at the same time they have a profound impact on natural ecosystems. Protecting both is essential to achieve sustainable development, and requires a delicate balance.
Rural activities such as agriculture, forestry and change in land use, for example, generate 24% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. These gases increase climatic variability and extreme weather events, which in 2015 caused losses of USD 13 billion in the agricultural sectors of developing countries. Seventy per cent of the loss of terrestrial biodiversity is due to changes in land use linked to agricultural pressures. And yet, that same biodiversity and the services it provides are fundamental for rural livelihoods. Pollinators, for example, are essential for 35% of world agricultural production.
In rural areas, various forms of marginalisation and social exclusion persist. Although rural activities are essential for food security, 75% of the people who suffer hunger worldwide live in rural areas. While agriculture uses close to 70% of the world’s fresh water, rural areas have the least access to running water and sanitation services. The advance of the agricultural frontier is the main reason for the loss of forests worldwide, but these are key for rural livelihoods: the environmental services that households obtain for “free” from forests represent up to 22% of their total revenue.
The activities of rural areas support urban areas. They provide them with water and food, in addition to contributing in many ways to their health and well-being. With more than half of humanity living in cities, it is fundamental to consider both the dependencies and mutual relationships that exist between the urban and rural worlds.
Proper rural territorial planning can favour sustainable development by reducing GHG emissions, maintaining valuable ecosystems with great potential for tourism, and preserving water sources. Rural areas can also be important suppliers of energy to urban areas through renewable sources. With the appropriate measures, rural areas can also function as buffer zones against disasters, reducing their impacts on the rural and urban areas.
It is evident that rural areas both impact and are impacted by environmental variables. Thus, it is essential to advance in a profound transformation of rural societies. A greater understanding of the economic, social and environmental interrelationships that occur in these areas is sorely needed. We must also better understand the various links that exist between them and cities. To forget about rural areas is to put a brake on sustainable development.
We cannot live healthy lives with unhealthy rural environments. We will not be able to feed ourselves or face poverty and inequality in an overexploited and polluted environment where 12% of the species in the Region are at risk of extinction. The challenge is clear: without vibrant, prosperous, sustainable and inclusive rural societies and environments, a better future will not be possible for any of us, be we urban or rural.