It?s not that often I say ?right on? when reading a report from a bank, let alone the World Bank, the bank-away-from-home of Dr. Evil.
But I couldn't help myself. The bank's spanking new 318-page report Agriculture For Development says what the institution's harshest enviro critics have been saying for decades.
Don't arrest me for being an outside agitator, officer, I'm just quoting the World Bank, page 15, on how farmers and communities need to engage in collective action.
Of course, someone needs to say that the report has a lot to confess and do penance for.
Backed by the U.S., the bank was set up in 1945 as a United Nations sub-agency to issue big loans to European countries after the World War II. In the 1960s and 70s, it forked over huge loans to developing countries for get-rich-quick megaprojects, dams being the most notorious.
Many of these undertakings were disastrous, leaving poor countries holding the bag for compounded debts, paid back by cancelling health, educational and social services.
Regrettably, the new bank report makes no apology for promoting bad projects in the past, shows no humility when proposing new ones for the future and shoulders no responsibility for cancelling debts still imposed in the present.
A lot of people will, quite logically, be slow to forgive and forget. Nontheless, the report's co-director distinguished ag economist Alain De Janvry, has, as he promised, "changed the conversation.'
It's a good thing, too, because for over 50 years, both the left and right have agreed that development was first and foremost about getting out of agriculture, not getting into it.
Bright lights, big cities and stinking factories had allure for everyone, not least those who equated agriculture with "the idiocy of rural life," if I may quote Karl Marx.
But since three-quarters of the world's poor live in rural areas, it's kind of a relief to hear the bank finally say that farming "has proven to be uniquely powerful" for reducing hunger and poverty.
The most startling innovation in the report is the attention given to agriculture as a way of producing environmental benefits.'
The environment is normally an uncomfortable subject for bankers, since it's always been easier to make money building something over nature than protecting and conserving it. The bank hasn't changed its spots on this question. It plans to stay in the loan business.
But it wants "a new agriculture" that will make money by growing "environmental services" - storing carbon, cleaning water and air, supporting wild plants and animals (old-fashioned words for biodiversity).
Farmers are in the natural capital business, which is something you can bank on in a world where clean air, water and storage of global warming gases are worryingly scarce. "Scarce" is what smart bankers like to hear; they translate it as "high demand, low supply, high price." And since no one in their right mind would produce and then give away something valuable for free, the service must be paid for.
"Payments for environmental services can help overcome market failures in managing environmental externalities," the report says. Am I seeing right? Did I read "market failures" from the cheerleaders of laissez-faire?
You can see how far these dollar dolers have come when you realize the entire bank-financed modernization project for decades has been about finding ways to free humans from a limiting dependence on a resource base so they could take to the limitless possibilities of human ingenuity, blah blah blah.
Since natural resources are most naturally cared for where they are - the bankable term is "location-specific" - grassroots communities must be empowered. New biologically based methods like using trees to draw down nitrogen rather than fertilizers or beneficial insects instead of pesticides to get rid of pests "require more decentralized and participatory approaches, combined with collective action by farmers and communities."
Ergo, the report is in constant praise of greens, fair traders and organic devotees. "Environmental certification of products also allows consumers to pay for sustainable environmental management, as practised under fair trade or shade-grown coffee," the bankers to the world say.
"And the unique competencies of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can be harnessed to deliver services, especially at the local government and community levels."
I hope funding applicants for community agencies know how to use that one when vying for government cash.
For 10,000 years, farmers have been told to produce cheap food by underpaying themselves and exploiting the land. Now we now have a report that says the smart money should go - it doesn't say how, quite properly, since it's too early in the conversation for that - to pay farmers to protect the ecosystem.
Greens, start your engines.