Commence with the Farmer: Bahá’í Principles for Rural Development
What are the Bahá’í teachings on rural life and agriculture? Since they are extensive, and there is insufficient space to go into detail here, four main themes will be summarized.
As mentioned, Bahá’u’lláh stated that agriculture should be considered first among the fundamental principles for the administration of human affairs. While agriculture and rural populations have in many ways been marginalized in the modern world, the fact remains that civilization is entirely dependent on farmers. Both agriculture and non-agricultural industry are needed to support civilization, but in the final analysis, agriculture is primary and other industry secondary.
Agriculture (which includes forestry and fisheries) is fundamentally different from other economic activities in that agriculture’s products result from life processes and its means of production are living systems. Beyond providing food and other products, as well as incomes, agricultural activities provide key ecological services and have a global impact, including an impact on climate. This is why no sustainable human future can be conceived unless and until the centrality of agriculture is recognized.
Corollary to this is a farmers first approach, in which agricultural development is focused around the requirements and concerns of farmers and farm laborers, especially those who are impoverished. Currently, the agrifood system is built around the needs of consumers rather than producers. Similarly, we concern ourselves with cities and neglect the village and countryside. Instead, efforts must be made to prioritize and strengthen agriculture, starting at the farm and village level with the needs of rural people foremost.
Raising the centrality of agriculture to the level of spiritual principle is key to ensuring that adequate attention and resources are given to its proper development.
Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for the future is one in which everyone will enjoy the benefits of civilization. Wealth is most commendable, said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, provided the entire population is wealthy. The pivotal Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humanity implies that a minimum standard of well-being is an inalienable human right.
Every human being has the right to live; they have a right to rest, and to a certain amount of well-being, said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The arrangements of the circumstances of the people must be such that poverty shall disappear, and that every one as far as possible, according to his position and rank, shall be comfortable. Whilst the nobles and others in high rank are in easy circumstances, the poor also should be able to get their daily food and not be brought to the extremities of hunger.
Today this principle is widely recognized as the Right to Food. The realization of the right to adequate food is not merely a promise to be met through charity, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It is a human right of every woman, man and child that is to be fulfilled through appropriate actions by governments and non-state actors. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development prioritizes scaled up, transformational action to eradicate poverty and end hunger and all forms of malnutrition, recognizing that permanent eradication of hunger and the realization of the right to adequate food for all are achievable goals.
Establishing equitable and effective means to redistribute wealth is a necessary element in the redesign of the food and agriculture system to ensure an adequate supply of food and access to food producing resources. Oxfam reports that in one recent 12-month period, the wealth of the world’s billionaires increased by $762 billion, an amount sufficient to end extreme poverty seven times over. Eliminating extreme poverty necessitates the elimination of extreme accumulation of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite. Overcoming such imbalances will involve more than policy change. It is also a moral issue.
The Bahá’í teachings offer a number of spiritual principles and practical measures designed to redistribute wealth and eliminate poverty. Bahá’u’lláh frequently admonished the wealthy and powerful to give generously to the poor on a voluntary basis. The Bahá’í teachings also call for policies such as progressive taxation, limits to wealth accumulation and monopolies, fair wages, profit sharing, and moderate interest on loans. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also proposed a local institution he described as the village storehouse which would administer and regulate the economic affairs of the village to ensure that all members of the community are protected.
One of the most significant measures Bahá’u’lláh created to eliminate extremes of wealth and poverty is a law known as Huqúqu’lláh (Right of God). According to this law, 19% of net wealth is given to the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the Bahá’í world community. This law is now being put into effect in the worldwide Bahá’í community. As the Bahá’í community grows, this fund will become substantial and will ultimately be used to assist the poor and for other philanthropic purposes.
Another important principle is the understanding that material wealth is not an end in itself. Bahá’u’lláh urged His followers to moderate their wants, with the understanding that material wealth is a means to support people in their pursuit of spiritual development. This involves a new understanding of prosperity in which wealth can be seen in terms of health, positive relationships, meaning, and the capacity to serve.
According to Bahá’u’lláh, All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The term ever-advancing implies that the process of human development must progress from one generation to the next. Consequently, to fulfill the purpose of our creation, the processes of civilization must be sustainable and our ability to manage natural systems must be informed by the fact that civilization ultimately depends on their long-term viability.
Bahá’u’lláh’s statement raises sustainable development to the status of a spiritual principle that is central to the purpose of our existence. Since agriculture is fundamental to civilization, a sustainable food and agriculture system is intrinsic to the world order prescribed by Bahá’u’lláh. Future agricultural systems will benefit from a profound understanding of the responsibilities of our species to maintain the equilibrium of the ecosphere. In this regard, the Bahá’í teachings describe a new conception of the relationship between humankind and the natural world, in which the ecosphere is conceived as the extended human body.
A number of specific principles found in the Bahá’í writings support the sustainable development of agriculture.
The Bahá’í teachings can be seen as a roadmap for a methodology to build capacity in individuals, communities, and institutions to achieve the above objectives. Building capacity is a primary goal of the Bahá’í community throughout the world at this stage of its development. The chief means of doing this is a grassroots educational system that both emerges from and fosters a process of community development. This process was first used in rural Colombia starting in the 1970s and is now taking root in thousands of Bahá’í communities around the world.
The training institute is a participatory public educational process that aims to build foresight, wisdom, and a capacity for moral choices that favor collective well-being over self-interest. It is coordinated and focused, while also being inclusive and open to diverse approaches. Moral capacity is being developed at the village and neighborhood level among a growing cohort of people who begin to build service-oriented communities capable of reading and responding to current realities. This approach has been particularly successful in rural areas, where the institute has contributed to the empowerment of children, youth, women, and men.
The processes of community development also enhance the spiritual life of the community and advance the moral and material education of children and youth. In many ways, this approach can be seen as the embryonic form of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, the institutional complex that combines worship and service in every community. And as mentioned, the new local temples are taking shape in communities where an advanced process of growth involving the training institute is in place.
The diagram below shows the elements of a village transformation process based on the training institute and a set of core activities pursued in Bahá’í communities. Building capacity ultimately leads to the ability to engage in effective public discourse, which in turn facilitates social action. In the case of the village, this capacity can be directed to analyzing and solving the problems faced by farm families.