Peasants’ rights, defended by the countries of the South, now backed by UN

Peasants' rights, defended by the countries of the South, now backed by UN

The Malian farmer in this photo from May 2017 is supported by a Quick Impact Project set up by the UN in Gao, Mali. The “Declaration on the Rights of Peasants” defends, for instance, the rights to food sovereignty, land, seeds, a decent income and livelihood, and the right to a safe, clean and healthy environment.

(UN Photo/Harandane Dicko)

On 17 December 2018, the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly voted in favour of the ‘Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other Persons Working in Rural Areas’. The declaration is a major step forward for rural communities around the world, and especially in the Global South, as it recognises a wide range of rights such as the “right to land”, the “right to water” and the “right to food sovereignty”. It is a reflection of the current concern over these issues within the United Nations, which has declared 2019-2028 ‘The Decade of Family Farming’.

To this day, agricultural work is still the most common occupation in the world, with 45 per cent of the world’s active population working in the sector. And the figure is rising. Small-scale farmers produce around 70 per cent of the world’s food. And yet they still represent 80 per cent of the world’s hungry and 70 per cent of those living in extreme poverty, as reported by the FIAN, an international NGO working to promote the right to food.

The declaration was adopted thanks to the “tremendous work undertaken by La Via Campesina” (LVC, the largest international movement coordinating peasant organisations), according to Swiss sociologist Jean Ziegler, vice chair of the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee and former UN rapporteur on the right to food. He welcomes the declaration, describing it as a “a huge step forward”. He continues: “It was a major victory. It gives hope for the future.”

The declaration was adopted by 121 votes in favour, eight against and 54 abstentions. Not surprisingly, the countries of the North, such as the United States and France, did not vote for the declaration, being exporters of seeds and phytosanitary products and having close ties with the interests of the large multinational agribusiness firms.

“Bayer and Monsanto lobbied against it. They were against the principle of the right to seeds, given the monopoly they have on them,” adds Ziegler.

This achievement is the result of an initiative led by Indonesian trade unions and the long-standing endeavours of LVC. The idea of establishing peasants’ rights was conceived in Indonesia, in 1993, by the peasant union Serikat Petani Sumatera Utara, as the FIAN recalls. Indonesia’s small-scale farmers were confronted with widespread land grabbing at the time, as a result of the growth in oil palm plantations. In 2002, the Indonesian Peasants’ Union (SPI) presented its draft declaration on peasants’ rights to LVC, which began promoting the project, initially calling for an international convention – a regulatory text with punitive mechanisms. “Along the way, we opted to work towards a simple declaration, because we wouldn’t have secured a majority,” says Ziegler.

In 2008, a year marked by a global food crisis and food riots, LVC adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, with the support of civil society groups, and presented it to the UN Human Rights Council. The text denounced the forced displacements and discrimination faced by small farmers in numerous countries, and advocated global agrarian reform and better protection for small farmers against land grabbing. As Ziegler points out: “In 2017 alone, 41 million hectares of land were stolen from peasants,” by large agribusiness firms, in the main.

The creation of the UN Human Rights Council in 2006 and the involvement of the new special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, appointed in 2008 to succeed Ziegler, helped to facilitate the adoption of the declaration. Bolivia and Indonesia were among the main drivers of the project. Bolivia chaired the intergovernmental working group set up for the adoption of the declaration by the Human Rights Council. “The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, was a major driving force behind the declaration,” says Ziegler. “And the Bolivian ambassador to the UN did an amazing job.”

Reticence among Western countries

Very few European countries – Switzerland, Ukraine and Portugal – joined the countries of the South in voting for peasants’ rights. The majority abstained, in spite of the resolution adopted in July 2018 by the European Parliament calling on the European Union and its member states to support the declaration and to vote in favour of its adoption. The current UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver of Turkey, also urged all UN member states to vote in favour of the declaration. But the representatives of most European states proved unwilling, and placed their economic interests ahead of the fight against the exploitation of rural communities in countries of the South.

The Declaration on the Rights of Peasants breaks new ground, as the FIAN points out, with articles establishing “new” or “emerging” rights, such as the right to food sovereignty, the right to land and other natural resources, the right to seeds, the right to a safe, clean and healthy environment, and the right to a decent income and living conditions. The declaration underlines that food sovereignty includes “the right to healthy and adequate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods that respect their cultures”.

And the right to land includes protecting peasants from the risk of dispossession and forced displacement. The aim is to give people in rural communities decision-making power, as a counterweight to the power of big industry.

France abstained during the vote held on 17 December 2018. Pierre Maison, a member of the LVC coordinating committee, tells us: “Although it recognises many of the positive developments in the declaration, France explained that it was abstaining for two main reasons: it is committed to a universal vision of human rights and considers that a specific declaration for small-scale farmers contributes to segmenting those rights”. The United States also voted against it. Maison also explained that many countries had sought to water down the declaration, asking for the word “right” to be replaced by “access”, but, in the end, most of the text was approved without amendment.

Ziegler tells Equal Times: “The United States, the European Union and Australia were fiercely opposed to the declaration. They feel that the existing human rights [those set out in the 1948 UDHR] are sufficient. Opponents of the declaration argued that it would undermine the universal nature of human rights if specific rights for peasants were established. It was very hard to secure. The intergovernmental working group laboured for seven years to achieve this goal. The Latin American countries within the Human Rights Council wanted a convention on the rights of peasants;” in other words, a more binding text than a simple declaration.

New rights to improve the lot of small-scale farmers

What changes will the declaration bring on the ground? For Maison, “the hope is that the states that voted in favour of the declaration will refer to it when adopting national laws. We hope to see national legislation seeking to tackle the problem of land grabbing, for example, especially in countries of the South. The declaration could also give greater sway to states that are fighting against free trade agreements that jeopardise entire swathes of their agricultural sector. We are confident that this declaration will enable farmers around the world to improve their living conditions and hold their heads high.”

“Several states have already recognised this peasants’ right, either by enshrining it in their constitutions such as in Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, or by adopting specific laws and policies such as in Nicaragua, Mali and Senegal. Other states have initiated a process to recognise food sovereignty, including Peru, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador,” FIAN points out. In Indonesia, a presidential decree has just been issued in support of agrarian reform that favours peasants.

In Ziegler’s view: “The declaration is ‘soft power’, but it is very useful because peasants can put it to good use.”

He explains that certain points were the source of very intense debate, such as the right of peasants and peasants’ unions to file proceedings against land theft, for example, and the fact that they can be filed in the country where the multinational in question is based. Action against the practices of Bolloré in Benin, for instance, could be filed in France, where the company has its headquarters. “There were some very heated debates, and we won.”

The regions of the world set to benefit most from the declaration are Latin America and Africa. Ndiakhate Fall, the representative of the National Council for Consultation and Cooperation among Rural People (CNCR/SENEGAL) within the LVC, highlights the serious problem of land grabbing in Africa, and the seed laws in force in several African countries, “which deprive farmers of the right to produce, save, sell and exchange their traditional seeds”. He points out that, as a result, “most African countries welcome the declaration. They are conscious of the fact that some international policies act as barriers to our development and the declaration could help to lift them.” The multinationals, he explains, “lobbied hard and put a lot of pressure on governments and other institutions to vote against it”.

Some of the rights set out in the declaration were more difficult to push through than others, Fall recounts, such as “the right to natural resources, the right to seeds and biodiversity”. Some proved impossible to include, such as those regarding “extra-territorial responsibility and the issue of migration”. “UN declarations should be binding and all countries failing to comply with them should be subjected to international sanctions,” he adds.

This UN declaration, although not binding, is an important step forward in improving the conditions of rural communities around the world, and shows that UN action can bring tangible benefits. “This is proof that civil society can establish new rights,” says Ziegler. In December 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted its first-ever resolution, proposed by China, to combat poverty in rural areas of developing countries.

This story has been translated from French.