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18 March 2010

The Road towards a Declaration on Peasants’ Rights in the framework of the Right to Food

On 16 March, the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee presented a Preliminary study on discrimination in the context of the right to food (A/HRC/13/32) to the Human Rights Council.

The right to food is "the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear" (A/HRC/7/5, par. 17).

This right is protected under international humanitarian and human rights law, including in article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), article 12 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and in article 24 and 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

The study by the Advisory Committee presents examples of discrimination in the context of the right to food, including discrimination in terms of legislation, inequalities between regions and discrimination against the most marginalized and vulnerable groups. It also focuses on anti-discriminatory policies and strategies, which are or could be pursued in order to address discrimination. And finally it addresses good practices that are currently being implemented by States and other actors.

The study makes explicit reference to the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants: women and men, adopted by La Via Campesina in June 2008. The Advisory Committee’s report states that “peasants, like all human beings, benefit from the protection of the rights enshrined in the universal instruments for the protection of human rights… But these instruments remain clearly insufficient to protect fully the rights of peasants and address de facto discrimination against peasants, who have been historically and socially discriminated in many countries.”

According to the report, the Declaration of the Rights of Peasants is an important example of anti-discriminatory strategy that could improve the protection of the right to food. It reaffirms the rights to life and to an adequate standard of living (art. 3); the right to freedoms of association, opinion and expression (art. 12) and the right to have access to justice (art. 13). However, it also adds new rights including the right to land and territory (art. 4); the right to seeds and traditional agricultural knowledge and practice (art. 5); the right to the means of agricultural production (art. 6); the right to information and agricultural technology (art. 7); the freedom to determine prices and markets for agricultural production (art. 8) ; the right to the protection of local agricultural values (art. 9); the right to biological diversity (art. 10); and the right to preserve the environment (art. 11).

In a press release just after the Fourth Session of the Advisory Committee on 25-29 January, La Via Campesina welcomed the preliminary UN recognition of the role and rights of peasants and small farmers in the world. Henry Saragih, General Coordinator of Via Campesina said in this regard, “It is a very important step for the defence of our rights. We now urge all the member countries to adopt this declaration during the March session of the UN Human Rights Council. We are asking for a new legal framework with clear standards to recognise the basic rights of more than 2,2 billion of peasants in the world.”

In the lead up to the presentation of the Advisory Committee’s report to the Human Rights Council, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and the Centre Europe-Tiers Monde (CETIM) organized a meeting, “A New Initiative to Protect the Rights of Peasants,” on 8 March.

This meeting, which brought together government, UN and civil society representatives, included a presentation by the UN Special Rapporteur, Olivier de Schutter, on his latest report. A roundtable discussion including key speakers, such as H.E. Jean Feyder (Ambassador of Luxembourg to the UN), Prof. Jean Ziegler, Advisory Committee to the Human Rights Council, Dr. Christophe Golay (Joint Coordinator of the Project on ESCR, ADH), Henry Saragih, General Coordinator of Via Campesina and Sandra Ratjen, Advocacy and International Policies Coordinator at the International Human Rights Organization for the Right to Food (FIAN).

While presenting his report, Mr. de Schutter highlighted that the marginalization of peasants in not a new phenomenon. Already during the first stages of Europe’s industrialization process, peasants were under threat. However, nowadays, circumstances have changed and the threats occur on a larger scale. He identified three causes, including:

-  The degradation of farm land as a result of land speculation and acquisition. This puts pressure on land, land prices go up, and consequently small farmers are priced out of the market. Expropriation of land takes place.

-  Privatization of domestic resources, including through the strengthening of intellectual property rights in seeds, as well as through Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreements. This is problematic as it creates more dependent farmers.

-  The shift from small scale agriculture to capitalized agriculture. Capitalized agriculture has a very competitive nature. Large producers have a central role, and small-scale farmers can no longer compete. This is an increasingly emerging development in developing countries.

According to the Special Rapporteur, there should be an increased focus on small scale farming as it is an asset for rural development; it creates employment; and it can contribute to slowing down rural-urban migration flows. The latter is highly relevant as today 1.2 billion people are living in slums and this number is likely to increase by 2 billion in 2030. Furthermore, he noted that small scale farming is better positioned to conserve the soil and is more sustainable; however, it needs protection, preferably through a right-based approach.

The Special Rapporteur’s report is available online.

Moderating the roundtable discussion, Feyder noted that mainly in the Northern countries, but also in Brazil, agriculture has been characterized by expansion. However, in the global South the overarching picture is stagnation. This inequality is also reflected in production figures. Part of the problem is that farmers in the Northern countries receive support from their governments in times of need, while those in the global South do not have this luxury.

Henry Saragih explained the process behind the establishment of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants, making clear that small farmers are not to blame for the more than 1 billion people that currently go hungry. It is the large transnational corporations (TNCs) that control the production and distribution of food. He also noted that it is not only a problem of the countries in the global South, but also for Northern countries. For the rest, he reiterated the position of Olivier de Schutter regarding the sustainable character of small-scale farming as a large percentage of the carbon emissions coming from the agriculture sector are created by the large agribusinesses and not by small-scale farming.

Sandra Ratjen was positive that the Declaration on Peasants Rights had received some initial recognition within the UN Framework, but she was also pragmatic and aware of the lengthiness of the process to get a Declaration approved by UN Member States. FIAN started to work with La Via Campesina in a Campaign on Agrarian Reform in 1996-1997. During this process, numerous violations on the rights of peasants became more evident. She highlighted that peasants are often the first victims, but also the first solution: they are the ones that can produce food; peasants have the responsibility to feed the world; and local peasants are more accountable than large corporations. The food crisis is not new, she uttered, but had already existed in the rural areas. Only when hunger came to the cities, States started to act upon it.

She also emphasized that “We will not solve world hunger if we create hunger” by displacing small-scale farmers. In the current agriculture model, all investments will relocate people, e.g. increased monoculture, large infrastructure projects, clearly demonstrating the need for a new agricultural development model.

Mr. Feyder reiterated her point on the food crisis. He noted that the food crisis only became visible as the hungry people in the cities started to mobilize themselves and protested. This is related to the so-called urban bias or culture gap in development, which makes rural dwellers more or less invisible. Referring once more to the report of the Advisory Committee, he repeated some key conclusions. First, small-scale farmers do least damage to the environment. Secondly, access to land is key to give peasants security to farm. He concluded by emphasizing that it is time to see the realities.

Responding to some question from the audience, Mr. Ziegler reiterated that it is important to finally arrive at a Convention of the Rights of Peasants, followed by a Protocol that will explain specific and detailed obligations for States in this regard and that will formalize peasants’ rights. In addition, a special Committee should be created to which countries have to report to on a regular basis and to hold them accountable, as well as an additional protocol to which victims of rights violations can direct themselves.

The representative of Cuba underscored that her country fully supports the right to food, including the rights of peasants in this context. Cuba is actively working on a draft resolution on the right to food, which includes a reference to the study by the Advisory Committee, including the rights of peasants.

The Swiss representative noted that the future is always difficult to predict. There is not one solution for the various crises that have had their impact on the world. And indeed, rights are being violated. He recommended using existing rights’ mechanisms to fight for peasants rights, and not to wait for the adoption of a specific Declaration or Convention, as this might take years.

Read also: The rights of peasants to strengthen the human rights framework

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