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UN passes first ever declaration for peasant rights

Harvesting damar resin in Sumatra. Damar agroforests are rich in wildlife. Image courtesy World Agroforestry Centre

  • A new UN Declaration protects peasant rights to land, seeds, and adequate incomes with an emphasis on civil and social rights.
  • Peasants, which includes small-scale farmers, rural workers, fishing communities, pastoralists and landless agriculture workers, have been recognized as a vulnerable population with distinct needs for the first time ever.
  • By protecting peasant rights, the new status aims to also help reduce climate change and protect biodiversity.

QUITO, Ecuador – Peasant farmers around the world just gained a powerful new tool to protect their rights, which reflects the distinct needs and threats against small-scale farmers worldwide.

The UN’S new Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, is the first ever international law that grants rights to this population of society. It could benefit one third of the world’s population.

“The declaration gives us hope, now looking forward there is one more tool to protect peasant rights,” said Diego Monton the Latin American Representative of Via Campesina, the world’s largest peasant organization.

There is “a lot of joy and expectation” right now, added Monton.

Via Campesina has been one of the major backers of the declaration, and has been pushing to create an international protection mechanism for peasants since 2001. The organization, as well other farming and civil society groups worldwide, have long recognized the need to protect this vulnerable population, which is often the poorest sector of society.

The new declaration protects the rights of peasants, which includes anyone who survives off of artisanal or small-scale agriculture, either for subsistence and/or for the markets. It also includes fishing communities, indigenous people, rural workers, pastoralists and landless agriculture workers. It’s also applied to both individuals as well as collectives.

By improving the living conditions of small farmers and promoting their growth, the new law says it will also help reduce climate change and protect biodiversity. Also, by favoring the rights of rural populations, supporters anticipate that it could “change the rules of the game” of how agriculture corporations are allowed to operate worldwide, says Monton.  

What is the declaration?

The resolution was adopted in November of 2018 with 119 votes in favor, 7 against, and 49 abstentions. The countries who voted in favor include: Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Portugal, South Africa, and Venezuela who initially put forward the draft resolution.

The countries who voted against it include: Australia, Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, Sweden, The United States and The UK. The most common reason states voted against the declaration was their disbelief that peasants exist as a distinct population in need of their own rights, says Monton, who has long been following the process.

During the UN Human Rights Council meeting last September, the UK’s UN representative Julian Braithwaite explained it’s vote against the resolution, saying more effort should go towards improving existing international human rights frameworks rather than creating a new one.

Braithwaite stated a particular concern with the resolutions proposal for “collective rights” for rural workers, as it “It seeks to set out new rights for rural workers that others do not have.”

Monton says this is a historic argument by those trying to “end the peasant identity.” The small family farm has been one of the largest obstacles for the expansion of agriculture and profit-seeking in the countryside, he says. Recognizing that peasants exist and they have distinct lifestyles and needs is one of the biggest achievements of this declaration.

An agroforestry system at Camino Verde. Photo courtesy Heather D'Angelo.
An agroforestry system at Camino Verde. Photo courtesy Heather D’Angelo.

Another contentious right in the declaration is the right to save, exchange and sell farm-saved seeds. Small-scale farmers have long been fighting against policies created to protect commercial seeds and patent laws over seeds, which are becoming increasingly controlling according to farmers’ organizations. These laws often make it mandatory for farmers to purchase seeds tailored for industrial farming, obliges them to buy new seeds for each season instead of saving them from the year before, and makes it a crime to give or trade seeds with their family or neighbors.

“This is a fundamental right,” says Monton, “This is the beginning of the possibility of doing agriculture for combating hunger,” instead of gaining large profit.

Other important points in the declaration include: the right to access to land; the right to an adequate income, which guarantees fair market prices for products; and the emphasis on civil rights to protect small farmers from increased aggressions, displacements and criminalization.

Persecution and violence against peasant farmers trying to protect their territory is a particular problem in Latin America, says Monton. Colombia for example is one of the most violent places in the world for peasants. Since the peace agreement was signed between the FARC guerrillas and the Colombian government in 2016, over 600 peasant farmers have been killed, according to numbers from Via Campesina. The exact number could not be independently verified by Mongabay by time of publication. This violence comes from a number of threats including the expansion of large agribusiness, illegal logging, mining, the production of coca, and armed groups seeking territorial control.

Monton says the new UN declaration could be an important tool to advance the peace process in the country. Via Campesina is one of the external monitors of the peace process, along with the European Union.

Clearing up ambiguity

Mario Macias, a small farmer in Ecuador, says the new UN declaration will help clear up ambiguous or contradictory laws that exist in the country.

Farmers in the Ecuadorian town of Wimbi tend their crops. Photo by Jonatan Rosas.

For example, Ecuador’s constitution guarantees the human right to water and food sovereignty, but the country’s mining law says mining rights are separate from surface rights, and are often given priority. This means that mining concessionaires have the right to acquire, buy, rent or lease any surface land where they can expand mining activities.

This has had a disastrous effect on many peasant communities in Ecuador, says Macias, who is also executive of the Ecuador branch of the global peasant organization FIAN. One recent example is the community Quimsacocha that is fighting against a major mining project planned near their territory, by the Canadian mining firm INV Metals.  The mine is close to fresh water sources and will directly impact small-scale farming and ranching activities, as well as the community’s right to food and water, says FIAN.

There are also many confusions around the Land Redistribution Plan, which was created in 2009 to redistribute land to peasant farmers. The law has helped over 4,000 families gain access to land, but in some regions it has also created conflicts whereby newly formed peasant groups have tried to claim territory where small-farmers already live and work the land. This has led to violent outbreaks and displacements, particularly in the coastal provinces of Los Rios, Guayas, Manabi and El Oro, says Macias.

“The state created this scenario,” he says, explaining more planning should have gone into protecting the existing farmers’ rights and peaceful conflict resolution.

Looking ahead, Macias is concerned about the new trend he sees on the coast, where third parties buy small-scale farms at low prices to accumulate large territories, and then sells this larger area to the growing banana and oil palm industries. Macias calls this a creation of “land combos,” and a violation of farmers’ rights to land and food sovereignty.

The UN cannot enforce these new international rights, so it will be up to small farmers and peasant organizations to demand them.

“The UN now recognizes our rights, so now we have to mobilize ourselves so that our own governments recognize us,” says Monton, adding, “it has already made a big impact.”

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