The approval and adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas represent a historic event for the international human rights system itself, as well as for the peasant communities of the world. This has been a 17-year struggle on the part of La Via Campesina, which, along with allies, has managed to galvanize debate within the United Nations on the role and circumstances of the peasantry.
In full neoliberal offensive, at the end of the 1990s, financial capital wrapped its tentacles even more tightly around the countryside, and the commercialization and financialization of agriculture resulted in dispossession and evictions, an increase in violence and the persecution of peasant communities, the privatization of seeds, slave labour, the destruction of local markets and an increase in hunger and migration, the destruction of nature and pollution, among other scourges.
This neoliberal onslaught deepened the mechanisms of the Green Revolution, increasing its capacity for hoarding and destruction, hand in hand with transgenic technology associated with the massive use of agrotoxics. The only objective: huge profits for transnational companies, but at the cost of serious consequences for humanity.
In the countryside, the concentration and privatization of land, insecure and slave labour, pollution with agrotoxics, and the destruction of millions of hectares of native jungle and forest have increased. As this process progressed, resistance in the countryside grew, which brought along with it the persecution and criminalization of peasants. Violence in the countryside is an element that sustains agribusiness; peasants are murdered and imprisoned, and the reallocation of public resources to agribusiness deprives peasants of access to credit and markets.
Neoliberal propaganda included the idea of the end of history as part of its attempt to depoliticize society. In the agricultural sphere, the “End of the Peasantry” theory was launched, suggesting that peasant families would disappear, and that only agribusiness was capable of feeding humanity.
In the field of international governance, the international neoliberal lobby promoted new institutions, treaties and agreements that constructed a framework of jurisprudence, which, instead of being anchored in human rights and democracy, is based on the Freedom of financial capital and the shielding of companies from the resistance and struggle of the people. A clear example is the UPOV (International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants), which is responsible for legitimizing the appropriation of traditional, hereditary knowledge.
Peasant organizations resisted in every corner of the world. The establishment of La Via Campesina exists in this context, bringing to light the struggle for land and against the World Trade Organization (WTO) and free market policies, which have opened the door to corporations on every continent.
As industrial agriculture develops, the global food crisis, as well as the climate crisis, become even more severe. Faced with this situation, La Via Campesina, as well as giving a voice to the resistance, systematizes its proposals and its outlook to give hope. Not only is this not the end of the peasantry, but, on the contrary, the peasantry is part of the possible solution to the crises caused by the capital accumulation dynamics. This is how the debate on food sovereignty began, and the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform was launched. These debates burst onto the scene of the United Nations World Food Security Council in 1996. The idea was put forward that into order to solve the food crisis, the development and strengthening of peasant and local agriculture is a necessary, and to achieve this, land must be democratized.
In this way, the discussion on peasant rights has always gone hand in hand with proposals on the agrarian policy necessary to overcome the food crisis.
In 2001, an international congress on peasant rights was held in Indonesia, which was coordinated by the Peasant Union of Indonesia (SPI), and in which the need to build a declaration on peasant rights within the United Nations was raised for the first time.
In 2003, at the 4th International Conference of LVC, which was held in Sao Paulo, Brasil, the final declaration stated that: “We will acquire a new commitment to driving the fight for Human and Peasant Rights. As international peasant organizations, we will develop an International Charter of Peasant Rights”. Between 2004 and 2006, together with CETIM and FIAN, paradigmatic cases of violations of peasant rights were verified and documented on all continents.
Intense work in the Human Rights Council
In June 2008, the International Conference on Peasant Rights took place in Jakarta, with the participation of more than a hundred representatives from the organizations that make up La Via Campesina all over the world, and of more than a thousand members of SPI; in the same year, in October, the 5th International Conference of La Via Campesina, held in Mozambique, approved the Charter of Peasant Rights. Propelled by the support of thousands of local struggles, and hundreds of reports documenting violations in rural communities, the challenge began in the United Nations.
This charter, that would later be the starting point for the Declaration, was born directly from the experiences and struggles of peasants all over the world. Because of this, we affirm that the Declaration is a direct representation of this reality and its recognition by the UN.
In 2012, after much hard work, the UN Human Rights Council resolved to create an Intergovernmental Working Group, the mission of which would be to propose to the Council a text declaring the rights of peasants. This Group was chaired by the Plurinational State of Bolivia, supported by South Africa and the Philippines in coordination. Since then, a group of experts has carried out a study on the situation and proposed a text based on the charter of La Via Campesina, adapting the language to the standards of the United Nations.
Bolivia guaranteed a transparent and participatory process in the Council. Over six years, five drafts were modified after each session, taking into account the contributions of States and civil society, the latter of which actively aligned itself with the process, represented by organizations of peasants, artisanal fishers, pastoralists, agrarian workers, indigenous peoples and human rights (HR) organizations, who actively participated with their proposals.
During 2013 and 2014, the debate was taken to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, where CLOC LVC, together with FIAN and CELS presented reports on the relationship between the violation of peasant rights in the region and transnational corporations.
On 28 September 2018, the Human Rights Council adopted the declaration, which was voted in by a comfortable margin, and which represented, without a doubt, an important step forward on the part of the human rights system from a pluricultural and humanist perspective. The official report presenting the definitive text highlighted the urgent call of the United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Kate Gilmore, to finalize work on the draft Declaration, “in order to respond to more than a billion people who live in rural areas and who provide a significant proportion of the world’s food”. The report also underlined the support of FAO for the Declaration, considering that it will contribute to the zero-hunger objective and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, helping these people to achieve their potential to overcome the challenges that they face in their day-to-day life.
This process sparked various debates within the United Nations; firstly, on the recognition of the peasantry as a significant, worldwide class, who suffer systematic violations of their rights, and secondly, whether the interests of human rights or the corporate interests of transnationals should take precedence. In this regard, the answer of the Human Rights Council was unmistakeable: Human Rights should prevail, and this Declaration is an essential instrument to allow the establishment of standards and policies in the countryside that guarantee the rights of peasants. The perspective of collective human rights is also an important part of the pluricultural worldview of the system.
Since the beginning, the process was supported by the Latin American integration process, with CELAC itself backing it, as well as GRULAC (Group of Latin American Countries in the United Nations); the G77 later added their support, paving the way for Asia and Africa, where it also received widespread endorsement. As expected, the countries that are most subservient to the interests of transnationals, and that are most imperialistic and colonialist, opposed the process from the beginning: the USA, the United Kingdom, Israel, Japan and most of the European Union were unwavering in their negative position.
However, in December 2018, and by a broad majority, the United Nations General Assembly approved and adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.
Brazil and Argentina had given their support throughout the process, but when Macri and Bolsonaro came to power, they moved to abstain; conversely, Mexico, which had expressed misgivings, voted in favour after Andres Manel López Obrador was elected President.
The adoption of the Declaration puts an end to the neoliberal idea of the “end of the peasantry” and strongly calls upon States not just to recognise peasants’ identity, but also their role, and to work to put an end to violations of their rights. This takes place in the context of serious global rural violence, with extreme situations such as that of Colombia, in which, in 2018, 105 peasant leaders and 44 indigenous leaders were killed, or that of Brazil, where in 2017, 71 peasants were killed as a result of land or environmental conflicts.
According to the ETC Group, peasant agriculture makes use of only a quarter of world’s farmland, but feeds more than 75% of the world population, while agroindustry, subservient to financial capital, feeds only 25% of the population with three quarters of the farmland.
Guaranteeing the survival of the peasant lifestyle and mode of production is strategic for the achievement of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), and the process coincides with the launch of the Decade for Family Farming, reaffirming the importance of the topic in this context.
Peasant rights and States’ obligations
In its Preamble and 28 articles, the Declaration establishes the rights of peasants and the obligations of States; the text is an essential overview for the planning and renewal of global agrarian policy at all levels.
Elements to be underlined:
Article 15 stresses that: “Peasants have the right to define their own food production systems, this being recognised by many States and regions as the right to food sovereignty”. Thus, the United Nations recognises and backs the policy proposal that La Via Campesina introduced in 1996 into the debates of the United Nations Food Security Council regarding how to tackle the food crisis, which affects more than a billion people all over the world.
Article 16 establishes that: “States will take appropriate measures to strengthen and support local, national and regional markets in ways that facilitate and guarantee that peasants and other people working in rural areas have access to these markets and participate fully in them under equal conditions in order to sell their products at prices that allow them and their families to reach a decent standard of living”. The importance of state intervention to guarantee fair prices and a decent income is underlined. In Argentina, the price difference between what the peasant receives and what the consumer pays is between 500 and 1600%, a situation that can only be resolved with public policies that intervene in defence of producers and consumers.
Article 17 states that: “Peasants and other people living in rural areas have rights to the land, either individually or collectively (…) and in particular, they have the right to access the land, bodies of water and forests, as well as to use them and manage them sustainably in order to reach decent living standards and to have a place in which they can live safely and securely, in peace and with dignity, and in which to develop their culture” and it recommends to States “Agrarian Reform, to facilitate fair access to the Land and its social function, avoiding the concentration of land”.
This article is vital in the current context of land concentration and land grabbing. In Latin America, half of all land is concentrated in the hands of 1% of landholders, and this region has the most unequal land distribution on the planet: the Gini coefficient – which measures inequality, with 0 for complete equality and 1 for extreme inequality – applied to the land distribution in the continent is 0.79, much higher than in Europe (0.57), Africa (0.56) or Asia (0.55).
According to OXFAM, in Argentina, 83% of Agricultural Productive Units possess only 13.3% of the productive land. According to another study, Family Farming represents two-thirds of producers, but these only have access to 13.5% of the farmland. In 2014, the Argentinian Government carried out a case study on peasant land conflict: as a result, 752 cases involving more than 9 million hectares in conflict were found.
Land concentration is a structural barrier to the development of a nation and peasants’ full enjoyment of their rights.
Article 19 states that: “Peasants have the right to seeds (…) The right to protect their traditional knowledge relating to phylogenetic resources for food and agriculture; (…) The right to participate in decision-making on issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of phylogenetic resources for food and agriculture”. Faced with the permanent advance of transnationals in the appropriation of genetic material and strong pressure for seed laws that support it among outrage, this article takes on a particular significance.
Another troubling recent piece of information concerns agrotoxics. The massive use of agrochemicals causes the death by poisoning of around 200,000 people a year all over the world according to a Report from the Special Rapporteur on the right to food. According to the Pan-American Health Organization, in 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, poisoning by agrochemical products causes 15% of recorded deaths.
In Argentina, reports from SENASA show that between 2011 and 2013, 63% of tests conducted on fruit and vegetables on the market detected the presence of chemical residue. This data highlights the limitations to the right to health and to a healthy environment and food set forth in the Declaration.
The adoption of the Declaration enriches the human rights system, managing to place the democratic debate between States before the lobby and interests of capital, updating the system from a pluricultural perspective and respecting the billions of people who consider collective rights essential for the enjoyment of individual rights.
We are now entering a stage of new challenges, in which we hope that the Declaration will be a tool for peasant struggles. For this reason, we must work to allow peasant organizations to make the Declaration their own, making their voice heard by academics, trade unions, lawmakers and officials so that the Declaration can be adopted at the local, provincial and national levels, as well as becoming an instrument for dialogue between organizations and States in order to move towards new legislation that translates States’ obligations into suitable agrarian policies. The Declaration will also be an important contribution to the legal aspect of agrarian conflicts.
By bringing the Declaration to all corners of the world, we will move forward in a process of greater global advocacy, as possibilities are emerging for new mechanisms for the promotion and monitoring of the Declaration within the United Nations, as well as the future prospect of building an International Convention on the Rights of Peasants.
In the current context of the global crisis of capitalism, in which American imperialism cannot resign itself to losing parts of the market and seeks to deepen its ties to Latin America, the respect of the rights of peasants will only be possible if we manage to express our extensive and continuous struggles. The Declaration that we achieved in the United Nations is also a tool for grassroots work, social unrest and the organization of peasants all over the world, as well as to allow us to express ourselves for the unity and political education of peasant leaders.
To be effective, peasant rights require Agrarian Reform throughout the world that guarantees Peasant Agriculture and Agroecology in order to reach Food Sovereignty, which is vital for justice and world peace; therefore, we reaffirm that this Declaration, with strong humanist contents, represents a great step forward for global governance and the peoples of the world. Far from being the “end of the peasantry”, we reaffirm that peasants are main actors in the struggles for social justice all over the world, and an undisputed part of the solution to the food crisis and migration, which are caused and worsened by financial capital and agribusiness.
– Diego Montón, International Peasants’ Rights Collective, La Via Campesina.