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La Via Campesina’s struggle for the rights of peasants

Almost half of the people in the world are peasants and small farmers and the food they produce is the backbone of people’s life. Agriculture is not just an economic activity, but it also means life, culture and dignity for all of us.

Nonetheless, peasants all over the world have to struggle to defend their right to feed themselves and their communities. Every year, thousands of peasant leaders are being arrested in their effort to maintain land, water and natural resources—the effort to preserve life. Incidents of massacres, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, and political persecution and harassment are common.  

Poor rural families, represent 75 % of the people suffering from structural hunger. Illiteracy rates increase in rural areas, health care and public services are vanishing and poverty is raging. Women and children are the most affected and discrimination towards women has put double burden on their shoulders.

The violations of the rights of peasants have risen dramatically with the liberalisation of agriculture  that forced farmers to produce for export and to engage in industrial modes of production. International institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) compel peasants and small farmers to follow that path. Over the past decades, peasants have disappeared massively all over the world, and a handful of large transnational corporations (TNCs) have taken control over food production and trade (from seeds producers to supermarket chains). Governments and international institutions have developed policies to support agribusiness and to dismantle peasant’s agriculture. Food has been left in the hands of speculators, leading to the current food crisis.

Towards a legal framework

There are already some mechanisms and laws intended to protect human rights, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). However, they have limitations especially to address the distinctive rights of peasants. Also, the Charter of the Peasant, produced by the UN in 1979, has not been able to protect the peasants from international liberalization policies. The other international conventions, which also deal with peasants’ rights, have not been sufficient either. These conventions include: International Labour Organization Convention 169, Clause 8-J Convention on Biodiversity, Point 14.60 Agenda 21, and Cartagena Protocol.

This is why La Via Campesina has been campaigning since 2000 to create an instrument to respect, protect, fulfill, and uphold the rights of peasants within the United Nations — the International Convention on the Rights of Peasants. We also promote the development of legally binding mechanisms at local, provincial, national and regional levels to guarantee the protection of the rights of peasants. The long struggle for the adoption of the International Convention goes hand in hand with the struggle on the land, in our fields, in the reality of our daily life.

As a first step towards the adoption of a Convention on the Right of Peasants by the Human Right Council, we demand the adoption of a Declaration by the Advisory Committee of the HR Council by the end of this year. This initiative is also supported by Jean Ziegler, member of the Advisory Committee.  

As described by Via Campesina in its own Declaration on the rights of Peasants, the rights of peasants mainly consists of (1) right to life and to an adequate standard of living; (2) right to land and territory; (3) right to seeds and traditional agricultural knowledge and practice; (4) right to means of agricultural production; (5) right to information and agriculture technology; (6) freedom to determine price and market for agricultural production; (7) right to the protection of agriculture values; (8) right to biological diversity; (9) right to preserve the environment; (10) freedoms  of association, opinion and expression; and (11) right to have access to justice.