Export-oriented agriculture can impact on right to food
Published in SUNS #8624 dated 19 February 2018
Geneva, 16 Feb (Kanaga Raja) - The Government of Zambia's policy of
turning export-oriented large-scale commercial agriculture into the
driving engine of the national economy, in a situation where land
protection is weak, runs the risk of pushing peasants off their land,
which in turn could push them out of production, with a severe impact
on their right to food.
This is one of the main conclusions of the Special Rapporteur on the
right to food, Ms Hilal Elver, in her report to the upcoming thirty-seventh
session of the UN Human Rights Council meeting from 26 February to
23 March 2018.
Her report is based on an official mission to the country from 3 to
12 May 2017, aimed at assessing the progress made and the challenges
faced by the country in realizing the human right to adequate food.
In her report, the Special Rapporteur noted that Zambia has adopted
a wide range of policies and programmes to strengthen the agricultural
sector, in turn helping to ensure the effective enjoyment of the right
to food as part of the right to an adequate standard of living.
Although the implementation of a free-market economic policy has contributed
to impressive growth, that growth has not been inclusive and has not
benefited everyone, she said.
Access to adequate and nutritious food is a challenge throughout most
of the country, with women and children in rural areas faring worst.
An alarming 40 per cent of children under 5 years of age in Zambia
are stunted, said the rights expert.
According to the report by the Special Rapporteur, Zambia is a landlocked
country with fertile soil and water- rich farmlands.
Over the past decades, the country has enjoyed political stability
and consistent economic growth. It nonetheless faces numerous challenges
in the form of food insecurity, under-nutrition, chronic poverty and
Like many other southern African countries, it suffers from increasingly
unpredictable weather patterns affecting communities and their food
According to the World Bank, since 2005, Zambia has experienced impressive
economic growth at a yearly average of 6 to 7 per cent.
Growth has dropped to around 3 per cent in the past three years. This
decline has been driven by drought and a fall in the price of copper,
one of the State's most important exports.
Unfortunately, more than a decade of strong economic growth has not
translated into significant poverty reduction.
In 2015, around 55 per cent of the population lived below the poverty
line, while 40 per cent lived in a situation of extreme poverty.
Moreover, according to the World Bank, in absolute numbers, the people
living in poverty increased from about 6 million people in 1991 to
almost 8 million in 2010, due mainly to population growth.
According to the Special Rapporteur, economic growth in Zambia has
been largely unequal and non-inclusive.
The Gini Coefficient, a measure of income inequality, increased from
0.60 in 2006 to 0.69 in 2015. The recent figure represents one of
the 10 highest income inequalities in the world.
The increase is attributed to a widening divide between urban and
rural areas. In 2015, the rural poverty rate was 76.6 per cent, more
than triple the urban poverty rate of 23.4 per cent.
Virtually no decrease in the poverty rate was observed in rural areas
between 2010 and 2015.
The rights expert said gaining access to adequate and nutritious food
is a challenge across most of the country, with women and children
in rural areas faring worst.
According to a demographic and health survey conducted in 2013-14,
wasting was identified in approximately 6 per cent of children under
five, a manifestation of extreme food insecurity.
An important part of the Zambian population is unable to afford a
"minimum food basket" or a diversified diet.
According to the 2016 Global Nutrition Report, Zambia is the country
with the seventeenth largest burden of under-nutrition of 132 countries.
An alarming 40 per cent of children under 5 years of age in Zambia
are stunted. The absolute number of stunted children increased between
1992 and 2013, from 685,000 children to 1.14 million children.
"This is a matter of grave concern, since the effects of under-nutrition
are irreversible. Lack of access to adequate and nutritious food will
have a detrimental effect on future generations and must be addressed
as a matter of urgency," said Ms Elver.
The Special Rapporteur observed that the current dual land tenure
system in Zambia lacks certain protection mechanisms to secure access
to land for smallholder farmers, for various reasons.
"The Government's policy to turn export-oriented large-scale
commercial agriculture into a driving engine of the economy, in a
situation where land protection is weak, risks pushing peasants off
their land. This in turn will force them out of production, with a
severe impact on the people's right to food," she cautioned.
In a country like Zambia that highly values its peace and social cohesion,
the impact of increasing land tensions could have detrimental effects.
The rights expert said the impact of such polices is particularly
worrying considering that smallholder farmers account for almost 60
per cent of the population and are dependent on land for their livelihoods;
at the same time, they feed around 90 per cent of the Zambian population.
"Effective protection of smallholder farmers would guarantee
national self-sufficiency, extremely important given the unpredictable
weather patterns in the region and volatile global food prices."
The rights expert said that as a State party to the International
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ratified in 1984),
Zambia has a duty to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food,
and has committed to take the appropriate steps, to the maximum of
its available resources, to ensure the realization of the right to
an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, as articulated
in articles 2 (1) and 11 of the Covenant.
Zambia is party to other core international human rights treaties,
including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention
on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, all of which contain provisions
explicitly linked to the right to adequate food.
The Constitution of Zambia is the supreme law of the land; any law
in contravention of its provisions is void.
The State adopted the Constitution in 1991, which has since been amended
on several occasions (in 1996, 2009 and 2016).
The Special Rapporteur said she is concerned that the proposed revision
of the Bill of Rights, which would have led to the inclusion of economic,
social and cultural rights in the Constitution, was voted down in
a referendum held in August 2016.
"This was a missed opportunity for the broadened protection of
human rights in Zambia."
The rights expert is also concerned that the Constitution exempts
certain customary discriminatory practices from its non-discrimination
provisions through a customary law "carve-out".
Article 23 (4) (c) and (d) prohibit discrimination, but do not apply
it to laws on the devolution of property or other personal law matters,
or to customary laws (with certain restrictions).
The right to food (among other rights) is hence not properly enshrined
in the Constitution of Zambia. Without its explicit inclusion in the
Constitution, the right to food cannot be adjudicated by the courts.
The Special Rapporteur emphasized the importance of an explicit recognition
in law of the right to adequate food.
The justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights, including
the right to adequate food, allows persons who claim that they have
been victims of violations of rights to which they are entitled to
submit a complaint before an independent and impartial body, to seek
adequate redress and to enforce an appropriate remedy, she said.
Zambia also lacks a framework law on food and nutrition. A general
legal framework on the right to adequate food could help to ensure
the consolidation of a whole range of policies, strategies and programmes.
It should emphasize both the economic and physical accessibility,
and the availability and adequacy, of food.
According to the report by the Special Rapporteur, the Ministry of
Agriculture recently launched the second national agricultural policy
(2016-2025) with the aim to ensure the country's food and nutritional
goals. It contains the right to adequate and nutritious food as one
of its guiding principles.
The Government of Zambia has identified the agricultural sector as
a key driver and means to diversify the economy. It has in fact allocated
9.4 per cent of the total national budget to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Of the total land area of Zambia, about 43 million hectares (58 per
cent) is arable land, classified as medium to high potential for agriculture
Despite this, only 14 per cent of agricultural land is currently utilized.
Of all southern African countries, Zambia is the richest in water
resources, with surface and underground water supplies, accounting
for some 45 per cent of the total water supply.
Information received from the Ministry of Agriculture explained that
farmers in Zambia are split up into three major categories, on the
basis of the size of the area cultivated: small-scale farmers (1-5
hectares); medium-scale farmers (between 5 to 20 hectares); and large-scale
commercial farmers (above 20 hectares).
While large-scale farmers account for only 4 per cent of farm households,
they cultivate 22 per cent of all cropped land.
The agriculture sector recorded an average growth of 7 per cent in
the period from 2008 to 2012, a clear indicator of its potential.
During the 2015/16 season, Zambia recorded an increase in its maize
production from 2.6 million tons to more than 2.8 million.
Zambia was in fact the only country in southern Africa to produce
a surplus crop of maize. Other crops also recorded an increase, including
sorghum, rice, sunflower, groundnuts and soya crops.
The productivity of most crops remains however very low (maize included):
according to information received from the Ministry of Agriculture
during the mission, one hectare currently yields only 2.1 tons, against
a potential yield of 4-8 tons.
Ms Elver noted that the Government is currently taking measures to
transform its agriculture sector as part of a strategy of economic
diversification, with the aim of boosting agricultural exports and
incentivizing foreign investment.
Agricultural investment in Zambia is rising; the Government is marketing
and planning the development of at least 1.5 million hectares of its
Abundant supplies of land and water, a "positive" investment
climate and political stability are all incentives for investment.
The Special Rapporteur noted that Zambia has a legislative framework
for agricultural investment that outlines procedures for consultation,
including environmental impact assessment, and protection for traditional
However, Ms Elver said that in reality, there seems to be a lack of
consultation and of participation in decision- making. Furthermore,
protection of small-scale farmers and traditional and customary land
users is weak.
According to information received during the visit, and as suggested
by relevant research, various legislative and institutional reforms
have been made since the 1990s that erode the traditional land rights
enjoyed by traditional chiefs in Zambia, which has, is turn, increased
the amount of land that can be transferred to private investors.
Men and women who have traditionally farmed the land within chiefdoms
are losing their access to land.
The Special Rapporteur was informed by the Government that, owing
to large-scale agricultural investments, communities are being resettled.
Unfortunately, there is currently no official registry of the number
of people who have been or will be displaced or resettled.
According to statistics for 2015 on the national resettlement policy
provided by the Office of the Vice President, more than 70,000 households
were likely to be displaced in the near future, while more than 1,000
had already been displaced and resettled in various places in the
previous five years.
The causes of displacement were various, such as lack of land rights,
natural disasters, encroachment, development projects and differences
in religious or social affiliations.
"It would seem that the resettlement policy makes no clear distinction
between those to be resettled as a result of a disaster and those
to be resettled because of land-based investment, which would however
be important from the perspective of human rights, particularly with
regard to the Government's responsibility," said the Special
The Government spends around 53 per cent of the budget allocated to
the Ministry of Agriculture on input support to farmers.
The Farmer Input Support Programme provides subsidized inputs to at
least 1.6 million smallholder farmers either through the conventional
approach or a new E-voucher system.
Under the new system, which was to replace the conventional approach
completely by the end of 2017, farmers are issued a pre-charged card
with which they can purchase inputs from identified and authorized
agro-dealers. The new system has however encountered challenges in
its implementation related to the lack of technological infrastructure.
The Special Rapporteur said she received information according to
which the programme was not well targeted and still overly focused
on maize production.
Yields of maize remain persistently small, graduation of farmers is
low and, despite the increases witnessed in maize production, there
has been no significant impact on malnutrition or on reducing rural
"The programme, if properly utilized, could be a real opportunity
for the development of smallholder farmers and the overall reduction
of rural poverty rates."
Ms Elver said the livestock sub-sector, currently under-exploited,
has great potential for growth; for example, figures provided by the
Ministry of Agriculture showed that the cattle population rose from
2.4 million head in 2004 to 4.3 million in 2014.
Given the large growth in per capita income and increasing urbanization,
projections show a large future imbalance between supply and demand,
characterized by significant deficits in both meat (434,000 tons)
and milk (940 million litres) in 2027.
Poultry production has increased by an average of 20 per cent per
year, while the pig industry has also witnessed significant growth
in the past five years.
The Special Rapporteur recommended that the sector be further strengthened,
given its importance to the livelihood of smallholder farmers.
Special programmes for small livestock should also be strengthened,
to increase the income of rural families and thereby help to address
the issue of malnutrition, in particular of children.
RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH COMMERCIAL AGRICULTURE
According to the Special Rapporteur, the development model that Zambia
has chosen, with its focus on export- based, large-scale agriculture,
has led to deforestation, competing demands on water resources and
an increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, all consequences
with a direct impact not only on human health but also on the quality
of the soil and water resources.
Zambia is one of the most forested countries in Africa, with more
than 60 per cent covered by woodland.
The high rate of deforestation - estimated at between 250,000 and
300,000 hectares per year - makes Zambia one of the top 20 greenhouse
gas-emitting countries in the world.
Deforestation is in part due to the clearing of new land for industrial
agriculture, after the fertility of old land has been depleted, and
also to the expansion of large-scale industrial agriculture.
"In the context of large-scale industrial agriculture, it is
vital that development plans and policies take into account the real
cost of protection measures for land and water resources and the impact
of environmental degradation on future generations, instead of concentrating
solely on short-term gain and economic growth," said the rights
The Special Rapporteur was disturbed to learn that farmers use glyphosate,
a highly toxic pesticide that has been banned in many developed countries
owing to its harmful effects on human health, and urged the Government
of Zambia to follow suit.
She furthermore expressed her concern that Zambia lacks effective
monitoring systems to regulate the pesticide industry and control
pesticide use by the agribusiness, which can lead to human rights
Ms Elver said agroecological practices have proved to be successful
in many parts of the world, not only in the production of impressive
yields but also the promotion of environmentally friendly practices,
providing livelihoods and reducing rural poverty.
"Agroecology as such represents an important alternative to industrial,
monoculture agriculture that should be seriously considered by the
Government in order to achieve diversification, sustainability, the
protection of natural resources, management of climate change and
the protection of small-scale farmers," she added.