Working Group on Peasants' Rights Holds First Session

The article below was published in South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) #7626, 15 July 2013.  We thank SUNS for permission to re-distribute this article.

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Working group on peasants' rights holds first session

Geneva, 12 Jul (Kanaga Raja) -- An open-ended intergovernmental working group, which has been mandated to negotiate and finalise a draft United Nations declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, will be holding its first session here from 15-19 July.

The working group, which was established by the UN Human Rights Council last October, is also mandated to submit the finalised draft declaration on the rights of peasants to the Council.

The draft declaration before the working group is based on a draft prepared by the Advisory Committee, the Human Rights Council's think-tank comprising 18 experts.

According to a UN media advisory, a presentation of the draft declaration will be made at the working group session by the Advisory Committee's Rapporteur Mr Jose Bengoa.

The session is also expected to hold panel discussions on issues ranging from food security, biodiversity conservation, the fight against climate change to the human rights situation in rural areas, examining in particular discrimination, poverty and hunger in these areas, as well as the need for a declaration on the rights of peasants.

In its final study on the advancement of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas presented at the nineteenth session of the Human Rights Council in February-March 2012 (A/HRC/19/75), the Advisory Committee had noted that hunger, like poverty, is still predominantly a rural problem, and in the rural population it is those who produce food who suffer disproportionately.

"In a world in which more than enough is produced to feed the entire world population, more than 700 million people living in rural areas continue to suffer from hunger," it had said, pointing out that the UN Millennium Development Project Task Force on Hunger has shown that 80 per cent of the world's hungry live in rural areas, and that of the 1 billion people who suffer from extreme poverty in the world, 75 per cent live and work in rural areas.

The study had further said that approximately 20 per cent of the world's hungry are landless. Most work as tenant farmers or agricultural labourers. Tenant farmers usually have to pay high rents and have little security of possession from season to season. Agricultural labourers usually work for extremely low wages that are insufficient to feed their families, and often have to migrate from one insecure, informal job to another.

"Women play a crucial role in the food security of households, producing between 60 and 80 per cent of food crops in developing countries and earning incomes to feed their families," the Advisory Committee's final study had said, noting, however, that women account for 70 per cent of the world's hungry and are disproportionately affected by malnutrition, poverty and food insecurity.

According to the final study, the main causes of discrimination and vulnerability of peasants and other people working in rural areas are closely linked to human rights violations: (a) expropriation of land, forced evictions and displacement; (b) gender discrimination; (c) the absence of agrarian reform and rural development policies; (d) the lack of minimum wages and social protection; and (e) the criminalisation of movements defending the rights of people working in rural areas.

"To protect the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, more attention needs to be paid to agrarian reforms that benefit landless peasants and small-scale land holders and promote security of tenure and access to land. Agrarian reforms are successful when land reform radically reduces inequalities in land distribution and is accompanied by sufficient access to other inputs, including water, credit, transport, extension services and other infrastructure," the Advisory Committee had said.

It had further said that "well-formulated rural development policies" are also essential to fulfil the rights of people working in rural areas.

"In the past three decades, however, support for agriculture has dramatically decreased. Many indebted developing countries have been forced to reduce their support for small farmers and liberalise their agriculture, under strong pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank."

At the same time, it had observed, between 1980 and 2004, the percentage of official development aid directed to agriculture dropped from 13 per cent to 3.4 per cent, or from $2.63 billion to $1.9 billion.

"This situation resulted in the unprecedented neglect of State policies in favour of small-scale agriculture, with detrimental effects on peasants in almost all developing countries, and led to the world food crisis of 2008."

The final study had also stressed that together with land and water, peasants need seeds to secure their work and ensure food security.

According to the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, they are free to use their traditional seeds for replanting, selling or exchange, it had said, noting, however, that "this freedom is now threatened by a few transnational corporations that control the seed market and their patents on improved or genetically modified seeds."

"Every year, thousands of peasants commit suicide because they can no longer afford the seeds that they need to feed their families. In India alone, it is estimated that 200,000 peasants have committed suicide since 1997, largely because they had become dependant on seeds supplied by transnational corporations and had amassed debts that they could not repay."

Despite the existing human rights framework, peasants and other people working in rural areas are victims of multiple human rights violations that lead to their extreme vulnerability to hunger and poverty, the Advisory Committee had said.

To overcome this situation and further advance their rights, the final study had said that there is a need: (a) to better implement existing international norms, (b) to address the normative gaps under international human rights law, and (c) to elaborate a new legal instrument on the rights of people working in rural areas.

In its final study, the Advisory Committee was convinced that the best way to further advance the protection of the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas is to adopt a new instrument - initially, a declaration - to better promote and protect these rights.

It proposed a declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, which it said "could serve as a model for a new instrument to be developed by the Human Rights Council".

The draft declaration prepared by the Advisory Committee (A/HRC/WG. 15/1/2), now to be considered by the working group, contains 13 articles.

These are on: Definition of peasants (Art. 1); rights of peasants (Art. 2); right to life and to an adequate standard of living (Art. 3); right to land and territory (Art. 4); right to seeds and traditional agricultural knowledge and practice (Art. 5); right to means of agricultural production (Art. 6); right to information (Art. 7); freedom to determine price and market for agricultural production (Art. 8); right to the protection of agricultural values (Art. 9); right to biological diversity (Art. 10); right to preserve the environment (Art. 11); freedom of association, opinion and expression (Art. 12); and the right to have access to justice (Art. 13).