Zambia: 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 natural disasters.

Like many other southern African countries, it suffers from increasingly unpredictable weather patterns affecting communities and their food security.

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 production.

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 land.

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 land users.

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 Rapporteur.

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 poverty.

"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.


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 expert.

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 violations.

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.