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News & Events We want peasants
We want peasants
We want peasants
Women working in a field  Women at work in Sri Lanka. Photo: Lakshman Nadaraja/World Bank
Women working in a field  Women at work in Sri Lanka. Photo: Lakshman Nadaraja/World Bank

This week in Geneva, the Human Rights Council is expected to take a position on the follow-up to a draft Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other Persons Working in Rural Areas. Five years after the start of the negotiations, we are at a turning point.

On 3 July, by a large majority of 534 votes to 71 (with 73 abstentions), the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on EU Member States to support the draft Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. We reiterate this call.

In all world regions, peasants are confronted with land speculation and land grabbing. Farmers in agro-food chains face increased concentration of input providers upstream, and downstream, they face abuse of buyer power. As for the peasants in direct producer-to-consumer schemes, they face regulations that are designed for industrial agriculture and are therefore ill-adapted to direct sales; they also face a system of subsidies that favours the largest farms. The message to these peasants is that they must expand or move out. In Europe, two thirds of farms have disappeared in the last thirty years, and the incomes of small farmers barely allow them to survive. Rural areas are being emptied.

This cannot be tolerated. Our call is not about defending the narrow interests of a particular professional group. It is about defending a certain agricultural model, whose planned disappearance we do not accept. Peasant agriculture contributes to agro-biodiversity in our fields and maintains soil health, through agroecological practices promoting diversity and allowing better carbon storage: we cannot claim to be fighting against the erosion of biodiversity and climate change, and at the same time allow industrial monocultures, which transform our countryside into deserts, to define the future of our territories. Peasant agriculture also supports the development of rural areas and is an untapped source of employement for the future. And while this is true of European countries, it is more relevant even to developing countries. Globally, the vast majority of the poor and hungry live in rural areas and depend directly or indirectly on "family farming" that decades of promotion of export-led agriculture have slowly decimated. It is the peasants forced into poverty that migrate to the cities, on the edge of which they will live in sub-standard conditions.

Most of what the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other Persons Working in Rural Areas contains is based on pledges already made elsewhere, whether in international human rights instruments or in intergovernmental fora. The Declaration shall contribute, in particular, to fulfilling target 2.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which commits States, by 2030, to "double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment".

Should we fear the reference the draft Declaration makes to land reform and the "right to land"? Adopted in November 2009 by the sixty Heads of State and Government and 192 ministers from 182 countries and the European Union, the Rome Declaration on Food Security already commits governments to "establish legal and other mechanisms,..., that advance land reform, recognize and protect property rights, access to water and use, [and] to improve access to resources for the poor and women" (Rome Declaration on Food Security (2009), objective 1.2).  And a binding international treaty, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, emphasizes agrarian reform as a means of guaranteeing "the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger", and to "ensure the best development and use of natural resources": it is small and medium-sized farms that are the most productive per hectare, and the best placed for rational resource management.

Or should we fear the reference to food sovereignty, this claim initially formulated more than twenty years ago by Via Campesina, the transnational peasant movement that now counts 200 million members, and which many social movements have since then supported? The Rome Declaration on Food Security itself recognizes the need to encourage "the production and use of culturally appropriate, traditional and underutilized food crops" (objective 2.3). And all the experts who have worked on the causes of hunger and malnutrition share the same conclusion: it is the almost exclusive priority given to cash crops in poor countries, in the quest of these countries for hard currency to repay their external debt, which is the main cause of rural poverty. Changing course is possible, but this requires relocalizing food systems, and allowing farmers to participate in the definition of policies that affect them: it is this shift of emphasis that food sovereignty implies.

By supporting the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Others Working in Rural Areas, the European Union would be meeting the expectations of a large part of public opinion. It would be acting in accordance with the values to which it has committed itself in the conduct of its external relations: "sustainable development of the planet", "eradication of poverty" and "protection of human rights". These are not just words: they require action. The time has come.

Olivier De Schutter is the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (2008-2014)