A landmark declaration supporting the battles that matter most in food
The fight for peasant rights - from land rights and access to natural resources to seed saving and right to use traditional agricultural knowledge and practices - are one step closer to becoming international law.
Decades of political mobilisation, organising and persistence in championing the rights of peasants, spearheaded by La Via Campesina, culminated on September 28, 2018 with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.
The declaration, which will be up for vote and adoption by all United Nations Member States in New York in November, recognises a fundamental reality often ignored in food security debates:
peasants have and will continue to be central actors in the fight against hunger and malnutrition and the realisation of a regenerative, just and lasting food system.
But who are they?
The term "Peasant" in contemporary society is often used in a derogatory way. That is part of the problem. It negates the large role that peasants have historically played - and continue to play today - in feeding a growing world population.
La Via Campesina's definition in Article 1 of its 2009 Declaration of Rights of Peasants is useful:
A peasant is a man or woman of the land, who has a direct and special relationship with the land and nature through the production of food and/or other agricultural products. Peasants work the land themselves, rely above all on family labour and other small‐scale forms of organizing labour. Peasants are traditionally embedded in their local communities and they take care of local landscapes and of agro‐ecological systems.
The term peasant can apply to any person engaged in agriculture, cattle‐raising, pastoralism, handicrafts‐related to agriculture or a related occupation in a rural area. This includes Indigenous people working on the land.
A skewed view of peasants that needs challenging
Over the past decades, agricultural policy and international institutions have favoured the industrial model of agriculture over small-scale subsistence farming. This stems from a belief that only large economic units are capable of achieving significant productivity gains needed to feed a rapidly growing world population through the use of modern cultivation methods, chemical inputs and machinery. Small subsistence farming is understood as a ‘backward “phase-out” model of a pre-industrial form of production’ (Global Agriculture, 2017).
The view that industrial agriculture is always more efficient persists, despite evidence showing that small-scale farms are often more productive in terms of output per unit area (Sen, 1962; Cornia, 1985; Food First, 1999). It is also clearly insufficient to view efficiency only through the lens of productivity (output per unit area) whilst ignoring other crucial factors. Indeed, where the industrial model falls decisively short is in measuring and quantifying the cost of negative externalities, including nitrogen and pesticide run-off, soil degradation, mass deforestation, loss of biodiversity, poor water quality, farmworker living wages, animal welfare, human public health, antibiotic resistance, and the spread of pathogens. When we internalise such externalities, small-scale farming looks a lot more attractive, offering a wide array of ecological, social and political benefits over industrial farming.
Neoliberal policies have devastated peasant livelihoods
International Free Trade Agreements, accompanied by Structural Adjustment Programs for the global South, as well as the World Trade Organisation’s Agreement on Agriculture have heavily deregulated national food and agriculture policies around the world. The result: an elimination of price guarantees for peasant farmers, and a gradual loss of access to seeds, markets and land.
Let's just take one example: Land Grabs
Deregulation since the 1980s has heavily encouraged the financialisation of soft-commodity markets (i.e. markets for cereal crops such as wheat and corn, as well as markets for protein crops). New actors such as pension funds, mutual funds and other institutional investors have entered the field (though never literally) of agriculture to seek lucrative speculative opportunities.
The latest frontier in agricultural commodity investment is farmland itself. Direct land acquisitions by foreign investors, also known as ‘land grabs’, have captured the attention of financial investors.
Since 2000, ‘an area over eight times the size of the UK has been sold or leased to states, commercial farmers and private investors’; a land area of 203 million hectares Nally, 2015: p. 342.
Whilst states play a major role in this explosive growth, with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea, India and China considered key investors, it is private capital in the form of pension funds, hedge funds and speculators that is spearheading growth. Record levels of Foreign Direct Investment in agriculture, buoyed by the ‘low cost of land, soaring food prices and massive speculation in biofuels’ peaked at $35 billion in 2009 (Nally, 2005:343; Murphy, Burch, and Clapp, 2012).
The 2008 global food crisis, which saw average world prices for rice, wheat, maize, and soybeans skyrocket by 217, 136, 125 and 107 percent respectively, spurred heavy investment in foreign farmland as it was seen as a viable and secure alternative to buying food on a volatile international food market (Murphy, Burch, and Clapp, 2012).
‘It is about safety. Farmland is a great place to store our wealth’, states the managing director of Prudential Agricultural Investments – an investment fund with $3.2 billion in assets under management (Clapp, 2012b).
In some cases, land acquisition is pursued for purely speculative purposes rather than for productive use; financial investors ‘reap profits on land speculation while poor farmers who used to work that land watch it sit idle’ (Clapp, 2012a). The dire consequences for production, the livelihoods of farmers, and developing nations fighting poverty and hunger, are clear to see.
The UN declaration: an important step in the right direction
The declaration offers more visibility and recognition to a global movement of peasant rights. It challenges deeply-held prejudices against rural people and questions a set of problematic beliefs surrounding the utility of small-scale subsistence farming.
These beliefs are not benign. They directly threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of men and women who, in the name of progress and development, are rendered irrelevant, sidelined and displaced.
We strongly welcome and encourage international laws that protect the rights and dignities of peasants and rural communities and recognise the vital role they play in supporting a lasting and just food system.
Clapp, J (2012a) ‘The Financialisation of Food: Who is being fed?’ Paper prepared for presentation at the International Society for Ecological Economics Conference, June 16-19, 2012. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Clapp, J (2012b) Food. Polity Press. Cambridge.
Cornia, Giovanni (1985) ‘Farm Size, Land Yields and the Agricultural Production function: an analysis for fifteen Developing Countries’ World Development 13: 513-34.
Food First (1999) ‘The Multiple Functions and Benefits of Small Farm Agriculture In the Context of Global Trade Negotiations’ Report by The Institute for Food and Development Policy/Food First and the Transnational Institute Release.
Global Agriculture (2017) ‘Industrial Agriculture and Small-scale farming’
Murphy, S., Burch, D., & Clapp, J. (2012) Cereal secrets: The world’s largest grain traders and global agriculture. Oxfam International.
Nally, D. (2015) ‘Governing precarious lives: land grabs, geopolitics, and ‘food security’.The Geographical Journal 181(4): 340-349.
Sen, Amartya (1962) ‘An Aspect of Indian Agriculture’. Economic Weekly 14.