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A UN declaration to promote the rights of people working in rural areas

27 August 2013

The Human Rights Council, in deciding to establish an inter-governmental working group on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas, was influenced by the rural poor, who were demanding their voices be heard. These individuals are regarded globally as among the most marginalized of groups.

In her opening statement to the inaugural meeting of the working group, the Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Flavia Pansieri spoke of the ‘rapidly globalizing world” and the “fundamental challenges” faced by people working in rural areas.

“People working in rural areas, including small scale farmers, fishers and pastoralists face fundamental challenges to their way of life: volatile food markets, skewed trade practices, climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and the lack of rights to manage the land on which they live and work, and upon which they rely on for their livelihood, can all have negative effects on the human rights of these communities,” Pansieri said.

La Via Campesina, the international movement which was instrumental in drawing international attention to the plight of peasant communities during the world food crisis several years ago, has welcomed the establishment of the working group. Henry Saragih, La Via Campesina representative, spoke at the inaugural meeting and stressed that international cooperation was essential for the promotion and protection of the human rights of peasants and others working in rural areas.

A study by the Human Rights Council Advisory Committee found that 80 per cent of the world’s hungry live and work in rural areas: around half of those subsist on plots of land, in marginal farming areas, unable to achieve self-sufficiency because they are denied access to enough land, water and seeds.

The study describes a situation in which all of these groups find themselves buffeted by increasing competition for resources from much larger businesses and corporations. They are very often excluded from decision-making relevant to their lives through the denial of freedom of expression, assembly and association, and restricted access to information.

They also face exclusion from basic social services, including health, education, and social security.

In her presentation, Claire Quenum from The African Network on the Right to Food (ANoRF) said the overwhelming majority of people in Africa live in rural areas and make a living from agriculture but many suffer from hunger and malnutrition. Food security remains a problem, she said, because working tools and methods are still traditional, soils are getting poorer, legislation on land occupation and tenure is weak.  Land grabbing has forced more people into poverty as they have lost control of their land, Quenum said.

The International Foundation for Organic Agriculture believes peasants are a critical component of the solution to climate change. Eva Torremocha, from the Foundation said, “Peasants have the knowledge, the experience, the genetic resources, and the commitment to address greenhouse gas emissions.” The excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by the destruction of soils can be reversed, she said through agricultural practices common to peasant farming communities, including, diversified cropping systems; the integration of crops and animal production; a shift to local markets; and shorter circuits of food distribution.

The 13 articles in the draft Declaration prepared by the Advisory Committee includes a wide range of existing civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights, as well as recommendations for “new” rights such as the right to land, the freedom to determine price and markets for agricultural products, the right to protect agricultural values and the right to biological diversity.

“We look to this working group to reflect and guide the international community on these issues,” Pansieri said, “and to provide a comprehensive, human rights-centered development paradigm that examines the existing protection measures for people living and working in rural areas and identities any possible protection gaps.” 

27 August 2013