A new UN declaration could finally protect rural and landless peoples

Despite their significant contributions to food security,
sustainable development, and biodiversity conservation, peasants and other
rural peoples around the world suffer from extreme poverty, hunger, and
discrimination—and the situation is getting worse. Even since discussions
began, in 2012, on a potential 
Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in
Rural Areas
rural communities have witnessed growing violations of their human rights and
fundamental freedoms, while suffering from increased marginalization, neglect,
exclusion, impoverishment, and violence. Those working to defend their rights
and persecution
including arbitrary arrests, detention, criminalization, and death. Among the
rural population, indigenous peoples, historically discriminated communities,
women, and the landless face even greater challenges. This global reality makes
the need for this UN declaration all the more exigent.

Despite widespread infringements of the human rights
of peasants and other rural communities, awareness and concern about these
violations is limited. The absence of human rights-based agrarian reform and a
failure to adequately invest in agriculture and rural livelihoods, combined
with the impacts of climate change, have contributed to an acute agrarian
crisis. This has also resulted in high levels of indebtedness and deprivation
of farmers, leading to 
suicides in several countries
. It is a cruel irony that those who feed the world
suffer from hunger and malnutrition. There is thus a paramount need to address
the macroeconomic roots of this inequality and the unquestioned perpetuation of
a global economic order that promotes social injustice.

Flickr/Prabhu B Doss(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0– Some Rights Reserved)

With the feminization of agriculture, women’s participation in the agricultural workforce has risen, but in many countries, women are not legally
recognized as peasants/farmers; neither are their significant contributions to
food security, the rural economy, and environmental sustainability adequately
acknowledged. Furthermore, women are denied their equal rights to land,
housing, property, inheritance, participation, information, and access to
financial services and credit.

Irrefutably, people in rural areas face severe
challenges related to accessing, asserting, and maintaining their rights to
land. It is estimated that at least 15 million people are forcibly displaced
from their homes and lands every year, in the guise of ‘development.’ Many
states acquire land for the ostensible reason of ‘public purpose’—a concept
often ill-defined, even in law, and thus widely misused. Projects such as dams,
mining, and ports are cited as ‘public purpose.’ However, they generally
benefit populations different from those that have to pay the price with the
loss of their lands, livelihoods, food, health, security, and homes. Land
alienation is also the root cause of social conflict in many parts of the world
but is not addressed, neither is the right to land of individuals and
communities recognized by states.

Another major problem is inadequate investment in
rural development, leading to escalating unemployment, insecurity, and forced
migration. Furthermore, the global policy assumption that “
is inevitable”
led to a policy denial in tackling the structural causes of rampant
urbanization and its ecological impacts. This has also led to an urban policy
bias, with budgetary implications, which fails to focus on rural people, who
constitute half of humanity. Expanding urban sprawl and the forced takeover of
agricultural lands further exacerbate the crisis of food security and

In an attempt to respond to many of these concerns,
the UN draft Declaration on peasants recognizes, for the first time, the
specific needs and persistent marginalization of peasants and other rural
communities, as a special constituency requiring urgent attention. It develops
a human rights framework to protect them within a sustainable development and
environmental paradigm.

A very important contribution of this Declaration is
its recognition of the individual and collective right to land of rural
communities. This provision would help expand the scope of the 
Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
and the FAO Voluntary Guidelines on Tenure. Also, the explicit recognition of ‘food sovereignty’
and ‘free and prior informed consent’ as human rights principles, is a
noteworthy achievement.

The Declaration could also help meet implementation
gaps in 
the Paris
and the 2030
Sustainable Development Agenda
. Rural peoples, while contributing the least to
climate change with their low ecological footprints, unfortunately, bear the
greatest brunt of its impacts. A human rights declaration focusing on rural
communities would help protect their rights, including to disaster risk reduction
and preparedness, adequate housing, and rehabilitation. While several
Sustainable Development Goals relate to land, food, water, social inequality,
and poverty reduction, this declaration could help to contextualize them for
rural people within a human rights-based framework for implementation and

There are, however, a few issues in the draft
Declaration that require greater focus. First, it would be useful if the
Declaration could strengthen the framework for prevention of violations. For instance,
by mandating human rights-based impact assessments before projects are
sanctioned in rural areas, and by developing early warning systems, including
for conflict and agrarian crises. The Declaration should also call for the
regulation of macro-economic policies as well as trade and investment
agreements to prevent human rights abuses.

Second, the Declaration should address issues of
non-recognition of rights and incorporate a stronger framework for restitution
and reparation. This would involve dealing with issues of ‘biopiracy’and
appropriation of traditional knowledge, and including omitted groups such as
internally displaced persons, refugees, people living under occupation and
situations of armed conflict, and stateless persons.

Third, the Declaration should incorporate (or request
states to adopt) a human rights-based definition of ‘public purpose’ that is
compliant with the international human rights framework and aims to prevent
human rights violations of one group for the benefit of another.

Fourth, a stronger human rights approach to addressing
climate change and its impacts on peasants and other rural people would be
beneficial, along with a greater focus on women’s rights and children’s rights
throughout the text. In particular, the Declaration needs stronger wording on
child labour, early/forced marriage, and the rights of widows, single women,
and other marginalized women.

Finally, all states must take this issue seriously and
work collaboratively towards finalizing the text and adopting the Declaration
soon. This is not the time for members of the Human Rights Council to question
human rights, but for them to demonstrate leadership and commitment to their
international human rights obligations by passing this historic declaration.
Rural peoples around the world cannot afford to wait any more for their human
rights to be respected, protected, and fulfilled.

Shivani Chaudhry is the executive director of Housing and Land
Rights Network (
www.hlrn.org.in)in India.

* Original source.