Recognizing Those Who Feed Us: A global victory for small-scale farmers and agricultural workers

Around the globe, the people who grow, catch and harvest what we eat struggle to live off their land, pass down knowledge to future generations or even provide themselves healthy, sustainably produced food. But after a long struggle, peasants have scored a major victory to protect their rights.

On December 17th, 2018, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas thanks to AJWS partner La Via Campesina — the world’s largest peasant movement — which has been fighting for this global recognition for 17 years. The UN Declaration aims to better protect the rights of all rural populations, including peasants, fisherfolks, nomads, agricultural workers and indigenous people, with the goal of improving their working and living conditions, strengthening food sovereignty, fighting against climate change and conserving biodiversity.

Photo courtesy of Via Campesina

The passing of this Declaration is the result of a broad-based alliance of global peasant movements, UN-level organizations, international think tanks and academics working together to address the needs and human rights issues faced by so many small-holder farmers. These issues are vast, including the outsized impacts of climate change on rural people, maintenance of seed diversity, expansion of rural employment and so much more. The need for action by the global community has risen concurrently with the diminishing standard of living and commercial challenges faced by these small-holder farmers.

La Via Campesina spearheaded the creation of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants to bring the contributions of peasant agriculture front and center, as well as draw attention to the challenges faced by millions of people around the world every day. Peasant agriculture takes place in one-fourth of the world’s agricultural land, and it feeds over 70% of the world’s population. The notion that large-scale, high-intensity commercial agriculture is more efficient and productive is simply a myth — one that is hurting local farmers, their families and their communities.

Many of the traditional crops grown by indigenous peoples and farmers are more resilient to extreme weather and to pests or diseases. But these crops — proven sustainable over years and years — challenge companies and governments who push for monocrops and industrially-manipulated seeds. The heirloom varieties of crops conserved and managed by generations of farmers will likely play a major role in adapting to climate change, but to these industries and governments, this sadly seems to be a moot point.

The root of these issues can be traced back decades. Family agriculture has been severely impacted and, in many cases, eliminated due to policies that emerged in the 1960s promoting the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ as a way to increase productivity and address hunger. These agricultural policies were implemented by subsidizing companies who had developed pest resistant seeds. As a result, many regions, including the vast U.S. Midwest and parts of the Brazilian Amazon, turned to monoculture fields of soy, corn and wheat, used for cattle feed and biofuels.  Today, three-quarters of the world’s poor and hungry live in rural areas — in other words, small-scale farmers who once grew an abundance of crops to both sell and feed their families are now going hungry.

Photo courtesy of Via Campesina

The social and economic obstacles faced by so many farmers in Guatemala is a prime example. Large tropical areas in northern Guatemala where families used to grow food for self-consumption have been purchased by corporations and transformed into palm oil plantations. This has been the result of agricultural policies that have prioritized exporting crops at the expense of thriving rural communities, who were once able to nourish and sustain themselves with local materials and production. Some of the families who sold their land or were outright evicted have become day laborers at the palm oil plantations, with informal contracts, harsh working conditions and poor pay, while others have migrated to urban areas without the resources and skills necessary for the urban world.

The fight that lays ahead for rural, agricultural populations will undoubtedly be a difficult one — but this UN Declaration is a pivotal first step. The endorsement of the UN Declaration also constitutes an important contribution to the international community’s effort to promote family farming and peasant agriculture.

Zainal Arifin Fuat, an Indonesian farmer and International Coordination Committee member of La Via Campesina, laid out the importance of the Declaration following its adoption last week: “After December’s UNGA approval, we will start a new chapter of the Rights of Peasants and we are demanding that all UN countries commit themselves to implementing the Declaration. We are determined to contribute to a better society, to fight climate change, to end hunger and to provide diverse and nutritious food for everyone.”

This movement is built by more than 180 small-farmer organizations in 81 countries — and we believe it deserves not only recognition and support, but true implementation by governments worldwide. Following this victory for global human rights, we congratulate La Via Campesina, the UN bodies and NGOs who have been pushing for this Declaration, and we recognize the farmers and farmworkers who tirelessly work the land to feed us. AJWS is honored to support this critical movement and stand by the rural communities fighting to globalize their struggle and globalize their hope. This Declaration is an important step in building a better world for millions of people around the world.