Ana María Suárez Franco and Andrea Nuila*
Versión en español aquí.
According to the FAO (2019), 90% of family farms produce more than 80% of the world’s food. Farming, fishing, pastoralist, landless, and indigenous communities all help to ensure that the world is properly fed, based on a balanced relationship with nature. Paradoxically, the same people who feed us are subjected to systematic violations of their rights every day (United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, 2012). These include water, land, and seeds grabbing; the destruction of their livelihoods by extractive activities, the pollution and destruction of ecosystems and their diversity, the spraying of pesticides harmful to their health, the loss of their food sovereignty, the insecure working conditions of agricultural workers, the extreme burden of care work and violence against women in rural areas, the criminalization of environmental and human rights defenders, and the fraying of the social fabric, among others. These and other violations tend to be intersectional in nature, affecting specific groups to varying degrees both because they are peasants and because of their ethnicity, religion, age, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, or other factors.
Rural movements and organizations have repeatedly complained of state neglect and the implementation of public policies that disproportionately favor an agro-industrial economic model. The prevailing authoritarian forces have aggravated a serious and protracted situation of discrimination.
According to the Fund for Agriculture and Development’s 2010-2011 Report on Rural Poverty, rural workers and peasant, landless, pastoralist, and fishing communities today represent 70% of all people living in extreme poverty and 80% of those experiencing hunger throughout the world.
The documentation that we have obtained concerning the impact of the pandemic on rural communities from various countries reflects several challenges. They include restrictions on movement and the closure of farmers’ markets, which has adversely affected these communities’ ability to sell their products, undermining their income and their right to an adequate standard of living. The prices paid by middlemen to farmers have been reduced, while supermarket prices in the cities are on the rise. Subsidies to offset the impacts of the crisis are being directed mostly to the agro-industrial sector, while small and medium sized cooperatives and peasant enterprises are receiving negligible amounts of support. Fishermen’s organizations are unable to go fishing due to mobility restrictions. In some countries, rural migrant workers have been kept from coming in to harvest crops, losing their livelihoods due to border closures. Meanwhile, those farm workers who have been able to continue working report worsening labor conditions, including extended hours, low wages, work pressure, layoffs, and lack of adequate hygiene, food, and housing. Banana workers have alerted us to the vulnerability of their immune systems, brought about by prolonged exposure to pesticides.
In some places, the affected organizations themselves are coming up with solutions to face state’s absence. For instance, through support networks, they have been exchanging food and delivering food to communities in need. Such initiatives highlight the need for states to take robust measures to support small-scale production. Only by taking into account the participation of rural communities will it be possible to effectively address the above-mentioned situations that the rural population is facing.
The refusal to act threatens to keep our societies from fully enjoying the right to food. It is therefore important to remember that all international and regional human rights instruments and constitutional norms apply to peasants and other rural communities as well. This current international legal framework protecting peasant communities has come to exist through the efforts of social movements, as La Via Campesina, in response to historical systematic violations, state inaction, and abuse by non-state actors, including the corporate sector.
In large part, the evolving interpretation of the rights of rural communities is embodied in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), adopted in December 2018. It not only details the previously recognized human rights of peasants, but makes explicit other rights that had been implicit, including the rights to land, seeds, water for agriculture, a healthy environment, and food sovereignty, as well as the recognition of collective rights.
States, in fulfilling their obligations under international law, should also implement the UNDROP in good faith. Unfortunately, despite the existence of a clear legal framework, the declarations and actions of states and regional and universal human rights organizations during the current crisis have made little reference thus far to the situation of peasants and other rural communities and have not provided guidelines for the implementation of their rights in this challenging environment.
Considering the relevance of the rural population in the Americas, the inter-American human rights system can be expected to pay greater attention to the rights of peasants and other rural communities, complementing what it has done for indigenous peoples, in order to provide effective comprehensive protection for rural society.
The crisis caused by COVID-19 and the associated containment measures have shown that structural problems leave our societies extremely vulnerable. Humanity is prepared neither for this pandemic nor for others that may be anticipated. The current reality shows that our societies are moving away from the direction prescribed in the founding instruments of the regional and global human rights systems. This situation brings us back to a message repeated in the virtual corridors: After COVID-19 we cannot go back to normal. Peasant and other rural communities and individuals must be at the heart of the structural changes needed to build a new normal consistent with the human rights obligations of states.