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OPINION: The promise and reality of the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants

by Shivani Chaudhry | Housing and Land Rights Network, India
Thursday, 17 December 2020 08:30 GMT

Farmers plant saplings in a rice field on the outskirts of Srinagar June 10, 2015. REUTERS/Danish Ismail

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

How can the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Peasants address the exclusion of – and discrimination against – rural communities worldwide?

Today marks the second anniversary of the historic U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP). As someone involved in its drafting process, I have celebrated its adoption. The result of a long struggle led by peasants’ movements, the Declaration is remarkable, at many levels.

The acute distress of rural communities around the world heightens the urgency of implementing this panoptic Declaration, which holds the promise of resolving various rural crises.

Almost half of humanity, close to 3.4 billion people, lives in rural areas. The flawed policy assumption that “urbanization is inevitable” has neglected rural populations while failing to address structural causes of urbanization and its ecological impacts.

This Declaration aims to rectify the global urbanism bias. For the first time, it recognizes marginalization of rural communities and their special relationship with land and other natural resources, while applauding their contributions—including of women—to food security and biodiversity conservation.

Strongly rooted in the international human rights framework, the Declaration’s implementation would protect rights of rural workers while promoting adherence to other global standards, including the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Voluntary Guidelines on Tenure, Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement, and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

Its recognition of principles of food sovereignty; social function of land; free, prior, and informed consent; and intergenerational equity, could help address historic injustices.

While contributing the least to climate change with their low ecological footprints, rural peoples bear the greatest brunt of its impacts. Recognizing their vulnerability and value of their traditional knowledge, the Declaration calls for their involvement in adaptation and mitigation efforts to ensure climate justice. Its implementation would also reinforce the Paris Agreement.

Rural communities, including indigenous peoples and historically-discriminated groups, suffer from extreme poverty and exclusion. The pandemic has further impeded their access to livelihoods, food, and social security.

It is a cruel irony that those who feed the world remain hungry. Attacks against human rights and environment defenders continue unabated. In 2019, 219 defenders were murdered, the majority in rural areas.

Land inequality in rural areas is high; millions are landless. Over 15 million people are displaced annually, for ostensible ‘development’ projects. Upholding the Declaration’s recognition of individual and collective rights to land and its safeguards against eviction, would guarantee tenure security.

States’ failures to redistribute land and address agricultural crises could be redressed by incorporating the Declaration’s call for agrarian reform. This could also reduce farm suicides in several countries.

Rural women suffer from the triple barriers of patriarchy, discrimination, and violence. In many states, despite their high participation in the agricultural workforce, they are not recognized as farmers.

Building on CEDAW General Recommendation 34, the Declaration’s significant gender equality provisions could help women realize their rights to land, housing, safety, seeds, information, fair wages, and access to finance and markets.

Adopting the Declaration at the national level could help check against developments like Ukraine’s Land Reform Bill that threatens peasants’ land rights, or India’s new farm laws that favour corporatization of agriculture, or Brazil’s endorsement of illegal logging in the Amazon.

How could the Declaration be implemented better? First, it needs to be translated and disseminated widely at regional, national, and local levels. States would benefit by incorporating its provisions in domestic laws and policies. Non-state actors, including international financial institutions, also need to uphold the Declaration.

Emerging international standards, such as the treaty on Business and Human Rights, should encourage compliance with the Declaration. National human rights institutions could develop frameworks to monitor and promote its realization. Countries should integrate its protections in their Nationally Determined Contributions and climate-related interventions.

The status of the Declaration’s implementation should be mentioned in state reports to UN mechanisms. Finally, establishing a new Special Procedure on the rights of peasants would be valuable.

To take the Declaration forward, states should conduct human rights impact assessments for rural projects; develop early warning systems, including for conflict and agrarian crises; regulate macro-economic policies and trade and investment agreements to prevent human rights abuses; address ‘biopiracy’; and, include internally displaced persons, refugees, people living under occupation and situations of armed conflict, and stateless persons living in rural areas under the Declaration.

While ensuring a human rights approach to COVID-19 recovery, governments should not discriminate against rural inhabitants, including in access to employment, healthcare, and vaccinations.

Every year, UN-Habitat dedicates October to discussing urban sustainability (‘Urban October’), with 31 October celebrated as World Cities Day. To overcome negligence of rural areas and promote the Declaration, it would be of great significance if the UN could dedicate a month to highlight rural issues (‘Rural April’) and declare a World Villages Day.

It is high time that rural peoples’ contributions are acknowledged and their human rights guaranteed. We have made that happen in policy; let’s make it happen in reality.


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