One-third of humanity: peasant rights in the United Nations

The United Nations are moving towards a finalization of a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. In 2007 the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples boosted these rights in many national constitutions. Will western governments put their objections aside?

The United Nations— which approved a momentous Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in 2007— is now moving to strengthen human rights protections for the upwards of one-third of the global population that consists of peasants, small farmers, and landless laborers. On September 27 the UN Human Rights Council approved a resolution to establish a working group to finalize a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. Agrarian activists who have lobbied in Geneva like to remind developed-country delegates that while urbanization has reduced peasants’ proportion in the world population, in absolute terms there are more of them today than ever before in history.1

Transnational peasant and farmer movements have been advocating for a new UN rights declaration since 2001, much as native peoples’ organizations did in the lead-up to the 2007 Indigenous Rights Declaration. They emphasize that peasants—like indigenous people, women, children, and the disabled—are a vulnerable group, discriminated against, persecuted and endangered by economic policies that favour landed elites and corporate agribusiness. Vía Campesina, a coalition of some 150 agriculturalists’ organizations in 70 countries, is spearheading the peasants’ rights drive, along with the right-to-food organization FIAN International and the Swiss NGO CETIM.

The Vía Campesina activists leading the UN campaign are from Indonesia, where nearly 500,000 peasants were slaughtered in the violence that brought the Suharto dictatorship to power in the mid-1960s.2 Today political violence continues to claim peasant victims in Honduras, the Philippines, Ethiopia and many other countries. Existing international agreements, the activists argue, have not been sufficient to guarantee basic political rights for peasants and rural people.

In addition to political rights, however, peasants are demanding protections for humanity’s common environment and for a threatened way of life. Beginning in the 1980s, deregulation of agricultural trade led many developing countries to rely on imports of cheap subsidized grain from the US and EU, glutting markets and undermining livelihoods for the nearly two billion people who still live on small farms. The free-market juggernaut also dismantled or downsized institutions key to rural people’s survival: state development banks that made loans, agriculture ministries that provided technical assistance and purchasing agencies that paid farmers adequate prices for crops. Peasants and small farmers are losing control of their seeds to a handful of biotech giants.3 In the face of these onslaughts, rural people worldwide abandoned the countryside and flooded into urban slums or migrated abroad.

As peasant farms collapsed, highly capitalized plantations sprang up, specializing in chemical-intensive production of winter vegetables and biofuels, thus worsening many countries’ basic foods deficits, forcing peasants and small farmers off the land, and exacerbating environmental degradation. Hedge funds and “shadow” investors fueled a commodities and futures boom that expanded after the housing bubble burst and that intensified landgrabbing and the depletion of the natural capital in the soil.

To make matters worse, climate change is devastating key agricultural regions. Extreme droughts in the Americas, Russia, India and Africa, and torrential floods in Europe, Southeast Asia and elsewhere, have dramatically reduced supplies of corn, wheat and rice, intensifying global food insecurity. Reserves are at all-time lows, making it difficult to respond to food emergencies or new price spikes. The links between climate, land, hunger and social turmoil have never been clearer.

In the context of these interlinked crises, support for a UN Peasants’ Rights Declaration has gained considerable traction in the past two years. Last February, the Human Rights Council’s Advisory Committee voted unanimously to send its draft declaration to the full Council for approval. This text, modelled on the 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and on a related Vía Campesina document, reinforces peasants’ political rights, and also recognizes new rights, including rights to seeds, to environmental preservation and to prior informed consent about outside projects—such as mines, dams and plantations—that affect rural communities.

Would a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants actually help victims of human rights violations? UN declarations are, after all, non-binding, though they often become templates for national laws and international treaties. If the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is any example, the answer would have to be “yes.” Many national legal codes and several Latin American constitutions now include language that echoes the Indigenous Rights Declaration.4 Of course legal protections are only a first step in securing rights on the ground, but they do put rights violators on notice and also signal that a process of norms evolution is under way.

This September’s UNHRC resolution on finalizing a Peasants’ Rights Declaration was sponsored by Bolivia and co-sponsored by ten additional countries. The United States and most EU countries voted “no”, while China, India, Indonesia, Russia and almost all developing country UNHRC member states voted in favour. Even Chile and Guatemala, governed by conservative administrations, backed the resolution. The challenge now is to negotiate a final text by the September 2014 deadline and to send it on to the UN General Assembly in New York for approval.

In 2007, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—voicing concerns about their own sovereignty—were the only countries that voted in the General Assembly against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. All four countries subsequently reversed their votes, the last—the United States—in late 2010. The prospect of a UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants provides these and other governments an opportunity to affirm before the world community their commitment to protecting a vulnerable group that constitutes more than one-third of humanity. The next two years will reveal if the international community is willing to extend the rights previously guaranteed to native peoples to a vast and similarly threatened sector of the world population.


1 Jan Douwe Van der Ploeg, The New Peasantries: Struggles for Autonomy and Sustainability in an Era of Empire and Globalization (London: Earthscan, 2008), xiv.

2 Bradley Simpson, Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

3 Philip H. Howard, “Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996–2008,” Sustainability 1, no. 4 (December 2009): 1266–1287.

4 Rachel Sieder, “Introduction,” in Multiculturalism in Latin America: Indigenous Rights, Diversity and Democracy, ed. Rachel Sieder (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002), 1–23.

About the author

Marc Edelman is professor of anthropology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He directs the Peasants’ Rights Research Project, which is supported by the US National Science Foundation.