Land in the hands of the few: reflections from the 2017 Global Peasant's Congress

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

On the occasion of the International Congress on Global Peasants Rights, which took place in Germany from March 8th – 10th, 2017, the International Land Coalition supported four members from Guatemala, Iran, Indonesia and Zambia in attending the congress.

Having our members in attendance at such events encourages the spirit of learning, as well as knowledge sharing, that is central to our mission as a vast and growing network. 

The aim of the 'Global Peasants' Rights' congress was to shed light on the situation of small scale farmers around the world and to support and influence the discussions in the UN working group for the development of a “Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas”.

We took a few moments to speak with two of ILC members, Nsama from ZLA (Zambia) and Tilla from RMI (Indonesia) so that they could share their experiences, challenges and suggestions with regards to small-scale farming, and how we can move forward on this issue, together. 

 1) Land is a strong and recurring component of the UN Declaration of Rights of Peasants.  More specifically, organisations lobbying for peasant rights state that when peasants lose their land, they lose their forms of self-government, sovereignty and cultural identity.  Can you tell us more about this from your point of view and context?

Nsama: Land continues to be a vital resource for peasants the world over. Land signifies ones identity and their belonging to a group, clan, tribe or even to a nation. Without land, peasants lose their ability to produce food, to conserve the vital resources which they treasure, to enjoy decent and adequate shelter and to make decisions over how their natural resources will be governed. In essence their overall well-being is compromised. 

Tilla: Losing vital forms of self-governance, sovereignty and cultural identity are the immediate impacts that peasants face as they lose their land. I have been working in different contexts with peasant communities, working with one particular group that lost their land gradually over two decades.  Land was used instead for the creation of a national park and to an eco-tourism project. We did research on what happens when land is lost over an extended period of time like this.  Interestingly, we found that the people born around the time that the investments started, felt that they had no skills with respect to the land and admitted to feeling unable to maintain the social reproduction of their agricultural communities. 


2) One of the primary concerns of the Declaration is the concentration of the land in the hands of the few, due to the development of large industrial or infrastructure projects and tourist resorts, etc. Can you tell us more about this in your national context?

Nsama: The pressure on land, and other natural resources continues to rise in Zambia, with state and private sector actors engaging in significant agreements concerning privatisation of lands for various purposes including agriculture, mining and tourism. Investments have been criticised for not only displacing smallholder farmers and pastoralists, but also for the subsequent use of the land for food and biofuel production to be sent to wealthier countries. Our research has revealed that many of these land acquisitions have left households without land, with many communities getting displaced without any compensation. This scenario not only violates internationally agreed standards, but also violates their basic human rights, including access to water and food.

Tilla: This is very relevant to the Indonesian context. Infrastructure projects such as new airports and highways, projects that contribute to energy generation (e.g. dams), initiatives that benefit tourism industries, and large industries that exploits various ecosystems, are at the center of the government’s development projects. While the President has declared that he will focus on the expansion of community's access to and control over their natural resources, it is often obscured by various decisions made by his ministers and governors, targeted at benefiting big corporations and investors*   

*Editor's note: At the time of publishing this article, international attention has been given to Indonesia, where Kendeng Farmers have buried their feet in cement in protest to the building of a cement factory on Indigenous Lands 


3) How do you feel that attending an event such as this one, in collaboration with other ILC members as well as attendees from international organisations, can help to shed light on the work that you do?  Describe a specific moment or session which was useful to you. 

Nsama: It was an honor to attend the Congress.  It helped me to understand the contents of the Declaration and the thinking behind some of the suggested provisions in Zambia. The session that was particularly useful to me was the Legal Panel concerning Peasants´ Rights, which shared a lot of information that can provide the basis for strengthening our advocacy on land rights and the rights of small holder farmers. Interestingly, it was pointed out that land as a right is not enshrined in any international legal framework and this can be a great opportunity to ensure that this happens.

Tilla: The session on updated strategies of seed companies was very useful for me, as it presented an opportunity to learn more about seed companies and their lobbying efforts and strategies at the international level. Although I may never become an expert on the subject, it has pushed me to work even more toward peasants' sovereignty over their local seeds.


4)  The Declaration stresses that several factors make it difficult for peasants and other people in rural areas to make their voices heard, to defend their human rights and tenure rights.  Can you speak more on this?

Nsama: Some of the factors which cause peasants face in defending their human rights and tenure rights have to do in large part with lack of awareness. Most do not know about existence of both international and local frameworks which are in support of their human rights. Furthermore, most peasants are not aware that land investors have an obligation to ensure that their investments do not violate the rights of the peasants.

Tilla: Various decisions that affect peasants' communities on the ground are often made on a very high level that is beyond the community's reach. Law is also something that is unfamiliar for most people, including for peasants, while the law is precisely what is needed to defend peasants' rights. International platforms like ILC, are a good place to meet other parties that are working on the same issues, but from different perspectives. For us, ILC is an effective space to discuss with other organisations. That being said, we would also like to see ILC take a clearer stand and to follow up on some of our discussions so that the effects are felt on the ground.

Photo courtesy of the International Congress for Global Peasants Rights:​
More information, including the draft declaration: