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An Overview of the Violation of the Rights of Peasants

The Rights of Peasants - 1

Christophe GOLAY

11 / 2009

In its annual reports of 2004, 2005 and 2006, la Vía Campesina documented a sig­nificant number of violations of the human rights of peasants (1). FIAN International produced something similar, based on cases uncovered by the Emergency Network of the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform (2). Several of these cases were taken up by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food and the Special Rapporteur on Ad­equate Housing (3).

Violations of the rights of peasants include the discrimination experienced by peas­ant families in the exercise of their rights to food, water, healthcare, education, work and social security (1) and the states’ failure to implement land reforms and rural development policies which would help to remedy this situation (2). They also include forced evictions and displacement of peasant families (3) and the confisca­tion of seed by the transnational corporations who own the patents (4). Moreover, when the peasants try to organize themselves against these violations, they are of­ten criminalized, arbitrarily arrested and detained or physically attacked by private or state police forces (5).

1. Discrimination against peasants

The principle of non-discrimination is fundamental in international human rights law. It requires States to take both legislative measures that guarantee non-dis­crimination in law – formal or de jure – and positive measures that guarantee non-discrimination in practice – substantive or de facto. In its General Comment No 20, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) defined the steps that States should take in order to put an end to discrimination in practice. According to the Committee: “Eliminating discrimination in practice requires paying sufficient attention to groups of individuals which suffer historical or persistent prejudice instead of merely comparing the formal treatment of individuals in similar situations. States parties must therefore immediately adopt the necessary measures to prevent, diminish and eliminate the conditions and attitudes which cause or perpetuate substantive or de facto discrimination. For example, ensuring that all individuals have equal access to adequate housing, water and sanitation will help to overcome discrimination against women and girl children and persons living in informal settlements and rural areas.” (4)

In the majority of States, peasant families are victims of multiple discriminations in practice, in the exercise of their rights to food, water, sanitation, healthcare, educa­tion and social security. J. Ziegler, as member of the Advisory Committee of the Hu­man Rights Council, has for example demonstrated that peasants are among the first victims of discrimination in the exercise of the right to food. (5) Of the billion people in the world today who are undernourished, 70% are peasants – 50% living on land that is too small or of poor quality and 20% being landless families, sub­sisting as agricultural labourers. (6) According to the Human Development Reports of UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), peasant families are also among the first to be discriminated against in terms of access to safe drinking water, sanitation, health services and education. (7) Rural workers also make up a large part of those workers who do not benefit from any kind of social security.

In spite of their vital role, women living in rural areas are also among the first vic­tims of discrimination in access to food, land, water, healthcare and education. Wo­men and young girls living in rural areas make up the majority of undernourished persons in the world and even though 30% of women are the head of household in rural areas in developing countries, they own less than 2% of the available land. (8) In several States, female agricultural workers are even excluded from any inde­pendent income, as their labour is only recognized as supporting that of their hus­band. (9)

The multiple discriminations suffered by peasant families are largely the result of historical prejudices, political exclusion and cultural factors. To remedy this situ­ation, States are under an obligation to implement land reforms and rural develop­ment policies, to guarantee that peasants have equal access to productive resources, clean drinking water, sanitation, a decent job, social security, healthcare and education.

2. The absence of agrarian reforms and rural development policies

In spite of the fact that this question has been brought up time and again – notably in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) of 1966, in the Plan of Action from the World Food Summit (WFS) in 1996, and in the Final Declaration from the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development, organized in Porto Alegre in March 2006 – the majority of States have resisted pressure to implement agrarian reforms and rural development policies which would have made it possible to combat the discrimination experienced by peasant families. (10)

Agrarian reform was a key factor in the development of agriculture in Europe, South Korea, Japan, China and Cuba, but since the debt crisis of the mid-1970s, it has been discouraged by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Instead of redistributive land reform, the international financial institutions have for decades advocated agrarian reforms based on market forces. According to this model, rather than land being redistributed to landless peasants it is sold to those who have the means to buy it. In the majority of developing countries, where inequalities in land distribution are glaring – and this is particularly the case in Latin America – and in all States where access to land is fundamental to the realization of the rights of the peasants, agrarian reform based on the market has no chance of bringing about an adequate solution. However, with all but a few ex­ceptions – notably Bolivia since the election of President Evo Morales - it is this model of agrarian reform that is currently being implemented.

At the same time, investment in agriculture and rural development has been greatly reduced in the majority of States over the last thirty years. With the gaining of inde­pendence, many States chose to offer subsidies and assistance to farmers, while others chose to invest massively in industrialization and the development of urban centres. (11) Since the debt crisis of the 1980s, however, the World Bank and the IMF have imposed an almost total abandonment of rural development policies, in the name of reducing costs and of the liberalization of agriculture. The IMF and the World Bank have forced the Countries of the South to liberalize their agriculture, to abolish subsidies to small-scale farmers and to encourage the production of crops for export, as a source of foreign revenue in order to repay debt. At the same time, between 1979 and 2004, the percentage of official development assistance (ODA) that is allotted to agriculture has decreased from 18% to 3.5%, or from 8bn US dol­lars (at 2004 value) to 3.4bn. (12) This has had dramatic consequences for peasant families in developing countries, who now face even more discrimination.

3. Eviction and Forcible Displacement

Not only have they been denied the benefits of land redistribution programmes, but peasants also find themselves victims of forced eviction and involuntary displace­ment. Of all the cases of violation of the rights of peasants reported by la Vía Campesina, FIAN International and United Nations experts, two thirds concern eviction and forced displacement. (13)

Every year, thousands of peasant families are forcibly removed from their land, either by state or private police, without any compensation or plans for resettle­ment. This is particularly the case in Colombia, Brazil, Indonesia and the Philip­pines, where agrarian conflicts are very violent, (14) and also in a number of countries, for example Guatemala, which lack an effective land register. (15)

Furthermore, thousands of peasants become victims of compulsory displacement as a result of new development projects or the increase in mining activities. In In­dia, for example, numerous cases of enforced displacement have been reported by civil society and experts from the United Nations. (16) Thousands of peasant families were forcibly evicted to make way for the construction of the Narmada Dams, in spite of a decision by the Indian Supreme Court in 2000. (17) These families were evicted without any real notice or consultation and are now living in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, with neither adequate compensation nor any offer of resettlement. (18)

Two new developments – the production of biofuels and the buying up of foreign land for their production (the global land grab) – have led to a worsening of the situ­ation. In Colombia and Indonesia, for example, hundreds of peasant families have been evicted from their land in the last five years to make way for the production of palm-oil for use as a biofuel. (19) At the same time, millions of hectares of land in countries where food insecurity is already very high have been bought or leased by wealthy nations or by private companies, based mainly in South Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. (20) The most famous case was the buying up of 1.3 million hectares of arable land in Madagascar by the South Korean company Daewoo, which led to demonstrations and the overthrowing of the President in March 2008. In countries such as Sudan, Ethiopia and Cambodia, thousands of peasant families have also been displaced as a result of the sale of land. (21)

In the near future, it is likely that the number of evictions and enforced displace­ments of peasant families will continue to rise, leading to further violations of the rights of peasants. As was stated by the member groups of la Vía Campesina in the Final Declaration of the International Conference on Peasants’ Rights: “We are being increasingly and violently expelled from our lands and alienated from our sources of livelihoods. Mega development projects such as big plantations for agro-fuels, large dams, infrastructure projects, industrial expansion, extractive industry and tourism have forcibly displaced our communities, and destroyed our lives.” (22)

4. The appropriation of seed by transnational corporations

Together with land and water, seeds are the most important resource that peasant families need in order to secure their food supply. It is therefore not surprising that the protection of seed forms a central part of la Vía Campesina’s definition of food sovereignty, which highlights the necessity of “protecting seeds, the basis of food and life itself, for the free exchange and use of farmers.” (23)

Until recently, peasant families were free to use seeds in whatever way they re­quired: for replanting, for keeping, for selling or exchange. But this freedom, inher­ent in the peasants’ work, is now being threatened by the control exercised by a handful of transnational corporations on the seed market and by their patents on improved or genetically-modified seeds. (24) A third of the entire global seed market is in the hands of just ten corporations, including Aventis, Monsanto, Pioneer and Syngenta. Monsanto alone controls 90% of the global market in genetically-modi­fied seeds.

These transnational corporations hold the intellectual property rights to improved or genetically modified seeds, which gives them the right to prevent peasants from building up their own supplies. Peasant families who often received seeds as part of food aid programmes are now forced to buy new seeds every year. The transnation­al corporations began establishing their control in this area by creating seeds that were programmed to self-destruct, so-called ‘terminator’ seeds. Then, in the face of hostile public opinion, they changed tack and today defend their patents with an increasing number of legal actions against peasants who use their seeds without paying them royalties. Monsanto, for example, has brought hundreds of legal ac­tions against peasants in recent years.

Every year, thousands of peasants commit suicide because they can no longer af­ford the seeds that they need to feed their families. In India alone, 200,000 peasants have committed suicide since 1997, largely because they had become dependant on seeds supplied by the transnational corporations, and had amassed debts that they could not repay. (25)

5. Criminalisation, arbitrary arrest, torture and extrajudicial executions

When the peasants organize themselves to claim their rights, they are often treated as criminals, arbitrarily arrested and detained or become the victims of summary executions by the state or private police forces. Every year, thousands of peasants thus become victims of violations of their civil and political rights. It is often the leaders of the peasant cause who suffer the gravest violations of their rights, by be­ing arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned, tortured or executed. In the Philippines, for ex­ample, three peasant leaders were struck down between November 2008 and June 2009. Vicente Paglinawan, Vice President of the National Coordination of peasant groups for the island of Mindanao, was killed on 22nd November 2008; Eliezer Bil­lanes, Secretary General of a peasants’ union was killed on the 9th March 2009; and Renato Penas, who had just been elected Vice President of the National Coalition of Peasant Organizations in March 2009, was killed on the 5th June 2009. (26)

At the same time, hundreds of peasants each year are treated as criminals, for simply taking part in demonstrations or for peacefully resisting forced eviction. In Guatemala, for example, the fact that there has never been a land register allows the big landowners to expel peasant families from their lands, claiming that they are living there illegally. These peasant families are then treated as criminals. In 2005, Amnesty International denounced this practice, pointing out that: “A particu­lar characteristic of agrarian disputes in Guatemala is that the full weight of the law and judicial system is often levied in order to enforce evictions, but not to is­sues relating to labour rights of rural workers or land tenure of rural communities.” (27)

To mark these violations of peasants’ rights, la Vía Campesina has declared the 17th April of every year as the International Day of the Peasant Struggle. The date was chosen to commemorate the massacre of Eldorado de Carajás on the 17th April 1996, in which the military police of the State of Pará gunned down, with complete impunity, 19 Brazilian peasants taking part in a peaceful march organized by the Landless Workers Movement (MST). (28)

(1) Cf. La Vía Campesina, FIAN, Violations of peasants’ human rights. A Report on Cases and Patterns of Violation 2004; La Vía Campesina, Annual Report: Peasant Rights Violation, 2005; La Vía Campesina, Annual Report: Viola­tions of Peasants’ Human Rights, 2006.
(2) Cf. FIAN, Violations of peasants’ human rights. A Report on Cases and Patterns of Violation 2005.
(3) Cf. Especially the reports of missions and communications of the Special Rapporteur on the Right To Food with mem­ber States: as well as those of the Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing:
(4) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment n°20, Non-discrimination in economic, social and cultural rights (art. 2, para. 2), E/C.12/GC/20, 2nd July 2009, § 8.
(5) Cf. Working paper of J. Ziegler, member of the United Nations Human Rights Council Advisory Committee, Peasant Farmers and the Right to Food: a History of Discrimination and Exploitation, A/HRC/AC/3/CRP.5, 4th August 2009; see Appendix.
(6) UN Millennium Project, Task Force on Hunger, Halving hunger: it can be done, 2005, pp. 3-4.
(7) Cf. In particular UNDP, Human Development Report 2006. Beyond scarcity: power, poverty and the global water crisis, pp.86-88.
(8) FAO, Women and the Right to Food. International Law and State Practice, 2008:
(9) Cf., for example, the Report of mission to Guatemala of J. Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, E/CN.4/2006/44/Add.1.
(10) Advisory Committee, Working paper of J. Ziegler, Peasant Farmers and the Right to Food: a History of Discrimina­tion and Exploitation, §§ 35-57.
(11) S. Brunel, Nourrir le monde. Vaincre la faim, Ed. Larousse, 2009.
(12) F. Lemaître, Demain, la faim!, Paris, Grasset, 2009, pp. 103-104.
(13) C. Golay, Droit à l’alimentation et accès à la justice, thesis presented to the University of Geneva, IHEID, 2009, pp. 104-106.
(14) Cf. La Vía Campesina, FIAN, Violations of peasants’ human rights. A Report on Cases and Patterns of Violation 2004; LVC, Annual Report Peasant Rights Violation, 2005; FIAN, Violations of peasants’ human rights. A Report on Cases and Patterns of Violation 2005.
(15) Cf. for example, The Report of J. Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, on his mission to Guatemala E/CN.4/2006/44/Add.2.
(16) Cf. for example, The Report of J. Ziegler, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, on his mission to India E/CN.4/2006/44/Add.1.
(17) Supreme Court of India, Narmada Bachao Andolan v. Union of India, 2000.
(18) Information on the consequences of the Narada dams is available on the site of the independent organisation: and on the Indian government site
(19) Cf. in particular, F. Mingorance, The Flow Of Palm Oil Colombia-Belgium/Europe. A study from a human rights perspective, 2007:
(20) C. Smaller and H. Mann, A Thirst for Distant Lands: Foreign investment in agricultural land and water, International Institute for Sustainable Development, 2009.
(21) Cf. L. Cotula, S. Vermeulen, R. Leonard and J. Keeley, Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural invest­ment and international land deals in Africa, FAO, IIED, IFAD, 2009.
(22) Cf. Final Declaration of the International Conference on Peasants’ Rights, Jakarta, 24th June 2008, available on the Vía Campesina website:
(23) Cf. Final Declaration of the NGO Forum for Food Sovereignty held in parallel with the World Food Summit: Five Years Later, 2002:
(24) Cf. General Assembly, Seed policies and the right to food: enhancing agrobiodiversity and encouraging innovation, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, O. De Schutter, A/64/170, 23 July 2009.
(25) V. Shiva, « From Seeds of Suicide to Seeds of Hope: Why Are Indian Farmers Committing Suicide and How Can We Stop This Tragedy?", The Huffington Post, 10th September 2009.
(26) Cf. PAKISAMA Statement on the Assassination of Renato Penas, National Vice-President:


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