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UN Resolution Would Protect Land and Water Rights of Rural People

On 28 September, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), meeting in Geneva, passed a resolution which calls for the UN General Assembly to adopt the “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas.” This proposed declaration includes a number of rights, and specifically mentions that water resources in mountain ecosystems should be protected against pollution from mining activities.

Meeting of the Working Group on Rights of Peasants 13 April 2018
Meeting of the Working Group on Rights of Peasants 13 April 2018. Source: UNHRC

In recent decades, this pollution has had serious consequences for drinking water and irrigation in mountain regions, including the glacier-rich regions of the Andes and the Tien Shan. The declaration specifically mentions these uses of water, and could serve to protect mountain communities against mining activities which harm their livelihoods and well-being.

This resolution is the outcome of sustained efforts by peasant groups in recent decades, and builds on the successful efforts of indigenous peoples to gain recognition within the UNHRC and other international organizations. It follows on a proposal, first brought in 2000 and 2001 by Indonesian peasant organizations to La Via Campesina (LVC), an international peasant movement founded in 1993 in broad opposition to the negative consequences of globalization for peasants and other rural working people. The initial proposal was modified and adopted by the UNHRC’s Advisory Committee in 2013, with significant input from peasant organizations and academic researchers. Bolivia, a country with a long history of indigenous and peasants movements, played a leading role in building coalitions with other Latin American countries and African countries to promote the resolution. The resolution also drew support from a number of civil society organizations which focus on rural issues of land, labor, livelihoods and food security.

Significant Provisions of the Resolution

In a recent interview with GlacierHub, Marc Edelman, a professor of anthropology at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, stated that the proposed declaration “reiterates many rights that are protected under other international agreements, but it also establishes that peasants in some cases have a collective right to land and that they have the right to save, exchange and plant their own seeds, something that is limited or banned in most countries by seed certification laws and the 1991 international treaty which governs seed varieties.”

The Peruvian anthropologist Jorge Recharte, director of The Mountain Institute’s Andean Program, underscored this importance of collective land rights. He told GlacierHub, “In the specific context of Peru, this declaration provides support to efforts by grassroots movements in the Andes that are fighting to promote their right to be recognized as indigenous, original peoples.” He stated that, in Peru alone, “the rights to land” of “nearly six thousand peasant communities … have to be affirmed and secured”.

Drawing on his long experience with LVC and the UNHRC, Edelman also noted that the proposed declaration established a right to “food sovereignty.” The UNHRC defines it in article 15 as “the right to determine … food and agriculture systems, [including] the right to participate in decision-making processes on food and agriculture policy and the right to healthy and adequate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods that respect [rural] cultures.”

The Next Steps within the United Nations and Beyond

Edelman described the steps that may follow on the UNHRC resolution. He indicated that the Third Committee (on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues) of the UN General Assembly in New York is scheduled to vote on the declaration on October 25, and that the General Assembly itself will vote on it in December, with approval being likely. This step would raise the statement from a resolution (a statement of the will of the council) to a declaration (a more formal statement of the intent of the entire UN). Edelman noted, “Implementation is, of course, the biggest challenge, as with other human rights instruments and national-level laws,” since declarations do not have the force of treaties. Anthony Bebbington, a professor of geography at Clark University, agreed with this point. He told GlacierHub, “Getting national authorities to recognize and act upon this declaration will be one of the next struggles.”

Dirk Salomons, director of the Humanitarian Policy Track at the School of International Public Affairs at Columbia University noted these difficulties as well. In an interview with GlacierHub, he stated “a ‘Declaration’ has no legal validity — it is not an instrument that can be ratified by member states and, once it has a majority, become international law.” However, he added that some organizations are sensitive to declarations. He added, “Governments, the private sector, and large international organizations such as the World Bank or the new, Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank should review their practices and take corrective action where needed. Much of this also ties in with policies to prevent natural disasters.”

This specific character of resolutions was echoed by Elazar Barkan, a professor of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and director of Columbia’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. In an interview with GlacierHub, he noted that declarations, though lacking full legal force, can nonetheless be powerful, and cited the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights as an example. He qualified the recent UNHRC resolution as “a mid-level victory.” In the current context, where human rights have been “under tremendous pressure” in recent years from populist and authoritarian regimes, Barkan suggested that this resolution not only offers support not only to peasants and other rural people, but also represents an important broad effort for human rights in general. He hopes that “a new norm will be established” through food sovereignty, which recognizes the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples, and which values food, not only through an “economic calculus,” but as a component of the human right to “cultural diversity.” He took particular encouragement from the strong support that the resolution received in the UNHRC, with 33 votes in favor, and only 11 opposed and 3 abstentions. This majority is stronger than many other resolutions receive.

Ryskeldi Satke, a journalist from Kyrgyzstan, emphasized the importance of environmental protections in the resolution. In particular, Article 21 contains a paragraph which serves to support mountain communities in their efforts to limit mining which damages glaciers and entire watersheds.

States shall protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes, from overuse and contamination by harmful substances, in particular by industrial effluent and concentrated minerals and chemicals that result in slow and fast poisoning.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Satke described his experiences in rural areas in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan, where “pastoralists and nomadic communities have undoubtedly come under pressure due to the extractive industry activity.” Recognizing weak governance in some mountain regions, he noted that “the declaration may have an impact on how foreign corporations will conduct operations in countries with dysfunctional judiciary systems. The local communities may have more legal tools to seek justice internationally if their rights are violated by the foreign enterprises.”

Edelman offered a succinct overview of the resolution’s significance:

One of the arguments that peasant activists frequently assert is that having “all” the rights in one place — that is, in one instrument — will make it easier to defend those rights, in national courts and in mass mobilizations. The multiple assaults on rural livelihoods — from agribusiness and mining corporations, from repressive governments, and from globalized markets — have made it clear that peasants and other rural people constitute a vulnerable group, in the sense that “vulnerable” is applied in international law to indigenous peoples, women, children, the disabled, and others. The Peasants’ Rights Declaration is intended to recognize this and to provide some measure of protection.

A version of this post was originally published on GlacierHub. GlacierHub is managed by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Earth Institute and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University.

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