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Eastern European peasants unite to fight for their rights

Written by Chris Chancellor

In a historic event, Eastern European peasants and civil society groups have united their struggles along the lines of the UN peasant’s rights declaration.

On Wednesday 15th November, peasant producers from across Romania came together at a conference in Bucharest to demand that their rights be recognised, respected and championed. They were joined by the Romanian State Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Deputy State Secretary of the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture, as well as key figures from the UN peasant rights process, civil society leaders and peasant advocates from across the Eastern European region. Both state representatives expressed some form of support for the movement, but stopped short of committing a positive vote at the UN. This is the first time that such an assortment of actors has come together in the region to address the issue.

What is the peasant rights declaration?

The ‘UN Declaration on the Rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas’ is a document under negotiation at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The final draft that will be presented in 2018 is the culmination of decades of struggle by the peasant movement La Via Campesina.

The movement, whose 200 million members worldwide have had enough of what they see as systematic discrimination and recurrent rights abuses against them, has pushed for this declaration as a complementary global instrument to the current human rights framework. They have been joined by countless civil society entities as well as state officials in voicing the need for small-scale food producers to be valued and protected.

The development of extensive and rigorous trade laws in recent decades has tilted the balance of our food system in favour of international commodity traders, who forward an intensive industrial model of farming. Therefore, this declaration, in both its actual final output as a legal document, as well as through the process itself, is seen as a way of shifting global food production towards something based more on rights, obligations and responsibilities.

The adoption of the declaration will be subject to two stages of voting. Firstly, the states who are currently members of the Human Rights Council will vote. Then if the declaration passes this initial step, another vote will take place involving all UN member states.

The blind leading the blind

The European Union typically votes as a bloc in these types of negotiations, which in practice means that the powerful players such and Germany and the United Kingdom (although not so relevant anymore) dictate the votes of many European states. Both of these countries have been strongly opposed to the declaration to date, playing down the need for additions to the current human rights framework. They also adopt the attitude that the peasantry is an outdated concept, and not relevant for modern day European agriculture.

This position is perhaps not surprising, seeing as much of Western Europe has undergone a process of complete industrialisation of the agricultural sector. This transformation has been fuelled by significant state subsidies over the years, and continues to be the direction favoured by these governments, despite increasing evidence of inefficiency and the negative externalities that it has brought.

In addition, and contrary to common perception, Europe harbours significant populations of small-scale peasant producers, particularly in Central and Eastern European. The kinds of problems and abuses recounted by communities in the region echo those of testimonies from the developing world; unequal access to land, land grabbing, lack of autonomy over production inputs, practices and output markets, as well as deepening rural poverty.

Rising in the East

However, there are signs that Eastern Europe is starting to stir, and this conference represents the first regional gathering to discuss the topic of peasant rights. The location, Romania’s capital Bucharest, was somewhat fitting in that the country holds around half of the EU’s known peasant population.

Civil society actors in the region are adamant that states must stand up for the rights of their citizens in the international policy arena, rather than following obediently behind western powers as they have done until now. Optimism is high that with greater engagement in the UN process, and stronger and more open state-civil society cooperation, that a well-informed and unified Eastern European front could challenge the traditional western hegemony.

Such a challenge could finally pave the way for serious steps towards an overhaul of regional and indeed global food systems. It could give the space for genuine considerations of an alternative model in Europe, rather than the continual tweaking of a rampantly unequal and destructive one.

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