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.


Sugar-coated plantation plans back in the spotlight in Aru, Indonesia

Written by Chris Chancellor

Confusion as representatives from the Ministry of Agriculture arrive to facilitate agricultural investor in Southern Aru.

The arrival of a helicopter and private jet at the airport in Dobo, the capital of the island regency of Aru, Indonesia, has caused quite a stir amongst local residents. Local media outlets and activists are now reporting that this activity signified the arrival of representatives from Indonesia’s Ministry of Agriculture, there to try to facilitate an agricultural investment project.

It remains unclear as to what this new development involves, but the people of Aru are no strangers to the spectre of corporate investments in their lands. Since 2010, a coalition of local residents, government officials, journalists and religious leaders, self-named the Save Aru Coalition, have been fighting off plans to develop sugar cane plantations across the islands. The plans were dropped after significant local resistance, with the then Minister of Forestry declaring the land unfit for sugar cane production.

Today, Ministry of Agriculture officials are thought to be meeting with community leaders in Southern Aru. The reported aim of the meeting is to force through a deal for an external investment project on customary territories. Members of the Save Aru Coalition have already come out in opposition to this activity and have reignited their movement, calling it Save Aru Part 2.

Sweet canes, sour roots

The Aru Islands regency is an archipelago at the very eastern tip of Indonesia. They fall under the jurisdiction of the Province of Maluku, and provide a home for around 85,000 residents.

Aru Islands
The Aru Islands in Eastern Indonesia. Source: Google Maps, 2017.

In 2010, it was revealed that the local bupati (regency head) had agreed to hand over around 500,000ha of land to a consortium of investors named PT Menara Group. The total land area of the Aru Islands is around 700,000ha. These investors are thought to have come from across the globe; the US, UK, Netherlands, Brazil, Nigeria and South Korea all nations from which members of the investment group are rumoured to come from. However, this is very hard to trace and verify as local subsidiaries were set up and registered at a fictitious address in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital.

PT Menara Concession map
Map of concessions for the 28 PT Menara Group subsidiaries. Source: adapted and translated from AWAS MIFEE

The project aimed to develop sugar cane plantations on Aru’s outer islands, which are composed largely of mangrove and tropical forest, as well as some areas of grassland savanna. Many Arunese communities rely on these ecosystems for wild gathering as well as small-scale agriculture, which underpins their food security. They also harbour iconic species of fauna such as the Lesser Bird of Paradise, Cassowary, and tree kangaroo.

Saving Aru

The Save Aru Coalition was formed in response, advocating fiercely against the destruction of indigenous forests, and gathering a book of signatures of opposition from across the islands. This was delivered to relevant Ministries in Jakarta. Opposition was also national and international with indigenous rights group AMAN and the UK-based NGO the Forest Peoples Program sending a letter of concern to United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD). CERD responded by urging the Indonesian government to review its plantation law.

However, local opposition was not universal. A handful of community leaders and many local government officials lent their support to the plantations, citing their ability to bring much needed employment and infrastructure to this remote corner of Indonesia. Younger males in particular are attracted by the prospect of manual labour jobs, which many search for unsuccessfully on an ad-hoc basis in Dobo.

Nonetheless, the voices of opposition were by far the louder, and under increasing national and international pressure, the central Ministry of Forestry ordered a revocation of the permits in 2014. It is not clear whether this was ever officially enforced.

Investor whack-a-mole

Since the Menara case, local opposition groups have remained vigilant in monitoring the situation; it is well known that a long list of investors are circling these waters, looking to tap into its unknown natural wealth. In 2016, alarm bells were raised when the Aru regency was included under the Ministry of Agriculture’s MIFEE project. The project is aimed at attaining national self-sufficiency of certain agricultural products, such as sugar cane. However, the announcement was made without any prior consultation of the Arunese communities that it would potentially displace or incorporate.

The recent whirr of activity in Dobo and Southern Aru signals the latest corkscrew in the external investment rollercoaster that the regency seems to be riding. Debate is once again sure to be heated, with the age old arguments of economic development and modernisation, as well as that of national food security, mobilised by those in favour. Opponents will point to the wealth of examples from around the globe that have led to the marginalisation of local peoples, who ironically have often faced poverty and starvation as a result of such extractive investment models.


Combatting EU farmland concentration and speculation

Written by Chris Chancellor

The European Commission has issued guidelines on how Member States can lawfully intervene in agricultural land markets

The issue of who owns or controls farmland in the European Union (EU) has become one  of increasing concern. Lately there has been a growing recognition that corporate farmland capture is not a problem reserved only for developing nations. Earlier this year, the European Parliament (EP) adopted an own-initiative report, revealing the way in which agricultural land is increasingly falling into the hands of a small elite.

EU legal frameworks have been shown to marginalise smaller farmers, creating concerns over the resulting dominance of industrial agribusiness; disappearing livelihoods for small-scale family producers, stagnant rural development, rural-urban migration, floundering farm succession and environmentally unsustainable agricultural practices, represent a few of the relevant issues. This has been a particularly hot issue for newer member states from Central and Eastern Europe, whose cheaper and more fertile lands, which in many cases still harbour significant peasant populations, are attracting the interest of investors from far and wide.

Many civil society groups have demanded clarity from DG FISMA (The Directorate General for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets Union) on how Member States can act to address the above issues without violating EU law.

Bound by Fundamental Freedoms

In response, the European Commission (EC) has issued an interpretative communication on the acquisition of farmland. The document aims to set out the different options available to Member States in regulating arable land transactions.

The main barrier to restrictive national laws is the need to comply with wider EU laws, primarily those relating to the fundamental freedoms outlined in the Treaty for the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The main ones of relevance here are the free movement of capital, the freedom of establishment, and the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality. Any Member States wishing to introduce legislation in order to protect or shape their agricultural land markets must do so in a way that does not contravene these principles. This is of course a near impossible task.

However, the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) has recognised the special nature of agricultural land. There are certain policy objectives that are considered to justify intervention in farmland markets, including preventing speculation and maintaining socially and environmentally favourable distributions of land ownership. Thus, the EC document explains, measures hindering these fundamental freedoms can be taken in specific circumstances if:

– the measures are not discriminatory

– they are justified by an overriding public interest

– they comply with ‘principle of proportionality’ (they can achieve the relevant objective and there are no less restrictive options available to do so).

Options on the table

Based on the track record of the CJEU, the EC communication essentially identifies three viable options for Member States looking to control their markets for arable land:

– prior authorisation of transaction against clearly pre-defined and proportional, non-discriminatory criteria

– pre-emption rights for local farmers

– price controls to prevent ‘excessively speculative’ prices

Other options such as the obligation for the investor to farm the land themselves, prohibition on purchases by legal persons, and acquisition size caps, are all considered unlikely to pass CJEU scrutiny on grounds of disproportionality.

Just the bottom of the beanstalk

The release of these guidelines is a welcome clarification for NGOs and Member State officials worried about the pattern of increasing farmland concentration. Member States now have a more definitive framework within which to operate, and NGOs and activists have points against which to lobby their governments to take action.

However, it is unlikely to be a conclusive dictate on the matter. Concerned parties are now pouring through the document and offering their critical perspectives, with many highlighting the shortcomings of CJEU interpretations.

Regulating agricultural land transactions is set to become a much bigger political issue, not only in the context of growing nationalism across the EU, but also within the context of the food system sustainability crisis that we face today. The EC will be forced to address this in far greater depth in the coming years in order to avert major crises on both these fronts.


Jakarta Bay reclamation project officially resurfaces

Written by Chris Chancellor

A moratorium on the controversial reclamation development off the coast of Jakarta has been lifted by the Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs

Indonesia’s Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister, Luhut Penjaitan, has officially lifted a moratorium (temporary ban) on development of the controversial Jakarta Bay reclamation project. The decision puts an end to a construction ban issued in April 2016 by the same ministry. Developers are now free to proceed with the development of the 17 artificial islands off the north Jakarta coastline.

What is the Jakarta Bay reclamation project?

The reclamation project, also known as the National Capital Integrated Coastal Development (NCICD) is an ambitious infrastructural development situated in Jakarta Bay. An array of aims is pursued under the plans, including tackling land subsidence (the sinking of land), providing coastal protection, improving water supply and sewage infrastructure and developing space for industry and real estate. Land subsidence and coastal flooding are huge problems for the city, which experiences major disruption every year due to flooding in its northern districts.

The project involves the development of a giant sea wall, behind which 17 artificial islands are being constructed through private investors. These islands will be used for a variety of purposes, ranging from heavy industry and real estate to leisure and amusement venues. The islands will be linked by a series of highways, which are also aimed at alleviating congestion issues in Jakarta’s jam-packed northern districts.

These islands are considered necessary in order to create the added value required to offset the huge cost of the project. The sale of real estate, in the form of the actual islands themselves, as well as office and apartment developments, is a major component in the project’s funding strategy.

Who’s behind the sea wall?

The NCICD is a public-private partnership initiative, primarily between the government of the Republic of Indonesia and the private sector. However, as of 2016 the project became a trilateral one, with an agreement being signed between Indonesia, the Netherlands and South Korea for cooperation on project implementation.

The Dutch have been involved since the outset, with the Dutch government providing significant financing for planning and implementation. A coalition of Dutch businesses was prominent in the planning stage, and many Dutch firms are now benefiting with contracts or tenders during the construction phase. The implementation of the project is estimated to cost up to $40 billion, with net profit hoped to amount to over $3 billion.

Fishy business

Despite its lofty goals, the project has encountered serious opposition from civil society groups and resident fisher folk populations. The fishing communities that line the northern Jakarta shoreline face a complete destruction of their fishing grounds. Many have already experienced this. As early as 2013, communities near to initial construction sites reported disastrous declines in catch, causing severe implications for immediate food and nutritional security. This in turn had repercussions for education and healthcare levels, the funding of which relied on income from fishing activities.

Opponents have become particularly embittered by the absence of prior consultation on the matter, and the non-existent or inadequate provision of compensation. These are not insignificant populations, after all, with around ten thousand people estimated to be employed in the fishing sector in Jakarta, not to mention the number of people dependent upon them. Activists accuse the governments and corporations involved of engineering private profit creation under the guise of sustainable development.

A coalition of Dutch civil society organisations has criticised the Dutch government for providing support for these investments without the same rigorous standards that would have to be applied in the Netherlands. Adequate consultation, democratic and transparent decision-making and comprehensive compensation are all aspects that have been absent from the Dutch supported project.

In addition, a number of experts challenge the extent to which the project will actually address any of the major issues it sets out to, with some even predicting increased flooding and subsistence as a result.

Moratorium no more

The lifting of the moratorium means that the developers of the various islands can restart their construction activities, although reports suggest that some had continued to operate anyway. The announcement comes despite consistent public opposition from a large civil society coalition, as well as concerns from other relevant ministries in the complex Indonesian bureaucracy.

The incoming Governor of Jakarta, Anies Baswedan, pledged a cancellation of the NCICD during his campaign, in view of popular opposition to the project. Whether he is serious or not remains to be seen. Many local fisher folk retain little optimism, having seen a revolving door of vote-seeking politicians make promises that disappeared post-election. Indeed, the Coordinating Maritime Affairs Minister Luhut Panjaitan has announced that the Governor doesn’t even have the power to make such a move, as the control over the project lies with the central government.

It remains to be seen what will become of the hugely ambitious development, but for now the constructors can officially make a return to Jakarta’s waters. Meanwhile, thousands of fisher folk must scramble to piece together a livelihood, which just like the waters that they once fished, face an ever murkier future.


Indonesia agrees new Grasberg mine deal with PT Freeport

Written by Chris Chancellor

Permit extension until 2041 in the pipeline for one of largest gold and copper reserves in the world.

The Indonesian government seems to have settled negotiations with PT Freeport Indonesia over the extension of permits for exploitation of the Grasberg mine site, located in the province of Papua. The company, a subsidiary of US mining giants Freeport-McMoRan, have conducted mining operations in the area since the 1960s, when they negotiated a highly controversial deal with the dictatorial government led by President Suharto. The current deal was set to end in 2021, although it seems that an extension until 2041 has now been hammered out.

Negotiations had faltered at various stages, with contrasting information emerging from the various entities involved. At one point it appeared that an agreement was not likely at all, with Indonesia demanding that PT Freeport divest 51% of its shares to Indonesian state-owned enterprises (SOEs). However, the company has agreed to compromise due to the value it sees in underground mining operations on the site.

The willingness of corporate giants Freeport, based in Arizona, to compromise on the divestment regulation might be seen as a victory for Indonesian resource sovereignty and national development. Indeed SOEs will now enjoy a significantly larger slice of the pie. But to what extent will local peoples see the benefits?


The agreement comes after a lengthy dispute between the Indonesian state and the corporation over revised mining rules in the country. Amongst other new criterion, the new rules stipulate that mining companies must divest 51% of their shares to Indonesian SOEs. PT Freeport contested the new terms and demanded that the rights of their previous agreement be upheld.

The argument led to a 4 month hiatus in PT Freeport’s copper concentrate exports from the site. It is estimated that up to 10% of the work force was laid off during this period, prompting mass strikes by mine labourers and other employees.

However, the new deal, once made official, will essentially mean that two more 10 year extensions are granted. This will hand PT Freeport extraction and export rights until 2041, when it is thought the mine will be fully depleted. It is not known what will become of the the ongoing labour issue on site as a result of this agreement.