16 Dec 2018

Marc Edelman on the rights of peasants

From Sunday Morning, 7:20 am on 16 December 2018

The United Nations recently made a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, Just seven countries voted against its adoption recently, and one of those was New Zealand.

Supporters claim the declaration will benefit more than one eighth of the world's population and protect biodiversity and traditional crops.

The declaration includes the right to save, exchange, and sell farm-saved seeds, a contentious issue over which small farmers have been campaigning for years.

Marc Edelman  is a professor of anthropology at the City University of New York whose main focus of research is the peasant movements that promoted the declaration and he spoke to Wallace Chapman about what the declaration means.

Marc Edelman

Marc Edelman Photo: Supplied

History of the declaration

Edelman says the roots of the declaration come from Indonesia. 

"The overthrow of Sukarno in 1965/66, involved a massacre of horrendous proportions. It’s widely agreed that some 500,000 people at a minimum were murdered by the incoming Suharto forces ... Indonesia subsequently endured a dictatorship that lasted seven decades until the late 1990s. 

"Indonesian peasant movements emerged to reclaim land that had been seized by cohorts of the Suharto regime."

He says the peasant movement drafted a declaration for Indonesia, and it was then expanded to wider South East Asia: "to the South East Asian region of La Vía Campesina, the transnational peasant movement which is an organisation of peasants now in some 80 countries".

He says Vía Campesina took the declaration to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in 2001 and returned annually, until the Human Rights Advisory Committee - "a think tank of the Human Rights Council" - adopted and proposed a similar text to the full council.

Delegates speaks prior to the opening of a session of the Human Rights Council on the Palestinian territories situation on March 23, 2015 in Geneva. (redownloaded 21/12/18)

Delegates speaks prior to the opening of a session of the Human Rights Council. Photo: AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI

"After several revisions and lots of discussions and interventions by experts on various topics ranging from seeds to agribusiness, the declaration was approved by the Human Rights Council last spring and recently by the UN general assembly in New York. 

"It’s expected that it will be approved very shortly by the full plenary of the UN General Assembly. 

Sowing division: Seed provisions

Edelman says the declaration guarantees the right of farmers to save and exchange their seeds. 

"And the contentious point is whether they can actually sell their seeds or not. 

"The big seed companies have undergone an even more extreme process of consolidation in the past couple of years - with the merger for example between Monsanto and Beyer and between Syngenta and Chemchina.

Wheat field

Photo: 123RF

"The seed industry is consolidating, it’s extremely powerful and they are very leery of anything that might affect their business model which relies on intellectual property rights - either patents or breeders rights."

However, Edelman says that what many countries fail to acknowledge is that the international community has already recognised the existence of two parallel seed systems, one based on farmer-saved seeds and the other based on industrial production of commercial seeds. 

Binding vs non-binding

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas is a non-binding agreement - but this is the case with all the UN's declarations. 

"Declarations are non-binding, conventions and treaties are binding," Edelman says. 

"So it is what we sometimes talk about as 'soft law' - nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the International Declaration of Human Rights is also soft law but it became a standard for human rights law in the national legal systems in many countries."

Why countries opposed it

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Photo: screenshot

Edelman has some suspicions about why certain countries opposed the declaration. 

"I can’t speak in detail to the New Zealand case, I can say a little bit perhaps about the other countries …" 

United States

"There really isn’t I think much explaining needed in the case of the United States under the present government which has been hostile to the UN in it's entirety." 

United Kingdom

"I have to say in my many visits to Geneva the members of the British delegation were perhaps the most skeptical and indeed had a somewhat sneering tone in talking about the entire project. 

"I mentioned to somebody from the UK mission that perhaps it had something to do with England being the first country in the world to entirely eliminate its peasant population through the enclosures and of course that didn't go over very well." 


"Of course the [Prime Minister of Hungary Victor] Orban government - increasingly authoritarian, anti-immigrant, antisemitic, very much opposed to anything that might smack of an innovative social vision."


"Israel similarly being very wary of anything that concerns land rights, for reasons that are probably quite obvious." 

Australia, New Zealand

"Australia, New Zealand you would probably have to explain to me." 

For more information on New Zealand's reasons for voting against the declaration: