[permaculture] UN Backs Seed Sovereignty in Landmark Peasants’ Rights Declaration – Food Tank

Lawrence London lfljvenaura at gmail.com
Tue Jan 29 20:02:59 EST 2019

UN Backs Seed Sovereignty in Landmark Peasants’ Rights Declaration

*Feature Image: Mary Tembo displays her homegrown organic seeds at her farm
in Chongwe, Zambia. (Timothy A. Wise)*

On December 17, the United Nations General Assembly took a quiet but
historic vote, approving the *Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and
other People Working in Rural Areas,*
by a vote of 121-8 with 52 abstentions. The declaration, which was the
product of some 17 years of diplomatic work led by the international
peasant alliance La Via Campesina, formally extends human rights
protections to farmers whose “seed sovereignty” is threatened by government
and corporate practices.

“As peasants we need the protection and respect for our values and for our
role in society in achieving food sovereignty,” said Via Campesina
coordinator Elizabeth Mpofu after the vote. Most developing countries voted
in favor of the resolution, while many developed country representatives
abstained. The only “no” votes came from the United States, United Kingdom,
Australia, New Zealand, Hungary, Israel, and Sweden.

“To have an internationally recognized instrument at the highest level of
governance that was written by and for peasants from every continent is a
tremendous achievement,” said Jessie MacInnis of Canada’s National Farmers
Union <http://exchangemagazine.com/2018/week51/Tuesday/18121802.htm>. The
challenge now, of course, is to mobilize small-scale farmers to claim those
rights, which are threatened by efforts to impose rich-country crop
breeding regulations onto less developed countries, where the vast majority
of food is grown by peasant farmers using seeds they save and exchange.

*Seed sovereignty in Zambia*

The loss of seed diversity is a national problem in Zambia. “We found a lot
of erosion of local seed varieties,” Juliet Nangamba, program director for
the Community Technology Development Trust, told me in her Lusaka office.
She is working with the regional Seed Knowledge Iniatiave (SKI)
to identify farmer seed systems and prevent the disappearance of local
varieties. “Even crops that were common just ten years ago are gone.” Most
have been displaced by maize, which is heavily subsidized by the
government. She’s from Southern Province, and she said their survey found
very little presence of finger millet, a nutritious, drought-tolerant grain
far better adapted to the region’s growing conditions.

Farmers are taking action. Mary Tembo welcomed us to her farm near Chongwe
in rural Zambia. Trained several years ago by Kasisi Agricultural Training
Center <https://www.katczm.org/> in organic agriculture, Tembo is part of
the SKI network, which is growing out native crops so seed is available to
local farmers. Tembo pulled some chairs into the shade of a mango tree to
escape the near-100-degree Fahrenheit heat, an unseasonable reminder of
Southern Africa’s changing climate. Rains were late, as they had been
several of the last few years. Farmers had prepared their land for planting
but were waiting for a rainy season they could believe in.

Tembo didn’t seem worried. She still had some of her land in
government-sponsored hybrid maize and chemical fertilizer, especially when
she was lucky enough to get a government subsidy. But most of her land was
in diverse native crops, chemical free for ten years.

“I see improvements from organic,” she explained, as Kasisi’s Austin
Chalala translated for me from the local Nyanja language. “It takes more
work, but we are now used to it.” The work involves more careful management
of a diverse range of crops planted in ways that conserve and rebuild the
soil: crop rotations, intercropping, conservation farming with minimal
plowing, and the regular incorporation of crop residues and composted
manure to build soil fertility. She has six pigs, seven goats, and
twenty-five chickens, which she says gives her enough manure for the farm.

She was most proud of her seeds. She disappeared into the darkness of her
small home. I was surprised when she emerged with a large fertilizer bag.
She untied the top of the bag and began to pull out her stores of homegrown
organic seeds. She laughed when I explained my surprise. She laid them out
before us, a dazzling array: finger millet, orange maize, Bambara nuts,
cowpeas, sorghum, soybeans, mung beans, three kinds of groundnuts, popcorn,
common beans. All had been saved from her previous harvest. The
contribution of chemical fertilizer to these crops was, clearly, just the

She explained that some would be sold for seed. There is a growing market
for these common crops that have all-but-disappeared with the government’s
obsessive promotion of maize. Some she would share with the 50 other farmer
members of the local SKI network. And some she and her family would happily
consume. Crop diversity is certainly good for the soil, she said, but it’s
even better for the body.

*Peasant rights crucial to climate adaptation*

We visited three other Kasisi-trained farmers. All sang the praises of
organic production and its diversity of native crops. All said their diets
had improved dramatically, and they are much more food-secure than when
they planted only maize. Diverse crops are the perfect hedge against a
fickle climate. If the maize fails, as it has in recent years, other crops
survive to feed farmers’ families, providing a broader range of nutrients.
Many traditional crops are more drought-tolerant than maize.

Another farmer we visited had already planted, optimistically, before the
rains arrived. She showed us her fields, dry and with few shoots emerging.
With her toe she cleared some dirt from one furrow to reveal small green
leaves, alive in the dry heat. “Millet,” she said proudly. With a range of
crops, she said, “the farmer can never go wrong.”

I found the same determination in Malawi, where the new Farm-Saved Seed
Network (FASSNet) is building awareness and working with government on a
“Farmers’ Rights” bill to complement a controversial Seed Bill, which deals
only with commercial seeds. A parallel process is advancing legislation on
the right to food and nutrition. Both efforts should get a shot in the arm
with the UN’s Peasants’ Rights declaration.

The declaration now gives such farmers a potentially powerful international
tool to defend themselves from the onslaught of policies and initiatives,
led by multinational seed companies, to replace native seeds with
commercial varieties, the kind farmers have to buy every year.

Kasisi’s Chalala told me that narrative is fierce in Zambia, with
government representatives telling farmers like Tembo that because her
seeds are not certified by the government they should be referred to only
as “grain.”

*Eroding protection from GMOs*

As if to illustrate the ongoing threats to farm-saved seed, that same week
in Zambia controversy erupted over two actions by the government’s National
Biosafety Board to weaken the country’s proud and clear stance against the
use of genetically modified crops. The Board had quietly granted approval
for a supermarket chain to import and sell three products with GMOs, a move
promptly criticized by the Zambian National Farmers Union

Then it was revealed that the Board was secretly drawing up regulations for
the future planting of GM crops in the country, again in defiance of the
government’s approved policies. The Zambian Alliance for Agroecology and
Biodiversity <https://zambianagroecology.org/> quickly denounced the

The UN declaration makes such actions a violation of peasants’ rights. Now
the task is to put that new tool in farmers’ hands. “As with other rights,
the vision and potential of the Peasant Rights Declaration will only be
realized if people organize to claim these rights and to implement them in
national and local institutions,” argued University of Pittsburgh
sociologists Jackie Smith and Caitlin Schroering in *Common Dreams*
*.* “Human rights don’t ‘trickle down’—they rise up!”

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