On 17th April each year, we mark the International Day of Peasant Struggles, to remember 19 landless farm workers killed by Brazil’s military police in 1996, for defending their right to settle on unused land. In 2023, now 27 years on from the Eldorado do Carajás massacre, the repression of rural workers, along with peasants, Indigenous Peoples, and especially women in these groups, only continues to worsen. In the past decade, a land and environmental defender was killed every two days worldwide, most often in Brazil, Colombia, Philippines, and Mexico.
Rural repression on the rise
There are many reasons for this rise in repression, criminalisation and violence against rural peoples. Our economic system and the super profits of many corporations depend on grabbing natural resources. This brings them into direct conflict with the approximately 2.5 billion peasants, Indigenous Peoples and other communities living in rural or forested areas.
Industrial food corporations, or “agribusiness”, want land for intensive agriculture. Along with mining and logging companies, they are the most responsible for documented killings of environmental defenders. Their large-scale beef, soy and palm oil plantations are sites of frequent human rights violations – and they thrive on the impunity provided by increasingly authoritarian and fascist leaders.
Now, a new rush for “carbon removals” and “offsets” from land, forests and oceans is ramping up repression under the guise of providing “nature based solutions” to the ecological crises. Fossil fuel corporations, along with banks, tech companies, agribusiness, and even many governments, are claiming they can invest in removals and offsets instead of stopping emissions at source. This is a fallacy. Scientists have shown that rapid and deep emissions cuts are the only way to keep us under 1.5°C of warming.
Relying on offsetting is risky and dangerous, for the climate and for people in the first line of defence against destructive projects. To counter repression and tackle the climate crisis systemically, we need governments to implement the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) and on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). We also need public policies to scale-up peoples’ climate solutions.
What are peasants’ rights?
Small-scale farmers, or peasants, provide food for around 70-80% of the world. Yet, they represent 80% of the world’s hungry and 70% of those living in extreme poverty. Many are women, who make up almost half of agricultural workers in developing countries. The peasantry’s ways of farming, managing natural resources and living with nature are shown to build resilience against climate changes and protect ecosystems.
In December 2018, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) – “a call for justice, based on the culmination of grievances and struggles of the world’s peasantry” over more than 20 years.
In practice, the UNDROP is an important tool to strengthen peasants’ struggles, establish jurisprudence and guide public policies towards food sovereignty. Peasants, Indigenous Peoples, fisherfolk and nomads have long claimed that recognising their human rights exclusively as individuals disregards the role that community plays in how they live and work. So the UNDROP promotes collective rights: human rights that protect seeds, land and communal ways of life. It also has important provisions to advance rural women’s rights. This legal tool can be used to pressure governments to improve rural lives and regulate the transnational corporations that cause them harm.
How does “net zero” threaten peasants’ rights?
In recent years, more and different corporations – from oil and gas majors to tech giants – have increased the squeeze on peasants rights and land, by making “net zero” emissions pledges. These are a public commitment to cancel out emissions by a certain time in future, through technological or natural carbon offsetting methods. The latter – “nature based solutions” – can include monoculture tree plantations, genetically modified crops, protected areas, and farming in a way that attempts to capture carbon in soils.
Yet, “net zero” is putting intense pressure on land in the global South, to turn nature and territories into something that can be “bought” and “sold” as offset credits. It allows countries and companies to delay making real emissions cuts. “Nature based solutions” have been shown to compound rights abuses, land grabbing and poverty, in already vulnerable places.
Recent scandals in offset projects have exposed the difficulty in measuring carbon. In Kenya, indigenous herders are being forced to change their low-impact way of life, so that companies like Netflix and Meta can continue polluting. This worsens the situation for herders already suffering from the prolonged drought caused by climate change. In Kachung, Uganda, an industrial tree plantation which provided offsetting credits to the Swedish government and was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), has crippled community life and villagers’ livelihoods – “villagers were deprived of vital resources and experienced threats and violence” said one report.
The “net zero” pledges also require far more land than is available. Nestlé’s ambition to offset 13 million tonnes worth of CO2 each year could require planting trees on more than 4.4 million hectares of land — that’s larger than Switzerland — annually. Shell’s pledge would involve planting trees on land the size of Brazil. Governments are increasingly relying on carbon removal to achieve their national climate pledges under the Paris Agreement – currently they add up to 1.2 billion hectares, equivalent to current global cropland!
Realising peasants’ rights
There are examples of peasants using the UNDROP to successfully resist corporate projects. In 2022, the Indonesian Peasants Union (SPI) inaugurated a new “Food Sovereignty Area” on West Java, adding to six others across the country. The area, where family farmers and cooperatives share seeds and land to produce food through agroecology, is legitimised by local laws and by the UNDROP. This inspiring example demonstrates that the realisation of peasants’ rights can and should start from the grassroots.
Communities on the land — peasants, indigenous peoples, pastoralists, fishers, and especially women in these groups — have always been the first line of defence against extractive, emissions-heavy projects. These rural communities are the least responsible for climate change and some of their practices provide pathways out of it — such as community forest management and agroecology. Evidence shows that indigenous peoples and local communities with secure land rights vastly outperform both governments and private landholders in preventing deforestation, conserving biodiversity, and producing food sustainably.
If we want to achieve a sustainable world, based on climate, social and gender justice, keeping peoples on the land is our vital responsibility.
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Main image: © La Via Campesina