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. 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 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 bag.
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 quickly denounced the initiative.
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!”