What is a peasant? Many people in the United States think it’s a derogatory term referring to people ruled by feudal lords in the middle ages. But it really means a “person of the land or of the country” and in much of the world, family farmers and rural workers continue to embrace the term (“campesino“ in Spanish, “paysan“ in French) to describe themselves and their communities with pride. It’s a term that denotes communities and people who produce food, who have important knowledge and skills, and who prefer autonomy in making decisions in their livelihoods and work. Peasants produce food for the market, not just for themselves. It is estimated that peasants produce well over half of the world’s food.
I grew up in a family farming community in Pennsylvania that has long been under economic pressure to fully transition to a food system dominated by big agribusiness. Many farms have disappeared in recent decades. They have been swallowed up by larger farms that took on more debt, bought bigger machinery, and specialized in producing the one or two crops dictated by agribusiness corporations. The loss of so many farms has destroyed community ties and devastated local businesses and small towns. Rural areas even have considerable hunger.
Where I grew up farming communities, especially those formed by Amish and Mennonite communities, continue to persist and the number of family farms with diverse crops and animals is growing in certain areas. Across the country, young people from many backgrounds continue to aspire to farm and experiment with new ways of making their livelihoods.
Around the world, many national and regional organizations of rural peoples belong to the coalition “La Via Campesina” (the Peasant Way). In North America, members of Via Campesina include the National Family Farm Coalition and the Rural Coalition in the United States and the Canadian National Farmers’ Union.
Via Campesina has been hard at work in Geneva with governments and other civil society organizations to draft the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, which is now being presented to the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The declaration covers diverse people and communities including indigenous peoples, family farmers, fisherfolk, and farmworkers, among others. Key provisions prohibit discrimination against rural people and protect communities from having the land, water, and other natural resources they have depended on taken away from them. Other provisions assert the right to participate fully in government decision-making and to have access to an adequate standard of living, health care, and education. Additionally, the declaration protects their right to food sovereignty, that is, to democratically control their own seed and food production systems and produce food for themselves and not just for the market.
All of these rights and others covered in the new declaration are crucial to the Right to Food, which has been recognized by most countries since 1966. Control of land and food systems by a few companies is a threat to the right to food for everyone. Households working together in their communities can better manage farms, fisheries, forests, and grazing lands and can support more livelihoods by carefully using natural resources. For example, they can grow multiple crops in landscapes of varied soils and use agroecological methods that are sustainable and productive.
Large-scale agribusiness seeks a different kind of efficiency, a damaging efficiency, that employs large machinery to produce a single crop for a large buyer over large areas with minimal labor. This creates few jobs and supports few local businesses. However, peasants and other rural peoples can only exercise their advantages in food production, and help the world realize the Right to Food, if governments begin to take the types of policy actions that follow from the new declaration, instead of devoting all of their resources to agribusiness, as is currently the case.
The natural resources that communities use must be protected, and in some cases, restored. Rural communities must have access to social security, quality healthcare, and education. There must be research and extension services that support the knowledge rural people have and allow them to participate in the building of knowledge and the adaptation of their practices to climate and environmental problems. There is a need for food reserves that stabilize prices at an adequate level, and the development of territorial markets which allow them to produce food for towns and cities without being controlled by single buyers. The rights in the declaration also apply to rural workers who, for example, now pick fruit for large farmers. They must be recognized for their skills and knowledge, and have the opportunity to live well, and to choose and create new futures.
This video tells the remarkable and inspirational story of migrant, indigenous farmworkers working in U.S. berry fields who organized to fight for their rights, forming one of the few independent unions in the country – Familias Unidas por la Justicia – and winning a powerful campaign for justice and dignity. Their story is emblematic of why we need to recognize the human rights of peasants.
The Right to Food will not be realized overnight. We cannot immediately change all the things that are wrong with our food system. But we can start by recognizing the rights of peasants and other rural workers. Then we must move to pressure our governments to adopt policies that support rural communities, indigenous peoples, farmers, fishers, and other people who are food producers.