In the spotlight

In the spotlight 1

From agrarian reform to people’s rights to territories: a brief history of people’s struggles for natural resources

The struggle for land has been a pillar of the food sovereignty movement since its emergence in the 1990s. At that time, peasant and landless organizations in different regions of the world were mobilizing against extreme land concentration and large farms (sometimes called latifundios), which had often been inherited from colonial times [In many countries, organizing against land concentration and demanding land redistribution has been part of social struggles for most of the second half of the 20th century. For instance, many revolutionary movements in Asia, including after decolonization, had land at their center.]. In 1999, La Via Campesina launched a Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform (GCAR) to push for human rights-based land distribution policies, and to oppose approaches that promoted markets as the best way of allocating land to the most “efficient” users and profitable uses. Rural movements’ demands for comprehensive agrarian reform also gained traction internationally, culminating in the final declaration of the International Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (ICARRD) in 2006.

Towards the end of the 2000s, two important developments changed the framing of land struggles. Firstly, the food sovereignty movement gathered for the World Forum for Food Sovereignty in Sélingué (Mali). Different constituencies of small-scale food producers, such as indigenous peoples, pastoralists and artisanal fishers participated in this landmark meeting. These organizations had different histories and concerns than some of the peasant organizations and did not necessarily center their demands on agrarian reform. The notion of “territories” emerged out of the debate as a more holistic framing, capturing the close and multi-faceted relationship that different communities and people have with their natural environment, including farmland, water, fisheries, rangelands and forests. Secondly, the food price and financial crises that started in 2008 triggered a new wave of land grabbing, which also targeted regions that had not seen high levels of land concentration until then (e.g. West Africa). The new land rush sparked fierce resistance of communities and small-scale food producers’ organizations in defense of their territories, including their collective and customary tenure systems. In 2011, organizations from around the world gathered again in Sélingué for an International Peasant Conference to Stop Land Grabbing. This marked an important moment for the building of a global movement against land grabbing, which built on demands for agrarian reform but also recognized more strongly the demands of movements and constituencies who were not comfortable with agrarian reform language. In 2016, social movements and their allies came together for an International Conference on Agrarian Reform in Marabá, Brazil, where they endorsed the concept of Popular Agrarian Reform, which was initially developed by La Via Campesina Brazil and which embeds demands for land distribution within broader policies to transform economies and society, specifically including urban working people.

The global land grab put land back prominently on the international agenda. Among others, it gave further impetus to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s initiative to develop an international reference document on the governance of natural resources. The small-scale food producers’ organizations gathered in the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC) led the participation of civil society in the negotiations that took place in the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). The Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Land, Fisheries and Forests (Tenure Guidelines) were adopted in 2012. Building on the ICARRD, they clarify states’ obligations to respect, protect and guarantee all legitimate tenure rights – whether they are legally recognized or not –, prioritizing the most marginalized groups. They contain provisions for the protection of customary tenure systems as well as for restitution and redistribution [The IPC’s Land and Territory Working Group has developed a People’s Manual to help grassroots organizations to use this international instrument.]. The Tenure Guidelines were complemented in 2014 by the Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-scale Fisheries, which also emphasize the collective character of many communities’ rights.

These international guidelines have provided an opportunity for social organizations to advance their struggles at local, national and regional levels. They have achieved important advances in several countries and have further pushed for an explicit international recognition of the human right to land for rural people. This was finally achieved with the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas in 2018 [See in particular articles 5 and 17], which complements the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization’s Convention no. 169. However, the Tenure Guidelines were also taken up by actors who consider land and related natural resources primarily as a globalized economic and financial asset. In such a framing, “secure land rights” or “security of tenure” means providing exclusive property rights, usually in the form of individual land titles. The International Land Coalition (ILC) is one of the most emblematic manifestations of an approach, which considers land-related “investment” projects as necessary, while acknowledging that negative impacts on local people need to be mitigated. It is under such a framing that land has been included into the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In the spotlight 2

Land and territories today: new challenges and broader struggles

At the same time as land and natural resources have been put back on the global agenda as key issues, the dispossession of communities and people has reached new heights. Today, social movements’ struggles for territories need to respond to a new context that is marked by a number of developments:

Financialization: The financial crisis that started in 2008/09 has made evident the enormous power of finance capitalism and the dispossession and destruction of livelihoods that it causes for communities around the world. Land deals and all kinds of “investment” projects (large-scale agriculture, infrastructure etc.) are managed through opaque investment webs, tax havens and offshore centres. New financial instruments such as derivatives allow for new ways of wealth extraction and speculation by corporate and financial actors [More information here]. While financialization has come along with new levels of concentration of control over people’s territories in the hands of a few powerful actors – for instance, the Singapore-based agribusiness company Olam owns and manages more than 3 million hectares of land and forests around the world – it also challenges traditional claims for agrarian reform, namely the call for distribution of non-utilized land. This is because the value of land as a financial asset is decoupled from its use and land that is not under production is used in other ways to generate financial returns. This also applies to forests and oceans, which have been transformed into assets for different climate change mitigation schemes under the so-called “green” and “blue” economies.
Financialization entails that the effective control over land and other natural resources is increasingly in the hands of financial actors that are not necessarily visible for affected communities and people. These include pension funds, investment funds, banks, insurance companies and asset management companies such as BlackRock, the world’s biggest finance firm. Struggles for land and territories therefore need to address also financial justice issues such as stopping tax evasion, closing tax havens and ending illicit financial flows.

Digitalization: Digital technologies play a key role in transforming land, fisheries and forests into globalized assets and are therefore a key element of financialization. Digitalization is promoted by governments, international institutions and the corporate sector as a new “silver bullet” that is supposed to make natural resource governance more efficient and to ensure tenure security for communities. While the food sovereignty movement and small-scale food producers’ organizations still need to discuss further to what extent digital technologies can be used in an emancipatory way, it is clear that the corporate-driven digitalization agenda is perpetuating structural inequalities and power imbalances [For more information, please see the Nyéléni Newsletter No. 37 on “The Digitalization of the Food System.].

Rise of authoritarianism and crisis of democracy: Social movements’ and indigenous peoples’ struggles are increasingly squeezed between authoritarian, racist and chauvinistic regimes that seek to capture land demands for their own purposes on the one side, and new levels of corporate capture of governance spaces on the other. These developments have led to an alarming level of erosion of human rights and democracy at national and international levels. Consequently, the fundamentals for framing land demands and campaigning have changed. At international level, the rise of corporate power, the inability of UN institutions to provide useful/credible advice in the face of crises, and the rise of right wing authoritarianism has led to a deep crisis of the multilateral system of the UN, which has profound implications for the implementation of the significant achievements mentioned above [One example is the Food Systems Summit that is planned for 2021 and whose corporate-driven process has been denounced by more than five hundred organizations from around the world].

Convergence of agrarian and ecological struggles: The profound ecological crisis the world is facing today and which manifest most strongly in human-made global warming as well as in the dramatic loss of biological diversity, has major implications for food sovereignty. Agrarian movements and struggles for land and territories need to integrate these issues in a comprehensive way. One manifestation of the relevance of ecological issues is the fact that relevant discussions regarding land have moved away from the “traditional” land governance spaces and are increasingly happening in other fora, such as those related to climate change, biodiversity, land degradation and soils etc. [This has happened at the same time when the FAO has largely given up its leadership on land issues and has no clear strategy for the implementation of the Tenure Guidelines in line with the UNDROP. This has opened the door for other actors to take over the leading role, such as the World Bank and multi-stakeholder platforms such as the ILC.] Even though small-scale food producers’ organizations have partially succeeded in bringing the Tenure Guidelines, the SSF Guidelines and UNDROP into some of the relevant discussions, the framing of land issues remains very narrow. Some of the civil society groups that have been active in the climate and biodiversity spaces, for instance, focus on specific and limited demands such as safeguards to protect indigenous peoples’ rights or formalization of communities’ land rights. Small-scale food producers’ organizations struggling for food sovereignty are not well represented (yet) in these fora, which are dominated by specialized NGOs and their “expert” knowledge. The small-scale food producers’ organizations of the IPC are currently struggling for a broader recognition of rural people’s role as stewards of ecosystems and that this requires effective control over their territories.

Focus on the production model: Currently, the most intense debates on food are about the necessary transformation of food systems and agroecology. In the light of a deep legitimacy crisis of the agribusiness model, which is all too obviously unsustainable, social movements and CSOs have made important achievements, especially in the CFS [The CFS is currently engaged in two important policy processes in this regard: 1) the negotiations on Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition; and 2) the development on policy recommendations on
Agroecological and other Innovative Approaches.] and FAO [Following two international and a series of regional FAO symposia/conferences, the FAO Council (the executive organ of the FAO) formally adopted Ten Elements of Agroecology in December 2019]. Land and territories are central to these debates, but they are rarely prominently discussed in this context. In addition, despite the legitimacy crisis of agribusiness, there is little real change so far. Agribusiness has put forward Climate Smart Agriculture and the use of new (biological and digital) technologies as false solutions that are supposed to maintain its power. The COVID pandemic and the limitations it has entailed for social movements and indigenous peoples’ organizations in terms of their capacity to mobilize has been used by agribusiness to further expand its power in many countries [Among the most blatant examples is the admission of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in Ecuador and Bolivia, and the ever-increasing deforestation in Brazil.] and in the internationally dominant discourse.

COVID-19 pandemic and responses: Although the crisis caused by the pandemic and governments’ responses to it has laid bare the profound inequalities of our societies and the profound crisis of the industrial food system, debates and response measures have focused to a great extent to health aspects. Despite broad recognition of the fact that extractive activities, including agribusiness, are responsible for the destruction of ecosystems and that this leads to the emergence of new pathogens, the international and national responses have focused on saving big corporations and maintaining global value chains. While some peasant organizations have made the link to land concentration, calling for redistributive reforms as part of the response to the crisis, to the economic recession and to the escalation of inequalities that it is likely to entail [See, for instance MST’s Emergency Plan for People’s Agrarian Reform]; there has been no comprehensive proposal yet by the food sovereignty movement on how to incorporate land and territories into the post-pandemic order.

At this time of major disruptions and shifts, it is important to revive and (at least partially) refocus the struggles for land and territories in the new context. This will require building on the “old” strategies while finding new pathways that are adapted to the current circumstances. Over the last years, broader convergences of struggles for food sovereignty, women’s rights as well as environmental, social and financial justice have started to emerge, which connect movements and demands in new ways, and could lead to new strategies of building power to achieve systemic change. In several countries, the COVID “emergency” has boosted solidarity and local organizing, combining direct relief and support actions with political demands geared towards transformative change.

The current moment provides an important opportunity for a deep, collective and action-oriented reflection because it has exposed more clearly than ever the immense injustices and inequalities of the current food and economic systems. It is also a moment of reconfiguration of power relations that will determine to what extent social movements and people’s mobilization will be able to advance the political agenda of food sovereignty.