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Newsletter no 21 - In the Spotlight 1

Monday 16 March 2015, by Manu

Natural resources and food sovereignty

The defense of and the struggle for our rights to land, water, seeds, breeds, fisheries, forests, oceans, and all the natural resources that we need in order to be able to feed ourselves and our communities with dignity are at the core of Food Sovereignty.

But how can we defend and struggle for our rights to resources vis-à-vis powerful national and transnational investors, unfair investment and trade regimes, financialization of natural resources, blatant co-option of states by transnational capital, and militarization, violence and criminalization against those defending their rights to resources? What are the roles for policies and laws in these struggles?

There is no easy answer to these questions. Context matters a lot. What works in one place or situation does not necessarily work in others. Nevertheless, we have some insights that are useful to share, reflect and further develop.
Law is one of the means par excellence of exercising power. Any people’s movement trying to change power relationships cannot avoid dealing with legal issues in order to challenge unjust and illegitimate laws, policies and practices; and in order to build alternative normative and legal orders which are instrumental in creating/consolidating counter-powers. For social movements rallying for food sovereignty, the question is not whether to use legal strategies, but rather which legal strategies to use.

Here the human rights framework plays a prominent role, particularly when it comes to challenging international legal frameworks that work against the rural poor—such as trade, investment environmental and security regimes-or to defending local communities from abuses by international actors. A human right is a right inherent to all human beings without any discrimination based on sex, origin, race, place of residence, religion, or any other status. Human rights are universal, interdependent, indivisible and interrelated, and seek to protect human dignity. They are derived from the needs and aspirations of ordinary people, express universal ethical and moral values, and empower each human being, their communities and peoples with entitlements and enforceable claims vis-à-vis their own, as well as other governments. To resist oppression is at the very core of human rights. Human rights explicitly address power imbalances and question the legitimacy of the powerful.

Ways of using the human rights framework are highly diverse and depend on contextual factors. Some grassroots groups and social movements use human rights and national laws in defensive strategies to protect their members from major abuses such as persecution, harassment, arbitrary detention, violent forced evictions and destruction of crops, animals and agricultural infrastructure. In such situations,resorting to human rights and/or fundamental rights enshrined in national constitutions can save lives and provide avenues for action that are likely to gather the support of other sectors of society in the face of government repression.

Other groups and movements use human and constitutional rights, and national policies and laws upholding these rights, to raise awareness among their members about their rights, and in doing so to restore self-confidence, dignity and the conviction that resisting oppression is rightful. Raising awareness is crucial to mobilize and organize people to defend their rights. On other occasions, a legal strategy is part of a broader strategy which aims at changing the way conflicts over resources are framed and perceived by society. They combine direct actions and actions of legal disobedience - such as land occupations or hindering the construction of so called development projects – with filling cases before courts or administrative authorities.

Human rights can also be used to challenge illegitimate policies and laws such as the corporate-friendly legal frameworks in many countries and to uphold people’s alternatives proposals for policies and laws opening up spaces for policy dialogue centered on people’s lives.
For sure, human rights treaties, national constitutions, laws and policies upholding people’s rights are not self-executory. They always need to be claimed by people. So far, people’s mobilizations on the ground remain the paramount form of human rights accountability. International human rights soft-law instruments such as the Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests can become effective when social movements appropriate, claim, monitor and implement them on their own. Soft-law instruments can become powerful tools to transmit dissent and resistance to destructive legal regimes (such as trade and investment) and lay the foundations of alternative policy making.