UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants

February 24, 2021

Geneviève Savigny, Jessie MacInnis, Nadia Lambek, Dr. Annette Aurélie Desmarais

On Feb. 24, 2021, the Centre for Human Rights Research presented a panel on the “UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants: What it Means for Canada” with a focus on:

  • Why is UNDROP necessary? (Geneviève Savigny, La Vía Campesina’s Peasant Rights Collective, Confédération Paysanne, France)
  • What Does UNDROP Mean for Canada? (Jessie MacInnis, La Vía Campesina’s Peasant Rights Collective, National Farmers Union)
  • The Rights of Migrant Farm Workers in Canada (Nadia Lambek, human rights lawyer & chair, Canadian Association for Food Law and Policy)

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants (UNDROP) provides a framework for transforming “the corporate-led industrial system to a more socially just and ecologically sustainable food system,” according to University of Manitoba Prof. Annette Desmarais. She chaired an online panel discussion Feb. 24, 2021, about what the relatively new document might mean for Canada.

People of the land

UNDROP defines a peasant as “any person who engages or who seeks to engage alone, or in association with others or as a community, in small-scale agricultural production for subsistence and/or for the market, and who relies significantly, though not necessarily exclusively, on family or household labour and other non-monetized ways of organizing labour, and who has a special dependency on and attachment to the land.”

History of UNDROP

Early negotiations around developing international instruments to support farmers and peasants began at the turn of the 21st century.

Geneviève Savigny, a leading member in La Vía Campesina’s Peasant Rights Collective, said the 2008 food crisis helped catalyze international recognition of the importance of food security.

“In September 2012, there was a resolution passed in the United Nations Human Rights Council to establish the first Open-Ended Intergovernmental Working Group (OEIWG) to start negotiating, finalizing and to submit a draft of the declaration,” she said.

In five OEIWG sessions held between 2013 and 2018, the intended scope of the declaration was expanded to include fishermen, pastoralists, Indigenous peoples and other food producers.

The final draft of the declaration included 28 articles ranging from the rights to natural resources and development, to the rights to education and training. It passed in the UN General Assembly Dec. 18, 2018.

Canada abstained from the vote.

UNDROP in Canada

The Canadian constitution divides jurisdiction over work on farms between the federal and provincial governments.

Nadia Lambek, chair of the Canadian Association for Food Law and Policy, said provincial employment standards legislation excludes farm workers. This means there are no maximum hours of work, no legislated rest periods and no minimum wage.

“An employer can have an employee work for 14 days straight without any overtime and without any public holidays,” she said.

In 2011, the Supreme of Canada ruled that farm workers do not have the right to unionize and bargain collectively.

Although Canada abstained from the declaration vote, National Farmers Union Youth Vice-President Jessie MacInnis said UNDROP can still be used a “legal tool for change.”

“Many of the rights violations often assumed to be closely associated with lower-income countries are actually well and alive here in Canada,” she said.

MacInnis highlighted that the movement for food sovereignty underway in Canada signals a shift from a market-based approach to agricultural policy. To steer this momentum towards reform, MacInnis suggests using the language of the declaration as a “rallying point.”

“In my opinion, the declaration is really the best holistic framework to address the rights violations that the peasant farmers and farmworkers in Canada are experiencing today,” she said.