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International Day of Peasants’ Struggle 2020: Amid the COVID-19 Crisis, Food Sovereignty is Crucial Now More Than Ever

Rights, Inc. - Statement - cover photos

Manila, Philippines—Peasants around the world marked April 17, as the International Day of Peasants’ Struggle to highlight their continuing struggle to fight and defend their right to land, livelihood, food, health, and natural resources. To date, the effects of neoliberalization and the unregulated entry of capital fueled land grabbing, land accumulation, extractive corporate mining, including mega-projects in once large swathes of agricultural land and forest resulting in displacement, hunger, and loss of dignity among the rural sector.

In every part of the global South, gross human rights violations such as the criminalization of peasants’ assertion to their right to land, livelihood, and right to food are the norms, and the varied forms of harassment, threats, and discrimination toward them persist.

The Rural Poor Institute for Land and Human Rights Resources (Rights, Inc.), Kilusan para sa Repormang Agraryo at Katarungang Panlipunan (KATARUNGAN), and their allied farmers’ organizations joined the observation of the International Day of Peasants’ Struggle to show their solidarity with peasants of the world as well as highlight the persistent, serious threats and hostile conditions Filipino farmers have to contend in order to produce food for the country.

Filipino farmers have long suffered from the reckless lack of support from the government; food import policies; rampant conversion of prime agricultural lands for realty, tourism, and other developmental projects; preference of corporate farming and nonfood production of crops such as tobacco, palm oil, and rubber; failure to provide land tenure and shelter even to farmers who are victims of calamities, and the criminalization and killings of farmers who assert their right to land, livelihood, and resources.

Our peasants continue producing food despite the unfavorable environment further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the advent of COVID-19, Filipino farmers were regularly forced to dump their produce due to the rampant smuggling of agricultural products, inadequate market access and viable price support for their produce. Peasants and their families have long shouldered both economic and physical risks in food production with their children quitting school when farm prices bust. Now with COVID-19 farmers and their families put their lives on the line every day to ensure that we have enough supplies, fresh produce, and other resources.

COVID-19 added another threat to their livelihood with the travel restrictions imposed by national and local governments to prevent the spread of the virus. Vegetable farmers discarded their products due to inaccessible markets brought about by the quarantine. RIGHTS also received reports from its partners that traders used the travel restrictions to buy at very low prices the harvests of farmers.

The passage of the rice tariffication law or RTL—the latest food import policy—pushed rice farmers further to the economic marginalization with the rice sector losing from 120 billion pesos to 200 billion pesos in 2019 alone, according to analysts. This caused rice farmers to stop sending their children to school and opt from farming altogether. Instead of punishing the notorious big rice traders who controlled the rice market, it was the Filipino rice farmers who were made to pay for the corrupt behavior of big rice traders.

With the absence of any policy change in its food import policy, it is expected the rice tariffication law will fuel the unregulated conversion of prime agricultural lands with rice farmers opting out from farming to sell their lands to realty developers.

The ongoing pandemic will further expose the flaws of the food import policies of the government in the coming months when rice-producing countries will be unable to export rice either due to prioritizing first their domestic demand, and disruptions in the supply chain prevent them to continue their commitments to supply buying countries with the staple food.

It is in the midst of a crisis that we see the vital importance of our peasants. We welcome the national government’s acknowledgment of our peasants as frontliners in the fight against COVID-19. But it should do more beyond this lip service of recognition to ensure food self-sufficiency and food sovereignty in our country.

We bring in particular attention to the 2018 adoption by the United Nations of the “Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas” (UNDROP), which we see as a great leap toward protecting the “right to dignity” of peasants all over the world. We must recognize that protecting our peasants requires a concerted international effort, marked by the engagement and cooperation of international organizations, national governments, and the meaningful participation of civil society and social movements. In this regard, on the occasion of the International Day of Peasants’ Struggle, we urge the Philippine government to begin localizing UNDROP into concrete policies and programs.

Hence, we urge the national government to prioritize our local farmers and our country’s agricultural production. Specifically, we urgently call on the national government to repeal the oppressive rice tariffication law (RTL) which is killing our rice farming sector and have further pushed rice farmers to economic dislocation. The Philippines must not rely on food imports which are highly susceptible to the whims of market forces, pandemics, wars, and protectionist policies of food-producing countries to feed their own population. The Philippines must adopt a food security policy that is primarily anchored on smallholder production for a strong, productive, and empowered agricultural sector that can withstand external shocks at the global level.

To achieve this, we call on the national government to do the following:
  1. stop the conversion of prime agricultural lands and revert idle exempted, and converted lands to agricultural use;
  2. commit to a comprehensive national land use act;
  3. encourage sustainable farming practices and provide support services needed to make smallholder agriculture viable;
  4. support the development of a new generation of young farmers;
  5. protect the right of peasants to a healthful environment;
  6. end the production of nonfood crops such as tobacco, palm oil, rubber and provide alternative livelihoods to these displaced farmers;
  7. mandate banks to invest in agriculture, particularly to small-scale farming;
  8. release the coco levy funds for coconut industry rehabilitation and development;
  9. develop linkages with local governments for the distribution of farm inputs, access to credits, and marketing of produce;
  10. and as partners guarantee the meaningful participation of all peasants in agricultural policy.

All these we see as intimately linked to protecting the right to land of all peasants in protracted land cases in state-led agrarian reform, as we in our organization continue to push for.

Throughout the duration of this pandemic, we call on everyone to stay home but not silent. The struggle of peasants all over the world continues. Amid the COVID-19 crisis, food sovereignty and support for our peasants are crucial, now more than ever.

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