UN expert: Zambia’s farmers at risk of becoming squatters on their own land

Woman farmer and baby MalawiFemale farmer and her baby. (Image source: Swathi Sridharan (ICRISAT)/Commons)The United Nations (NS) Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, today cautioned that many Zambian farmers are at risk of becoming squatters on their own land as Zambia is turned into Southern Africa’s food basket

"The push to turn commercial large-scale agricultural into a driving engine of the Zambian economy, in a situation where the protection of access to land is weak, can risk pushing small-holder farmers and peasants off their land and out of production with severe impacts on the people’s right to food,” Ms. Elver said at the end of her first official visit to the country.

The expert drew special attention to the fact that in the Zambian dual-model of land tenure tenants on state land enjoy the full protection of their property rights. “However,” she noted, “landholders under customary tenure, affecting around 85 per cent of the land, mostly in hands of peasants [farmers], are essentially occupants or users of land and their property and land rights remain unprotected.”

“This situation is particularly alarming since small-scale farmers represent 60 per cent of Zambians and at the same time produce 85 per cent of the food for the population,” Ms. Elver pointed out. “These people are generally amongst the poorest of the population, 40 per cent of them live in rural areas and suffer from extreme poverty.”

“Many peasants are forced to work as contract farmers for the larger commercial industrial farms in adverse conditions, or are obliged to sell their products at undervalued prices to monopoly type multinationals who buy farmers’ product for export,” the expert explained.

The Special Rapporteur heard testimonies of comparatively successful small-scale farmers who were still forced to sell their animals in order to pay for their children to go to school. Many small-scale farmers have their children working from as early as the age of six to secure their families’ livelihood.

Ms. Elver noted that the growth in the agriculture sector in Zambia in the last decade has not been inclusive but limited to large scale farmers, leaving the small scale farmers behind. “The agricultural sector has failed to make a dent on poverty levels in the rural areas and as such the model for the strengthening of the agricultural sectors need to be altered,” she said.

“It is imperative that national strategies incorporate human rights principles that include the protection of their access to land and other productive resources in order to protect the county’s traditional food system, small holder farmers and their livelihoods,” the Special Rapporteur urged.

A recent study has found that severe acute malnutrition in Zambia comes with a 40 per cent mortality rate, five times the global average due to lack in access to adequate health services as well as to therapeutic foods.

“This is not tolerable since the effects of under-nutrition are irreversible, and lack of access to adequate and nutritious food is having a detrimental effect on future generations and must be addressed as a matter of urgency,” she stressed.

“It is vital that development plans and policies take into account the true cost of industrial farming methods primarily for its people, but also on soil and water resources, as well as the social and economic impact on people rather than focusing only on short term profitability and economic growth,” Ms. Elver said.

The Special Rapporteur’s observations and recommendations will be reflected in her final report, which will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2018.

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