The Current State of Farmers Rights in Africa

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In Africa, Women are Often Responsible for Indigenous Seed Management Including Selection, Storage, Exchange and Planting. Picture by KHUMBILO-Zambia
In Africa, Women are Often Responsible for Indigenous Seed Management Including Selection, Storage, Exchange and Planting. Picture by KHUMBILO-Zambia

YOU possibly already know who a FARMER is. If you are not, without any grain of doubt, you are alive because of the work of farmers.

The Wikipedia defines a farmer as a person engaged in agriculture, raising living organisms for food or raw materials. The Wikipedia goes further to define the term as applicable to people who do some combination of raising field crops, orchards, vineyards, poultry, or other livestock. Simply put, without a farmer, the world would slowly starve to death.

Farmers world over have a story to tell; it is a story of success, respect, dignity and possible prosperity. The chronicle of the farmer’s rights, especially in Africa is totally an eye sow.

Despite the significance contribution farmers make, the African governments continue to violate internationally recognized rights to food security, health, livelihood and life of farmers. Take peasant farmers for example; they act as the source of employment and economic livelihood for the majority of the people.

This is so because most of their activities are undertaken within the communities including expenditure of the generated incomes. Take away these small scale farmers; the majority of the people would experience the worst ever poverty, food insecurity, degradation and alienation.

While most sectors have been associated with “rights”, rarely have such buzz words been associated with farmers. Women Rights, Employee’s Rights, Employer’s Rights, Political Rights, Cultural Rights, Animal Rights, the list is endless, but how about Farmers’ Rights? Show me one and I will publicise them.

“You can’t talk about the farmer’s rights in Africa. No government talks about farmer’s rights. So the farmers are not exercising their rights,” Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) General Coordinator, Dr. Million Belay confirms the absence of farmer’s rights.

Let us now consider some of the violations farmers have suffered.

Low prices paid to farmers. This has resulted into extreme poverty and thereby denying farmers a decent standard of living. With such a scenario, farmers fail to afford health services which more often than not require finances;

Discrimination against women and other minorities. This keeps people locked in exploitative labour situations and denies them the much needed equal protection and fair remuneration;

Farmers can’t unionize. This means they do not have a collective voice in affairs that affect them.

Prices of produce are determined by others. While suppliers and manufacturers of agricultural related inputs determine their own prices, farmers do not enjoy this rare privilege. Prices of farm produce are decided by the government and more often than not, their focus is based on the impact on food prices. Government should not only consider food prices based on the work of the farmer, but the entire supply and value chain. But they suppress the farmer, not once, every year.

Poor access roads. Most farmers live in places where the access roads and bridges are in poor condition. Not sure farmers are looked at in the context of economic players as well who deserve a return on their taxes.

The above list is not exhaustive. But one thing is clear; the above violations sit on the root of the rights that should be enjoyed by farmers. Amazingly, the government and other citizens still expect farmers to do more.

Some countries in Africa are signatories to these many international instruments, for example the, International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasant and other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) and the International Planning Committee on Food Sovereignty, speaks of farmers’ rights.

It is the obligation of any government to promote and protect these farmers’ rights as they are relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Even then, this is not translated into national laws. The African governments for example, are painfully passive, when it comes to Farmers’ Rights.

The UNDROP instrument defines farmers’ rights as: “Rights arising from the past, present and future contribution of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centres of origin/diversity.”

It is the considered view of the author that, the violation of Farmers’ Rights is systemic with the passage of laws that prohibit them from their age-old practice of saving, sharing and using plant genetic resources or seeds; by imposing and encouraging intellectual property rights or patent rights on seeds; ignoring farmers’ traditional knowledge but instead encouraging public breeding institutions to carry out research on genetically modified organisms and other destructive farming practices.

“The most important is the participation. They have to participate when decisions are made, on things that affect their lives. But mostly, the decisions that affect the farmers are decided in the capital city. At times, out of African continent, even. There are a lot of meetings that are organised in the corridors of pacific in Europe and United States of America (USA). No African farmer is involved,” Dr. Million Belay observed.

And Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) – Zambia’s Programme Officer, Wilfred Miga said, “The farmer’s rights have been infringed upon for a long time. When we talk about the farmer’s rights, we are talking about having the right to eat what they want, to grown what they want; and do with the product which they have grown in the way they want to.”

PELUM – Zambia’s Programme Officer, Wilfred Miga said, “However, we have adequate legislative frameworks that adequately support farmers rights and Zambia is signatory to a number of international treaties and conventions that amplify rights of farmers. What we don’t have are the instruments that enforce the actualization of these rights when the farmers are not enjoying them.”

PELUM – Zambia’s Programme Officer, Wilfred Miga clarified, “But now, if you look at the situation, we are seen programs, which infringe on the farmer’s rights; and for example the Farmer Input Support Programme (FISP) and it doesn’t give a farmer a leeway to choose what they want to grow.”

“If you go into shops, farmers are only exposed to hybrid seeds varieties, synthetic fertilizer and less of small grain seeds such as millets and others, already their right to choose what they want to grow and consequently eat has already been infringed upon. So the farmers don’t have the leeway to choose, they don’t exercise their rights,” PELUM – Zambia’s Programme Officer, Wilfred Miga noted.

Wilfred Miga further said, “Some of the policy frameworks that have a direct infringement on farmer’s rights are the Plant Variety Protection (PVP) and Plant Breeders Rights (PBR). These two are exclusively for the breeders and multinational companies who want to safe guard their interests as well as their varieties. These exclude the farmers saved seed and regard them as grain.”
The effects of the continued violation of farmers’ rights will increase in food prices, health complications e.g. BP, diabetes, obesity, cancers due to high use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as the increase in household food and nutritional insecurity.

Another serious infringement of farmer’s rights in Africa is the Kenyan Cabinet’s decision to lift the ban on the cultivation and importation of the Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) into Kenya. For the last 10 years, there has been no need to import or allow open cultivation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)/food as the country has been able to do without GMOs.

According to the representatives of smallholder farmer groups, civil society groups, Community-Based Organizations (CBOs), Faith-Based Organizations (FBO), Consumer networks, the cabinet dispatch on Tuesday – 4th October, 2022 which communicated the cabinet’s decision to lift the ban on GMOs, does not respect and protect Kenya’s food system.

The representatives noted, “The rushed decision to lift the ban on importation of GMOs into the country lacked public participation. No public consultations were done and views of the public were not considered in the decision to lift the ban, which essentially curtails the freedom of Kenyans to choose what they want to eat, or not.”

A survey conducted by the Route to Food Initiative, in December 2021 showed that a majority of Kenyans (57%) are not willing to consume GMOs. The lifting of the ban therefore goes against the will of the Kenyan people and goes against their Human Right to Food. The Right to Food embodies cultural acceptability of the food, quality, and safety.

When asked why the problem (the violation of farmer’s rights) persists in Kenya, the Founder of Indigenous Women and Girl Initiative, Monicah Yator said, “Criminalisation of exchange of seeds, exclusion from decision making, lack of agriculture extension service leaving farmers at mercy of agrochemicals multinationals, while the education system and research, favours the conventional agriculture.”

“The problem persists due to exclusion of food producers from policy processes; politics is corporate capture of our legislations and policies, while decisions are made to benefit the west,” Monicah Yator explained.

She further said, “The African Governments are not investing in smallholder agriculture, their weak laws that allow for importation and use of banned agrochemicals, while research does not benefit smallholder farmers.”

There is need for more inclusive policies and projects that guarantee farmers’ rights and agroecology as well as consumers awareness of current sustainable farming practices, how they affect their health, food prices and future generations, so as to create demand for agroecological products and services.

The Farmers’ Rights are a cornerstone for the implementation of the various instruments and of central importance to the achieving its overall objective of food security in Africa, which is fundamental to attaining the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The Farmers’ Rights in the Preamble and Article 9 of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), such as on “rights that farmers have to save, use, ex-change and sell farm-saved seed/propagating material” should be protected and promoted holistically by the duty holders in Africa.

Otherwise, “A patent on seeds is a patent on freedom. If you have to pay for patented seeds, it’s like being forced to buy your own freedom,” This African old adage, abridges it all.

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