Land loss to speculators, industries and cities result in hunger – UN rights expert
An estimated 500 million small-scale farmers across the world are hungry, partly as a result of losing their farmland to industrial expansion, urbanization or environmental degradation, the United Nations independent expert on the right to food told the General Assembly today.
“As rural populations grow and competition with large industrial units increases, the plots cultivated by smallholders are shrinking year after year,” Olivier De Schutter, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, said as he presented a report to the Assembly.
“Farmers are often relegated to soils that are arid, hilly or without irrigation. This poses a direct threat to the right to food of rural populations.”
Access to land is what is needed to realize the right to food,
Speaking to reporters, Mr. De Schutter stressed the need to protect land users from “land grabbers” and speculators who may, for example, want to use farmland for large-scale mechanized farming to produce agrofuels.
“Access to land is what is needed to realize the right to food,” he emphasized, adding that agrarian reform may be necessary in situations where there are large inequalities in land distribution or in circumstances where people’s access to land is so limited that they are unable to growth enough food for themselves.
The new report said that up to 30 million hectares of farmland are lost due yearly to environmental degradation, conversion to industrial use or urbanization. With rural populations growing and competition with large industrial units on the rise, plots cultivated by small farmers are shrinking every year, relegating them to arid, hilly or dry soils. This poses a direct threat to the right of rural populations to food.
Also presenting a report to the Assembly today was Cephas Lumina, the UN Independent Expert on foreign debt and human rights.
According to the publication, debt forgiveness for poor countries has eased their burdens and made resources available for poverty-reduction, but it noted that ‘vulture’ funds have seized the opportunity to acquire defaulted State debts cheaply and seek repayment of the full value later.
“By forcing HIPCs [Highly Indebted Poor Counties], through litigation and other means, to divert financial resources saved from debt cancellation, vulture funds diminish the impact of, or dilute the potential gains from, debt relief for these countries, thereby undermining the core objectives of internationally agreed debt relief measures,” it said.
“Vulture funds profiteer at the expense of both the citizens of HIPCs and the taxpayers of countries that have supported international debt relief efforts.”
In her report to the Assembly yesterday, Gay McDougall, the UN Independent Expert on minority issues, highlighted the need to pay attention to issues of concern to minority groups at an early stage.
“According to a recent survey, over 55 per cent of violent conflicts of a significant intensity between 2007 and 2009 had violations of minority rights or tensions between communities at their core,” she told the Assembly.
“In a further 22 per cent of conflicts, minority issues were raised in the course of the conflict. This evidence indicates that Governments, donors and intergovernmental organizations need to allocate significant attention and resources to minority issues as sources of conflict.”
The report found that existing early warning and conflict prevention mechanisms are poorly equipped to identify and respond early enough to issues and grievances to make a difference before problems arise.
“More typical early warning indicators, such as small arms flows and movements of displaced peoples, tend to reflect a situation that is already rapidly spiralling into violence,” the expert noted. “By the time those indicators trigger attention, grievances may have festered for decades, >>> perhaps generations – generations of lost opportunities to heal rifts, to avert conflict and to build a cohesive society.”
Access to land and security of tenure are essential for the enjoyment of the right to food. The present report explores the threats posed by the increasing pressures on land and on three categories of land users: indigenous peoples, smallholders and special groups such as herders, pastoralists and fisherfolk. It explores how States and the international community could better respect, protect and fulfil the right to food by giving increased recognition to land as a human right.
The report argues that, while security of tenure is indeed crucial, individual titling and the creation of a market for land rights may not be the most appropriate means to achieve it. Instead, the report suggests, the strengthening of customary land tenure systems and the reinforcement of tenancy laws could significantly improve the protection of land users. Drawing on the lessons learned from decades of agrarian reform, the report emphasizes the importance of land redistribution for the realization of the right to food. It also argues that development models that do not lead to evictions, disruptive shifts in land rights and increased land concentration should be prioritized.
Despite their limitations, international debt relief efforts have helped reduce the external debt burden of heavily indebted poor countries (HIPCs) and contributed to the creation of fiscal space for resources to be channelled to poverty-reducing expenditures and economic development in these countries. Evidence also suggests that the additional fiscal space has allowed some HIPCs to increase their public spending on essential, human rights related social services, such as health care and education, thereby contributing to the realization of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights, in these countries.
Nevertheless, the voluntary nature of these debt relief measures has created opportunities for some commercial creditors to eschew such efforts and then attempt to recover the full value of their debt through litigation. These creditors — termed “vulture funds” — purchase the defaulted debt at significant discounts, hold out for other creditors to cancel their debts and then aggressively pursue repayments that are vastly in excess of the amount that they paid for the debt. These activities not only dilute the impact of debt relief by reducing the resources available to the targeted debtor countries to finance development and reduce poverty, they also diminish the capacity of indebted poor countries to create the conditions necessary for the realization of human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights.
The present report, which is submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 11/5, is intended to draw global attention to the adverse impacts of vulture fund activities on debt relief and on the capacity of poor countries to fulfil their human rights obligations and attain their development goals. It also includes a call for definitive international and national action to combat vulture fund activity.
The report has five sections. In section I, the independent expert introduces the report. In section II, the activities that the independent expert has undertaken since his last report to the Council (A/HRC/11/10) are outlined. In section III, the independent expert briefly discusses what vulture funds are and provides some illustrations of vulture fund litigation against HIPCs. He also outlines the impact of vulture fund activities on debt relief and their implications for the realization of human rights in the countries targeted by these predatory creditors. In section IV, the independent expert sketches official initiatives that have been undertaken or are being considered to combat vulture funds. In section V, he offers some recommendations on measures to address the negative effects of vulture fund activities.