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Working Together, Redefining Rights: Environment, Agriculture and Labor

July 2005

When an activist is murdered for organizing resistance to powerful interests, it can be much easier to simply think about the crime as a human rights crime in the narrowest sense of the term. It’s easy to forget that what the activist was fighting for in many cases wasn’t political freedom per se, but for those other categories of rights that sometimes seem hard to understand: social and economic rights like the right to define a culture of one’s own, and to have enough food and water and land to support a dignified living.

A few weeks ago, this news alert came through my inbox from International Rivers Network:

Ecuadorian human rights activists have condemned the assassination of one of the leaders of the movement in opposition to the Baba dam project. Andres Arroyo Segura’s body, which had a deep wound, was found close to the dam site on June 20th. Arroyo headed the bi-provincial committee of farmers’ organizations fighting the dam which would affect more than 1,200 families.

The Baba project, declared “a national priority” by then-president Lucio Gutierrez of Ecuador, includes construction of a hydroelectric dam, and the diversion of the Quevedo and Vinces rivers to irrigate lands controlled by agribusiness companies. Opponents of the project say Baba dam will cause serious impacts on native forests and wetlands, and on Tsachila indigenous and farming communities, affecting as many as 12,000 people.

Andres’ is yet another casualty in the struggle for Resource Rights.

I read about his tragic ending as I departed for a conference in London organized by the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative (AAI). The conference brought together social movements, environmental organizations, international development agencies, labor unions and farmer organizations to address corporate power in the global food system. Coming with different member bases and, in many cases, different priorities, finding a common language and strategy for transforming the global food system proved very difficult for the first few days.

Social movements worried about NGOs’ language; labor unions raised concerns about fair wages versus the right to organize; and NGOs wrangled over which corporation should be targeted. Despite a common concern over what corporations are doing to the global food system–lowering commodity prices, workers wages, environmental degradation and the disappearance of family farmers–it seemed that no agreement would be reached to move us forward.

Yet, through our discussions, a few themes did emerge that boiled the problem (and the solution) down to: Food Sovereignty and Human Rights. Several working groups were formed to initiate collaborative efforts around these themes.

Grassroots International will be co-facilitating the Rights-Based Approach to the Global Food System work group. The work group will broaden the category of human rights abuses Market Share Matrix to include abuses resulting from the global food system: human rights violations to agricultural workers in the fields, processing plants and retail stores; denial of food rights and farmers’ rights; and abuses perpetuated against those that fight for their rights.

The latter abuse reminded me of Andres’ story and the many others that have fought for the poor, the landless, the family farmers and the environment (see Dying for Land Rights and Massacre of Landless Workers). They share a common struggle around obtaining Resource Rights, which Grassroots International’s Resource Rights for All initiative supports. More clearly defined, Resource Rights brings the ethic of human rights to a more inclusive definition.

The environmental movement, the labor movement and the sustainable agricultural movement has been adding to international human rights law and standards through mostly discrete discussions and treaties such as: Convention on Biological Diversity, International Labor Organization Standards and Codex Alimentarius Commission Food Standards like labeling, respectively.

The AAI meeting demonstrated that grassroots movements for the environment, labor and sustainable agriculture share a common vision; yet, to move forward, concrete collaborative efforts are needed. At the same time, environment, labor and agriculture constituencies need to do more to recognize their common interests, so that corporate powers cannot co-opt or dissolve the movements.

One way forward is re-focusing all of these movements to embrace human rights as a moral compass. For environmentalists this would mean acknowledging that long-term conservation efforts will always fail when the basic needs of local people are unmet and recognizing family farmers as the new environmentalists; for labor it would mean recognizing farmers’ right to a decent price as a means to increased wages; and for farmers it would mean recognizing the “farm” as a model for social and environmental justice.

Many of Grassroots International’s partners and allies, especially the Via Campesina and the MST, have broken the boundaries that traditionally have separated these movements. Much of their work is in the global South where they have reoriented social movements to include environmental, labor and sustainable agricultural concerns. Here in the global North we still have much to learn–and gain–from the Via Campesina’s approach. As the U.S. labor and environmental movements are in crisis, struggling for political leverage and to maintain their membership, human rights and social movements to the South just might have the answer.

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