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Land and the Right to Food in Zambia: U.N. Envoy Urges Shifts Away from Large-Scale Projects

Leave it to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, to remind the Zambian government—and all of us—that in agricultural countries such as Zambia the right to food depends on the access of the rural poor to land.

“The push to turn commercial large-scale agriculture 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,” Elver said in Lusaka on May 12, 2017, at the end of her 10-day official mission to the land-locked southern African country.

In the absence of secure land rights, she warned, small-scale farmers can become “squatters on their own land,” as they become laborers or contract farmers to export-oriented commercial farms. “This situation is particularly alarming since small-scale farmers represent 60 percent of Zambians and at the same time produce 85 percent of the food for the population.”

With nearly four-fifths of rural Zambians living in poverty and 40 percent of children—more than one million—suffering stunted growth from malnutrition, Zambia has become one of Africa’s most impoverished countries. This, despite strong economic growth and large increases in the production of maize (corn), the country’s staple food crop.

Respect, protect, and fulfill

The Special Rapporteur’s findings were delivered in a short statement at the end of her 10-day mission. Invited by the Zambian government, Elver said she was grateful for her reception in many government offices, but her mission also took her to large-scale agriculture projects, small-scale agro-ecological farms, refugee camps, schools for former child-laborers, and a nutrition project for adolescent mothers.

That is the beauty and power of the right to food, at least in the hands of advocates as committed as Elver and her predecessor, Olivier De Schutter. Zambia has signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, and the government therefore has a duty to “respect, protect and fulfill,” the “Progressive Realization of the Right to Adequate Food,” which was adopted in 1976 by the member states, and ratified by 164 member states in the U.N.

The right to food is often misunderstood. It commits governments to establish laws and policies to ensure people can produce their own food or purchase adequate food, a right enjoyed by every citizen. School-based feeding programs, such as those Elver saw in Zambia, are only one example. It also includes an active responsibility for a state to deliver food to people in case of emergency, such as in times of natural disasters or war.

But the right to food goes beyond access, mandating the state also to respect and protect the right to food. “Respect” means the government is obligated to refrain from actions that impede people’s access to food, such as removing farmers from their land for mining or agriculture. “Protect” in an even more powerful mandate, obligating the state to prevent actions by non-state actors, such as corporations, that undermine access to food.

The duty to respect, protect, and fulfill the right to adequate food at once offers a more expansive and actionable agenda for state measures to guarantee the right to food. Elver made a point of emphasizing several government policies that fail that test, mostly related to land and agricultural development.

Securing land rights

Land rights, like property rights, are a different kind of right than the right to food. There is no human right to land. In agricultural societies, land rights are recognized as crucial to achieving the right to food. Access to food is guaranteed by ensuring either incomes adequate to purchase food or, in the case of many in rural areas, access to the land, water, and other resources to produce adequate food.

As Elver noted in her statement, many small farmers in Zambia have neither enough land to feed their families nor secure title to the land they have. I saw the latter problem firsthand, as some traditional leaders on so-called customary lands worked with the Zambia Land Alliance to provide Traditional Landholding Certificates to their subjects while the national government debates a new National Land Policy to address the problem.

As I wrote earlier for Food Tank, such certificates give tenure security, which enhances everything from women’s rights to inherit and own land to their access to credit so they can farm commercially, while avoiding the privatization of land, which could put vulnerable farmers at risk of losing their land to economic pressures.

Elver called on the government to adopt “a gender-sensitive, inclusive National Land Policy” that “protects the rights of those living on customary lands.”

“Land-poor farmers in a land-rich country”

The U.N. envoy was particularly critical of the government’s emphasis on large-scale agricultural projects on the country’s underutilized land. With so many small-scale farmers lacking land and support, such policies undermine the right to food in a land-rich country such as Zambia.

Zambia is one of many African countries that have large tracts of uncultivated land and the water resources to grow crops. While the government develops 250,000-acre “Farm Blocks” to attract large-scale investors, the majority of small-scale farmers have seen their land access shrink as customary lands are divided among heirs through the generations.

Such farmers have too little land to grow a subsistence, never mind a surplus they can sell to earn cash for non-food needs or, hopefully, to invest in their farms. More than 70 percent of Zambian farmers have fewer than five acres of land. Researchers have estimated that farmers in Zambia need at least that much to grow a surplus, and with ten acres they have the chance to become viable commercial farmers. They estimated that giving such land-constrained farmers 2.5 more acres of land (one hectare) would reduce poverty rates among them from 84 percent to 48 percent.

It is hard to find a more powerful step toward fulfilling the right to food among Zambia’s small-holder majority. Yet government policies and incentives continue to reserve the country’s unused land and water resources for Farm Blocks and other large-scale projects. Not only are such investments slow to materialize, when they do they rarely bring higher incomes for workers or contract farmers, nor food-security for host communities, as a recent report from ZLA and South African researchers showed.

More maize does not mean less poverty

The Special Rapporteur concluded with a call on the Zambian government to reconsider policies that favor large-scale investors and overemphasize the production of maize on larger farms. Zambia’s production of its staple food crop has more than doubled in the last ten years, yet rural poverty rates have barely declined and Zambia ranks among the worst on the continent for food insecurity, classified by the Global Hunger Index as “alarming.”

“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,” Elver 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 country’s traditional food system, small-holder farmers and their livelihoods.”

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