The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver has warned that many Zambian peasants are at risk of becoming squatters on their own land as commercial farmers dominate the sector.

Elver was speaking on Friday last week, at the end of her ten-day visit to Zambia, were she met, among others, senior government officials, representatives from the UN system, civil society members, traditional leaders and communities in various locations throughout the country.

“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.

“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,” Elver said.

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. She however noted that landholders under customary tenure, affecting around 85 per cent of the land, mostly in hands of peasants, 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,” 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. She heard that many small-scale farmers have their children working from as early as the age of six to secure their families’ livelihood.

Elver noted that the growth in the agriculture sector in Zambia in the last decade had not been inclusive but limited to large-scale farmers, living the small-scale farmers behind.

“The country’s agricultural development model-based on intensive commercial farming has increased rates of deforestation and to bio-diversity loss. It has also increased the use of agro chemicals, including glyphosate, which have a scientifically proven adverse impact on human health, in particular on children.”

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.