Visiting the Human Rights Council in Geneva

Interview with Lungisa Huna, co-director of the Rural Women’s Assembly

Lungisa Huna is a representative of the Rural Women's Assembly (RWA), the largest network of women smallholders and women farm workers in Southern Africa. At the Human Rights Council at the end of August, the network presented the demands of thousands of women on how their rights to food, land, seeds and political participation should be realised. In the following interview with Fastenaktion, she talks about her impressions and the demands of the RWA.
Lungisa Huna is a representative of the Rural Women’s Assembly (RWA), the largest network of women smallholders and women farm workers in Southern Africa. At the Human Rights Council at the end of August, the network presented the demands of thousands of women on how their rights to food, land, seeds and political participation should be realised. In the following interview with Fastenaktion, she talks about her impressions and the demands of the RWA.

Geneva, 30 August 2022
Interview: Tiziana Conti, Responsible for media, information, campaigning in French-speaking Switzerland at Fastenaktion

Lungisa, on behalf of the Rural Women’s Assembly, you have presented a report to the UN on the situation of women farmers and agricultural workers in South Africa. What did you focus on more precisely?
As you only have five minutes to present, I focused on the UNDROP [Editor’s note: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas] and why the Rural Women’s Assembly asks for its implementation in South Africa. During the negotiations for UNDROP, South Africa was in the core group discussion and we signed the declaration in 2018. Now, four years later, which is the cycle for review, we take this opportunity to point out that the UNDROP is not something even in the lips of the duty bearers or even of our country. We therefore selected three of the UNDROP articles that matter for us and pushed them forward.

Could you tell me more about your demands?
One of the biggest campaigns we’ve been working on since 2015 is about access to land and is called “One Woman, One Hectare”. It aims to raise awareness of the importance of food for women. Women, who bear the brunt to feed their families, work the land, but they don’t own and they don’t have access to it, because the tenure rights are not in their name. The patriarchal norms and practices are still very much entrenched, especially in rural areas where women have no say on all right. Traditional leaders are the custodians of the land, and even though we have a democracy and we vote in some rural areas, they do have the power to decide who gets land. With the “One Woman, One Hectare” campaign, we ask that women be acknowledged one hectare and stop being discriminated. “One Hectare” doesn’t mean it’s the only hectare we want, but it’s the minimum we’re asking for.

The struggle of water is another big issue. In addition to land, we also want water, because land without water is useless. Moreover, walking long distances to get water can be dangerous in some villages. South Africa is a country where gender based violence is high, which is an additional barrier for women.

Another central element of the “One Woman, One Hectare” campaign is having the right to use our own seeds. The transmission on traditional seeds is a cultural practice in some African societies. Young women receive traditional seeds as a gift when they get married. Whatever happens, they have something they can plant and grow, and they don’t starve. Seeds allow the creation of seed banks, they can be exchanged, shared and replicated. Today, seed banks allow us to avoid genetically modified seeds.

Did anything change since the beginning of this campaign in 2015?
Nothing really has changed. We marched to Pretoria and we submitted our petition. Then the government changed the campaign’s name and called it “One Household, One Hectare”, which means that the land is still under the husband’s name, and not the wife. The discrimination against women remains. But the Rural Women’s Assembly continues to mobilize for this campaign by putting the issue on the table. We wrote to the president and to the ministries of land and agriculture. The president’s office replied, but it just sent us to refer us to the Women’s Ministry, which never even answered or interacted with us. So we never had any platform. We wanted to hear about how many households got land, and of the household, how many women got land, to get more statistics and for us to engage with them.

What is the main threat to the traditional system of seed transmission and exchange?
Our seeds are at risk of extinction. In a recent seeds audit, women say that when you want to plant genetically modified seeds in the next season, they don’t grow, even by using pesticides. They are not resistant to climate change either. They have tested this by comparing with their own seeds. They can grow, they can survive and they are able to stand drought. The Rural Women’s Assembly is a network that reaches ten countries. We have a tradition where the women bring their seeds across the borders in order to exchange them, share knowledge and educate each other. We do so even if we are not be allowed to [Editor’s note: traditional seed exchange is outlawed in law that favours multinational agribusinesses over local farmers]. Because we understand how to work the land. We understand how the climate patterns work and what they respond for. We understand the resilience of our seeds. They can withstand drought and they can withstand moments where floods happen in other areas. Sometimes women get excited because they get maize from other countries that they haven’t seen for decades, like red maize or purple maize seeds. I only knew of white and yellow maize. I never knew there were all these different variety of seeds. Seed sharing is a knowledge bank, which allows people to perpetrate their culture.

Do you mean that having to conform to the industrial system makes you outlaws if you keep sharing the seeds the way you’ve been doing for hundreds of years?
Absolutely. But now, one of the articles of the UNDROP says that we have the right to our seeds. And this is what we put on the table through our submission: that we want those seeds to be acknowledged and be able to have seed banks. We don’t want to be hiding that we are sharing seeds. It has to be allowed. It has to be legislated. It has to be in a policy form.

Since 2018, when you signed the UNDROP, has anything changed concretely?
There are two critical processes that must occur. First of all, a declaration is a declaration. We applaud South Africa for supporting the UNDROP, the peasants’ rights and the rights of rural people. The government takes part in the big meetings with all the other countries and endorse these declarations. But very little has happened since, because there is no legislation, there isn’t a policy of implementation. The government should make sure that the declaration is implemented, but that is not being done.

The second point is the way we engage with duty bearers. Because even if the declaration has been signed and is known at high level, that doesn’t mean it has filtered down to the duty bearers who are supposed to implement it. The declaration is not a paper exercise, but it must change and transform people’s lives. The peasants, the rural women and others demand those rights to be implemented and want to be able to engage with the government. This is what we are putting forward at the Human Rights Council.

With the UN Decade for Family Farming, 2019-2028, and the hunger and food crisis having been exacerbated by COVID, we felt strongly that this is the right moment to move things forward. With the climate crisis, this is also going to be an ongoing issue. In the province where I lived in the Western Cape, there was a moment where we were nearing “Day Zero” without water. You would open the tap and there wouldn’t be water. The same is happening now in the Eastern Cape, they are in the brink of no water. The government should now deal with this situation and allow for the implementation of the UNDROP. This is even more critical for the women, because women grow the food, they are the caregivers, they do the care work, they have to feed. In the time of the COVID, women had many more struggles with children at home with lockdowns and no shops to buy food at, especially in rural areas. They couldn’t go to their fields, and yet they had to maintain livelihoods.

What was the impact of the so called “seed harmonization” put in place by the government?
After voting in favour of UNDROP in 2018, South Africa has adopted two new laws that do not meet any and all of the seed rights in UNDROP. One is the “Plant Improvement Act” and the other is the “Plant Breeders Rights”. The “Plant Improvement Act” focus is on the commercial seed sector covering 96 food and fodder crops on a “National Plant Variety List” whose seeds, to be sold, must be certified according to the “Distinct, Uniform, Stable” criteria and prohibits the sale of uncertified seed. The “Plant Breeders Rights” protects the intellectual property rights of breeders of new varieties. Instead of starting processes, which are supposed to allow for farmer managed seed system and seed banks, the government opts for a so-called seed harmonisation that takes us further away from that.

Under pressure of big corporations like Syngenta or Monsanto, which push their own seeds and destroy what was the indigenous seeds, this harmonization is a short-term solution that is not helpful because it leads to food crisis. “Contract farming” is another way to try to monopolize what big companies want to grow. Wheat, for instance, is not a food that people want to grow in South Africa. Unfortunately, some end up giving up the land for the money, but then when you want to use your land for something else, nothing grows anymore. In addition, the product of these crops is not even for local people because it is destined for export. South Africa is facing a hunger crisis at the moment. Food has become exuberantly expensive and the issues of inequality and poverty are increasing. So finding the right and long-term solutions is a huge challenge.

Do you think agroecology could be an answer in times of crisis and lockdowns?
Agroecology is an approach that sustains food sovereignty and is a central aspect of the Rural Women’s Assembly’s work. It is an alternative way of growing and eat food according to indigenous practices, without the use of pesticides, nor genetically modified organisms. It is based on an understanding of the interaction and interdependence between humans and nature. The people who fish near the coastal areas, for example, used to fish to be able to survive and had a relationship with the sea. They knew when to go and fish and when to allow for nature to replicate itself. There was a balance. They didn’t fish to clean the ocean by taking all the fish. Now they get quotas to be able to fish. Agroecology allows for a deep inherent way in which we relate to nature. But here again, in order to be able to work the land in the right way, by not putting in chemicals, you have to have access to land.

Can the UNDROP also be used to protect yourself against the construction of mines on your land?
Absolutely. We can protect ourselves. And we know there are many situations of land grabbing for mining in South Africa. The women can use the UNDROP to raise those issues and claim that we have the right to use our land for food instead of letting others digging it up by moving and displacing the community. We have the right to say no. It is the free prior consent: we have the right to participate and to say no. South Africa is known for its diamonds and gold mines, but also coal. The mining companies use a huge amount of energy, which causes energy shortage for the civil society. This is an additional challenge if you want to do political work. The divide between the urban and rural areas is very big.

What kind of support does Fastenaktion give you?
It has been amazing to have a partnership with Fastenaktion for all these years. We were able to use this momentum to take up issues on UNDROP and use the instruments and the frameworks of the United Nations. The current RAISE project partnership we have with Fastenaktion gave us leverage to take things one step further. Fastenaktion has made a big contribution in the journey of accompaniment, support and growing of our network during the last years. The Rural Women’s Assembly South Africa celebrated 10th anniversary in 2019.

Since the beginning, we have been building from the ground up, made sure that women can speak for their own rights and have a voice in their own countries. Now they are able to go on global platforms to raise their issues and to challenge their own countries. We want to say thank you to Fastenaktion for journeying with us. It has been a good cooperation.

What do you think of joint movements?
One of the good things about the RAISE project is the fact that we are across the region. There is a sense of commitment, support and solidarity. The fact of being connected beyond the movements that we know in the global south allows us to create a network with movements that are involved in the same kind of work, also beyond the UNDROP. Looking at other treaties helps us to better utilize and connect the parts of the different recommendations.

Do you feel that your voice has been heard at the UN?
It sure has! This is the first time ever that the Rural Women’s Assembly came to that kind of podium and it was just wonderful to be there. I found this space for the civil society and the Universal Periodic Review process was one that we felt we owned. We felt we had a voice, a voice that came from the women who dealt with the issues. We felt we wrote our submission and we could put the UNDROP on the table. From the beginning, where we started having awareness of the UNDROP, the women could see something that they could say. It is like a ticket or a passport that allows us to table our issues. I think there is no turning back and this gives us more fuel to continue to put pressure and to really put the agenda of the rural women and their struggles on the table.

It was worthwhile to come here, even just for a five-minute presentation. I can see the gains and I can see the possibilities, many possibilities. Yesterday we met with the Bolivian mission, which was extremely, engaging and positive. Bolivian rural women and South African rural women sitting together and sharing. It wasn’t just a conversation, it was a good dialogue and a very constructive exchange of ideas. It is reassuring and hopeful. Today we met the South African mission and we reiterated the importance of having to interact with our government and with the duty bearers. We’ll take it from there and see how we move forward with them. We may have a declaration high up there, but we have to take it down, because what’s happening it’s a grassroots level and the gap is too wide.

One last question: what would be your dream scenario for South Africa?
For me, the ideal situation is to see the UNDROP operationalized, and once operationalized, it has to transform people’s lives. It assists the peasants, and the peasants own this process, because to be a meaningful intervention, you have to be part of it, as the people. It shouldn’t be a government process. The realization of the “One Woman One Hectare” campaign is very key in leveraging the socioeconomic rights that are embedded in that. We have a high rate of unemployment and women have the answers. They can feed themselves. Peasants can feed themselves and they can sell excess produce. They can be able to look after their families. So the ideal is to see that women are free from the bondage of dependency.

If people grow their own vegetables, they will only buy what they cannot produce, but for the rest they can produce themselves, which will close a gap here and there. Give us the land! Let us produce! We’ve got our seeds, allow us to save our own seeds. We can feed ourselves. We can find the alternatives. We do have the answers on how to deal with the issue of poverty, the food crisis and hunger.

It’s a long walk to freedom. If we have to borrow the title of Mandela’s book.

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