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Feature – Human Rights Day: Christian campaigners link right to food with climate justice

7. December 2012

    As International Human Rights Day approaches and the United Nations climate talks in Doha wind down, the inextricable link between climate change and food security within a human rights framework is being discussed by Christian campaigners with increasing urgency.


    Climate change induced droughts, floods and other extreme weather events are severely impacting agricultural production – take for example the U.S. drought this year that decimated grain production – thereby driving up food prices. Scientists estimate that maize and wheat yields globally have already been reduced by 3.8% and 5.5% respectively between 1980 and 2005, due to a .8 degree temperature increase.


    This evidence elicits deep concern among experts working to tackle the root causes of chronic hunger and malnutrition that affect almost one billion people worldwide. Even though enough food is produced currently to feed an estimated 10 billion people, the effects of climate change are already being felt in vulnerable communities, especially those that host small-scale farmers who produce the majority of the world’s food.


    Faith-based networks including ACT Alliance, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance (EAA) and CIDSE are working to address the impact of climate change on food security by invoking a rights-based approach. Despite the challenges posed by vested political and corporate interests, the power of organized campaigning by alliances can be felt literally across the globe.


    ‘The right to food is a really useful tool because it is a legal framework’


    In a context in which climate change increasingly impacts negatively on agricultural production, food security cannot be sustainably achieved in poor countries through food aid alone, but by invoking a rights-based approach, argues Melton Luhanga, executive director of Churches Action for Relief and Development (CARD) in Malawi, a member of ACT Alliance and EAA. “The right to food approach is more empowering because people are not taken just as recipients of assistance and services, but as owners of any initiative,” he explains.


    Mette Lund Sørensen, advisor on the right to food for DanChurchAid (DCA), explains that especially for organizations - including many ACT Alliance and EAA members such as DCA - “that work both in emergency response and the achievement of food security, we see the need to strengthen the interface between food delivery and human rights.”


    “The most important outcome of linking the two is sustainability. You can feed people by delivering food, but if you don’t link it to sustainable production and government obligations, then the effect will be short-term,” Sørensen continued.


    The right to food is a legal obligation for those 160 countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The UN committee overseeing the covenant declares that “the right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone or in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement.”


    Gisele Henriques of CIDSE – an international network of 16 Roman Catholic development agencies from Europe and North America and a member of EAA – explains that “the right to food is a really useful tool because it is a legal framework – it is an obligation of states to protect, respect and fulfill the right to food for its citizens, and it requires accountability.”


    According to Henriques, who is CIDSE’s advocacy and policy officer on food, agriculture and sustainable trade, even though governments like to invoke ‘food security’, this language “doesn’t say anything about the resilience of communities to cope with disasters, economic shocks or the ability of people to feed themselves. It also doesn’t say anything about the ‘invisible hand’ behind food markets – food price volatility, land and resource grabbing, access to land, corporate control of value chains,” among other things.


    Sørensen says the rights-based approach is important to the work of DCA at the grassroots level. “We work with local community groups to raise awareness of the national budget and policies in place and their right to access this budget – to a lot of communities that insight has been a major turning point for claiming their rights. People’s minds change when they realize that government has an obligation to help secure their livelihood rather than just talk about methods of production.”


    Holding policymakers accountable


    The corporate, national and international vested interests around agriculture and natural resources require expert and sharp campaigning by right to food advocates, including monitoring government actions – and inaction – and unpacking terminology.


    “Words like ‘climate-smart agriculture’ may sound good,” says Christine Campeau, EAA’s food campaign coordinator, “but they may mask an exclusive focus on [climate change] mitigation in the South, and a preference for large-scale industrial agriculture that is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, chemical inputs, and patented seeds.”


    Some positive movement has been made recently. The Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the most inclusive international food and agriculture policy body, recently addressed the right to food and climate change among its concerns, a move pushed by civil society campaigners at its October meeting in Rome.


    “As the UNFCCC [United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change] gets into agriculture territory, there are risks and opportunities. We can’t leave this responsibility only to the UNFCCC,” explains Henriques.


    “Everything that the UNFCCC says should and must be aligned with the policies being laid out by the CFS to ensure coordination and coherence.”


    Careful language and technical negotiations are important to anti-hunger advocates. The international agreements are significant campaign tools.


    “This is not just a moral issue,” explains DCA’s Sørensen. “We get legitimacy from the fact that governments have endorsed these international treaties and commitments.”


    “These are tools that we can make alive. Our task is to make sure that this doesn’t just become paperwork but helps people to change their lives.”


    The complex issues preventing the realization of the right to food extend beyond climate change, just as solutions to climate change extend beyond agriculture.


    “Climate change adaptation is not only very crucial because climate change is affecting the most vulnerable, but also because it is the catchword for financing,” says Sørensen.


    “The most vulnerable people are completely removed from decision making,” she adds, “and this is something that we address through a rights-based approach. But there are very powerful interests at play here and it is not always easy.”


    The value of working together


    The power and politics behind agriculture and climate change make working together on these issues all the more critical, say faith-based alliances.


    DCA’s Sørensen says, “It’s absolutely essential. We all have our different strengths, and it is our obligation to make sure that they complement each other.”


    “It is through such alliances that we can have combined efforts and complement each other,” agreed Luhanga.


    “You can’t do advocacy in isolation.” Making alliances is “indispensible,” according to Henriques. “We need a critical mass when talking to policymakers. We can help bring the voices of those affected by food insecurity to the policymakers.”


    The reach of Christian faith-based alliances literally “covers the world,” she concludes.


The Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is a broad international network of churches and Christian organizations cooperating in advocacy on food and HIV and AIDS. The Alliance is based in Geneva, Switzerland. For more information, see http://www.e-alliance.ch/

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