Food, Water, Sanitation- Supporting Basic Human Rights Internationally and Locally

(following is the text of Guy Knudsen’s invited presentation to the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, Sunday, June 19)

  Good morning, I want to thank you for inviting me into your community today.  I would like to share some perspectives with you: first, about the concept that adequate food and clean water are basic human rights, and then specifically on the Farming is Life program of Paloma Institute, and our efforts to support community gardening and health projects on the  island of LaGonave, Haiti.  There are two themes, which I hope to convince you are closely intertwined:  the first is that food and clean water are fundamental human rights.  The second is that community involvement, both at the international and the local level, is necessary to ensure that those rights are realized.

   “Farming is life.”  We first heard that term from our friend and colleague, and mentor, Nancy Casey, in relation to family farms on LaGonave.  Not “farming is a relaxing pastime”, or “homegrown veggies taste better than those from the grocery store”, or “homegrown produce is more healthful than the products of chemical agriculture”, although each of those is probably true.  But, farming is life itself.

   The name of the Haitian community organization with whom we collaborate says it better.  Their acronym is ‘JLLP’, or, in Haitian Kreyol, ‘jaden legim selavi paysan’.  In English: ‘the vegetable garden is the life of the peasant’.  In our very class-concious American society, where class status is often based on race, or ethnicity, or above all on economic status, the word ‘peasant’ often has a pejorative connotation.  Peasants are poor people.  But the original meaning of the root word ‘paysan’, the same in French as it is in Kreyol, is closer to “one who lives on the land”.  And, for a person of the land, to say that ‘the vegetable garden is life’ is to speak very literally.

   Is food a basic human right?  Our own Declaration of Independence recognizes as self-evident the truth that people are endowed with certain unalienable Rights, including Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  Some political philosophies in the United States and elsewhere interpret these words ungenerously, claiming that while we may have the right to pursue happiness, governments are under no obligation to further that pursuit.  Nonetheless, for more than half a century, the legal and cultural concept of the human right to food has evolved into a set of universal norms for the international community.  The United Nations’ ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ of 1948 declares that “…everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for health and well-being… including food.”

   The most comprehensive formulation of this idea comes from the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.  The Covenant specifies that State parties recognize the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, and that they agree to take steps to achieve the full realization of that right.  More than 40 years later, 158 nations are parties to this legally binding agreement, meaning that they have both signed and ratified it.  Five countries haven’t yet found the political will to ratify this covenant, the United States being one of them. A related international treaty, the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, includes the right to food for children.  193 countries  are party to this agreement, and as you know that is almost every nation in the world.  Only two countries continue to refuse ratification.  The first is Somalia.  The other is the United States.

   Former President Jimmy Carter, who is not known for mincing words, recently said the following:  “Those who oppose the ratification of the covenant believe governments have no obligation to safeguard the rights of their citizens to jobs, education, housing, and an adequate standard of living.”  Some governments lack the will, others lack the way, some lack both.  The United States seems to lack the will.  The Constitution of Haiti is very progressive with regards to human rights, environmental protection, and similar issues, but the government of Haiti is impoverished, and corruption is endemic.  And, unfortunately, the new Haitian government that was recently ‘elected’, if that’s an accurate term, has shown little interest in making human rights a national priority.

  In the face of governmental disinterest and even opposition to the idea of food as a fundamental right, I will suggest that it falls upon the community- the international community, the local community, and the two working together, to make this ‘right’ into a ‘reality’.  I would like to briefly describe a couple of ways that Paloma Institute is working with our Haitian counterparts within the framework of community interaction: the international community, local communities on the island of LaGonave, and, hopefully, communities such as Moscow, Idaho.   

  This year, Haiti is undergoing its periodic review by the United Nations Human Rights Council.  In March, we joined a coali­tion of 58 Hait­ian grass­roots groups and other human rights orga­ni­za­tions in presenting a set of 13 reports on human rights in Haiti to the United Nations.  These were organized by the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, which is a Haitian legal group, and the Lawyers’ Earthquake Response Network.  The reports cov­ered issues rang­ing from voting rights, to gender-based violence, to environmental and agricultural rights including the right to food.  I was privileged to contribute to the latter report on behalf of Paloma Institute.  This approach represents a type of ‘peer pressure’ on the government of Haiti, which is exerted by the international community as represented by the United Nations. 

  At the local community level, our Farming is Life program helps support 19 groups of family farmers on LaGonave, under the umbrella of our Haitian friends in JLLP.  Each of these groups has about 25 members, and they mostly represent different small villages on the island.  JLLP has been in existence for about 5 years now, and participation is increasing all the time.  They come up each year with a very comprehensive budget, mostly for tools, seeds, and a meager salary for the two agricultural agents.  We, in turn, do our best to fund what we can, not in the spirit of “charity”, but rather in the spirit of supporting our friends in the good work that they are doing.  This March, Janice Boughton, Ryan Law, and Louise-Marie Dandurand from Paloma Institute spent two weeks on LaGonave, helping with agricultural training, and with health and sanitation including construction of a badly needed community toilet to help keep human waste away from the water supply.

  In closing, I would like to thank you, on behalf of Paloma Institute, for your time this morning, and if I may I will leave you with a metaphor:  If we think about the nations of the world, discrete and carefully separated by their national boundaries, we might think of them as being the bricks in a large brick wall.  In contrast, I ask you to picture a spider’s web, glistening in the morning garden.  Every point of that web is connected to every other point.  That is the image I offer you to accompany a model that is people-based, and which focuses on community self-reliance, but in which the local community is connected to, and nurtured by, a much larger international community.

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