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Indigenous farmers' rights, international agricultural trade and the WTO

Fiona Smith

Keywords: agriculture; agricultural trade; farmers' rights; indigenous peoples' rights; WTO

Peasant and family farmers' activist groups argue that only indigenous farming practices can guarantee adequate food supplies without loss of biodiversity. Such activists argue that the international agricultural trade rules in the WTO should therefore recognise indigenous farmers' rights to farm in this way because it has such a positive impact. This article considers whether the WTO's rules on international agricultural trade contained in the WTO Agreement on Agriculture and the proposed changes to those rules from the Doha Draft Modalities on Agriculture give such rights to indigenous farmers. It argues that the WTO rules do not give such rights and that there is no prospect of amending the rules either, as there is no linguistic space in the WTO scheme to talk about indigenous farmers in this way. The WTO scheme is simply incapable of according such rights. Instead, indigenous farmers are seen as ‘victims’ of liberalisation who can be protected by the state against the progressive move towards ‘better’ agricultural trade. This protection is designed to allow farmers to adjust their agricultural production to the growing demand for, for example, food and biofuels. The farmer may benefit from the protection of the rules but will never become a rights-holder per se. The power to protect remains with the state and direct normative entitlement never resides in the farmer.

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