COVID-19, its impacts, and subsequent measures to quell its spread have been disproportionately impacting the poor and marginalized.
The COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe overwhelming health systems and causing distress among populations. Recent data revealed that the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases had reached almost 1.7 million as of 12 April 2020, with over 200,000 of these (13%) located in Asia and the Pacific.
In the past two months, governments have scrambled to address local manifestations of this pandemic through travel restrictions, curfews, community quarantines, and lockdowns. However, the implementations of these measures have been flawed. In Asia, civilians and activists alike point out shared observations of increased militarization and aggressive policing, government crackdown on dissent, insufficient support for the health sector, absence of mass testing, and the inadequacy of support and protection for disadvantaged groups.
COVID-19, its impacts, and subsequent measures to quell its spread have been disproportionately impacting the poor and marginalized. Vulnerable groups not only face greater risks of being infected by the virus, but they also have fewer resources that would allow them to cope with the disruption of socioeconomic normalcy.
Among those rendered most vulnerable during these times are those with insecure land rights. In these circumstances, it becomes clear how land rights are unequivocally tied to the fulfillment of other human rights such as the right to shelter, food, livelihood, and health.
Vulnerability from insecure land rights
The unavailability of decent and affordable housing especially in urban areas lead families to dwell on streets or settle in small, cramped areas, often with poor sanitation. Homeless persons and slum-dwellers are therefore at high risk of contracting and transmitting the disease.
Homeless persons lack the physical means to “stay inside,” practice social distancing, and to sanitize. This concern is heightened in dense urban places such as New Delhi (India). The homeless’ outdoor presence may then be interpreted as defiance of government policies, as was the case during several arrests that occurred while Manila (Philippines) is on community quarantine.
Displaced communities and refugees face similar threats. Driven away from their land by corporate land conflicts or armed conflicts, displaced groups are physically removed from their sources of livelihood and food. With nationwide lockdowns in place, these people cannot even subsist on their own produce. They reside in evacuation centers and settlements that are crowded and lack regular access to clean water, making social distancing and regular hand-washing impossible. Further, these groups now also experience greater competition for health and food assistance. Such is the case for the 1 million Rakhine State refugees settled in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, and the thousands of Asian indigenous peoples displaced from their ancestral lands to make way for corporate investments.
While access to food is restricted for all persons in quarantine, this struggle is intensified for the above-mentioned groups as well as for farmers and farm workers who do not have their own land. With work being suspended, seasonal and regular farm workers have no access to income. Tenants and farm workers are also presently restricted from accessing their farmland and are unable to harvest crops for their household’s consumption.
Smallholders hit hard by the effects of the COVID pandemic
Nationwide lockdowns and restrictions on trade and travel have disrupted local and international food chains. These in turn have crippled the livelihoods of small farmers and producers across Asia, where agriculture remains the backbone of nations’ economies.
Bringing produce to buyers has been the primary logistical obstacle for farmers, as roads are closed and public transportation are shut down to contain the spread of the virus. There is also a notable drop in demand from both local and international markets caused by limited mobility; decreased purchasing power; halting of operations of mills, restaurants, hotels, and other agriculture-dependent industries; and international trade restrictions.
Small farmers who feed the world now worry about how they might have enough food for themselves and their families. Many have resorted to subsisting on their own crops as they have not been able to sell their harvest. Their financial resources are tightened further by the suspension of non-farm and off-farm activities which previously served to supplement small producers’ income.
Indonesia, whose agriculture sector contributes to 13.6 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2018, is now being threatened by the COVID-19 outbreak. Farmers across the country brace themselves for the possibility of a food crisis, especially since they face difficulty in selling or transporting their crops.
Crops have also been going to waste while Asia’s battles with short- and long-term concerns regarding food insecurity and malnutrition. In the Philippines, farmers have thrown away vegetables due to the lack of buyers during the Luzon-wide community quarantine. Farmers in India have reported using their crops as fertilizer and feeding strawberries and broccoli to their cattle. Small producers in Laos on the other hand, have been feeding their cabbage to chicken.
Civil society organizations have been mobilizing response efforts for farmers and other sectors affected by the crisis. The Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), a peasants’ rights movement and the host organization of ILC Asia, has been helping farmers distribute their crops from rural areas to marginalized groups in urban cities. They do so by cooperating with labor unions in cities, whose members are on the brink of unemployment since many factories have shut down. By distributing staple food packages to factory workers in urban areas, KPA is raising awareness of COVID-19’s impacts and the importance of complying with the Indonesian Government’s policies during the pandemic.
Continued attacks on land rights and rights defenders
Meanwhile, corporate activities in the countryside have persisted. Oil palm plantations In Indonesia and mining sites in the Philippines remain operational, raising green groups’ concerns over unchecked environmental destruction.
Attacks on land rights defenders have also been recorded amid national lockdowns. In the province of Nueva Vizcaya in the Philippines, a large-scale mine under Oceanagold attempted to refuel its operations despite the expiration of its Financial and Technical Assistance Agreement (FTAA) in June 2019. A peaceful barricade against the attempted refueling of the mine was violently dispersed by police on 7 April 2020, leading to the arrest of environmental activist Rolando Pulido.
On 19 March 2020, during the first week of the Luzon-wide quarantine in the Philippines, indigenous peoples advocate and National Anti-Poverty Commission council member Gloria Tomalon was arrested in Surigao del Sur. Tomalon is charged with kidnapping and serious illegal detention, and is being accused by State forces of being a leader of the insurgent New People’s Army. Two days prior, 25-year old Marlon Maldos, a peasant advocate and cultural worker, was shot to death by unidentified assailants in the province of Bohol. Prior to his demise, the Philippine military had been claiming that the young activist was an active supporter of the New People’s Army.
The Philippines has been considered by environmental watchdog Global Witness as the deadliest place for land and environmental defenders.
The described incidents accompany a time when countries such as Bangladesh, India, the Philippines, and other Asian nations, have been turning to increased use of State armed forces to implement strict lockdowns and curfews. Tension and anxiety escalate for populations already in the throes of militarization, as in the case of numerous Asian rural communities opposing government or corporate development of their land.
Additionally, civil society in some Asian countries also report active repression of criticism on State responses to the pandemic. In Bangladesh, at least a dozen activists and students have been arrested for allegedly spreading false news regarding the COVID situation. Similarly, individuals in the Philippines who have vocally expressed concerns regarding the government’s actions have been fearing the suppression of free speech, as the National Bureau of Investigation polices the internet for online misinformation that have a “tendency to disrupt public order.”
Call to actions for governments
Governments across Asia must pay a closer attention to marginalized groups of people who bear the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from the huge economic loss such as rising unemployment for those who work informal jobs, rural communities also face limited to basic nessecities such as food and clean water. For smallholder farmers, the burden to provide fresh and adequate produce to households is becoming more evident. During quarantines and lockdowns, we urge governments across the region to provide special incentives for smallholder and family farmers who continue their food production.
In particular, we call on governments to:
- Ensure delivery of basic needs such as food, medicine, and hygiene for all.
- Consider special conditions of vulnerable populations and provide appropriate social safety nets especially for the poor, elderly, disabled, the displaced and homeless.
- Prevent the pandemic crisis into turning into a food crisis by ensuring availability, access, utilization and stability of safe and nutritious food.
- Provide special programs for smallholders and family farmers amidst quarantines and lockdowns to continue their food production especially as during critical periods of planting and harvesting.
- Hold state armed forces such as police, military and paramilitary accountable especially in cases of violations of human rights in the context of the enforcement of quarantines and lockdowns.
- Prevent opportunistic advances by businesses and government agencies intending to encroach on the land and resource rights of communities.
How COVID-19 is affecting those working on land may seem like a stretch to some of us, but as land provides security, productivity, and opportunity, land has become a critical instrument to protect the most vulnerable groups in the face of a pandemic.
In an unprecedented time like this, we are reminded of regional solidarity that responds to the immediate impacts of the crisis. Governments must work shoulder-to-shoulder with civil society if we are to survive this pandemic and strive for a more sustainable world for all.