Meet our Researchers: Adriana Bessa

Portrait of Adriana Bessa Portrait of Adriana Bessa

12 March 2020

Dr Adriana Bessa is a Senior Research Fellow at the Geneva Academy. She is involved in research projects dealing with the right to food and the sustainability of food systems, and the rights of peasants. She also coordinates a training course on the protection of human rights and the environment.

Tell us about you: What’s your Background?

I have a law degree from the University of Rio de Janeiro State, a Master in Environmental Law from the University of Alicante and a PhD from the European University Institute. My main areas of work are human rights, environmental law and cultural heritage law.

I have dedicated the last 12 years to research on the rights of what I call traditional local communities, i.e. rural communities who keep non-industrial modes of production and sustainable environmental practices. These communities have played a key role in biodiversity conservation as well as the preservation of seed diversity and traditional methods of food production. It has been, in this context, a pleasure to follow the negotiations of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP), adopted in December 2018. This new human right instrument provides new international standards to address abuses against rural workers and has special provisions for the protection of traditional local communities’ rights.

Why Did you Choose to Work in the Field of Human Rights?

Since very young, I have always had a strong sense of social justice. Equally, the conservation and protection of nature have been one of my great concerns in life. After graduating from law school, it was clear to me that I would pursue a career that combined these two goals: the promotion of social justice and the better protection of the environment and its resources.

What are the Research Projects you’re Currently Working on?

I am working on a number of projects.

Together with researchers from six different countries – Switzerland, Bolivia, Kenya, Brazil, Ghana, Colombia and Zambia – I work on the project Towards Food Sustainability: Reshaping the Coexistence of Different Food Systems in South America and Africa. This project aims to develop a framework to assess the sustainability of food systems across the globe on the basis of five pillars: food security, the right to food, environmental performance, reduction of poverty and inequality and socio-ecological resilience.

Upon the assessment of the food system, it is possible to direct actions and recommend policy options to improve the sustainability of food systems. In this project, I am in charge of analysing the degree of implementation of the right to food and related human rights in food supply chains and propose public policy options to enhance human rights protection of small-scale farmers, their families and communities, as well as other actors involved in food systems.

I also work on two research projects on the rights of peasants with my colleague Dr Christophe Golay: one related to the UNDROP and the other to the right to seeds in Europe. The former involves the development of studies concerning UNDROP normative contents and states obligations arising from this instrument. The latter delves into seeds regulation in the European Union and its member states and aims at identifying ways to better protect farmers’ right to seeds across Europe. It notably discusses normative and policy options within the European context to ensure the full implementation of the UNDROP.

In addition to this, I also organize, together with Yves Lador from Earth Justice, the Geneva Academy training course on the protection of human rights and the environment. This course provides participants with the general international legal framework for the protection of human rights and the environment and discusses how environmental protection may be promoted through existing human rights mechanisms and vice versa. Every year, we focus on a particular issue. In 2020, we will focus on human-provoked water contamination and scarcity.

Why are these Projects Important?

Despite some punctual differences, these research projects are quite related and have two fundamental goals. The first one is to clarify existing international human rights and environmental standards related to food production and value chains at global, regional and national levels. The second goal is to propose normative and public policy options to improve the implementation of these standards.

As for the training course on the protection of human rights and the environment, its purpose is to enable professionals from all over the world to better advocate for environmental protection and related human rights. This includes the protection of the rights of people negatively affected by climate change, mining activities, plastic pollution, human-provoked water contamination and scarcity, to name just a few examples.

What will be their Impact?

Our work as researchers is to inform people and give them tools for better acting. In this sense, project studies and results will significantly contribute to the scholarly debate in the areas of human rights and environmental protection as related to food systems. At the same time, they will contribute to ongoing debates on the role of states and non-state actors in the development of robust and coherent legal, institutional and political frameworks in these areas. Moreover, the projects provide critical inputs to the debate on food-related environmental and human rights matters in Europe and beyond.

According to you, what are the Key Challenges today in Human Rights?

As I usually say to my students, we must see the glass half full. There have been many positive changes towards the better implementation of human rights principles and standards since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That said, there is still a long way to go. Around seven hundred million people live in extreme poverty worldwide. One in seven people is hungry and many of these live in natural resource-rich and food-exporting countries. Over seventy million children are involved in unsafe work. Women all over the world still struggle for equal pay. As for the environment, climate change, critical biodiversity loss, the contamination of the marine environment, water pollution and scarcity are just a few of the various critical issues to be addressed.

In this context, human rights law becomes instrumental in the pursuit of important (and urgent!) changes in society and in the ways individuals interact with each other and with nature. The main challenge I see today is education. People must be educated about human rights. And I am not talking only about lawyers and NGOs working in the field. Human rights must be included in the school curriculum, which unfortunately is not yet the case.

On a More Personal Note: What do you Enjoy doing in your Spare Time?

I enjoy doing sports and spending time outdoors in contact with nature. I also do some gardening. Following instructions from women farmers I have met during fieldwork, I have started my own kitchen garden, where I plant some herbs, flowers and fruit trees.


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