Where do we go from Leipzig?

Leipzig was only the opening salvo in the battle over who should have control and access to agricultural biodiversity.

by Victoria Tauli-Corpuz

THE battle over who should have control and access to agricultural biodiversity was basically what the Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources (ITCPGR) at Leipzig was all about. This had been fought out at the FAO, particularly in its Commission on Plant Genetic Resources (now the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture) which was created in l983. The Leipzig Conference which was held between 17 to 23 June 1996, had been convened to address this issue once more.

After witnessing the excruciating negotiations which took place during the preparatory meetings for Leipzig, the NGOs scaled down significantly their expectations from the conference. RAFI, one of the active NGOs with a long history of lobbying FAO, said in its briefing paper,

'Leipzig may no longer be the epiphany of the genetic resources solution that was hoped for a year ago. It could become the epitaph. If Leipzig does not re-affirm its commitment to realise farmers' rights and offer the world a clear Global Plan of Action and a clarion call for the financial and legal resources and mechanisms necessary to ensure the first link in the food chain, then the intergovernmental community may surrender our future to bilateral bargaining and multinational genetic supply companies.'

However, as a result of the intense lobbying done by the farmers, NGOs, indigenous peoples, etc., and the tenacity of some government negotiators who were determined to have Farmers' Rights reiterated in the Global Plan of Action, some victories were, won.

From the very first day of the ITCPGR, the negotiations were deadlocked on the issue of Farmers' Rights.The US delegation refused to budge from its position that Farmers' Rights was just a concept. The G77 delegates who were not so organised and united at the start, finally geared up and consolidated their positions. The farmers and NGOs stood firm that Farmers' Rights must be a pre-requisite to the implementation of the Global Plan of Action.


Venezuela, which was the spokesperson for G77, pushed hard for Farmers' Rights. Malaysia and the Philippines even went beyond the G77 stance by pushing for a commitment to the legal protection of Farmers' Rights. In the end the US was forced to compromise when it was apparent that it was becoming isolated. Still, it managed to insert language that can be used to favour its own interests, which is to reinforce support for its transnational agribusiness and biotechnology companies.

The consensus text which was finally reached commits the world community to recognising 'the need and rights of farmers and farming communities to have access to the germplasm, information, technologies, financial resources and research and marketing systems necessary for them to continue to manage and improve plant genetic resources.'

Another part of the text states that countries will commit themselves to promoting 'a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture, recognising the desirability of sharing equitably benefits arising from the use of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices relevant to the conservation of plant genetic resources for forests and agriculture and their sustainable use.'

Paragraph 18 of the final document refers to 'the needs and individual rights of farmers and, collectively, where recognised by national law to have non-discriminatory access to germplasm..' Other references to Farmers' Rights are paragraph 60 which states that 'many governments are seeking to realise Farmers' Rights, through national legislations, as appropriate' and paragraph 62 which recognises the need, 'to realise Farmers' Rights, as defined in FAO Resolution 5/891..'

All these still fall short of what farmers would have wanted. Relegating the recognition of Farmers' Rights to national legislations is not enough because the worsening conditions of farmers are not the consequences only of national developments, but, increasingly of global impositions. This is precisely why Farmers' Rights are being brought into the international arena. Nonetheless, the goal of the farmers and NGOs to ensure that the space for Farmers' Rights would not be closed at Leipzig but would instead be developed further was achieved.


Funding was the major weakness of the Leipzig Conference. During the meeting of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture held to prepare for Leipzig last April l996, the negotiations almost broke down because some Northern countries, especially the US, refused to talk about funding. The G77 position, on the other hand, was that there is no point in talking about a Global Plan of Action if there were no commitments to fund this. At Leipzig, the position of most Northern countries was that the discussion of funding should be done during the renegotiation of the Undertaking this December.

Under the compromise reached on the last day, the Conference 'reaffirmed the commitments for the new and additional funds made under Agenda 21 of the UNCED and by the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity.' The FAO secretariat offered some new options for possible funding for the Global Plan. The three options were, first, a new fund to be managed by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), second, the GEF to draw from existing resources and any additional resources which may evolve from a joint agreement between GEF, Conference of Parties-Convention of Biological Diversity (COP-CBD), and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), and third, a special voluntary or mandatory trust fund to be managed by FAO. Whatever the final funding arrangements, they will be discussed in future conferences.

The road from Leipzig has to be blazed towards widening the definition and scope of Farmers' Rights, ensuring that funds are made available for implementing the Global Plan and Farmers' Rights, and giving more support to in situ conservation programmes and to farmers and indigenous peoples-led initiatives and programmes for conservation and utilisation, rather than to ex situ programmes, particularly genebanks.

The NGOs in their deliberations reinforced the essential positions defined by RAFI in their briefing paper.

The positions are as follows:

* A revised Undertaking to become a legally-binding protocol under the Convention on Biological Diversity (and this protocol must entrench Farmers' Rights)

* CGIAR genebanks and germplasm must come under the legal authority of the UN

* The security of existing, unique ex situ germplasm collections must be ensured, and where they are not maintained by the country of origin, their accessibility to countries of origin must be guaranteed by reaffirming the principle of repatriation

* Agricultural trade liberalisation, privatisation, patenting of life-forms, imposition of intellectual property rights, should not be supported and alternatives to these should be developed, supported and implemented.

* The proposal for a Double-Green Revolution which is essentially giving biotechnology, particularly genetic engineering a dominant role in agriculture, should be rejected.

* The World Bank's high-profile role in the Food Summit and in the 1996 and 1998 WTO rounds on behalf of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and other multilateral actors to promote further agricultural trade liberalisation, should be criticised.

* The FAO, through the Undertaking, Global Plan of Action, World Food Summit, UPOV, should not be used to further undermine the gains achieved by indigenous peoples' in asserting their rights to self-determination and to their territories and resources. The efforts to harmonise FAO's programmes and policies with CBD initiatives should ensure that indigenous peoples' rights and farmers' rights are not undermined.

Opening salvo

These positions should have been put into place in the Leipzig Conference. However, realistically, Leipzig can just be regarded as the opening salvo. These positions should be brought to the COP-CBD (November 4-14), the Undertaking renegotiations in December and the World Food Summit (Nov.13-17) in Rome, the CGIAR review which will be concluded in l997, the WTO Ministerial meeting in December l996, the UN General Assembly Review of Agenda 21 in June 1997, and the WTO review of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade/Trade related Intellectual Property Rights (GATT/TRIPs) and Agriculture in 1999/2000.

The enumeration of the various UN or multilateral conferences and events which should be lobbied should not mislead NGOs, farmers, indigenous peoples and activists into thinking that this is the path towards achieving equity and justice. These arena should be just made use of to resist the aggressive efforts of powerful Northern countries, transnational corporations to further exercise monopoly control over the world's resources and peoples' lives. The work at the community and national levels in terms of enhancing the capacity of the various marginalised sectors of society to assert their rights and define the economic, political and cultural systems they would like to live in, is more crucial.

However, to abandon the international arena to the powerful to dominate and manipulate, can also be disastrous. There is a need to unleash all the creative energies, talents, and skills of individuals and collectivities in the peoples' movements, NGOs, academe, etc., to ensure that all the opportunities available are fully utilised to fight against totalitarian control over resources and peoples.


Victoria Tauli-Corpuz is the convenor of the Asian Indigenous Network and a representative of the Third World Network in the Philippines.