Self-Confident Rural Communities
The article below was published in Features #3690 (May 2011).
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SELF-CONFIDENT RURAL COMMUNITIES
In Southeast Asia, farmers are breeding seeds at the village level for the sake of sustainability as opposed to granting seed breeders intellectual property rights. The author explains how an NGO is making this possible.
By Joya Doctor
In January, dioxin contamination of food was a
major issue in
Meanwhile, the biofuel frenzy is endangering food
security across many nations. In view of rising demand, precious lands
in Asia and
How did the corporations take control? The most important step was the deregulation of markets. The corporations argue that markets regulate themselves, with buyers carefully assessing the quality of products and deciding how much they want to pay for any given product. In this view, state intervention is hardly needed.
Perhaps such a system of self-regulation can work
in developed countries, though the dioxin case in
Governments, moreover, support corporate interests by granting exclusive proprietary rights in the form of patents or plant variety protection. It is argued that intellectual property rights drive innovation by protecting the commercial interests of inventors, who are usually the corporations. In 2007, the global seed industry was valued at $22 billion, and 82% of seed sales were subject to corporate control (ETC Group,
Intellectual property rights, moreover, have become
part of trade negotiations. Examples include bilateral trade agreements
This trend is not healthy. In most developing countries, farmers simply do not understand what a protected seed is. For them, seed is part of their livelihood, culture and tradition. They follow customary rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds, whether these seeds are protected or not.
All kinds of protection infringe on this traditional understanding of what is right and wrong. This is true of legal protection (patents and plant variety protection) as well as of technological protection: genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and hybrids are typically designed to be of poor fertility, so they are useless for breeding purposes.
There is an alternative to the corporate approach, one that respects that seed sovereignty is a crucial cornerstone for food security at local and national level. According to the IAASTD (the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development), smallholder farmers supply 80% of gloฌbal food. Any meaningful development initiative, therefore, must cater to their needs. This is what SEARICE (South East Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment)
SEARICE is a regional civil society organisation,
based in the
• boost the capacity of farmers to manage their seeds,
• develop capacities of local institutions and
• provide support to policymakers.
In particular, SEARICE addresses the need to link farmers’ science and innovation systems with formal science and research to build stronger national research systems. Some noticeable accomplishments of the multi-stakeholder partnerships are:
• increased agricultural biodiversity as farmers
produce new seeds according to their preferred traits and management
options. These farmer-bred varieties are resistant to pests and diseases,
do not depend on chemical inputs and have shorter maturity periods –
characteristics that lower production costs and increase productivity.
• higher incomes as farmers increased their yields:
SEARICE-assisted farmers who produced their own farmer developed seeds
incurred profits of as much as $1,436 per hectare per season in Vietnam.
Farmers in the Mekong Delta reported increased yield by as much as 10%
to 20% from their usual yield. In
• easy access to good seed: in the areas where
SEARICE was active, farmers had easy access to good seeds. Project areas
• resilience in view of climate change: In Nan,
Thailand, SEARICE was instrumental in providing seed to farmers affected
by floods in the middle of the cropping season of 2007. This flood was
the worst in
The most important point, however, is that farmer-ฌbred
varieties meet the specific needs of local communities. Farmers use
their own selection criteria according to their own preferences, and
they test their seeds in their own fields. In
In other countries, there are farmer-bred varieties that are tolerant to drought and flood conditions. Others are suitable for organic farming systems, and still others are resistant to specific pests. The capacity of farmers to develop varieties that are adapted to specific local needs and the conditions of ecological micro-niches is essential for making rural communities resilient in spite of climate change.
The Way We Work
SEARICE facilitates seed sharing through farmer-to-farmer exchange, biodiversity fairs and farmer field schools. In these occasions, farmers share their varieties with other farmers. Policymakers, government officers, students, teachers, religious leaders and community members participate in learning about seed, and how farmers play in the proper conservation, development and use of these genetic resources. SEARICE also encourages the conservation of farmer-bred varieties in community seed clubs, seed banks and seed centres that farmers can easily access.
SEARICE’s capacity building interventions provide farmers with new and more appropriate knowฌledge and skills. The rural communities thus gain confidence and the self-esteem that results from knowing that one is in a position to improve one’s own fate and help people in one’s community. Many farmers have become trainers and/or leaders of farmers’ groups and communities.
Through SEARICE and its partners, there are now thousands of farmer breeders, selectors and trainers who are capable of managing the conservation, development and use of plant genetic resources. The success lies not only in the capacities of individual farmers but in the force of farmers’ groups through which they can argue for their rights as a collective voice.
Smallholders, men and women farmers, can feed
the world with safe and nutritious food, and it all starts with allowing
them access and control over seeds, making them part of innovation systems
towards securing local seed systems. Once policymakers come up with
laws supportive of small farmers’ efforts, there will be no more dioxin
scares, no rice debacles, no biofuel crisis, and eventually, no more
ETC Group, 2008: Who owns nature? Corporate power and the final frontier in the commodification of life.
FARMERS’ RIGHTS VERSUS INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS
Civil society organisations and multinational corporations are involved in a long standing dispute over seed. The NGOs argue that farmers must be allowed to continue propagating, sharing, exchanging, selecting and breeding their seeds. The seed corporations insist, however, that they have invested a lot of money in designing high-yielding varieties, and that they can only reap the benefits of their efforts if they maintain a monopoly over their intellectual property rights.
Farmers have been breeding agricultural crops for millennia. Their so-called land races are genetically diverse and well adapted to specific climates and geographies. These traditional varieties, however, do not render the same yields as those promoted by the multinational seed industry.
NGOs have increased their efforts to help farmers improve land races in recent years. At the same time, the corporate sector is increasingly becoming aware that smallholders in developing countries constitute an important market and paying more attention to their needs accordingly.
The land races, however, also matter to the corporate world. The breeding of high-yielding varieties depends on the plant-genetic resources of the land races. The “seed controversy” was a topic covered in last April’s issue of D+C/E+Z.
About the writer: Joya Doctor is an information
documentation officer at SEARICE, the South East Asia Regional Initiatives
for Community Empowerment, a civil society organisation based in the
The above article is reproduced from D+C (Development and Cooperation), Issue# 2011/04.
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