NGOs protest UPOV mtg in Bangkok

by GRAIN | 19 Mar 1999
TITLE: NGOs Protest WIPO-WTO Moves on UPOV at Bangkok AUTHOR: Chakravarty Raghavan (editor) PUBLICATION: South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), #4398 DATE: 19 March 1999 SOURCE: Third World Network URL:


Bangkok, March 18 (TWN) -- A two-day World Trade Organization-sponsored meeting that opened Thursday in Bangkok to discuss the implementation of the TRIPS agreement, and sui generis systems for plant varieties protection has allowed participation of industry leaders from Europe and North America but denied participation to the groups most affected - farmers and rural communities, says a communique from a coalition of NGOs.

The Bangkok meeting is to discuss how Asian countries plan to implement the biodiversity provisions of the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), which requires developing countries to grant monopoly rights over new varieties of plants before 1 January 2000, either through patenting or sui generis system.

The biodiversity clause of TRIPS, Article 27.3 (b), is so controversial that when governments signed it at the closing of the GATT Uruguay Round in 1994, they did so under the proviso that they would review it in 1999 -- one year before developing countries actually have to implement it.

Organized by the Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV), an intergovernmental organization based in Geneva, the Bangkok meeting has received active support from WTO and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the NGOs note.

The UPOV Convention, as amended by its 1991 protocol, gives exclusive patent-like protection to corporate plant breeders. This means that companies like Monsanto or Novartis are allowed to exact fees from farmers and other breeders who want to use new seeds.

The system was created by industrialized countries back in 1961 as an "alternative" to patenting. However, each revision of the Convention blurs this distinction.

UPOV has tried to get Asian governments to adopt its Convention since many years, but national scientists have resisted it. They fear that TNCs will be the one to benefit.

In their joint statement, the NGOs accused the WTO of "lending support to the concerted campaign of UPOV, the US government and the $30 billion commercial seed industry to force plant breeder's rights legislation as the only option for developing countries."

"The pressure bearing down on developing countries to join UPOV as a means of fulfilling TRIPS Article 27.3 (b) is an attempt to sidestep and weaken the review process at WTO," says Cecilia Oh of the Third World Network.

"The ASEAN group in the TRIPS Council has requested that WTO conduct a serious and substantive review of the provision of Article 27.3 (b) itself. However, countries like the US want to reduce the review to a meaningless exchange of information about implementation," she added.

Witoon Lianchamroon of BIOTHAI, a multisectoral group working closely with Thailand's Forum of the Poor and Alternative Agriculture Network, says, "UPOV is here in Bangkok trying to sell itself as the best solution for governments to fulfil their TRIPS obligation in Asia. However, the UPOV system completely overrides farmers' rights and Thai communities cannot accept it."

BIOTHAI sought permission for farmers' groups to participate in the discussion, but this was flatly rejected.

"The UPOV option is not suitable for India," says Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh, a Puna-based NGO, which helped draft India's Biodiversity Act. "It only protects the interests of the formal seed sector, ignoring the interests and rights of millions of farmers who have been breeding and developing seeds for thousands of years."

UPOV would sharply accelerate genetic erosion in India, Kothari underlines.

Binu Thomas of Action Aid India's National Food Rights Campaign, operating from Bangalore, agrees. "Transnational corporations (TNCs) spend millions of dollars developing a few new plant varieties which they then have to get planted in millions of hectares to recoup their investment costs."

"Monopoly rights, like UPOV, fast-track this profit seeking exercise for big TNCs but at the expense of the farmer's capacity to feed his or her own family," he added. "Because the farmers legally lose control over the seed in this system, they are forced to pay for inappropriate research like genetic engineering."

That's very threatening to a country like India, he believes.

The spectre of monopolies on biodiversity worry many sectors in Indonesia as well. Since the late 1980s, rice production has been dominated there by one single variety (IR64), which has Indonesia in state of severe vulnerability.

Local NGOs have been trying to help farmers broaden their options, while the government imports five million tonnes of rice a year. The introduction of private monopoly rights for breeders could destabilise the situation even further.

"The Indonesian government has been doing little to face up to the real meaning of WTO-TRIPS," explains Riza Tjahjadi of PAN Indonesia. "It revised the patent law in 1997 to make plant varieties patentable, but it has not enacted it yet."

In the meantime, the sui generis option is being ignored, Tjahjadi added. "Any sui generis system for Indonesia would have to be based on farmers' rights. UPOV only protects industry's rights."

Renee Vellve from GRAIN's office in the Philippines adds, "In Africa, both the Organization for African Unity and a grouping of Southern and Eastern African trade negotiators are also pushing for a complete review of TRIPS Article 27.3 (b)."

"Their main concern is that systems such as patenting or UPOV fail to recognise the collective rights of local communities to genetic resources and traditional knowledge, and therefore foster biopiracy. African governments want the sovereign rights of nations to exclude biodiversity from TRIPS," Vellve said.

The joint NGO position urges developing countries to call for a moratorium on the implementation of Article 27.3 (b) before 1999 runs out.

"Not until a substantial review -- the terms of which must be openly and transparently determined, and agreed upon by the South -- is conducted, should developing countries implement Article 27.3 (b) much less consider joining UPOV," the statement said.

Tension is growing over the issue, the statement notes. Recently, 7,000 Philippine farmers publicly demonstrated their opposition to TRIPS in Negros in central Philippines. With support from groups like MASIPAG -- a national farmer-scientist partnership helping farmers in their own breeding work -- and the Philippines Greens, debates and mobilisations have been organized throughout the country to examine the options for small scale food producers.

"Biodiversity should be taken out of TRIPS," say MASIPAG farmers. "Farmers manage the country's genetic resources as the peoples' resource. We are innovators too. Intellectual property rights are anti-farmer, anti-biodiversity and immoral."

SUNS #4398 - Third World Network Geneva, Friday 19 March 1999 © 1997 SUNS

Author: GRAIN
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