FROM LEIPZIG TO BUENOS AIRES
Leipzig, Saturday 22 June, about three o'clock in the morning. It was with a sense of relief that the German chair of FAO's Fourth International Technical Conference on Plant Genetic Resources closed the meeting. After a week of long discussions and much heated debate, the international community had adopted the first ever Global Plan of Action on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Government delegates expressed their satisfaction and happiness with the result: a 20-point plan to counter the further destruction of the World's agricultural diversity, to promote its utilisation and the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from it. A radically new turn in the history of the debate on plant genetic resources? Or just another piece of paper coming out of the United Nations bureaucracy?
The answer depends on who you ask. The main goal of the massive NGO force present in Leipzig was to gain recognition of Farmers' Rights, and a clear path of action towards the implementation of those rights. They were in for a disappointment. Many government delegations, especially those from the industrialised nations, were not ready for such a move and managed to postpone these negotiations until later this year, when revision of the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources is debated. In addition, the industrialised world was clearly not prepared to put money on the table for the implementation of the Plan, merely reaffirming the funding commitments it made in Agenda 21. Farmers' Rights and funding were the hottest debated issues in Leipzig, and on both government delegates slithered out of any real commitments.
The Plan of Action, as originally drawn up by the FAO secretariat, miraculously survived the negotiating process relatively unscathed. Where the negotiators did change the Plan, it was often for the worse by convoluting language and adding conditions. The case of Farmers' Rights is a clear example of this. NGOs lobbied for a strong recognition of the collective rights of farmers to their resources and knowledge. Most Southern countries also wanted a strong recognition of Farmers Rights in the Plan. The US delegation was only interested in talking about "the concept" of Farmers' Rights, thus making it almost meaningless. In the end, the US had to back down on "the concept of", but it did manage to include reference to the individual and non-discriminatory character of the rights of farmers. This resulted in confusing wording which will take time to undo when the real negotiations on Farmers' Rights begin later this year.
Another example is the fate of proposals to legalise the distribution and commercialisation of farmers' varieties - which is now a major problem for NGOs in many countries. The modified text that was finally adopted calls for legislative measures that allow for such seed distribution and commercialisation, but at the same time ties it to the quality standards of existing seed legislation. If one interprets "quality" as the current requirements for varietal uniformity and stability, then this is a step backwards rather than forward, as most farmers varieties are characterised by diversity and variability rather than uniformity.
The main problem with the agreed Plan, however, is that it does not base itself on the recognition that the main cause of destruction of genetic diversity lies in current mainstream agriculture. By not recognising the root cause of the problem, it does not set itself squarely on a coherent path of recuperation and protection. It therefore contains many contradictions and has a very technocratic approach to problem solving. In these times of neo-liberalism and free trade dogmatism it probably would have been too much to expect from the world's governments to agree on a major reorientation and genetic diversification of global agriculture. But, as NGOs in Leipzig pointed out repeatedly, the only way to move towards a real sustainable agriculture is through true diversification and by devolving more control over agricultural production systems (and the genetic resources they are based on) to local farming communities.
Still, there are a number of interesting proposals in the Leipzig Plan. There is a section on on-farm conservation and use, as well as several ideas for promoting agricultural diversification. The Plan also shyly recommends the development of initiatives to promote diversity through use by farmers, and its language is full of "participatory" wording. They may be timidly presented, but the proposals are there and for the first time in this type of document. However, the main thrust of the Leipzig Plan is to draw attention to the problems genebanks are currently facing and to recommend measures to prop up the precarious genebank approach as the dominant model for saving genetic diversity.
In that sense, the Plan - and the overall outcome of Leipzig is very much a bazaar of ideas and proposals that contain something for everyone. The follow up and implementation process, and in particular the question of who takes control of it, is key in determining whether some of the useful proposals and commitments will materialise. In addition, the outcome of the upcoming negotiations on Farmers' Rights, on access to agricultural biodiversity and on funding, will all determine what will happen with the Leipzig Plan. These issues, in fact, are now the main challenges on the table.
Will the Convention take up the challenge?
What has become clear after Leipzig is that the whole question on how the international community handles agricultural biodiversity remains wide open. The subject comprises a multiplicity of related issues - such as the rights of control and access, the sharing of benefits, food security, finance, trade, conservation, seeds and appropriate technology. Many of the main issues for NGOs, local farming communities and indigenous peoples are far from solved, such as Farmers' Rights and the on-farm management of biological resources. The question of how to develop Farmers' Rights further will be dealt by the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture while revising FAO's International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU) in December. Even before this meeting, the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) will come together in Buenos Aires from November 4-15, to discuss a whole range of issues, including agricultural biodiversity.
The question of agricultural biodiversity has already reached the agenda of the CBD's technical advisory body (SBSSTA), which met in early September in Montreal. Here, the first signs of debate and division over the roots causes of genetic erosion in agriculture started surfacing, the issue that Leipzig so carefully avoided. In a specific recommendation to the upcoming CBD meeting, governments highlighted the socio-cultural, economic and environmental importance of agricultural biodiversity. They agreed that "inappropriate reliance on monoculture, over-mechanisation, and misuse of agricultural chemicals diminishes the diversity of fauna, flora and micro-organisms," leading to unstable production systems. Unsustainable agricultural practices are also charged with causing socio-economic problems through the destruction of the local resource base, and well as causing the loss of cultural diversity in traditional communities.
But the problems really started when governments had to agree on what has to be and is being done about it. The Montreal recommendations talk about the benefits to biodiversity "accrued from sustainable intensification of agriculture" in an indirect reference to the Green Revolution. They also state that currently strong efforts are being made to preserve biological diversity important to agriculture, and that progress is being made in implementing biological diversity-friendly agricultural practices. Sweden and Germany felt obliged to formally file their reservations about such optimistic language. Sweden talked about the "unscientific assessment of sustainable intensification of agriculture" in the report, and requested a major assessment of the adverse impact of unsustainable agriculture on biodiversity.
Apart from the controversy over how sustainable high-tech agriculture is, the SBSTTA recommended that the Parties to the Convention should make agricultural biodiversity a key focal area. This is a welcome sign of support to those that have since long argued for the importance of agriculture within the Convention. It also recommended that Leipzig's Plan of Action should be actively implemented, and took note of the willingness of FAO to help countries achieve the aims of the Convention. A whole series of other interesting proposals on agriculture emerged from the Montreal meeting, including the idea of conducting a gap analysis of what is (not!) being done in this area, pressurising funding agencies to take the issue seriously, and a proposal to promote research partnerships through local fora for farmers, researchers and extension workers.
Somewhat lost in the recommendations is the question of how to make sure that a coherent and non-conflictive division of labour is developed between the different agencies involved in this area. Inter-agency struggles were already cause for tension in Montreal, and could further complicate matters in Buenos Aires. The most disappointing aspect of the SBSTTA's otherwise excellent overview of the problems with current industrial agriculture is that it ends up with a non-prioritised list of "Options for Action" which touches upon virtually everything that can be done in this area. It is difficult to see how the list can be handled without setting up yet another big bureaucracy. Unless the governments clearly indicate who should be doing what, and especially focus on the division of labour and cooperation between FAO and the Convention, we risk endless inter-agency territorial fighting, and lots of overlap and duplication.
Rights for whom?
Besides the specific agenda item on agricultural biodiversity, governments meeting in Buenos Aires have a whole series of other related issues to deal with. One is the discussion on intellectual property rights (IPRs). The Convention states that governments should make sure that IPRs support and do not hinder the objectives of the Convention. For most NGOs it is clear that the current IPR system not only hinders access to and exchange of genetic resources, but also pushes a biased sharing of benefits (towards those that can afford to take out and defend patents) and totally neglects (and undermines) the informal innovation going on at the local level. Many industrialised (and some developing) countries will come to Buenos Aires defending the IPR system as a central tool to defend the interests of their biotechnology, pharma and seed industries. It is important that NGOs push for a strong stand against IPRs and use the Convention to create some space to counter the World Trade Organization's push to implement IPRs everywhere and on everything under the sun.
Yet another crucial issue on the table in Buenos Aires is what will happen to the rights of local and indigenous communities. Article 8j of the Convention commits members to respect and protect such rights, but the corporate sector is concerned that full implementation of such rights will undermine the current IPR system. Discussions on this at SBSTTA's Montreal meeting got nowhere, despite the heavy presence of indigenous peoples organisations and NGOs. The only conclusion they could come to was that a paper be presented to the Buenos Aires meeting "reflecting the diverse views and suggestions". This is an extremely serious issue. Unless concrete and meaningful steps are taken to implement this article in a way that truly allows local communities and indigenous peoples to gain control over the biological resources they manage and their related knowledge, the Convention could end up promoting the disappearance of what is probably the most crucial hub of all for biodiversity management.
That is probably what some of the countries in the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, better known as the industrialised world's country club), and especially the US, are hoping for. In Leipzig the US completely blocked any move towards developing Farmers' Rights. Key industrialised countries are obviously not willing to establish any sort of collective rights that could limit the IPR highway set by GATT-TRIPS rules. With the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (WTO, heir to GATT) coming up in December in Singapore, the OECD's standpoint is that interpretation of the trade agreement by other fora than WTO is out of the question. In this sense, the Buenos Aires meeting has much in common with the Food Summit in Rome and with the renegotiating of FAO's International Undertaking later in December, in that the same type of political pressures will be brought to bear to bring Southern governments in line with the market globalisation strategies.
It is therefore critical that like-minded governments and NGOs send a clear message to Singapore that the Convention on Biological Diversity takes precedence in all matters relating to biodiversity, and that decisions taken by the Parties of the Convention in this area have the force of international obligations.
Note: GRAIN has published a special issue of the series Biobriefing (Number 6) on the Global Plan of Action and the Leipzig process. This 8 page briefing, which assesses the Plan and related politics, is available from GRAIN via e-mail or on paper via mail. We have also produced a detailed analysis of the different versions of the FAO Plan of Action, available by mail, and can facilitate copies of The Leipzig Commitment to Agricultural Biodiversity.
FROM LEIPZIG TO BUENOS AIRESby GRAIN | 15 Oct 1996
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