by Camila Montecinos | 15 Dec 1994

Camila Montecinos

In January of 1993, after many months of exchanging ideas and proposals, a group of governmental and non-governmental organisations from Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe decided to develop an ambitious programme to work on the conservation and development of genetic resources at the community level, under the name of Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Programme (CBDC). This initiative, which received financial support from some major Northern donors, is now ready to take off for a four-year first phase. Camila Montecinos from CET (Centro de Educación y Tecnología, Chile), who functions as the global coordinator for this programme, explains the ideas behind this important initiative.


As part of the plant genetic resources discussion that has been going on during the last years, there seems to be a consensus that two parallel forms of crop improvement and conservation exist, with little interaction. On the one hand there is the formal setting that links ex-situ genebanks with institutional and private industry breeding and seed production. This formal system has been mostly geared for farming in optimal conditions, and is often highly dependant on external inputs and technology. On the other hand, farmers and communities have always used and developed local varieties, integrating conservation and utilisation in dynamic systems of on-farm crop improvement and seed production. This “informal” system, used by most farmers in developing countries, sustains a wide range of genetic resources, but is de-linked from contemporary breeding and ex-situ conservation.

In many developing countries, the contribution of the informal sector to plant breeding, seed supply and conservation is much more important than the efforts of the formal sector. For example, in many countries in Southern Africa the use by farmers of certified sorghum seed from research institutions is less than 5% of the total area sown to this crop, while use of certified bean, rice and groundnut seed is virtually nonextistant in many countries of that region. Most farmers rely on their own varieties. Similarly, a survey in Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras showed that farmers rely on their own varieties for 44% in the case of maize, and for 37% in the case of beans. In the context of the importance of locally based breeding and conservation, it is surprising that up to now the formal sector hardly considers local seed production as part of the overall seed system. Most attention and assistance goes to refining and improving the formal seed system. Still, the overall development model which aims at the almost unconditional surrender and replacement of local seed production is increasingly questioned. The CBDC programme parts from the premise that both systems are important and should have their place and support, and aims to assess and strengthen community innovation systems in the area of biological diversity.

The CBDC group

The group that forms and carries out the programme involves a most diversified set of organisations and individuals. The current “partners” of the programme range from universities and research centres to NGOs directly linked to farming communities, and including NGOs doing policy work at the international level. Individual participants include plant breeders, agronomists, geneticists, farmers, anthropologists, activists, teachers, and local community leaders.

From the very beginning it was clear that the programme would have important distinct characteristics. Although the main focus is on in-situ and on-farm conservation, it has an in-built framework that should ensure that the rights of local communities will be respected and strengthened. Participants have developed a protocol under which all programme activities will be carried out. This protocol emphasises a commitment to avoid genetic erosion and defines obligations as to the empowerment of local communities in respect to their germplasm, technology and knowledge. The above should not only lead to workplans that are respectful of the farmers ' rights, but also to the active search of appropriate methodologies and policies. Equally important, the protocol has set up internal organisational scheme that promotes work among participating organisations in an equitable and respectful environment. Under these guidelines, the programme will carry out implementation, development, and evaluation methodologies and policies leading to the conservation and management of local genetic resources.

In order to provide for a transparent and democratic bottom-up approach, the programme is organised at three levels, with currently:

•   Eleven local/national partners working at the community level, each of them carrying out a project. Local projects are now starting in Ethiopia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.

•   Three regional partners in Africa, Latin America and Asia coordinating the activities in their respective regions; and

•   Several global partners contributing to the international programme. They include members of the technical and policy advisory groups that assist the programme.

For overall coordination a Programme Coordination Committee consisting of regional and global coordinators, as well as technical and policy advisors, was set up. Financial support comes from three Northern governmental development aid institutions: DGIS from the Netherlands, IDRC from Canada and SIDA from Sweden.

One programme, a diversity of approaches

Taking biological diversity seriously also means respecting the diversity of the different organisations and approaches involved. The different approaches in which the programme 's objectives will be carried out are extremely varied. In some cases the leading organisation is a governmental institution actively involving farmers. In some other it is an NGO closely linked to local farming communities working with little or no governmental support. But in all cases an expected outcome is the increase and strengthening of cooperation between governmental and non-governmental, formal and informal sectors.

The difference in approaches will also be seen in practice when dealing with the more technical aspects. While some projects will focus on one or two major crops, others will work from a multicrop perspective that embraces many, or all, the species in a farming system. Similarly, some projects are geared to seed conservation and production, while others aim at the complete spectrum of genetic resources use, conservation and development work. For example, the project in Colombia aims at a broad diversification strategy through the use and reactivation of local sources of biodiversity of the farming systems involved in the project. In contrast, the project in the Vietnam Mekong Delta will specifically focus on diversifying the rice crop.

Obviously, the programme 's complexity entails all sorts of difficulties. The will of all the participants to work together requires creativity in finding common languages and work styles, without jeopardising local autonomy. All have committed themselves to generating solid and verifiable data, but the methodologies applied should not interfere with the rights or production systems of local communities. Faced with the need to share information and even germplasm, this should be done with complete awareness as to the lack of protection for local genetic resources and knowledge, especially in the light of the current Western intellectual property rights frameworks. Programme participants have committed themselves to solving these problems as they come up, but there is no guarantee that solutions will always be easily available. Whenever conflicts seem to come to a dead end, the rights of farmers ' will always take preference over research objectives.

Perhaps the programme 's complexities and difficulties form its main attraction. After all, thebackbone of the programme is the conviction that no simple and uniform solutions will work for diverse and complex problems and situations. As of yet there are amazingly few examples of successful collaboration programmes between formal and informal sectors in the field of biodiversity. The fact that the programme got through its preparatory phase, and now starts becoming operational, is an important achievement already.

Camila Montcinos may be reached at: CET, Casilla Postal 16557, Correo 9, Santiago, Chile. Fax: (56-2) 233 72 39. Email: [email protected]

Author: Camila Montecinos