by GRAIN | 20 Oct 1991


The past thirty years have witnessed an important deterioration of the farming systems and rural cultures of Southeast Asia. The miracle rices of the Green Revolution and government policies to promote monoculture and high yields have reinforced genetic erosion, indebtedness, landlessness and vast environmental damage. However, over the past years, a growing movement of non-governmental and people's organisations is working to design alternatives and reorient public policy in favour of local control over resources, technology and information to make sustainable agriculture really possible. A regional dialogue among NGOs and government officials, held in Bangkok last August, shows a promising level of consensus on how to move forward.


Through the thousands of years that they have been working the fields, fishing the rivers and living in the forests, farmers and other rural folk of Southeast Asia have created an incredible range of sophisticated farming systems under very harsh tropical environments. The result has been an equally incredible range of genetic diversity in the food system. Any Westerner passing a market in Bangkok or Bali is more often than not bewildered by the astonishing variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs and other products grown or gathered by today's farmers. Southeast Asia may be naturally blessed with some of the world's richest rain forests and valuable medicinal plants, but their survival depends on how people manage them. And this is equally true for all the elements of local farming systems, designed to produce not just food but maintain fertility, provide important by-products and assure water and pest management.

Over the generations, traditional farming systems of Southeast Asia have been developed on the basis of local experience, farmers ' understanding of the broad environment and a need for long term security. They are highly complex and integrated management (not just production) systems, where paddy fields are also fish farms and weeds are fertilisers. And for all of these different approaches, adapted plant varieties had been developed, maintained and used, making Southeast Asia an important world centre of genetic variation for rice, taro, palm, and numerous fruits and vegetables.

But the past thirty years of the Green Revolution strategy have narrowed down drastically this diversity in the field and imposed a very high level of insecurity upon farmers. Not only the highly uniform rice varieties and the technologies they require to yield well are to be blamed, though. Dam projects, bad irrigation strategies, deforestation, cash crop monocultures, the penetration of TNCs into local markets -- in short, the policies of national governments and big aid agencies -- are also criticised for fomenting genetic erosion and taking away from farmers their control over, and capacity to benefit from, local resources.

Attacking the problem

Throughout the region, many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), advocacy groups and people's organisations are working on the various factors which are destroying the environment and disempowering small farmers. Genetic diversity is increasingly seen as an important one. While seeds cannot be isolated from social and agricultural systems, they are recognised by many grassroots and urban-based organisations as a strategic resource for promoting sustainable and diversified production systems.

To date, government efforts to conserve and utilise indigenous genetic resources in Southeast Asia suffer many shortcomings, both technical and political. On the technical side, local NGOs point out many disturbing problems with the dominant genebank approach promoted through the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources (IBPGR): crop priorities which ignore locally important plants, faulty collecting strategies, erratic funding from IBPGR and donor governments, and lack of access to the collections. On the political side, NGOs are wary of who actually benefits from the genebanks and who controls the germplasm held in store. Many Southeast Asian countries are under heavy pressure from industrialised countries to allow for Plant Breeders ' Rights and patents on plant right now, without any talk about obligations or even Farmers ' Rights.

For the past ten years or so, a range of local NGOs have been working with community organisations and progressive scientists on alternative conservation and plant improvement strategies closer to the grassroots level and the needs of small-scale farmers. Their programmes cover various activities such as collecting and distributing indigenous materials, training farmers in adapted breeding techniques and establishing and managing community seed bank systems. Exchanging experiences, germplasm and information, as well as networking and mutual training, have been greatly stimulated in the region over the past couple of years. Currently, much of this is being structured within the framework of the Asian Seeds for Survival Programme, coordinated by the Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE). Genetic diversity is also a major focus of the newly formed Southeast Asian Sustainable Agriculture Network (SEASAN).

Political openings

There are several key factors now offering new challenges and opportunities for the work of NGOs in Southeast Asia. Because of the current political situation in the region, NGOs and farmers ' groups are developing better communications with colleagues in countries like Cambodia, VietNam, Myanmar and Laos, which have not been affected by the Green Revolution to the extent elsewhere. This is a major opening up for many reasons. These countries still harbour untapped sources of genetic diversity and the farmers and governments can learn from mistakes made elsewhere. But much of this is directly threatened by a monolithic project promoted by the World Bank to dam up the Mekong river and delta. If it goes through, it will be the biggest dam system of all Asia and it will also certainly wipe out the rich biological wealth of the Mekong delta, which is the centre of rice diversity of Southeast Asia.

In a broader perspective, the region could clearly benefit from current trends in international circles to take more seriously the need to restructure agronomic research, breeding and conservation strategies in order that they directly involve farmers and NGOs. After years of debate among governments, industry and NGOs, both in UN and other official agencies and in the informal Keystone Dialogue on Plant Genetic Resources, there is basic agreement on some major issues, including the important role of the informal sector in conservation and breeding. How to recognise and strengthen that role can today be addressed in a more open atmosphere.

It was precisely in this framework that SEARICE, in cooperation with the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) and with the support of the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, organised a Southeast Asian NGO-government Dialogue on Policy Issues in Plant Genetic Resources and Biotechnology. This Dialogue between the formal and informal sectors took place after an NGO workshop on the matter in Bangkok in August. It brought together those NGOs working on genetic resources at the local level with high level scientists, biotechnology programme leaders, Board members of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and government officials.

Two days of open discussion focused on critical issues like how to structure research so that it promotes, rather than destroys, food and farmer security, whether or not patenting life would be of benefit to local farmers and economies, and whether Farmers ' Rights could be made operational in the region. As a result, a broad level of agreement on the major issues was reached and concrete ideas on how to move forward were forged. The final consensus resolution, reproduced below, echoes the common concerns and joint recommendations for action among the group. It surely shows that the Southeast Asian Dialogue was a very positive experience and should inspire others.

The report of the Southeast Asian NGO-GO Dialogue on Policies Related to Genetic Resources and Biotechnologies is being prepared by, and will be available from, the organisers: SEARICE, P.O. Box EA-31, Ermita, Manila, Philippines.

Author: GRAIN