Zimbabwe hosts African Indaba on farmers’ rights
By Sifelani Tsiko
Zimbabwe last week hosted a high-level Africa consultative meeting on farmers’ rights under the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) to develop specific recommendations and proposals for the Africa position ahead of a global conference set for Bali in September this year.
Community Technology Development Trust (CTDT), a Harare-based NGO and the Ministry of Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development co-hosted the meeting, which drew agricultural experts from nine African countries.
The meeting follows up on a call by the treaty to gather information at national, regional and global levels for exchanging knowledge, views, experiences and best practices on the implementation of farmers rights as set out in Article 9 of the International Treaty.
Article 9 calls for the recognition of the enormous contribution that local and indigenous communities and farmers of all regions of the world have made and continue to make for the conservation and development of plant genetic resources which constitute the basis of food and agricultural production throughout the world.
“Farmers’ rights consist of the rights of farmers of all regions of the world, particularly those in centres of origin and crop diversity, to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed and propagating material,” said Andrew Mushita, director of CTDT.
“We therefore believe that this high-level meeting will bring forth fruitful proposals that will lead to the realisation of farmers’ rights.”
Participants were drawn from Cameroon, Malawi, Namibia, Madagascar, Angola, Zambia, Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe.
Farmers and technical experts from the FAO ITPGRFA and the civil society also attended the three-day meeting, which was held in Harare.
“Farmers are custodians and developers of crop genetic resources in the field, their rights are crucial for enabling them to maintain their vital role to conserve diversity for local and global food security, nutrition and poverty eradication,” said Francis Azenaku, vice chair of the Africa Group on ITPGRFA.
“Realising farmers’ rights means enabling farmers to manage, develop and dynamically conserve crop genetic resources, as they have done since the dawn of agriculture, and recognising them for this indispensable contribution to the global pool of genetic resources for food and agriculture.”
He says farmers’ rights are the cornerstone of the International Treaty, as a precondition for the maintenance of crop genetic diversity, which is the basis of all food and agriculture production in the world.
“Realising farmers’ rights is seen as a vital means to halt genetic erosion and ensure food security. It is also viewed as central in attempts to counterbalance current inequities in the world. As such, it represents a crucial concept in the fight against poverty and food insecurity,” he said.
The ITPGRFA also seeks to recognise the right of the farmer to protect indigenous knowledge on plant genetic resources and share benefits from those resources.
Article 9 of the treaty also seeks to make farmers realise their right to produce, save, exchange, re-use, participate in decision making and protect their local knowledge systems.
While Zimbabwe and most other African countries were among those that ratified the treaty, efforts to domesticate the Treaty was slowed down by the complex review process, overlapping roles of ministries, underfunding, bureaucracy and lack of urgency on the part of the government, legal and agricultural experts say.
Said Azenaku: “While there are efforts started already, there are also substantial barriers preventing the realisation of these farmers’ rights, particularly with regard to legislation and incentive structures, of which, would require further analysis in order to find practical and easy process to realise farmers’ rights.”
Some of the barriers that were identified by African experts at the consultative meeting included lack of awareness among farmers and policy makers or authorities and weak legislation.
“Poor, weak or contradictory legislation is also perceived as another barrier in the region,” said Azenaku.
“As Africa we need to speak with one voice.
It’s important to develop adequate legislation and mainstream farmers’ rights in our existing legislation.”
African experts also said the continent also lacked implementation capacity for farmers’ rights.
“The problem is rooted in the difficulties related to defining farmers’ rights and the varying interpretations and lack of understanding of “farmers’ rights” concept and the generic human rights concept,” said Azenaku.
“For farmers, their way of life is intrinsically linked to access to land, water, and other input factors such as labour, knowledge, and technology, in addition to seeds and other propagating material.
This might be one of the reasons why it has been difficult to reach a common definition of farmers’ rights.”
The Global Consultation on Farmers’ Rights will be held in Bali, Indonesia, from 27 to 30 September this year.
African experts held their forum to identify ways and means to facilitate practical and easy process towards the realisation of farmer’ rights, as they relate to PGRFA.
In addition, the experts sought to take stock of significant country experiences, best practices and lessons learned in realisation of farmers’ rights, to identify challenges for the realisation of farmers’ rights, as they relate to PGRFA and map out practical options and strategies for national implementation of Farmers’ Rights.
The outcome of the stakeholders’ consultation will be consolidated as a report of Africa Region to be presented to the Bali conference.
“Enabling farmers to maintain and develop this diversity, along with their rich knowledge of and practices in traditional agriculture and agro-ecology, is vital in ensuring present and future food and nutrition security and food sovereignty,” said Zimbabwe agriculture minister Joseph Made, in a speech read on his behalf at the meeting.
“Farmers’ varieties and landraces are vital for livelihoods, they enhance food and nutrition security, strengthen social cohesion, maintain cultural integrity and build climate resilience.”
Zimbabwe ratified the ITPGRFA in October 2002 but was yet to implement most of the provisions.
Through the ITPGRFA, the UN hopes to fight hunger and poverty and achieve Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2 and 3 which aim to eradicate poverty and hunger and promote well-being for all ages.
Health experts bemoan the erosion of indigenous vegetables, indigenous crop varieties such as sorghum, pearl and finger millet, cowpeas, bambara nuts and other neglected and under-utilised crop species (NUS) such as taro and madhumbe, which they argue are important in improving the nutrition of people particularly now when there is a rise in non-communicable diseases such as cancer, diabetes and others.
They say it is worrying that the consumption of indigenous vegetables, cereals and legumes had declined sharply with the introduction and aggressive promotion of exotic vegetables (cabbages, spinach, carrots, and broccoli) and other fast foods.
They also say that a serious local effort to promote the highly nutritious indigenous food stuffs is critical for farmers to realise meaningful economic benefits from conserving their crop diversity.
Most people living in communal areas in Africa are still not aware of their right to access and share the benefits of indigenous genetic resources.
While the continent grapples to domesticate the treaty, Africa’s rich biological diversity resource base is being lost through biopiracy while local communities endure abject poverty.
Genetic resources experts say that the continent’s genetic resources have been leaked out for many years now due to lack of laws against biopiracy.
They also say that Africa could be losing more than US$15 billion from its biodiversity as medicines, cosmetics, agricultural products and indigenous knowledge surrounding these are being patented illegally by multinational companies without there being evidence of benefits accruing to local communities in countries of origin.
They say biopiracy cases are still rising as most African countries are losing huge benefits from their resources due to lack of legal protection against biopiracy.
“Very little attention has been given towards inventorying, documentation of diversity and distribution of the country’s plant genetic resources even though there are reported to be threatened,” Kudzai Kusena, acting curator of the Genetic Resources and Biotechnology Institute (formerly the National Gene Bank of Zimbabwe) was quoted saying in 2014.
The global economic importance of genetic resources is estimated to be between US$500 billion and US$800 billion but very little trickles to local communities in countries of origin.
Failure to domesticate the treaty is leaving its plant genetic resources open to unsustainable exploitation across the continent.