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VIII. Synthesis of discussions

A. The consultation process

The participants representing different institutions from seven Asian countries elected the consultation’s chairperson and rapporteurs, namely Xu Jianchu (China) and Raj Rengalakshmi (Ms) (India), respectively. Selected country representatives presented case papers on agrobiodiversity conservation and the role of women with brief discussions after each presentation.

As a prelude to the presentation of case papers, an overview of challenges and issues in agrobiodiversity conservation in Asia was presented by John Mackinnon, co-director of the ASEAN Regional Center for Biodiversity Conservation (ARCBC). Dr Mackinnon indicated that throughout the history of human civilisation, biodiversity conservation has been an intrinsic part of systems for managing agriculture. Furthermore, increasing attention is now being given to women who are recognized to have traditionally played a key role as agrobiodiversity managers.

After the series of paper presentations, the group identified emerging issues which cut across the various cases. The group produced a thematic synthesis of the discussions through the guidance of resource persons, namely:

a) Wilhelmina Pelegrina, on needs and problems in community-based agrobiodiversity conservation. Ms Pelegrina is Technical Officer of the Southeast Asia Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE), an NGO based in Manila, Philippines, working on community-based plant genetic resource conservation and use;

b) Gelia Castillo, on emerging approaches in community-based agrobiodiversity conservation. Dr Castillo is senior advisor of CIP-UPWARD;

c) Thelma Paris, on enhancing women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation (field-level interventions). Dr Paris is gender specialist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines; and,

d) Julian Gonsalves, on enhancing women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation (policy-level interventions). Dr Gonsalves is also senior advisor of CIP-UPWARD, and former vice-president of the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), Silang, Cavite, Philippines.

Small-group discussions generated recommendations for research, policy and programme development to improve the contribution and participation of rural women in conserving and improving agrobiodiversity systems in the Asian region.

The synthesis and recommendations presented in this report were prepared in consultation with the other participants, including the resource persons. This report was duly approved and adopted unanimously by the participants on 13 September 2001.

B. Synthesis of discussions

The participants emphasized the importance and appreciated the synergy between and among organisms. Agrobiodiversity conservation consists of the full range of living resources that are used by human beings to preserve the balance between society, economy and ecology.

There are three levels of agrobiodiversity: agro-ecosystem diversity, species diversity and variety or genetic diversity. In this broad sense, agrobiodiversity serves to fulfil production, livelihood and cultural functions, e.g. plant varieties are grown for rituals and festivals. Rural women are recognized as the primary managers of agrobiodiversity due to their role in agricultural production and natural resource use. Rural women maintain local knowledge and cultural traditions associated with plants and production systems over generations. Their crucial roles as preservers of seed and knowledge and as processors of food make them important partners in agrobiodiversity conservation.

C. Thematic synthesis

1. Needs and problems in community-based agrobiodiversity conservation

Ms Pelegrina led the discussion summarizing the key needs and problems in community-based agrobio-diversity conservation. The various country cases presented agro-ecosystems biodiversity in different land uses such as swidden systems, home gardens, agroforestry systems, wet terrace fields and rainfed/ irrigated lowlands. They also highlighted species and varietal diversity in sweet potato, rice, millet, taro, vegetables and fruit.

Obstacles to community-based agrobiodiversity conservation were identified in the context of changing production, market and value (i.e. changes in the human culture) systems. The transition from subsistence to market economy and from low-input organic farming to high-input agriculture and applications of genetic engineering have affected people’s values, attitudes and behaviour towards conserving and managing natural resources. These changes caused the erosion of important local agricultural knowledge of valuable plant and animal varieties. Based on the country cases, participants identified the following problems and possibilities in agrobiodiversity conservation:

a. Biological aspects, which include:

b. Social aspects, which include:

c. Technical aspects, which include:

d. Economic aspects, which include:

e. Political aspects, which include:

f. Other problems identified include:

2. Emerging approaches to community-based agrobiodiversity conservation

Dr Castillo led the discussion summarizing the emerging approaches to community-based agrobio-diversity conservation. According to her, community-based approaches to everything have become fashionable. These include: health programmes, health insurance, agrarian reform, monitoring systems, minimum basic needs, information systems, fishery, disease control in livestock, coastal resource management, watershed management and other forms of natural resource management. While these features will most likely characterize countryside development in the years to come, natural resource management will be most interesting.

Community-based resource management (CBRM) involves the development of people’s institutions and technologies for the collective management of natural resources at the local level so that sustainable benefits could be continuously derived from them. The key word is “community”, which is never defined, and its existence always assumed. When and how does a collection of households become a community responsible for managing a common resource for the continuing benefit of all including future generations? Traditional systems have often been romantically cited for their ability to perform this function beautifully. However, because of population pressure on the resource, rural-urban migration, non-agricultural alternatives and the competition and conflict over the use and control of natural resources, these traditional institutions are also breaking down. Technologies, whether indigenous or modern, are indispensable in CBRM and so is social organization. They have to come together in a “good fit” appropriate to changing local, national or global circumstances.

In most instances, the depreciation of the natural resource base is accompanied by a change in traditional systems of management. Quite often, new systems and new norms are called for to meet entirely new situations even in old places; and indigenous practices take on changed meanings.

Unlike other participatory efforts, where participation could be an end in itself, the output from CBRM must always eventually include tangible results such as more trees, more water, less erosion, more fish, less pollution, and others. Collective institutional arrangements, codes of conduct for the common good, changes in rules of governance and empowerment of stakeholders are clearly called for; but unless these lead to physical evidence, CBRM has not done its job. This must be its distinguishing characteristic, because CBRM must have an impact on the resource base that the community is supposed to manage.

Ironically, most CBRM projects are externally initiated and externally funded and the greatest challenge lies in achieving the very essence of the approach - i.e. community-based. CBRM as a near-universal strategy has become a major industry for consulting firms, NGOs, government units, international development agencies and other entities. Process documentation, monitoring, evaluation, impact assessment and cost-benefit analysis are essential in learning from these initiatives. At the moment, the body of knowledge, analysis of assumptions and experience in CBRM is not yet very robust. In the meantime, faith in the approach needs to be supported by some tough thinking and lots of hard evidence.

a. Linking gender and agrobiodiversity conservation

How can we bring about gender and agrobiodiversity conservation in a community for the purpose of enhancing the role of women in agrobiodiversity conservation? At the onset, one of the basic premises is that the mainstream agricultural systems are market-oriented. It is with this premise that the significance of women’s roles should be seen in the light of changing circumstances, particularly changes in swidden and upland agricultural systems where agrobiodiversity is presumed to be more diverse.

b. Community-based approach

The case papers described traditional ecologically based, culturally grounded, well-established institutions and systems for managing and conserving agrobiodiversity. They were community-based initiatives and not the results of some externally initiated programmes. Some programmes, though, may have had some indirect influence on the actions of the communities. External actors (researchers, extensionists, NGOs and other entities) have contributed studies and analyses of these traditional systems to understand and learn from them.

c. Concepts, tools and techniques

All of the case papers described various tools, techniques, concepts and approaches to community-based agrobiodiversity conservation or at least some understanding of it. The West Papua study, for example, used the dominant and residual cultivars surveys, transect walks, community meetings, garden beds and efforts in nurturing women leaders. Among the Ifugaos in the Philippines, it was reported that they have many land-use systems for communal areas, private lots, swidden, rice terraces, and home gardens. Nevertheless, it was observed that among Ifugao households, cash and material needs were increasing, consequently modifying the system to include more income-generating activities. Different ecosystems have well-defined gender and age roles that change through time, although household objectives based on needs primarily determine the choice of crops grown. Home gardens, where crop diversity is high, seem to be the complete domain of women.

The Yunnan case highlights the link between culture and biodiversity stemming from the local people’s cosmic vision, and the need to strike a balance between marketed and subsistence crops. Knowledge is linked to spirituality and also to partnership with the commercial sector. The Northern Thailand story is an interesting case of conflict between the traditional rotational cultivation and the construction of a new dam in a protected area. Government policy prohibits rotational cultivation and has declared it punishable by law. As such, women need to increase capacity to explain rotational cultivation to policymakers and to recover lost seeds.

In Bangladesh, PROSHIKA programmes on homestead gardening, on participatory forest management with 909 women groups as caretakers and on local contract growing for traditional vegetable seeds are illustrative of many initiatives undertaken at field level. It is encouraging to note that at the highest government level in Bhutan, the green national account policy is in place.

Lao PDR has a different approach - focusing on agrobiodiversity issues in the lowlands and not in the uplands. This is primarily due to the strategic importance the local people give to glutinous rice. Farmer field schools have proved to be a popular strategy in making farmers participate in development activities. In Eastern Nepal, participatory seed management has helped solve the local food deficit problems, while providing an opportunity for agrobiodiversity conservation. As the ethnic groups promoted diversity in food production, their preferences and preparation methods placed high value on biodiversity.

MSSRF has three project sites in different ecosystems, but the overall philosophy was to add value to biodiversity products and to raise to higher levels the value of women as they play their roles in biodiversity conservation. The foundation has many innovative institutional concepts, which it has translated into actual undertakings. Among these innovations are:

The most vital question that this consultation sought to answer was how to enhance women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation. The answer to this question may be in revitalizing or reengineering traditional systems, or in developing new systems to find viability and added value to bioresources in a changing world through:

3. Enhancing rural women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation: field-level interventions

Dr Paris led the discussion summarizing the main types of field-level interventions for enhancing rural women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation. It was recognized that an important challenge in the consultation was to seek ways of balancing conservation of agrobiodiversity and local livelihood through rural women’s empowerment and recognizing their different roles.

The various field-level interventions, e.g. research and development programmes, described in the case papers recognized the need to support women in their role as key actors for agrobiodiversity conservation since they are:

However, their contribution to conservation is influenced by:

Considering the opportunities and constraints discussed earlier, some of the field-level actions that can be pursued to enhance women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation are:

Most important, field-level interventions should not stop at analysis but rather become more action-oriented. Results of gender analysis need to be incorporated in designing and implementing interventions that involve introducing gender-responsive technological and social innovations.

4. Enhancing rural women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation: policy-level implications

Dr Gonsalves led the discussion summarizing policy-level interventions to enhance rural women’s role in agrobiodiversity conservation.

a. Agrobiodiversity conservation and management

There is a need to distinguish between agrobiodiversity management and conservation. It is recognized that conservation is an integral component of management. Can one achieve the conservation of biodiversity when basic needs are not met? In such a context, it is fundamental to address poverty and food security issues. There is a new wave of interest in food security and nutrition. Therefore, it would be appropriate to take advantage of this renewed awareness and promote the strategy of food diversity. Integrated conservation and development frameworks are more conducive to agrobiodiversity conservation than purely environmental or agronomic approaches.

b. Government policies and agrobiodiversity

Are government policies supportive of agrobiodiversity enrichment? Many government policies tend to contradict agrobiodiversity conservation (e.g. policies on swidden farming or shifting cultivation and seed certification). While legislation is important to protect farmers’ rights, it may not necessarily enhance the use of agrobiodiversity over wider areas. There could be conflict between traditional agricultural practices that may promote biodiversity locally and government policies that prevent such practices.

c. Need for new research and development paradigms

There is a need for new research and development paradigms that have a livelihood orientation and that increase scientists’ accountability. Too often agrobiodiversity is equated primarily with crop diversity. Prevailing perspectives need to be broadened to include trees, livestock, fish and other commodities. It is possible to simultaneously take advantage of the synergistic value of the multiple components of a single small farm.

d. Ethnic groups and women

Targeting certain ecological environments (also ethnic minorities or cultural groups) as repositories for conserving agrobiodiversity such as shifting cultivation, upland and home gardens should be done. Additionally, it would be appropriate to target ethnic minorities or cultural groups as repositories of local knowledge and custodians of local biodiversity. As men increasingly depend on off-farm income, women are expanding their role in food production. Logically, one can conclude that women will have a bigger responsibility for conserving agrobiodiversity. Land rights of women and command over property enjoyed by women have a direct impact on biodiversity. Moreover, it is important to consider niche areas to take advantage of cultural roots of indigenous food preferences and rituals that offer opportunities for saving diversity.

e. Genetic engineering, biopiracy and agrobiodiversity

The implications of genetic engineering on biodiversity offer cause for concern nowadays. Empirical data from developed countries suggest that contamination is a bigger concern than losses of traditional varieties. Biopiracy is a new and real concern affecting how civil society views efforts to share knowledge and genetic resources.

f. Markets and incentives

A major thrust for conserving agrobiodiversity is to ensure that tangible economic benefits or subsidies accrue to the majority of the stakeholders by finding and establishing niche markets, organizing niche groups and making productive niche microenvironments. It would also be appropriate to explore subsidies for growing traditional crops.

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