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Key Readings 1

Sustaining Livelihoods through Animal Genetic Resources Conservation

Simon Anderson (2003)

Almost two billion people rely on livestock to supply part or all of their daily needs. Livestock forms a component of the livelihoods of at least 70% of the world's rural poor including millions of pastoralists and graziers, mixed farmers and landless livestock keepers. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, the poor and the landless derive a higher proportion of household income from livestock sources than do other households.

The complex, diverse, and risk-prone peasant livelihood systems of the poor living in marginal areas, and the marginalized living from scarce resources in higher potential areas, require animal genetic resources (AnGR) that are tolerant to harsh conditions, resistant to disease, productive and diverse.

Access by the poor to genetic resources is often limited by various social and cultural factors. Genetic erosion is also threatening the livelihoods of the poor by restricting their access to appropriate AnGR. By taking a sustainable livelihoods approach (SLA) to evaluate the importance of AnGR for the poor, it is possible to identify entry points and interventions to reducing poverty through AnGR management.

Livestock Keeping as a Livelihood

Animals kept by people for agricultural purposes - livestock -are considered as livelihood assets, and the keeping of livestock is part of the livelihood activity of the household. There are four main livestock keeping systems:

Women livestock keepers often fall into the small stock keeper or the landless livestock keeper categories depending upon their land endowment and right of use within the household.

Livestock keeping:

For poor households, the non-income functions of livestock keeping are particularly important. These functions or benefits include savings, buffering, and insurance. For example in southeast Mexico, the main function of backyard pig keeping was found to be as a convertible asset available and easily traded to make payments for health care, schooling, food and other household requirements.

Productivity improvements may be important for some types of livestock keepers and a suitable objective in changing livelihood strategies of some rural people, but many situations will require a balance between productivity improvement and the need for secure savings and insurance, and other livelihood functions.

Animal Genetic Resources and the Livelihoods of the Poor

The sustainable livelihoods approach can be used to analyze the well-being objectives that people aspire to, the resources or assets they have access to, and the way in which they use those assets to achieve their objectives. Key to the approach is an understanding of the way in which institutions, both formal (government, laws, markets) and informal (culture, kinship etc.), shape people's access to resources.

Factors that affect the ways these functions are fulfilled include:

AnGR and contributions of livestock to the livelihoods of the poor

ContributionFactors that differentiate between breeds
Regular cash income from animals or their productsConsumer preferences may favor or reject products from certain breeds. sales of Intermediaries will offer different prices for products and animals of different breeds.
Regular cash income from sales or use of animalsCertain uses met by breeds with desired characteristics (size, power, docility) and adaptation to environment (heat tolerance, walking ability, water requirements).
Buffer stocksSurvivability is important; also disease resistance and climatic tolerance; reproductive rate for accumulation of assets.
Inputs and services to crop productionCertain services best provided by breeds with required characteristics (size, power, docility), and adapted to environment (heat tolerance, walking ability, water requirements).
Capture of benefits from CPRsAdapted to environment and behavioral characteristics (heat tolerance, walking ability, water requirements, foraging and scavenging ability).
Transport, fuel, food, fiber for keepersProductivity capacity and reproductive rate. Social and cultural functions that provide status and identity. Appearance traits important (hide and skin color, horn size and shape, confirmation, etc.).

Many of the animal genetic resources most important to the poor are not improved breeds, but local breeds that still have important adaptation traits to unfavorable environments and that are able to thrive on low external input-type management.

Natural Capital Assets

Animal genetic resources are part of the natural capital assets of poor rural families. Access to these resources is crucial to many of their natural resource management activities, and hence their livelihood strategies. Access to appropriate AnGR resources in many cases had been negatively affected by the intense selection for desired traits, market demand and policies.

Institutions and Social Relations

Formal and informal social institutions provide the socioeconomic context within which livelihood activities are carried out. The processes and structures of these institutions can largely influence access and use of animal genetic resources.

Trends in External Factors

Trends in population demographics and location, e.g., urbanization, also technological changes in agroecosystems and marketing systems, can negatively affect AnGR. Commercial production systems tend towards uniformity of inputs, resources, and outputs, while livelihood-oriented systems thrive on diversity.


Sudden changes in climatic conditions (droughts, floods), the impact of wars and social unrest, and the advent of new or sporadic diseases and epidemics could mean the loss of AnGR that are low in number. Poor families are less able to respond to these types of shocks.

AnGR Conservation for Sustainable Livelihoods

AnGR conservation aimed at sustaining livelihoods needs a holistic approach to breed attributes that recognize the array of contributions livestock make to livelihoods and the breed characteristics related to these.
“Local” breeds often have advantages in that they fulfill nonincome and socio-cultural needs as a result of selection for adaptive and appearance traits. Breeds that have been subjected to genetic selection for productivity traits - “improved” breeds - generally improve their performance with increasing management levels. Crossbreds (“local” with “improved”) may express a combination of traits (adaptive and productive), and may or may not conform with local peoples' requirements for traits related to socio-cultural functions. Hence, the importance of local breeds as AnGR is not only their ability to fulfill livelihood functions, but also their genetic contribution to adaptive and other traits to crossbred animals.

From a livelihoods perspective, identifying and addressing the AnGR requirements of poor livestock keepers are important. This is best done through community-based AnGR management.

Ranking Trait Expressions of Livestock Breeds
To make rational decisions that take a holistic account of livelihood functions, breeds could be compared using ranking (best to worst) of trait expression in common environments. Four general criteria can be identified - productive traits (PT), adaptive traits (AT), sociocultural traits (ST), and non-income traits (NT). As the sum of rankings for PT + AT traits increases, the importance of genetic conservation for future use in different livestock production systems also increases. As the sum of rankings for ST + NT traits increases the importance of genetic conservation for socio-economic and cultural reasons increases. By plotting the sum of rankings on a kite diagram with PT and AT on the vertical axis and ST and NT on the horizontal axis, the relative merits of breeds for conservation may be compared. Rankings can be elicited from different types of livestock keepers who may keep the breeds under different conditions. In this way, AnGR conservation needs can be differentiated for poor, not so poor, and better-off livestock keepers. As an example, the figures present a comparison of local, crossbred, and improved pig breeds from the perspectives of keepers who keep pigs for livelihood and semicommercial functions in southeast Mexico.
It is important to note that for the PT, AT, and NT traits the genetic basis of the same phenotypic traits ranked under different environments is not necessarily the same. For example, live weight gain in chickens, a PT trait, will be dependent upon different combinations of genes for its expression under a scavenging system where birds have to look for their own diets and under an intensive system where a balanced high protein diet is provided. Hence, comparisons are only possible under the same environmental conditions.
However, different livestock keepers apply different husbandry hence their requirements for AnGR are different.

A comparison of three pig types in southeast Mexico for (A) livelihood functions and (B) semi-commercial functions
(A)Productive traits
(including indirect outputs)
Crossbred Box Keken x improved
 Local breed
 Improved breeds
(B)Adaptive traits (heat tolerance, digestive capacity, disease resistence) 
 Productive traits (including indirect inputs) 
 Adaptive traits (heat tolerance, digestive capacity, disease resistence) 

Access Constraints to AnGR by the Poor

A livelihoods approach to AnGR management and conservation requires working directly with the poor to understand the complex interactions between AnGR and poverty, and to maintain or enhance the AnGR assets available to them. Central to this approach is the need to understand the functions of livestock as household assets, the purposes in investing resources in livestock keeping (income, non-income and sociocultural purposes), and the genetic traits that are important for meeting these purposes. AnGR conservation from a livelihoods perspective therefore should address the maintenance and enhancement of AnGR best suited to the livelihoods of the poor, and to ensuring equitable access to these resources.


Anderson, S. 2003. 'Animal Genetic Resources and Livelihhods. Ecological Economics, Special Issue on AnGR.

Carney, D. 1998. Implementing the Sustainable Rural Livelihoods Approach. In: Carney D. (ed). Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: What Contribution Can We Make? Department for International Development (DFID), London, pp. 3–26.

Waters Bayer and Bayer. 1992. The Role of Livestock in the Rural Economy. Nomadic Peoples. Vol. 31.

Sourcebook produced by CIP-UPWARD,
in partnership with GTZ GmbH, IDRC of Canada, IPGRI and SEARICE.
Contributed by: Simon Anderson

Neglected species, livelihoods and biodiversity in difficult areas: how should the public sector respond?

Roger Blench (1997)

by Roger Blench

Number 23, September 1997 - Natural Resources Perspectives

The material that follows has been provided by Overseas Development Institute

Recent research on neglected crop and animal species suggests that there exists an important gap between the priorities of development and research agencies and the way small farmers, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world, treat such species. This paper argues that policies to promote neglected species will have positive effects on biodiversity and livelihoods, especially in more difficult areas where conjunctive management of common pool and private resources remains important.

Policy conclusions


The study of “lost” or “minor” crops and livestock species is fraught with linguistic pitfalls; these species are no more “lost” or “minor” to the people who use them than Victoria Falls were “discovered” from the viewpoint of those who lived next to them. The usual meaning is that they have been neglected by Western-based research or that world production statistics are either not published or indicate low volumes compared to better-known crop or livestock species.

Two recent reviews (NAS [National Academy of Sciences], 1996 and Blench, in press) for crops and livestock respectively, suggest that at least in the case of Africa, there are wide disparities in the quantity and quality of research on many species. Moreover, neither their production economics nor their contribution to smallholder subsistence have usually been criteria for funding research, despite the supposed emphasis on food security or livelihoods. The International Livestock Centre for Africa (ILCA) famously discouraged research on camels, donkeys, pigs, rodents and indigenous avians in Africa, despite its apparent remit for the livestock of the continent. Other NAS publications on neglected Asian livestock and microlivestock suggest a similar pattern elsewhere in the world.

It is becoming increasingly clear that farmers make use of a much wider range of plants and animals than is encompassed in standard lists of crops and livestock and that these may not be domesticated in textbook fashion. Recent research, especially in Australia and the African rainforest, has emphasised that it is not necessary to be a farmer to manage plants; in both regions yams are transplanted and pruned so as to improve both growth characteristics and accessibility. Similarly, pastoralists can manage non-domesticated animals, most notably the reindeer across the circumpolar regions of Eurasia. Adapting research and extension strategies to accommodate this expanded view of farming systems is a process that has hardly begun.

The Pattern of Research

Despite the growth of participatory ideologies during the last decade, there has been very little increased emphasis on species of importance to smallholder farmers. It is ironic to note that much of the detailed descriptive work on such species dates from the colonial era. In the early period, descriptions grew out of Agricultural Officers' field experiences, but as professional agronomy took over, research agendas were increasingly set by the Western scientific system. The pattern of large-scale research tended to draw attention away from crops and animals of no perceived economic value outside their immediate area. The problem has been two-fold: a focus on fewer, better-known crops or species and an emphasis on higher-order issues whose relevance to the problems faced by farmers is not always clear.

Africa represents an elaborate mosaic of crop and livestock species and races produced using non-standard strategies. Weeds or weed hybrids symbiotic with cereals can be tolerated or even planted. Toxic yams can be cultivated to deter crop thieves. “Minor” livestock, such as the donkey, the land snail or the giant rat, can play a major role in the economic life of ordinary rural householders. They are, however, of no significant interest to major donor agencies and research is often confined to enthusiastic individuals. The first edition of Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa (1937) lists many species on the cultivation boundary; for the majority the bibliography has barely been extended. Early volumes of the journal Economic Botany are larded with “promising” tropical crops whose promise has never been realised. Despite encouraging texts on unconventional livestock (e.g. NAS, 1991), the volume of research remains small.

The sceptic's view of this might be that unconventional species are not further developed because they are in fact of limited value, i.e. they do not show the appropriate economic characteristics to expand onto the larger stage of international trade. However, this would be to ignore numerous other factors contributing to their neglect: the difficulties of maintaining research funding, the inaccessibility of the regions where these species are produced, culinary and nutritional conservatism and the powerful interests of large seed and veterinary companies who have actively discouraged biodiversity maintenance because of the higher costs of servicing a more diffuse market.

Domestication, cultivation and taming

The process of domestication can be characterised as adapting the genetic makeup of a species to the needs of human society, a process often deleterious to the survival aptitudes of that species in the wild. Apart from the pig, the major species of domestic animal no longer have wild relatives in Europe and America and modern breeding systems tend to ensure that genetic introgression from such relatives is not a significant factor in variation. This is less true for plants, although where there is introgression from wild forms it is usually intentional. Geneticists use wild forms to breed for specific economic characteristics, rather than to maintain the diversity inherent in the larger gene pool.

Sheep, goats, chickens and pigs arrived in Africa fully domesticated and although local races have developed there is no further genetic interaction with their wild relatives. In contrast, domestication remains a dynamic process for indigenous African fauna, both in terms of interbreeding with wild populations and continuing experimentation with new species. The donkey was almost certainly domesticated in Africa and there is evidence for interbreeding with wild ass populations in historic times. With the probable elimination of the last Somali wild asses this process has come to an end. On the other hand, the guinea-fowl is part of the indigenous avifauna of Africa which has been only partly domesticated. In west-central Africa, guinea-fowl are kept in the compound, grow fat and have little tendency to fly away, but in eastern and southern Africa they are still caught in the wild.

Taming, on the other hand, implies temporarily adapting a wild species to human requirements without altering its genetic makeup. The evolution of a social niche for pets may be a prelude to domestication, although cachet can attach to taming wild animals so that the taming process becomes an end in itself. The iconographic records of Ancient Egypt document a remarkable skill in controlling animals, especially birds. The Romans in North Africa are shown using trained cheetahs for hunting while hyena-taming is found across Sahelian Muslim Africa, usually as a type of circus act. Taming also implies some selection, as many animal species revert to wild behaviour patterns once adult. Evidence from the ethnographic literature suggests that experimentation continues in sub-Saharan Africa, and there are “new” domesticates, wild-caught animals initially “finished” in captivity such as the giant rat (Cricetomys), the grasscutter (Thryonomys) and the African Land Snail (Achatina) but now being selectively bred in captivity.

A comparable process occurred with many plants which were cultivated before being domesticated. Cultivation is here defined as altering their location or growth habit in some way to make them more useful to human beings. The simplest manner is transplantation. Forest yams are uprooted and replanted near the homestead. Seeds from fruit trees such as Canarium schweinfurthii are dropped near the compound and protected from fire. Cereal grains are gathered from the wild and scattered so that they can be more easily collected the following year. Palm trees (such as the dum palm, Hyphaene thebaica) are coppiced to harvest the leaves annually. Although these processes are assumed to have been more common in the past, when human population densities were lower, they continue today, as accounts of the “pseudo-cultivation” of Paspalum scrobiculatum in Guinea show.

The number of indigenous African plant domesticates is much greater than for animals and in many cases their exact taxonomy remains problematic. Important genera, such as the Dioscoreaceae, from which come the many species of commercial yams, remain in confusion in part because of the continuing interaction with wild species.

Table 1 gives some examples of indigenous Africa plants and animals that have been cultivated or tamed as opposed those truly domesticated.

Table 1. Cultivation versus domestication: some African examples

PlantsDioscorea praehensilis, aerial yam (Dioscorea bulbifera), Futa Jalon fonio (Brachiaria deflexa var. sativa), koko vine (Gnetum bucholzianum), African olive (Canarium schweinfurthii), Polygala butyraceaSorghum, bulrush millet, finger-millet, tef, African rice, cowpeas, Bambara nuts, Guinea yam, Hausa potato (Solenostemon rotundifolius), rizga (Plectranthus esculentus), oil-palm
AnimalsGuinea-fowl, spur-wing goose, giant rat (Cricetomys), grasscutter (Thryonomys), Land Snail (Achatina), marine turtle (Chelonia mydas), beesCattle, donkeys, pigeons, guinea-fowl
N.B. Where recorded, “English” names are given, but many of these are local and not well-known; the scientific name is therefore also given.

Species, landraces and breeds

The argument concerning minor species can also be taken to extend to cultivars or breeds of major economic species. Many of the world's major economic cultigens have regions of high genetic diversity, often close to where they were first domesticated. This agrobiodiversity has often been conserved incidentally, simply because smallholders remain on the periphery of high-input agriculture. The diversity of potatoes in the Andes or of cattle-like species in south-east Asia are cases in point. Plant and animal breeders increasingly recognise this and indeed often treat areas of conserved agrobiodiversity as a free genetic resource. The intellectual battle to conserve this diversity is now largely won in the case of major species simply because of the importance of the headline species. This does not mean that the appropriate methods to conserve landraces in situ have been developed nor that the resource created by local breeding strategies is justly rewarded. But the conservation of local races can no longer be mapped simply against the larger problem of the conservation of minor species.

Between wild and domestic: a dynamic frontier

Development specialists, research station scientists and anthropologists all have a substantial investment in the distinction between the wild and the domestic. Sets of well-established domesticates permit the research specialisations, projects and diagrams of dichotomies favoured by this type of literature. Plants or animals that are domesticated in some locations and not others, and the management of wild plants or animals make for fuzzy categories and do not lend themselves to well-structured genetics. For this reason, species that cross over between the wild and the farm, such as fonio, Digitaria exilis, tend to be neglected. Where well-bred plants form weedy crosses with their wild relatives, such as in the case of West African pearl millets, considerable efforts go into eliminating these rogue plants.

In reality, this dynamic frontier is built into farming and pastoral systems across the world and its fluidity is a response to changing environmental and economic conditions. Table 2 lists some species of plants and animals that illustrate variable domestication according to geography and where the “domestic” types are constantly subject to outcrossing with “wild” relatives.

Table 2. Between the wild and the domestic: some examples

PlantsTubers:Dioscorea bulbifera, D. dumetorum, D. sansibarensis
 Cereals:Brachiaria deflexa, Paspalum scrobiculatum var. polystachyum, Oryza glaberrima
 Sedges:Cyperus esculentus (tiger-nut)
 Pulses:Macrotyloma geocarpa, Psophocarpus tetragonolobus, Sphenostylis stenocarpa
 Potherbs:Portulaca oleracea, Bidens pilosa, Amaranthus hybridus
 Tree-crops:Tamarind, oil-palm, Moringa oleifera, carob
AnimalsDonkey, Bactrian camel, guinea-fowl, ostrich, elephant, Chinese and European geese, reindeer, yak, Bactrian camel, vicuña

Tolerated Weeds

Weeds have generally had a bad press in professional literature. Harlan and de Wet (1965), who collected statements about weeds, contrast those from professional agronomists (“obnoxious plants known as weeds”, “a nuisance”) with those of enthusiastic amateurs fa plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered', “weeds ... condemned without a fair trial”). Weeds typically colonise disturbed habitats and cultivated fields represent a special case of such a habitat. Recent research suggests that many major economic crops have co-evolved with weeds and that those weeds are retained in non-intensive farming systems and harvested for food or other uses. Such weeds have been renamed “companion-crops” or “anecophytes” to reflect this changed status. African farming systems include many such species, especially greenleaved potherbs and these make an important contribution to diet.

It has been argued that some species of animal fill a corresponding niche in relation to human society. Rats, pigeons, sparrows and rabbits (in the Antipodes) have been advanced as candidates in this respect. The analogy is not precise since almost all of these are regarded as pests. However, the European house-rat has only begun to spread in Africa subsequent to European contact and in some regions is encouraged through leaving out scraps so that it will be available as an emergency food reserve.

Does it matter?

It could be argued that, since these various minor species have been thrown off the express-train of history, they did not possess the biological attributes necessary to enter the world economic system. In other words, their limited importance is justified. The history of domestication can be taken to show that species which do not conform to the social and technical niches available in their period are eliminated. Such eco-Darwinism rides roughshod over the actual process of crop domestication. A crop of major world importance such as maize depended on the generations of unknown Meso-American farmers working with the apparently unpromising teosinte. From this perspective the failure of such a species to produce returns within a short research cycle would be reason enough for rejecting it.

This makes for self-fulfilling prophesies; since certain crop/livestock species are defined as “minor”, statistics on their prevalence are either not collected or of doubtful value. This absence of data then becomes a reason for proscribing further research. Another more banal discouragement may be at work; describing crop repertoires in detail involves long lists of scientific names with no easily remembered English equivalents and no entries in readily available textbooks. Practical development workers can often be heard to dismiss this type of research as a sort of antiquarianism.

Nonetheless, research in Africa has shown that “minor” crops often play a major role in household nutrition. Studies reported in Schippers and Budd (1997) indicated, for example, that in south-west Cameroon indigenous potherbs constitute up to 50% of a household's vegetable intake, and that there is as yet no tendency for them to be replaced by exotic species. A ranking exercise to compare the role of indigenous vegetables in the economy of five African countries identified several of considerable regional importance that are so little-known as to have no common English name.

In a similar vein, although less acknowledged, is the problem that African governments, even those with an explicit poverty-focus, are not willing to promote species seen as “backward” or that seem to project an image that is “not modern”. Recent criticism of a report on donkey utilisation in poor areas of South Africa by ANC officials suggests that not all the values of the preceding government have been summarily dismissed. Similarly, the practice of eating pets and work animals at the end of their useful lives, as is common with dogs and donkeys, is often categorised as repugnant to “modern” values.

Arguments for promoting minor species and races

The strongest argument for promoting minor species is simply that since people continue to use them, this constitutes a recognition of their value sufficient to suggest that research priorities should be re-oriented. However, a more proactive case can be made in terms of both food security and economics.

Minor crops are strongly associated with marginal environments: regions where extreme heat, poor soils and access problems make the large-scale production of world crops and livestock uneconomic. They play a disproportionately large role in food security systems; plants that will grow in infertile or eroded soils and livestock that will eat degraded vegetation are often crucial to household nutritional strategies. They usually demand reduced labour inputs and are resistant to disease while also providing nutritional diversity. This is especially important in regions where increasing dependency on purchased cereal staples such as maize can lead to vitamin-deficiency diseases.

At the same time, minor species are important to the maintenance of agrobiodiversity. Traditional agricultural systems combine home gardens with the sequential combination of annuals and perennials with tree crops. Studies in West Java found more than 230 species of plant within the overall cropping system (Christanty et al ., 1986). In addition these systems include livestock, aquaculture and harvestable insects and are found to encourage a greater diversity of bird species than regions of monocropping (for example, paddy rice).

Another more strictly economic argument for greater attention to minor species is that poor people have a comparative advantage in their production. As world production of major crops and livestock becomes more hi-tech, farmgate prices do not keep pace with the price of inputs for smallholders (McNeely, 1995 and references therein). The world system constantly reduces their ability to compete as individuals, although they may be drawn into wage-labour in agro-industrial enterprises. They can compete, however, by producing crops and livestock for specialised consumers, both through ethical trading and the exotic products market. This discovery is not limited to the developing world; farmers in Europe and America are increasingly turning to designer foods as the recent spread of ostriches and quinoa demonstrates. Minor species can also help poor farmers spread risk and diversify their output against fluctuations in major cash crops.

Wonder crops and magical breeds
A contradictory aspect of agricultural development that hardly seems to change is the way rapid waves of enthusiasm develop for wonder crops and magical livestock breeds. The productivity of some tree, crop or animal is seen to give spectacular advantages compared with the indigenous species. Eucalyptus, Gmelina, Leucaena, vetiver grass and exotic livestock breeds have all come and gone, none recording a fraction of the original success hoped for them. That such entities should exist seems contrary to agricultural ecology, which suggests that too dominant a crop (in the sense of promoting monoculture) will excite equally enhanced interest from parasites and diseases. But such enthusiasms are not really technically driven, but rather reflect the internal politics of development agencies, constantly under pressure to come up with solutions by the time of the next annual report. Farmers are usually too sensible to uproot existing crops in favour of some fashionable nostrum, planting only enough to test them and, from a sceptic's viewpoint, to ensure that funds continue to flow from visiting developers. More damage is probably done by encouraging the adoption of exotic livestock breeds. Although initially impressive, individual animals often turn out to have either unacceptably high veterinary costs or to die, sometimes taking the existing flock/herd with them.


Recent research on the repertoires of both crops and animals suggests that there exists an important gap between the priorities of development and research agencies and the way small farmers, both in Africa and elsewhere in the world, treat such species. The most important aspects of this are:

A consequence of this situation is that very often the main promoters of neglected species are individual enthusiasts or amateurs and this sometimes acts as a further deterrent to major agencies.

Neglected species are almost always found in “difficult” areas comprising combinations of poor soils, unreliable rainfall, hilly topography and degraded vegetation. High proportions of the poor live in these areas, and neglected species are often the only ones capable of coping with these conditions and thereby contributing to their livelihoods.

There is a sense in which the reduction in diversified systems represents a version of the “tragedy of the commons” writ large. In biodiverse resource management systems communities manage private and common pool resources in an integrated fashion over long periods. High-input single-species systems can produce more from a unit area for a defined market over a shorter time-span and it is often therefore in the interest of individuals to produce them. But in doing so they may weaken joint management systems by withdrawing from them or, even worse, by seeking to privatise parts of the resource.


Blench, R.M. (in press) “Minor livestock species in Africa.” In: Blench, R.M. and MacDonald, K.C. (eds), The origin and development of African livestock. London: University College Press.

Christanty, L., Abdoellah, O.S., Marten, G.G. and Iskandar, J. (1986) “Traditional agroforestry in West Java: the Perangkan (Homegarden) and the kebun-Talun (Annual-perennial rotation) cropping systems.” In Marten, G.G. (ed.) Traditional agriculture in Southeast Asia: a human ecology perspective. 132–158. Boulder and London: Westview Press.

Chupin, D. (ed.) (1995) “Rearing unconventional livestock species: a flourishing activity.” World Animal Review [Special Issue], 83(2). Rome: Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

Harlan, J.R. and de Wet, J.M.J. (1965) “Some thoughts about weeds.” Economic Botany, 19 (1):16–24.

McNeely, J.A. (1995) “How traditional agro-ecosystems can contribute to conserving biodiversity.” In Halladay, P. and Gilmour, D.A. (eds) Conserving biodiversity outside protected areas. pp.20–40. Gland and Cambridge: IUCN.

NAS. (1991) Microlivestock: little-known small animals with a promising economic future. Washington: National Academy Press.

NAS. (1996) Lost crops of Africa. Volume I: Grains. Washington: National Academy Press.

Schippers, R. and Budd, L. (1997) African indigenous vegetables. Kenya and Chatham: IPGRI and NRI.

Natural Resource Perspectives present accessible information on important development issues. Readers are encouraged to quote from them for their own purposes or duplicate them for colleagues but, as copyright holder, ODI requests due acknowledgement. The Editor welcomes readers comments on this series.

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WOMEN - users, preservers and managers of agrobiodiversity

FAO (1999)

Through their daily work, rural women have accumulated intimate knowledge of their ecosystems, including the management of pests, the conservation of soil and the development and use of plant and animal genetic resources.

It is estimated that up to 90 percent of the planting material used by poor farmers is derived from seeds and germ plasm that they have produced, selected and saved themselves. This means that small farmers play a crucial role in the preservation and management of plant genetic resources and biodiversity.

In smallholder agriculture, women farmers are largely responsible for the selection, improvement and adaptation of plant varieties. In many regions, women are also responsible for the management of small livestock, including their reproduction. Women often have a more highly specialized knowledge of wild plants used for food, fodder and medicine than men.


As the twenty-first century approaches, rural women in developing countries hold a key to the future of the earth's agricultural systems and to food and livelihood security. They are responsible for the selection of seed, management of small livestock and for the conservation and sustainable use of plant and animal diversity. Rural women's roles as food providers and food producers link them directly to the conservation and sustainable utilization of genetic resources for food and agriculture. Centuries of practical experience have given women a unique decision-making role and knowledge about local crop and farm animal management, ecosystems and their use.

The poorest farming communities are those that live in marginal and heterogeneous environments that have benefited least from modern high-yielding plant varieties. Up to 90 percent of the crops grown by poor farmers come from seeds and planting material that they have selected and stored themselves.

These subsistence farmers cannot afford external inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides, veterinary products, high-quality feeds and fossil fuel for cooking and heating. They rely on maintaining a wide range of plant and animal varieties adapted to the local environment. In this way, they are able to protect themselves against crop failure and animal losses, to provide a continuous and varied food supply, and to ward off hunger and malnutrition. In many areas, the majority of smallholder farmers are women.

Some trends and figures relating to agrobiodiversity
  • 30 percent of animal genetic resources at the breeding stage are categorized as a high risk of loss.
  • Of the 250 000 to 300 000 known plant species, 4 percent are edible, but only 15 to 200 are used by humans.
  • Three plant species (rice, maize and wheat) contribute nearly 60 percent of the Calories and proteins that humans derive from plants.
  • The rural poor depend upon biological resources for an estimated 90 percent of their needs.


Important international policies and legal agreements acknowledge the key role that women play, especially in the developing world, in the management and use of biological resources. Despite this increased recognition at international levels, little has yet been done to clarify the nature of the relationship between agrobiological diversity and the activities, responsibilities and rights of men and women. Women's key roles, responsibilities and intimate knowledge of plants and animals sometimes remain “invisible” to technicians working in the agriculture, forestry and environmental sectors, as well as to planners and policy-makers.

The lack of recognition at technical and institutional levels means that women's interests and demands are given inadequate attention. Moreover, women's involvement in formalized efforts to conserve biodiversity is slight because of widespread cultural barriers to women's participation in decision-making arenas at all levels.

Modern research and development and centralized plant breeding have ignored and, in some cases, undermined the capacities of local farming communities to modify and improve plant varieties. With the introduction of modern technologies and agricultural practices, women have lost substantial influence and control over production and access to resources, whereas men often benefit more from extension services and have the ability to buy seeds, fertilizers and the necessary technologies.

Giving due recognition

Both the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP, 1993) and FAO's Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (1996) acknowledge the role played by generations of men and women farmers, and by indigenous and local communities, in conserving and improving plant genetic resources. They affirm the need for women to participate fully in conservation programmes and at all levels of policy-making.

Two key objectives of Chapter 24 of Agenda 21 (UNCED, 1992) are to promote “the traditional methods and the knowledge of indigenous people and their communities, emphasizing the particular role of women, relevant to the conservation of biological diversity and the sustainable use of biological resources” and to ensure “participation of those groups in the economic and commercial benefits derived from the use of such traditional methods and knowledge”.


Through their different activities and management practices, men and women have often developed different expertise and knowledge about the local environment, plant and animal species and their products and uses. These gender-differentiated local knowledge systems play a decisive role in the in situ conservation, management and improvement of genetic resources for food and agriculture. It is clear that the decision about what to conserve depends on the knowledge and perception of what is most useful to the household and local community.

Women's and men's specialized knowledge of the value and diverse use of domesticated crop species and varieties extends to wild plants that are used as food in times of need or as medicines and sources of income. This local knowledge is highly sophisticated and is traditionally shared and handed down between generations. Through experience, innovation and experimentation, sustainable practices are developed to protect soil, water, natural vegetation and biological diversity. This has important implications for the conservation of plant genetic resources.


In smallholder agriculture, women farmers have been largely responsible for the selection, improvement and adaptation of plant varieties. The selection of varieties is a complex, multifaceted process that depends on choosing certain desirable characteristics (for instance, resistance to pest and diseases; soil and agroclimatic adaptability; nutritional, taste and cooking qualities and food processing and storage properties).

In many regions, women are also responsible for the management and reproduction of small livestock. Again, the choice of preferred breeding traits is dictated by adaptation of certain breeds to local conditions, resistance to disease and available feeds.

The fact that plants and animals are often produced for a variety of purposes further complicates the selection process since multiple traits are sought. For example, sorghum may be grown for its grain and stalk, sweet potato for its leaves and root, and sheep may provide milk, wool and meat. Moreover, to create a favourable microenvironment and manage space and time better, several plant species that complement each other are frequently intercropped and mixed farming (crop, livestock and agroforestry) is often practised.

Recognition of this sophisticated decision-making process is gradually leading breeders and researchers to realize that a community will adopt and select new and improved seeds for food crops and animal breeds if they have been tested and approved by men and women farmers.

In the Andhra Pradesh State in India, individual women farmers and sanghams (women's cooperatives) helped entomologists of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi- Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) to carry out a successful pigeon pea programme to develop improved pest-resistant lines. Researchers examined women's traditional pea varieties and offered several lines that were resistant to the main enemy, the pod borer, and came closest to the farmers' seed preferences. The women assessed their performance not only in terms of yield but also on the basis often different criteria, including leaf production, pod borer damage, taste, wood biomass, quality, market price and storability. Three of the four improved lines were rated by the women as being superior to their local varieties and were then grown alongside their own peas, which they retained for their superior taste. Furthermore, a mix of varieties was maintained to reduce pest attack.


Through their daily activities, experience and knowledge women have a major stake in protecting biological diversity. However, at national and local levels rural women are still hampered by a lack of rights to the resources they rely on to meet their needs. In general their rights of access to and control over local resources and national policies do not match their increasing responsibilities for food production and management of natural resources.

Given that men and women farmers' knowledge, skills and practices contribute to the conservation, development, improvement and management of plant genetic resources, their different contributions should be recognized and respected as farmers' rights. These are “rights arising from the past, present and future contribution of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centres of origin/diversity”. The purpose of these rights is to “ensure full benefits to farmers and support the continuation of their contributions” (FAO, 1989).

The concept of farmers' rights was developed to counterbalance “formal” intellectual property rights (IPR). These formal mechanisms of recognition give little consideration to the fact that, in many cases, such innovations are only the most recent step in a long process of inventions that have been developed over millennia by generations of farmers, particularly women, throughout the world.


A long-term strategy for the conservation, utilization, improvement and management of genetic resources diversity for food and agriculture requires:

The challenge for future generations is to safeguard agrobiodiversity by protecting and promoting the diversity found in integrated agricultural systems, which are often managed by women. The maintenance of plant and animal diversity will protect the ability of men and women farmers to respond to changing conditions, to alleviate risk and to maintain and enhance crop and livestock production, productivity and sustainable agriculture.


Balakrishnan, R. 1997. Gender and biodiversity. Paper presented at the FARM Programme Regional Training cum-workshop on Application of Biotechnologies to Rainfed Farming Systems, including Bio-indexing Participatory Approach at Community Level.

Bunning, S. & Hill, C. 1996. Farmers' rights in the conservation and use of plant genetic resources. A gender perspective. Paper presented at a seminar during the second Extraordinary Session of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Rome.

FAO. 1989. Conference resolution 5/89. 25th Session of the FAO Conference, Rome, 11–29 November.

FAO. 1993. World Watch list for domestic animal diversity, 1st edition. Loftus, R. and Scherf, B., eds. Rome.

FAO. 1996a. Global Plan of Action for the Conservation and Sustainable Utilization of Plant genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture and The Leipzig Declaration. Rome.

FAO. 1996b. Fact sheet: Women - users, preservers and managers of agrobiodiversity. First version. Rome, SDWW.

FAO. 1996c. Harvesting nature's diversity. Rome.

IBPGR. 1991. Geneflow. A publication about the earth's plant genetic resources. Rome, International Board for Plant Genetic Resources.

UNCED. 1992. Agenda 21. United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, June 1992.

UNEP. 1993. Convention on Biological Diversity. Nairobi.I/X2560E/1/9.99/2000


Ex situ conservation: Literally, “out of place”; not in the original or natural environment, e.g. seed stored in a genebank.
Genebank: Facility where germplasm is stored in the form of seeds, pollen or tissue culture.
In situ conservation: Literally, “in (a plant's) original place”.

For further in formation please contact:



Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy
or visit the FAO Internet sites at: or

Livestock and Livelihoods

Nitya Ghotge and Sagari Ramdas (2003)

Over the years, many different kinds of animals (i.e., horses, pigs, cattle, goat, camels, elephants, llamas, alpaca, vicuña, reindeer, etc.) have been domesticated in different regions of the world for different reasons. It is estimated that the earliest domestication of animals took place over 14,000 years ago. The first animal to be domesticated was the dog, essentially as a companion animal.

Some animal species have traveled from their original centers of domestication to other parts. They have successfully adapted themselves to the conditions and the needs of people there. Examples of these are cattle, horses, sheep, goats, poultry, pig, chicken and ducks. In the case of some species, it is believed that perhaps, domestication happened more than once at separate locations. This is what is believed of the Bos taurus (humpless cattle), which is believed to have been domesticated from the Auroch in the region around Turkey and then had another round of domestication in north Africa.

People in the deserts, on the other hand, domesticate camels for transport purposes. Likewise, camels provide milk, meat, hair, leather, and manure. Furthermore, they are symbols of wealth and status, and may be traded in exchange for other goods.

Livestock Breeds

Breeds have developed slowly over a long process taking many thousands of years. This was done through a selection process, which was both natural and driven by human needs. Through the natural process, only those species, which could withstand a particular agroecological zone, survived. On the other hand, humans carefully selected species based on physical and production traits to meet their local needs and requirements. Therefore, the needs of a farmer in the cold grasslands of the Steppes in Russia were quite different from the needs of farmer of the grasslands of India or Pakistan. Today, there are some 6,000 to 7,000 known breeds of domesticated animals spread all over the world. The careful process for selection of different traits is largely responsible for the difference in performance and appearance of the breed from its wild progenitor, as well as from other breeds of the species.

Livestock Livelihood Systems

Certain distinct patterns of livestock farming arose from the region of domestication, the need for domestication, and specific demands of the local communities.

Breeds selected by these herders were essentially ones which could stand the stress of migration, droughts and periodic food and nutritional shortages.

Pastoral Systems

A large number of animals were domesticated in the grasslands of west and central Asia. These were mainly the herbivorous species that ate grass (i.e., sheep , goat, cattle, horse and camel). In these areas, crop farming was risky and fraught with uncertainties while livestock proved a suitable alternative. Early cattle, sheep and goat herders were often migratory. They herded their animals from place to place in search of pastures. When the pressure on grasslands became excessive, they migrated out in search of fresh pasture or moved into new territory.

As their lives and livelihoods depended on animals and animal rearing, these herders have kept some of the finest animals and breeds for generations. Even today, it is estimated that 15% of the cattle in the developing world are kept by pastoralists especially in the semi-arid parts of Africa, west Asia, India and Pakistan.

Forest-based Systems

Communities who lived in forested areas first domesticated tree species. In the tropics, animals like the elephant, water buffalo, pigs and chicken were domesticated for food, manure, draught and sport. However, not all wild forest species were suitable for domestication, and many species were in a state of semi-domestication. They reverted back to their undomesticated state when human care was withdrawn.

The Mithun breed of sheep was domesticated by communities who live in the forested regions of northeast India is an example. The forest imposes unique challenges and only animals that can withstand these could be successfully domesticated. The challenges include being able to withstand attacks by natural predators; cope with food shortage; and resist diseases. The Mithun sheep represent status, wealth, and serve as capital and currency for the people of these communities. However, the Mithun are not really kept in the same intensive way as cattle are in the developed parts of the world.

Religious preferences and social taboos also determine the selection of species and breeds of animal. In India, cattle breeds are not selected for beef as there is a religious ban on the consumption of beef. On the other hand, these very same breeds (Ongole and the Kankrej or Gujerat) are raised in Australia and the Americas as beef breeders under the ranch lot systems.

Crop-based Livestock Rearing Systems

A major revolution in livestock farming happened thousand of years ago when crop farming and livestock rearing were brought together under mixed-crop livestock farming systems. Under these systems, by-products from agriculture (crop residue and straw) were used to feed animals. In exchange, animals had to work. Their waste (dung) was used as fertilizer. It was this great revolution that led to food surpluses and helped societies go beyond the level of mere subsistence.

Many interesting patterns of mixed crop livestock rearing evolved in the different countries of the world. These patterns were in response to development, emerging needs and changing environments. Through this process, many interesting breeds have developed.

Modern Systems of Animal Rearing

Livestock have evolved and migrated around the world. Livestock breeds were taken to the grasslands of the Americas and Australia where livestock production intensified under the ranch lot systems The development of the railways, cold storage systems and refrigerated ships accelerated the development of this kind of livestock rearing, which led to fairly undesirable social and environmental consequences (i.e., large tracts of virgin forests were brought under pasture).

Modern Farming Systems

Intensification of livestock production has relied upon uniformity in the genetic composition of the livestock. For example, almost all the pigs reared under commercial farming systems in Europe and North America belong to two or three breeds. Ninety percent of all north American dairy cattle and 60% of all European cattle belong to only one breed, the Holstein. Furthermore, it is estimated that by 2015, the genetic diversity within this breed will come from only 66 individual animals. Organized poultry farming across the world relies on a few multinational companies who have developed a handful of breeds for their supply of stock.

The Need for Agricultural Biodiversity

A narrow genetic base as developed by commercial farming systems poses many inherent dangers. This narrow base carefully selected for a particular trait may be completely unsuitable to the emerging problems of the future. These include diseases and the increased demand for diverse livestock products. On the other hand, a wide genetic base makes it possible to carry out productive livestock farming under diverse conditions.

Most of the world's poor live in marginalized areas where it is not possible to manage livestock farming under intensive conditions. Livestock is reared to cater to a number of personal needs and demands.

Livestock rearing patterns are intricately woven into a delicate balance with other systems in their area. Specific species and breeds are associated and identified with their socio-cultural place in society. Thus, the introduction of a program or new breeds or species of animals tend to upset the balance which has evolved slowly over many years. Wide genetic diversity provides these people to continue to live a life of social, cultural and economic independence and dignity.


Groombridge, B. (ed.). 1992. Global Biodiversity: Status of the Earth's Living Resources. Compiled by World Conservation Monitoring Centre. Chapman and Hall, London.

Sahai R. and R.K. Vijh (eds). 2000. Domestic Animal Diversity Conservation and Sustainable Development, SI Publications, Karnal (Haryana) 132001, India.

Scherf, B. (ed) 2000. World Watchlist for Domestic Animal Diversity, 3rd edition, FAO, Rome, Italy.

Sourcebook produced by CIP-UPWARD,
in partnership with GTZ GmbH, IDRC of
Canada, IPGRI and SEARICE.
Contributed by: Nitya Ghotge and Sagari Ramdas

Good ideas turned bad?
A glossary of rights-related terminology

GRAIN (2004)

Many of us often have to struggle with words and concepts that are used as though they have one single and simple meaning, while in reality they hide strong bias and very specific worldviews. Not surprisingly, they are usually biased towards the worldviews of those in power. There have also been well-intentioned words and concepts when coined but that have been corrupted over time through inappropriate usage, thereby acquiring more complicated connotations and implications. When we use these words, we often unwillingly but unavoidably become trapped in political and philosophical frameworks which block our ability to challenge the power that backs those views.

In the following pages, GRAIN takes a critical look at some such key concepts related to knowledge, biodiversity and intellectual property rights. Many of these words and phrases look innocent enough at a first glance, but on deeper examination, we can see how they have been twisted, manipulated, usurped, devalued and/or denatured. Some are used to constrain us and lock us into a particular way of thinking, and others are used against us. This is not an exercise aimed at drawing final conclusions, but an invitation to deconstruct some definitions and start the search for new terminology and ways of thinking that may help us untangle us from some of the conceptual traps we are stuck in.

As readers will see, one key concept is missing: rights. After some discussion, we concluded that this concept is so central to current debates, so loaded with implicit values, and its bias so deeply ingrained in our minds, that much longer and careful consideration is needed before we can attempt a useful discussion on the subject. We expect to include a discussion on “rights” in a later issue of Seedling. Meanwhile, your comments are welcome.


The term “access” simply means a right to use or visit. In the context of biodiversity it suggests either admittance to bio-rich areas for bioprospecting, or the permission to use such resources or the traditional knowledge associated with them for research, industrial application and/or commercial exploitation. Initially heralded as a safeguard against biopiracy, the expectation was that access rules and regulations would help to keep control of biological resources and knowledge in the hands of communities. Any decision on access would require prior informed consent from the relevant communities. But access regimes have turned into mere negotiating tools between governments and commercial interests. The potential (market) value of biodiversity and its associated knowledge in the development of new medicines, crops and cosmetics has transformed access into a tug of war between countries. In this way, access has become synonymous with biotrade.

Take the way in which access is currently being discussed within the CBD's Ad Hoc Open-ended Working Group on Access and Benefit Sharing. Governments must now respond to Rio+10's call to negotiate an international regime on access and benefit sharing, on the basis of the (voluntary) Bonn Guidelines adopted by the parties to the Convention in April 2002. The CBD does not define “access”, but envisages several dimensions to it:

Sadly but predictably, the preoccupation is only with the first dimension, without any reciprocal and/or balanced attention to the two others. Moreover under the CBD, countries are bound to “facilitate” access, not restrict it. Access to plant germplasm is receiving the same treatment in FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources.

What is troublesome in all these discussions is the pro-IPR (intellectual property rights) approach. Access negotiations in many cases are obliged to accommodate the international legal regimes on IPRs as prescribed by WTO's TRIPs Agreement and WIPO. This is unacceptable. If we are presented the argument “no patents, no benefits”, we must respond with “if patents, no access”. No amount of “benefit sharing” can make up for the loss of access by communities to their local resources and knowledge.


Benefit sharing was originally seen as a way to bring equity and justice to a world in which industrialised countries and their transnational corporations had long been plundering the biodiversity and traditional knowledge of communities in the South. In the early 1990s, it became one of the three central pillars of the CBD, which calls for “the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising out of the utilisation of genetic resources”. Later, the parties to the CBD developed guidelines on how to go about it, and similar wording was incorporated in FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. Benefit sharing, it was argued, would put a stop to biopiracy and the custodians of biodiversity - local communities - would get a fairer deal and a bigger say in how to manage those resources.

More than a decade later, it seems that the benefit-sharing discussion is moving in quite the opposite direction. Governments and corporate lawyers negotiate benefit-sharing agreements while local communities sit on the sidelines. Money dominates the agenda and the multiple benefits of biodiversity at the local level are all but forgotten. Despite some talk about capacity building and empowerment, most approaches to benefit-sharing are dominated by the commercial bottom-line: “no patents, no benefits”. Instead of supporting the collective forms of innovation that sustain the knowledge and practices of local communities and the biodiversity that they generate and maintain, benefit sharing is increasingly becoming a tool for pushing IPRs, promoting “biotrade” and turning biodiversity in another commodity for sale (see box).

It is time to go back to the basics: this main issue is to strengthen the control of local communities over the biodiversity they nurture (and that nurtures them) in order to improve the benefits they derive from it for their livelihood systems. Any benefit sharing scheme that doesn't take this as a central element is bound to contribute to the problem rather than providing a solution.


What Farmers Rights are depends to a large extent with whom you talk. A farmers' organisation in the Philippines defines it as an issue of farmers' control over their seed, land, knowledge and livelihoods, while an article in the Hindu Business Line describes it as the right for farmers to have access to transgenic crops. The International Seed Federation has little respect for the concept, saying that: “Farmers' Rights were introduced rather emotionally, without careful consideration (...) and have led to endless discussions”. The Farmers Rights Information Service set up by the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation explains its existence on the grounds that indigenous groups and farmers also need to gain economic rewards from the exploitation of biodiversity along with commercial interests.

The official definition laid down in Article 9 of the FAO International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture doesn't help us much further. It says that countries should protect and promote Farmers Rights by giving farmers an equitable share in the benefits, and by letting them participate in decision-making. But these “rights” are limited by the country's “needs and priorities” and are “subject to national legislation”. Even the age-old right of farmers to save and exchange farm-saved seed is not clearly guaranteed, but made subject to “national law and as appropriate”.

Farmers' Rights has been a central battle issue for many NGOs and farmers' organisations, including GRAIN, for most of the past decade. The central objective was - and continues to be - to ensure control of and access to agricultural biodiversity by local communities, so that they can continue to develop and improve their farming systems. Rather than a simple financial compensation mechanism, we pushed for Farmers Rights to be socio-economic rights, including the right to food, land, to decent livelihoods, and for the protection of knowledge systems. Not much has been achieved at the international level between governments. But it is a battle that continues for many farming communities at the local level.


Heritage is a nation's or people's historic legacy that is deemed worthy of preservation. Inheritance is something that is passed on from one generation to the next, suggesting that heritage is outside the purview of buying and selling. This is what the FAO had in mind when the concept of “common heritage of mankind” was developed in relation to plant genetic resources. By acknowledging the “heritage” status of seeds and plants, the idea was to keep them in the public domain, free of restrictive and exclusive property rights. But the concept was then revised to accommodate the “sovereignty” principle enshrined in the CBD, which meant giving heritage a price tag. The sanctity of seeds in farming cultures as something inalienable and to be shared has long been violated by ever-increasing privatisation, particularly through the abuse of patents and plant breeders' rights. This is an ironic situation in which the IPR system, which so hankers for this heritage, is sounding its death knell. Across the globe people are fighting to keep heritage and what it needs to thrive alive. The international farmers' organisation Via Campesina has launched a campaign to defend seeds as peoples' heritage for the service of humankind. This global campaign was launched at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2003, where thousands of participants committed themselves to defending seeds as collective heritage, the basis of cultures, and the foundation of farming and food sovereignty.


There are many ways to encourage innovation and there are many ways for people to guard against the misuse of their creative works. But, over the course of the last century, these functions have increasingly become the domain of the courts and the various legal systems that they govern, such as copyrights, patents, trademarks, plant breeders' rights, geo-graphical indications and industrial designs. These laws are supposed to maximise the public interest: society gets access to creative works and inventors/authors get a reward for their efforts and investments in the form of temporary monopoly rights. It was agreed that each country needed to be able to limit the scope of the laws and the rights they afford according to their own particular conditions and interests. But recently the courts in some countries have increasingly confused these legal systems with property law, and the scope and monopoly of rights conferred is getting totally out of hand. What's worse, some governments, led by the US and supported by big business, are pushing to make this situation the norm around the world, They are even pushing for a single global patent system based on this distorted model.

The growing use of the term “intellectual property rights” (IPRs) is part of the problem. IPRs came on the scene in 1967 when the World Intellectual Property Organisation was set up to bring the various legal systems under a single umbrella. The concept of IPRs is tied to a neo-liberal worldview that says that everything in the world - material goods, creative works, even DNA - can and should be privatised: i.e. parcelled up, owned and governed by a set of legal monopoly rights. If people do not own things and are not able to accumulate more ownership over things, there can be no progress; commons and collective processes create nothing but tragedy and upset the efficient functioning of “free” markets. But, in practice, we see that property rights only serve the interests of the few. They facilitate the concentration of wealth by expanding the control of property owners and by devaluing and dispossessing people of “unclaimed” wealth, such as the lands of indigenous peoples, or traditional plant varieties.

IPRs, as they exist today, also favour a very particular form of innovation - that of private individualised authorship that is generally controlled by big industry and suits the needs of commercial mass production. IPRs undermine the more important collective processes of innovation at the heart of agricultural biodiversity, culture, science, and community. For instance, while patents and plant varieties reward the seed industry for making subtle modifications to existing plant varieties, they obstruct the collective forms of plant breeding that generations of farmers have used to produce the earth's tremendous agricultural biodiversity. We are now at the point where the legal systems designed to enhance innovation are doing precisely the opposite: strangling innovation, locking up ideas, and ripping people off.

Fortunately, there is a growing global movement of resistance to this trend. Farmers are fighting the criminalisation of seed saving and the patenting of life. Digital innovators are struggling to preserve and expand the space to freely create and use software. Activists and scientists are fighting against obscene pharmaceutical patents and looking to alternative, “open” models of research that avoid patents altogether.


The English dictionary defines “protect” as to shield from harm or danger; shelter, defend and guard. But the interpretation of protection can also imply confinement, coercion, constraint, repression, limitation, restriction, monopoly and prohibition. So protection can not be understood without reference to what we want to defend, in whose favour, and at whose expense. Without this, we can easily destroy what we are supposed to be protecting, as is the case with IPRs. These are supposedly used as shields to protect knowledge, but are actually instruments to make profit from so-called “scientific” research. The economic horizon is its value measurement: nothing else. Not much is being protected except someone's wallet.

Part of the problem is that protection means very different things in intellectual property law and in ordinary usage. In the intellectual property sense, protection means protecting property over something in a very specific way, but in ordinary usage it has a much broader meaning. This has proved particularly problematic in the discussions on protecting traditional knowledge at WIPO (see p 13). When human knowledge is transformed into property in convenient IPR-sized bites, it exits the commons leaving social rights unprotected. To truly protect human knowledge - scientific, traditional, indigenous or whatever - several conditions must be met. First, we need to assign it greater value and create the conditions for that knowledge to flourish, such as by preserving cultural diversity and expressions, and conserving ecosystems diversity. Second, knowledge must flow free without limitations, monopolies or prohibition. Last but not least, this freedom must be applied to all types of knowledge, which means no IPRs in any form.


Sovereignty implies self-governance. International law states that sovereignty means each country has “supreme control over its internal affairs”. Back in 1958, the UN General Assembly established a Commission on Permanent Sovereignty over Natural Resources, followed by an eight-point resolution in 1962. But sovereignty did not become an important concept in relation to biodiversity until the drafting of the CBD. During the 1980s, discussions in the FAO on the politics of plant genetic resources had centred around the principle that they were a “common heritage of mankind.” The dramatic change in the perceived “ownership” of biodiversity brought in by the CBD was said to be to allow states and their constituent populations to take decisions on how biological resources within their jurisdiction should be used, conserved, exchanged and shared. The conceptual shift towards sovereignty was supposed to recognise peoples' contributions (especially in the South) to the development of biodiversity, and include them in decisions on how to manage and share the benefits from the fruits of their labours.

More than a decade later, how is sovereignty being exercised? In biodiversity-rich countries around the world, it is governments and state agencies that are wielding the power. They seem to have hijacked the concept. State sovereignty is neither an absolute right, nor was it meant to grant any kind of ownership over genetic resources to governmental authority. Breathing new life into sovereignty necessarily mandates the empowerment and enfranchisement of communities. Farming groups are attempting to do this by promoting the concept of “food sovereignty”, which implies the right of the people of each country to determine what they eat.


In Latin, sui generis means “of its own kind”, something unique, something special. It implies, especially in Spanish, something exceptional or strange. The concept of sui generis legislation was first introduced in the negotiations on intellectual property within the GATT agreement, as a way to grant intellectual property over plants instead of patents, which had met with widespread and strong rejection worldwide. Although sui generis legislation was initially designed exclusively for plant varieties, the concept has been gradually expanded to cover property claims over traditional knowledge and other cultural expressions.

There is a lot of conceptual and historical twisting behind the idea of sui generis legislation. The first and most fundamental twist was in its very inception in WTO's TRIPS agreement. By saying that the exclusion from patents was sui generis (unique, different), it implies that patents over life are the norm, despite the fact that exactly the opposite is true. A second twist is that the way it is defined in TRIPS means that sui generis is really a mirage: the only “alternatives” allowed are still patent-like IPRs, just modified slightly to adapt them to plants.

Despite these basic flaws, the sui generis idea remained unquestioned for a decade, and in the meantime we have witnessed or entangled ourselves in numerous contradictions as part of many often courageous but hopeless searches for a “better” IPR system. This has been the case for many groups fighting against intellectual property through WIPO, a body that was specifically and exclusively created to defend intellectual property. After so many years of fruitless battles, we should perhaps turn the argument on its head. The fact is that IPRs are an extreme case of sui generis legislation. As such, they should be drafted, applied and interpreted under the severe scrutiny of and the strict limitations set by societies and their different fundamental, non-sui generis norms. From this standpoint, the overwhelming conclusion would be that intellectual property should not be granted over life or knowledge.


Have you ever noticed that almost every concept or device that is permanently attached to an adjective becomes degraded and devalued? Like organic agriculture, sustainable development, participatory breeding, alternative technology, protected democracy, market economy. Traditional knowledge is no exception.

Traditional knowledge is knowledge, just like mathematics, biology or sociology. What makes it distinct is that it has been carefully and patiently created, built, nourished, circulated and promoted by common, non-powerful people: small farmers, fisherfolk, hunter-gatherers, traditional healers, midwives, artisans, traditional poets, and many others. Because the majority of these people belong to rural cultures or have close links with rural cultures, such knowledge is intimately linked to the understanding of natural processes. It is a form of knowledge that is continuously evolving, integrating new knowledge into a rich pool that has been tested and enriched over centuries.

We don't go around talking of “mathematical knowledge” or “sociological knowledge”. The reason we always hear about “traditional knowledge” is that this way we can diminish a form of knowledge that could become subversive, because of its collective nature and its autonomy from the circles of power. The labelling also allows the same circles of power to excuse themselves from understanding a type of knowledge which is way too sophisticated to fit their current models. Most of all, it conveys the message that traditional knowledge is fixed, mummified, and unfit for modern times. Once traditional knowledge has been portrayed as a second-class knowledge, it becomes easier and cheaper to turn it into a commodity.

That is what we are seeing these days. The result of centuries of on-going human creativity is now being sold in pieces, with the active assistance of WIPO and WTO. But just as you cannot sell or buy number five, nor can you sell or buy people's knowledge of plants or nature, or any knowledge for that matter. What is really being done is crushing or violating the right of many peoples of the world to continue freely creating, promoting, protecting, exchanging and enjoying knowledge. Can you imagine a world where no one except a few corporations could use the number five?


Trusteeship refers to a legal responsibility to supervise and administer some kind of property or asset - as in a “trust fund” - on someone else's behalf. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition. It was introduced into the political debate over plant genetic resources in the early 1990s as a means to protect the world's stock of ex situ germplasm collections from both physical destruction and legal misappropriation. The way it was set up meant that the international agricultural research centres of the CGIAR were granted the responsibility to maintain the seed collections held in their gene banks “in trust” for the benefit of the international community. This responsibility was granted to them by the members of FAO's Commission on Plant Genetic Resources - that is to say, national governments. The trust agreement, originally signed in 1994, was meant to shake off doubts about who owns the materials in the CGIAR's gene banks. It formally instructs the centres to preserve their germplasm collections in perpetuity and keep them free from IPRs. On the surface, it seems like a noble effort. The world's most important institutional collections of genetic diversity for a number of food crops are supposedly going to be kept safe and sound (in deep freeze), and put to proper use (by scientists), for the public good. The key word here is “public”. The seed collections held in trust are considered”international public goods” which should not be privatised and should benefit everyone. But the whole system - from the text of the FAO-CGIAR agreement to the way it is implemented - carries a number of hidden weaknesses. Neither the CGIAR centres nor the CGIAR itself have the legal capacity to prevent people from getting patents or other forms of IPRs on the material in trust. The centres distribute seed samples, but they cannot police what happens to them, either in the lab or in the courts. Nor can FAO or the CGIAR stop researchers from getting IPR on the components or derivatives of these materials. Sometimes sensitivities blow up.

In 2000, Thai rice farmers, NGOs and politicians became furious when they learned that samples of Jasmine rice were sent from the International Rice Research Institute (a CGIAR centre) to scientists in the US without the required material transfer agreement stating that IPRs were prohibited. In 2001, Peruvian scientists raised a stink about how the International Potato Centre (another CGIAR institute) mishandled the trust agreement when it ferried yacon samples from Peru to Japan. But most importantly, the very people who provided all these diverse and unique plant materials to the trust pot - local farming communities and indigenous peoples throughout the developing world - were never consulted about whether they wanted the seeds put in this system, whether they trusted the CGIAR centres, who they thought should benefit, whether they considered the seeds to be international public goods and whether they wanted to play a role in the whole thing.

There's no reason to doubt the good intentions behind the system. But the political reality of it is that the authority to take decisions has been abrogated from the farmers who contributed the seeds in the first place. This is what's wrong and it needs to be righted. (Did someone say something about “farmers' rights”?)

Jargon buster
CBD - the Convention of Biological Diversity was the result of prolonged international pressure to respond to the destruction and piracy of the biodiversity of the Southern hemisphere. After years of debate, the Convention was agreed upon in 1992 and came into force in 1993. Now adhered to by 188 nations, the CBD was hailed as an important watershed in international efforts to promote biodiversity conservation, and was applauded for giving formal recognition to indigenous and local communities for the central role they play in biodiversity conservation. Ten years on, much of the hope has evaporated.
CGIAR - the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research - a group of donors established the CGIAR in the early 1970s to fund agricultural research around the world. It does this via 16 International Agricultural Research Centres, which now call themselves “Future Harvest” Centres comprising more than 8,500 scientists and support staff working in more than 100 countries.
FAO - the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. The only international negotiating forum that has ever seriously attempted to take on the issue of Farmers' Rights - at least it did for a while. Also home of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources, which was drawn up to protect farmers' crops and ensure their conservation, exchange and sustainable use. But its core provisions on access and benefit sharing only apply to a small and specific list of crops and its value to farmers remains unclear
GATT - the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, see WTO below.
TRIPS - Under the WTO's Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (Article 27.b), countries are obliged to provide intellectual property protection for plant varieties at the national level either through patents or “an effective sui generis system” or both. TRIPS negotiations have been stalled for quite a while, and many developed countries are negotiating special closed deals with governments in the South instead. These TRIPS-plus deals establish much stronger requirements for IPRs than TRIPS itself and are being introduced through a range of bilateral, regional and subregional agreements. They are making so much headway that TRIPS may soon be obsolete.
WIPO - World Intellectual Property Organisation. A rising star ---in the international negotiating scene as the US and other patent-pushing countries are looking to it as the body to establish a world patent regime (see Seedling, October 2003, p 11)
WTO - Established in 1995, the World Trade Organisation is a global agency that transformed the GATT into an imposing body with the power to define the rules of global trade, enforce them and punish renegades. At its heart are a whole series of WTO agreements from agriculture to investment, negotiated and signed by the bulk of the world's trading nations and ratified in their parliaments. The WTO is one of the main forces of corporate globalisation.

Sharing a few crumbs with the San
For thousands of years, San bushmen have eaten the Hoodia cactus (left) to stave off hunger and thirst on long hunting trips. But in 2002, the Hoodia became the centre of a biopiracy row. A UK company Phytopharm patented P57, the appetite suppressing ingredient in the Hoodia, claiming to have “discovered” a potential cure for obesity. It then sold the rights to license the drug for $21 million to Pfizer, the US pharmaceutical giant, which hopes to have the treatment ready in pill form by 2005. But while the drug companies were busy seducing the media, their shareholders and financiers about the wonders of their new drug, they had forgotten to tell the bushmen, whose knowledge they had used and patented.
Phytopharm's excuse appears to be that it believed the tribes which used the Hoodia cactus were extinct. Richard Dixey, the firm's chief executive, said: “We're doing what we can to pay back, but it's a really fraught problem... especially as the people who discovered the plant have disappeared”. Having woken up to the fact that the San are alive, well and organising a campaign for compensation, Dixey backtracked fast and a benefit sharing agreement was drawn up between Phytopharm, the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which was responsible for leading Phytopharm to the Hoodia plant (and misleading the company about the extinction of the San). Ironically, CSIR's failure to consult with the San early in the commercial development of Hoodia considerably strengthened the bargaining arm and political leverage of the San, resulting in a high-profile case followed throughout the world. But even in this “best case” benefit sharing scenario, the San will receive only a fraction of a percent - less than 0.003% - of net sales. The San's money will come from the CSIR's share, while profits received by Phytopharm and Pfizer will remain unchanged. Not only are Pfizer and Phytopharm exempt from sharing their king-sized portions, but also are protected by the agreement from any further financial demands by the San.
There are also other concerns. Chief amongst them is that the agreement is confined almost exclusively to monetary benefits, which hinge on product sales and successful commercialisation. Yet commercialisation is far from certain, highlighting the need for a more comprehensive and holistic approach to benefit-sharing that is not exclusively financial, is not contingent on successful drug development, and provides immediate and tangible benefits to the San. Additional worries include the fraught questions of administering the funds, of determining beneficiaries and specific benefits across geographical boundaries and within different communities, and of minimising the social and economic impacts and conflicts that could arise with the introduction of large sums of money into impoverished communities. A critical moral dilemma relates to the patenting and privatisation of knowledge. In communities such as the San, the sharing of knowledge is a culture and basic to their way of life.
Sources: Antony Barnett, “In Africa the Hoodia cactus keeps men alive. Now its secret is “stolen” to make us thin”, The Observer (London), 17 June 2001; Rachel Wynberg (2002), Sharing the Crumbs with the San.
GRAIN. 2004.

Key Readings 2

Traditional Knowledge and Patentability

IISD Trade and Development Brief, No.7

1. Introduction

Traditional knowledge is information, skills, practices and products - often associated with indigenous peoples - which is acquired, practiced, enriched and passed on through generations. It is typically deeply rooted in a specific political, cultural, religious and environmental context, and is a key part of the community's interaction with the natural environment.

At the global level, minimum standards and criteria for patent protection are established by the WTO's Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs Agreement). Although the TRIPs Agreement does not directly address traditional knowledge, the subject matter requirements and the nature of the rights conferred to patent owners do have implications for indigenous groups in the protection of traditional knowledge. These are further explored below.

Article 27 of the TRIPs Agreement requires member countries to make patents available for innovative products or processes in all fields of technology, provided that the minimum criteria of novelty, inventiveness and industrial applicability are satisfied. Article 27.3(b)also requires protection for plant varieties, either under a patent system, or through other sui generis protectioni. In industrialized economies, patents are a tool for rewarding innovative endeavours with a profitable temporary monopoly, and the patent grant serves as a powerful incentive to undertake research and to commercialize its results. Since the TRIPs Agreement allows members to grant patents, plants and other life forms, a strong incentive exists for research to be conducted in biodiversity-rich areas of the world, particularly since plant-based therapies, domestic seeds and their associated research and inventive effort have emerged as an important element of the success of modern medical/agricultural biotechnology. It is here that the incentive effects of patent rights connect most directly with traditional knowledge, which includes medicinal/agricultural practices based on knowledge of the natural environment - especially plants - to treat members of the community, usually as part of survival, common uses, rituals and sacred practices.

2. What are the issues?

There are two main issues in the relationship between the TRIPs Agreement and traditional knowledge.

  1. Property Rights, the Culture of Ownership and Traditional Knowledge

    Within some indigenous groups, traditional knowledge is systematized and regulated by certain members of the group. Frequently, however, traditional knowledge is not “owned” by anyone, in a Western sense of the word. It is used and developed for the benefit of the entire community, and the idea of exclusive proprietary use of such knowledge for individual profit is objectionable to many traditional knowledge holders.

    Further, opponents of patent protection for traditional knowledge have argued that such protection will ultimately undermine the processes by which the knowledge has historically been acquired, preserved and used in the indigenous community. That is, the historical basis for development of traditional knowledge was an understanding that it would be used for the community's benefit. The concepts of individual profit and exclusive ownership may erode that understanding, resulting in the arrested development of the knowledge base. The same concern has been raised with respect to the protection of traditional knowledge through copyright and trademarks.

  2. Appropriation of Traditional Knowledge

    Another issue at the intersection of traditional knowledge and TRIPs-style patent protection is the appropriation of traditional knowledge by researchers, scholars and institutions from outside the community with neither the consent of the community, nor agreements to share benefits arising from the use of the knowledge. These actors are usually, but not always, from the developed world. Even when access to traditional knowledge has been authorized, the critical issue is whether the communities that are the source of that knowledge have been compensated at all and, if so, whether the levels of compensation were fair. Too often they are not fairly compensated, though they are the primary source of at least some of the intellectual capital and raw materials used in developing the patentable product or process.

    Traditional communities are generally at a disadvantage when dealing with “bioprospectors” - those who search for and harvest medicinal plants, agricultural plant varieties and genetic resources for commercial purposes, and who require the communities' help and knowledge. Often the communities have no understanding of the commercial value of the knowledge they are asked to disclose, nor do they have the skills to negotiate fair terms for such disclosure should there be an opportunity to share in the economic benefits of any resulting commercialization of the knowledge.

    It should be noted that valuable services may be rendered whether or not a patent is ultimately granted. For example, traditional knowledge may simply inform researchers of what might not be a viable research path. However, even such negative knowledge has some economic value since it can give a firm a head start in the research phase of product development. Judicial decisions in some developed countries have recognized the value of these so-called “blind alleys” in calculating monetary damages for misappropriation of proprietary interests.

3. Alternatives to the TRIPs model

The TRIPs Agreement is only one of many existing institutional models for addressing the protection and fair treatment of traditional knowledge. Indeed, one of the key difficulties in advancing this objective is the multitude of actors and institutions that have partial, sometimes overlapping approaches and mandates, and the lack of coordination among them. The WTO was discussed above, and this section deals in more detail with the new Treaty on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Convention on Biological Diversity. Others include the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) (addressing legal options for the defensive and positive protection of traditional knowledge), the World Health Organization (issues of traditional medicine), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (addressing protection for folklore and cultural heritage), the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (addressing the protection of traditional knowledge in relation to the TRIPs Agreement) and the United Nations Sub- Committee on Human Rights (examining human rights implications of the TRIPs Agreement, including issues of traditional knowledge protection). If the goal is an effective and fair multilateral system, this scattering of institutional responsibility will be one of the foremost obstacles.

Two alternate existing models to protecting and fairly treating traditional knowledge are surveyed in this section: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the FAO's International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture.

  1. The Convention on Biological Diversity

    There is an ongoing debate about the relationship between the patent requirements of the TRIPs Agreement and the substantive obligations of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD, among other things, provides for the sovereign rights of a country over its plant and animal life, as well as its genetic resources. The CBD also provides that access to genetic resources should be subject to prior informed consent of the authorities of the countries (including the consent of traditional communities) and that there should be fair and equitable sharing of the benefits that flow from the commercialization of traditional knowledge or products that incorporate traditional knowledge.

    These last two provisions in particular are not provided for in the TRIPs Agreement. In the course of the ongoing review of the Agreement's Article 27.3(b), it has been suggested that a precondition for granting of a patent should be a proof of the existence of prior informed consent and benefit-sharing agreements where the patent involves the use of traditional knowledge, as well as a the disclosure of origin of biological resources used or incorporated in patents for products or processes.

    Most of these proposals have come from developing countries, but there is no consensus among them on the wisdom of renegotiating 27.3(b), since there are a number of risks as well as potential benefits. For example, the current negotiations could well result in the deletion of the exceptions to patentability and narrowing down of definition of what is to be understood as a sui generis system. In such cases most developing countries would agree that they were worse off than under the flexible ambiguity of the existing language.

    Developed countries have objected to these proposals, arguing that they would unduly burden the patent process and that the TRIPs Agreement is the wrong forum for this type of protection for traditional knowledge. In part this argument stems from a conviction that traditional knowledge is not and should not be covered by the TRIPs Agreement. Countries supporting this position identify a number of obstacles to intellectual property protection for traditional knowledge, including the difficulty of identifying ownership (most traditional knowledge is held by the community at large), the long period of time the knowledge has existed (intellectual property rights are protected for a limited time), and the requisite legal standards for intellectual property protection (such as novelty and non-obviousness in patent law) which some traditional knowledge may not easily satisfy. The counter-argument is that, administrative difficulties notwithstanding, TRIPs should cover traditional knowledge which, like intellectual property, is the product of intellectual activity, innovation, creativity, ingenuity and a rudimentary form of R & D.

    More generally, opponents of traditional knowledge protection in the TRIPs Agreement argue that the basis for intellectual property protection is increasingly utilitarian, while traditional knowledge protection would have to account for the social and religious aspects of that knowledge base in the traditional community. Thus, the argument is that the goals of the CBD can be facilitated by protecting traditional knowledge differently from modern intellectual property, rather than viewing the goals of the CBD and TRIPs in a holistic fashion.

  2. The International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources and the International Treaty on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture

    In 1983, the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IU), a multilateral instrument administered by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), declared that plant genetic resources and plant-related innovations are the common heritage of mankind. The IU preserves the principle of open access to international gene banks which hold seeds in trust for public benefit. These gene banks provide access to samples in their collections for research purposes, but preclude users from acquiring intellectual property rights in any materials distributed. The strong emphasis placed on intellectual property rights in leading developed countries to stimulate research and encourage private investment in creative activity prevented those countries from signing the IU.

    In 2001, a new treaty on plant genetic resources was created: the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (IT). This treaty, which is supported by many developed and developing countries, establishes a new system of access to seeds of specified food and feed crops that comprise the bulk of human nutrition. In exchange for access to these seeds, private parties who create commercially viable products from these banks must pay a percentage of their profits into a trust account, unless the product is made freely available for use in further research and breeding. The funds from the trust account are to be used to facilitate benefit-sharing to farmers in developing countries, and the conservation of plant genetic resources. In this regard, this new treaty accords “public domain” status to specific genetic material and seeks to establish a means to preserve the earth's genetic riches.

    The new IT treaty addresses traditional knowledge issues in several respects. First, it provides for farmers' rights and their traditional knowledge in farming practices. Article 9.2 of the IT treaty provides that it is the responsibility of national governments to take appropriate measures to protect farmers' rights which include, inter alia: “(a) protection of traditional knowledge relevant to plant genetic resources for food and agriculture; (b) the right to equitably participate in sharing benefits arising from the utilization of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.” It is, however, unclear whether these rights are undercut by the TRIPs Agreement in light of the next paragraph: “Nothing in this Article shall be interpreted to limit any rights that farmers have to save, use, exchange and sell farm-seed/propagating material, subject to national law and as appropriate.”

    Second, it is unclear whether traditional knowledge is subject to information databases on plant genetic resources which are part of the new multilateral system. If they are, then traditional knowledge with respect to genetic resources may have been cast into the public domain under the terms of the treaty. If so, proposals to protect traditional knowledge either through the grant of intellectual property rights, or through a sui generis system, will have to occlude knowledge which is covered by the IT system (assuming the treaty is ultimately ratified).

    Third, the new IT treaty does not specifically provide for benefit sharing to go to the indigenous communities directly. Although the objective is for farmers in developing countries to benefit from the system, it is not clear what mechanism will ensure that this in fact occurs.

4. Other models

A variety of other legal mechanisms for the protection of traditional knowledge have been proposed. Prominent among these are proposals for a sui generis regime consisting either of a benefit-sharing system or a “misappropriation model.” The benefit sharing system would require some of profits made from the commercialization of traditional knowledge to be remitted to the “owners” of the knowledge. A misappropriation model would imply the revocation of patents and other intellectual property rights over traditional knowledge obtained without the consent of the title holders of that knowledge.

Ongoing patent harmonization efforts at the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) may make it difficult to address the protection of traditional knowledge using the patent system. The Substantive Patent Law Treaty currently under negotiation will represent a multilateral agreement on the granting of patents. There is currently a controversy over whether it should contain requirements on disclosure of origin, and general exceptions from patentability based on preserving public interest (to be decided by national level authorities). If this is not addressed during negotiations (a definite possibility) it will eliminate - at least in the foreseeable future - the possibility of national-level requirements that patent applicants disclose the origin of plants or other genetic material, and certify prior informed consent for use of traditional knowledge. Further, countries that now include this provision in their domestic patent laws may be forced to strike the provision as a condition of membership in the treaty.

5. Implications for sustainable development

Sustainable development in the context of traditional knowledge and patents has both institutional and substantive aspects. With regard to substantive issues, the developing countries' ability to regulate access and use of genetic resources and protection of traditional knowledge is critically important to development on a number of levels. It is a prerequisite to the economic returns that may accrue under benefit-sharing arrangements - arrangements that may allow traditional communities the financial resources to choose to maintain their traditional lifestyles. Depending on the arrangement in question, it may also end up by paying traditional communities to maintain biodiversity by acting as stewards.

On the institutional side, the shape of the actual benefits sharing arrangements will be key. It was argued above that certain types of arrangements, depending on the community where they are introduced, may have the effect of stifling the traditional process of informal innovation, which would work against the benefit of the community as a whole. In general, any system of benefit sharing will have impacts on the existing social structures and the distribution of power and resources within them. The fact that traditional societies have a multitude of different social structures makes this consideration difficult to address when designing a benefits sharing system, but no less important from a sustainable development perspective.

Some developing countries have already enacted domestic laws dealing with the protection of traditional knowledge. There are also important legislative efforts that have taken place at regional levels. As well, the Plan of Implementation of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) (paragraph 42(j)) calls on countries to, “subject to national legislation, recognize the rights of local and indigenous communities who are holders of traditional knowledge, innovations and practices,” and “develop and implement benefit-sharing mechanisms on mutually agreed terms for the use of such knowledge, innovations and practices.”

However, without some international agreement that recognizes and affords protection to this body of knowledge, unilateral efforts alone will not sufficiently harness the value of traditional knowledge for development objectives. In fact, even multilateral arrangements between developing countries will not suffice, since the exploitation of the knowledge and resources takes place largely in developed countries. The absence of an international agreement will affect opportunities for developing countries and traditional communities to control, manage and benefit from traditional knowledge. This was recognized to be the case for genetic resources as a whole in the WSSD Plan of Implementation, which called on countries to negotiate, under the framework of the CBD, “an international regime to promote and safeguard the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the utilization of genetic resources.”

It has been widely recognized that the issues of traditional knowledge and patentability need to be addressed as a key component of sustainable development. The complications of many ongoing overlapping processes, and the complexity of the issues involved, do not diminish the final value of addressing those issues in a comprehensive manner, and in a way that promotes equity, social values and environmental integrity.

Copyright © 2003 International Institute for Sustainable Development
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i A sui generis system implies a special system. Sui generis means “of its own kind.” In this case it would be a system specifically designed to protect plant varieties.

Seeds of Life: Women and Agricultural Biodiversity in Africa

IK Notes No.23 (2000)

Agricultural development worldwide has caused, as one of its down-sides, the replacement of native plant species by marketable crops and a parallel reduction in the diversity of the seed stock. The disappearance of plants with potential medicinal uses, particularly in areas of high biodiversity like tropical rain forests, has been headlined in recent years; but crowding out of the natural diversity of edible species by standard, and sometimes genetically altered, cash crops - and the replacement of “landraces” (indigenous plant types) by commercial farming - constitute an equally serious problem. Efforts are now being made to constitute reserves and pools of threatened varieties of food crops. Indigenous knowledge of edible plants is one key “pool” of biodiversity in Africa - and one in which women play a vital role.

Bean farming in Kenya

Bean farming among the Kikuyu in Kenya provides a case in point. Available evidence indicates that in pre-colonial times a large variety of different bean species was cultivated in the Kenyan uplands. Beans moreover constituted a critical element of the diet of rural people, furnishing a rich source of protein to complement maize consumption and other available foodstuffs. In particular, the varieties of indigenous black beans termed “njahe” in Kikuyu (largely Lablab niger and Dolichos lablab by their scientific names, and “lablab beans” in English), which were cultivated by women, constituted a good proportion of the harvest. Njahe had, moreover, special meaning for women, as the bean was considered to increase fertility and to have curative virtues for post-partum mothers. It was at the same time a quasi-sacred food. It grew on the Ol Donyo Sabuk mountain, the second most important dwelling place of the Creator in Kikuyu religion, and it was widely used in divination ceremonies. Beans in Kenya are predominantly a small landholder crop, largely farmed by women to feed their families. Traditionally, women tended to grow multiple varieties on the same field - and to conserve multiple seed stocks - as a hedge against disease and unpredictable climate. Local dishes, like “githeri” and “irio,” also were based on multiple types of beans.

These patterns began to change in colonial times. The British administration was principally interested in increasing maize production, which provided the least expensive supply of food to feed railroad construction workers, and in introducing other cash crops like cotton and sisal to ensure tax payments. The strategy developed for advancing this agenda included providing financial incentives and favorable pricing for maize cultivation, on the one hand; and, on the other, introducing new varieties of white and red beans with export potential (to Europe in particular) in order to replace the njahe and other “native” species. Though a considerable variety of bean species was experimented with over the years by the colonial agricultural extension service, few proved adapted to Kenyan conditions or acceptable in local diets. Those that did - Canadian kidney, rose coco and Phaseolus vulgaris, in particular - gradually took over the market and began pushing njahe out of production. The colonial agricultural extension service also carried out purification campaigns to eliminate multicropping of mixed beans and to ensure a practice of “one variety per location” - generally an exportable variety. Pure or sorted beans were priced at two or three times above mixed crops.

The costs of monocropping

The phenomenon had real consequences for nutrition, for agricultural biodiversity in the Kenyan highlands, for soil fertility, and for women farmers themselves. Replacement of beans by maize in local diets began a downward spiral in the food intake of the rural population which, while scarcely attributable only to this factor, has continued unabated. At the same time, elimination of many of the multiple varieties of beans cultivated in pre-colonial times had, for parallel effect, impoverishment of the agricultural genetic stock, developed over thousands of years of human agriculture in East Africa. Intensive “maize mining” and neglect of the nitrogen-fixing properties of legumes like njahe resulted in the progressive impoverishment of soils. Bean monocropping led in turn to higher susceptibility of these crop stands to disease. Finally, since bean cultivation constituted an important element in the economic activity of women and their capacity to nourish their families, the pressure to produce income and abandon beans inevitably contributed to the increasing out-migration of women to urban areas.

Colonial policies were in effect extended into the period of Kenyan independence, by default if not by design. Continued preoccupation with cash crop and export production, monopoly of these activities by men, and economic pressures from taxes and the need to pay school fees all kept attention away from women's roles in bean production and the conservation of seed diversity. Not until the 1970s did the prejudice against traditional bean species begin to relax, as Kenyan agricultural policy underwent gradual re-Africanization.

Examples across Africa

The situation described in Kenya is scarcely an isolated phenomenon. Across Africa, similar stories could be evoked - stories of the gradual impoverishment of seed stocks under the pressure of cash cropping and of the parallel negligence of women's roles in agriculture and their key function as guardians of biodiversity. In fact, Africa is one of the world's regions with the lowest quotient of original to imported seed stock- a characteristic typical elsewhere of zones of settler implantation, like North America and Australia. Seed stocks and germ plasm constitute a kind of botanical repository of indigenous knowledge. Because of their responsibility for family subsistence, women have for millennia been central to the breeding of food crop species, the preservation of seeds and the domestication and use of wild edible plants. Concerns with susceptibility to disease and insurance against crop failure under climatic stress and unpredictability have led them to diversify these stocks and cultivation patterns.

The role of women farmers worldwide

Equivalent stories can be recounted about gender and agricultural biodiversity in other regions of the world as well. In agricultural societies around the globe, women have tended to be the custodians of biodiversity.

Turning the tide

Is there still time in countries such as Kenya? Yes, but not to waste. The diminishing diversity of seed stocks puts food security at risk, because of the greater vulnerability of a narrow band of species to climate change and other environmental events. And it seems unlikely that the situation can be turned around without paying much closer attention to the means by which traditional farmers have nurtured seed stocks and indigenous species, and the key role that women have played in this enterprise.

The njahe bean itself has nonetheless recouped a part of the terrain lost over the last century. With the abandonment of export ambitions for white beans, African tastes for red and black varieties have begun to reassert themselves. But dried beans - and the female labor that traditionally ensured their volume and diversity - remain subsidiary in the Kenyan economy. Increased sensitivity to issues of biodiversity - triggered by the rain forest and the example of disappearing species with medical significance - has sown new seeds of hope in this realm, however, both for Africa and for other developing regions. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia is coordinating a multiyear participatory research program on gender roles in agriculture and participatory plant breeding (Participatory Research and Gender Analysis: “PRGA” , on the web at One branch office has been established in Uganda for the African Highlands Initiative, an exploitation of participatory gender research in East Africa. At the same time, the West African Rice Development Association (WARDA), headquartered in Bouaké, Ivory Coast, has given increasing attention to the preservation of biodiversity among rice farmers of the Sahel and has sponsored research into related practices in southwestern Mali. (See

This article was written and co-authored by Peter Easton and Margaret Ronald, Florida State University. The research was carried out under the joint aegis of the Club du Sahel/OECD, the Interstate Committee for Combating Drought in the Sahel/Comité Inter-état Contre la Sécheresse (CILSS) and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa.

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