How policies and laws influence agrobiodiversity

By Elizabeth Kahurani

Banana-varieties. Image courtesy of J. Santilli

One of the insightful, eye-opening public lectures during this year’s Science Week at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) was on agrobiodiversity – its significance, governing laws/policies, and how these interact with farmer’s rights.

To deliver on the subject was invited guest Juliana Santilli, a lawyer and public prosecutor in the Federal District of Brazil specialized in Environmental and Cultural Heritage Law and Public Policies. Santilli is also the author of a recently published book Agrobiodiversity and the Law (Earthscan, London, 2012).

She noted that the concept of agrobiodiversity reflects the dynamic and complex relations among human societies, cultivated plants and the environments where they interact, and it is directly related to food security, nutrition, health, social equity and justice, environmental sustainability and climate change adaptation. It is agrobiodiversity that makes it possible for species, varieties and ecosystems to adapt to changes and variations in environmental conditions. They can cope with future challenges—including those brought about by climate change—only if they have wide genetic variability.

Agrobiodiversity is impacted by, among other factors, international and national laws. These include seed laws aimed at ensuring the identity and quality of plant propagating materials and regulating their production, use and marketing. According to Santilli, these laws often impose strict rules on the use, management and exchange of seed varieties, rules which are not compatible with the practices of local seed systems, and which stifle the development of such “local seed systems.” The latter “tend to be more adapted to specific local and environmental conditions than commercial seed systems,” said Santilli.
Some countries like Brazil have tried to address this challenge in their seed law by making legal provisions that exempt “local, traditional and creole seeds” from official registration, and allows for them to be included in publicly funded seed programs. Even though there is need for clarity as to what can be classified as local, traditional or creole seeds, Santilli noted that such provisions within the Brazilian law are a step in the right direction, as they support the local seed production systems and ensure that they are not locked out by the formal systems that benefit large-scale industrial seed systems.

Intellectual property (IP) rights over plant varieties can also have direct impacts on agrobiodiversity. Santilli argued that these, particularly IP laws that make the reuse of seed illegal, “could create obstacles for the accessibility to knowledge and technologies by resource-poor farmers in developing countries.”

Santilli discussed the possible use of open source legal systems to encourage sharing and discourage exclusion. She explained the main principles of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Nagoya Protocol, and the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, which recognize farmers´ rights.

Ultimately, the responsibility to uphold farmers’ rights rests with individual countries. In her presentation, Santilli said countries could adopt an ‘ownership approach’ based on access and benefit-sharing laws governed by the CBD principles, or a ‘stewardship approach’ that recognizes collective rights. She mentioned some public policies in Brazil that have benefitted small-scale farmers, who are the main food producers in the country. “The government supports small-scale farmers by buying agrifood products directly from family farmers to distribute to community kitchens, popular restaurants, schools, hospitals, and others,” said Santilli.

She further pointed to an interesting approach to agrobiodiversity stewardship: the recognition of unique local farming systems as part of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS) by institutions such as UNESCO. “The Satoyama Initiative, which is led by the Ministry of Environment of Japan, United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, in partnership with the World Agroforestry Centre, is also part of the effort to conserve sustainable, human-influenced natural environments through broader global recognition of their value,” she noted.

Closely related to this is the promotion of ‘cultural landscapes’ under the UNESCO Convention on Cultural and Natural Heritage. These, she explained, are “landscapes that often reflect specific techniques of sustainable land use, considering the characteristics and limits of the natural environment they are established in, and a specific spiritual relation to nature.” The Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in Southeast Cuba and the Rice Terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras are among the world’s listed Cultural Landscapes.

The audience at this year’s Science Forum said the lecture was informative and provided direction on legal and rights-related aspects with regard to tree domestication and similar programs. Santilli’s talk, which linked agrobiodiversity and related research with the relevant policy frameworks further highlighted the need for specialized legal experts to work closely with research teams, since they can help identify ways in which evidence can shape new and existing policies and laws.

Additional stories from the World Agroforestry Centre Science Week:
Do’s and Don’ts of measuring research impact

Financing a green transformation in developing countries

Money really can grow on trees, says Leakey at agroforestry book launch
Juliana Santilli’s book: Agrobiodiversity and the Law: Regulating Genetic Resources, Food Security and Cultural Diversity

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