Stealing the Harvest,
Colonizing the Seed


On October 4, 1993 Martin Khor of the Third World Network, a public interest group that operates in a coordinated fashion out of many third world countries to fight for the rights of the third world poor, through legal and other structures, wrote:

About half a million Indian farmers took part in a day-long procession and rally in the South Indian city of Bangalore on 2 October to protest against proposals in the multilateral Uruguay Round that they claim would have devastating effects on their livelihoods in general and on their control of seeds in particular. It was by far the largest public display of opinion anywhere in the world either for or against the controversial Round of trade talks being held in Geneva under the auspices of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Farmers and GATT? GATT to many of us third world people, located within our warm technology cocoons in the West, is all about International Trade. What does, a farmer, in some remote village in India have to do with international trade? These farmers are neither suited-booted Wall Street executives, nor are they huge corporate farmers who are locked into the agri-business stocks of Pepsi and Coke. But that is exactly where the rub lies - small farmers, the world over are increasingly subject to the whims and fancies of multinational corporations.

The same group that organized the rally at Bangalore, India, _Karnataka Rayatu Sangam_ (KRS - Karnataka Farmers Association) (Footnote: Karnataka is a state in India: Footnote end) have been responding to the presence of such multi-nationals in India. In February of 1993, farmers stormed the office of Cargill Inc., a seed company from the USA, and destroyed the premises. They did it again early this year. In Cargill, the farmers see the very live object of their oppression. For centuries, the farmers of the world, have been experimenting with their crops... what kinds of seeds work in what kinds of soil? what kind of soil and crop mixtures produce a good yield in a sustained fashion? what kind of varieties can be mixed to produce what of seeds for the future? The farmers knowledge may not be "codified" knowledge wherein every seed variety has a number and an index, but then that is just a mode of "structuring knowledge" rather than a question of knowledge per se.

However, over the last 40 years, as part of the "Developmental" effort that the third and first world countries have been linked together by, European and American companies have been picking on the brains of these farmers and collecting seed samples from them. These samples and knowledges have been brought back to the first world and in the research labs of these companies hybrid seeds which they call High Yielding Variety (HYV) have been developed in bulk for *sale* The "Development" regime and the blind behavior of the third world governments, convinced by the Developmentalist dream, has resulted in the promotion of these HVY seeds in the third world. That was how we had the much touted Green Revolution in Punjab, India and in many other third world countries. The Green Revolution's were temporary. The HVY seed variety were "engineered" so as to respond "effectively" to fertilizers and pesticides. Today, in Punjab, India, many farmers are beginning to see the effects of the HVY-Fertilizers-Pesticides regime of agricultural production. Their land has turned weak, cannot sustain the levels of production that HVY seeds promised and in the words of Emile Zola "the land has imprisoned them... it only breaks their back... for the farmer can never give up his connection to the land."

But, if it only was a matter of destroying their land, these farmers would probably have not turned violent on corporations like Cargill. What adds insult to injury, or _economic and material oppression over and above destroyed land_ is that organizations like Cargill, insist on a royalty for the seeds that the farmers save after an years harvest to sow the following year. Having bought *corporate seeds* once, a farmer, as per the _diktats_ of the Cargills of the world, is now obliged to pay a royalty on the "Intellectual Property" of these companies. Khor summarizes the above point expressed by the farmers about GATT as:

The proposals under a section called TRIPs (trade-related intellectual property rights), also include the compulsory introduction of patent and other "intellectual property" laws in all member countries that would enable transnational corporations to obtain monopolistic protection over their technologies and products and thus force Third World countries to pay higher prices for these goods.

Are these farmers not well within their rights to hold a huge grouse against the Cargills of the world. What they were protesting against at Bangalore was against the "Intellectual Property Rights" clauses within the Dunkel Draft (footnote - named after its creator, Arthur Dunkel, the ex-Director-General of the GATT- footnote end). Martin Khor's report summarizes the sentiment very well:

At the end of a rally... the farmers raised their hands and took a pledge to protect their "sovereignty over our seeds." They also waved in the air their green shawls, symbol of the farmers' movement, to show approval of eight resolutions read out by their leader, which included calls to reject the Dunkel draft agreement of the Uruguay Round to fight the patenting of agricultural seeds and plant resources and to oppose the entry of multinational companies in Indian agriculture.

With a marked candidness, Professor Nanjundaswamy, the leader of the KRS, which sponsored the rally is right on target when he explains why such protests are important:

[The] seeds campaign was aimed at protecting the rights of farmers not only in India but also worldwide as sovereignty of nations and peoples over their seeds was the basis for food security and national development. (Frontline, August, 1994)

The rally in Bangalore was attended by "scientists, representatives of farmers' organisations and groups involved with agriculture and the environment from several Third World countries including Ethiopia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Thailand and South Korea." Together, under the leadership of the KRS they resolved at the rally on:

Third World farmers have established community intellectual property rights over their biological wealth and have resolved to block the flow of this biological wealth out of their countries through direct action;

The free exchange of seeds and biological wealth between Third World farmers have been a part of their culture and they have decided to continue this cultural relationship;

Food security being sacrosanct to any country, all countries should be fully sovereign and be free to formulate their own agricultural policies;

Any party whether local or foreign wishing to claim intellectual property rights over the biological materials of farmers should be imposed with the burden of proof to prove that they are not stealing the common intellectual rights of the farmers. (Resolutions 2 to 6 of the KRS Meeting, Oct.' 93)

If the Cargills of the world would only respect these resolutions and go home that would have solved a lot of problems. But that is, of course, not to be. If seed samples have been collected (and continue to be collected to this day without any real payments) for the past many decades where are they now kept? Nijar (1994) points out that the seed/germplasm collections are located all over the world under the following control structures:

a) those held under the CGAIR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research] system; b) those under private sector control; and c)those under national government control (p. 11)

What do these control structures really mean? While National Governments and private sector are known instituions what is CGAIR? For a moment, let us forget about the collections under private control (though the farmers of the world must never stop demanding the billions of dollars these corporations really owe them) and under national governments (on the assumption that local third world populations may have some control over their own governments - which may be a wrong assumption if such governments are in the pockets of the first world institutions). CGAIR is "group" a created in 1971 under the sponsorship of the World Bank and the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and is currently co-sponsored by the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization), UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and the World Bank. Its proposed aim on formation was to "feed the worlds hungry" and to "support the small farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America."

CGAIR, in real terms, works through 18 International Agricultural Research Centers (IARC's) located all across the world but with a concentration in Australia, Canada, UK and USA). CGAIR holds 40% of the "total worldwide unique collections of agricultural genetic material" with a majority of the collection being original samples from the less developed "South." (p. 6, TWN Report on Biodiversity Convention, Nairobi, June 20-July 1, 1994).

Over the past three decades much of the benefit of CGAIR collection has gone to the "group of four" which has a hold over the IARC's. In a governmental seminar in early 1994, the Australian government has quite clearly said that "the direct benefit of IARC research to Australian wheat this year is at least AUS$136 million." (Nijar, 1994, p. 12). Similarly, Italian authorities say that the CGAIR's contribution to the Italian pasta industry is to the tune of "US$300 million each year" and the OECD concluded 10 years ago that the CGAIR wheat program benefits the US by "not less than half a billion dollars per annum" (Nijar, 1994, p. 12). In return Australia for instance contributes US$4-6 million each year to CGAIR a "very lucrative deal indeed" as Nijar points out.

The story only gets more surprising. Over the past year, pointing to the fact that these CGAIR collections are being held in "trust for a global community" and because of the emerging GATT-TRIPs regime, activists and farmers from the third world began pushing the FAO to take leadership in converting the CGAIR collection into one that was under "inter-governmental control" where the governments of nations that had contributed to the collection would hold rein as trustees and not some corporation. This move seems to have scared the hell out of the World bank and the first world governments. In June of this year the World Bank made, in the words of Ambassador Ting of Malaysia "a dawn raid to take over control" over the germplasm collection. According to a TWN report:

[The} Bank offered to forgive the CGAIR's debts of $5.6 million, to raise its normal annual grant by some $5 million and provide upto $20 million of new funds to match other donor funds. In turn, the CGAIR would for the first time create a steering committee and a Finance Committee, both of which the Bank would chair. The Bank would also consult the World Trade Organisation regarding GATT provisions on intellectual property rights... The Bank would also take the lead in dealing with the status of control and ownership of CGAIR's genetic resources, thus displacing the role played by the FAO. (TWN, 1994, p. 7)

This is no "dawn raid." Its sheer "daylight robbery!" The furor that was created in response by Third World activist organizations who immediately renewed their demand for "inter-governmental authority" over the collection created a situation wherein the World Bank seems to have decided that at least for the moment they have no other choice but to back off. Ismail Serageldin, a Vice-President of the World Bank and current Chair of CGAIR sent out a note to such protesting organizations that proposed to "hold off till 1996" on any such "inter-governmental" agreement. Clearly, the World Bank is just buying time. They will be back and we can be sure about it!

What surprises me is that we third world technocrats sit here in the US, UK and France (and more recently in Germany and Japan) and participate in such projects while working in our own little technological worlds. The entire battle over genetic material is a "technical battle" at many levels. If we are concerned, we should at the bare minimum use our technical expertise to unmask the activities of Bank and first world governments and not become partners in the crime. My call here is not to "return to some romantic pre-modern" past. On the contrary, it is to intervene, for Development does not mean "bio-piracy" and biological material may be the only resource that the third world continues to have which it can call its own. After 200 years of robbery under a system called "colonialism" are we going to wait for the last resource to snatched out of the very mouths of the people of our countries while we sit in our air conditioned labs and support development plans that are engineered by first and third world governments to do exactly that - steal the last morsel!?!

References

  1. Khor, Martin "KRS Rally" Usenet Newsgroups, Misc.Activism.Progessive/Alt.India.Progressive.
  2. Nanjundaswamy, K. (1994) "Interview" in Frontline August, 1994.
  3. Nijar, Gurdial Singh "Why Are Ex-Situ Collections So Crucial" Third World Resurgence, No. 48, August 1994.
  4. Nijar, Gurdial Singh "Towards a Model to Protect Farmers Rights" Third World Resurgence, No. 48, August 1994.
  5. TWN "Report on Biodiversity Convention in Nairobi" June 1994
  6. Zola, E. (1976) "The Earth" trans. from French "La Terre"

This page is maintained by Biju Mathew.

proXsa home page