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close this bookBiotechnology and the Future of World Agriculture (GRAIN, 1991)
close this folderThe original biotechnologist
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View the documentPromoting people's participation

Promoting people's participation

More direct involvement of farmers, community organizations and related NGOs in research and development of new solutions for agriculture has become the central theme at virtually every meeting on environment and/ or development. But it might take a while before scientists and policy makers really manage to figure out how to implement this reverse strategy. Yet, turning the top-down approach rightside up seems the only viable way of ensuring sustainable development. Using biotechnology, and science in general, to improve and enhance the sustainable production systems of indigenous farmers, rather than replacing them with miracle solutions, should be the first priority. Part of the miracle is already there in the form of proven sustainable farming practices. It also exists in the form of the highly efficient working relationships of farmers" movements, community organizations and NGOs working at local, national or international levels. Examples are as numerous as they are diverse.

One of them might come from the Philippines. Home of IRRI, the institute that spearheaded the development of the Green Revolution's rice varieties, Filipino NGOs became acutely aware of the many negative consequences of the new rice technology. Working at the local level they started developing with farmers a unique system to collect, conserve, improve and reintroduce the indigenous rice varieties that have not yet been lost. Endowed with the name MASIPAG, the programme brings together NGOs, farmers' organizations and scientists. Between 1986 and 1988, 140 traditional rice varieties were collected, screened and improved, but work is also being carried out on big-fertilizers, farming systems and training. The first results of this integrated approach were indigenous varieties yielding between 4.5 and 6.5 tonnes per hectare, which is more than even the best IRRI varieties. An important reason for starting to work together in MASIPAG, was the recognition that in the IRRI approach, farmers have no hand in the choice of the varieties to be released. Testing there is normally done under optimum rather than farmers' conditions, and the IRRI emphasis is on yield per se without due consideration of farmers' requirements, such as low inputs and nutrient quality. In the MASIPAG programme, farmers are active participants in all phases of the undertaking, including collection, evaluation and cross-breeding of the material. (24)

With the mounting recognition of the importance of genetic diversity and the role of small farmers, especially women, the approach described above is taken by an increasing number of NGOs, often with encouraging results. In Zimbabwe, where communal farmers make up over 70% of the farming community, the Zimbabwe Seeds Action Network (ZSAN) was launched, involving several NGOs and farmers' organizations in the collection, testing, multiplication and distribution of indigenous varieties of several crops. KENGO (Kenya Energy and Environment Organizations) has extensive experience with local seed conservation and agro-forestry schemes using indigenous varieties to arrest soil erosion. In Peru, NGOs are setting up small centres for the multiplication and distribution of diseasefree local potato varieties. Sometimes with, but often without, funding from Northern agencies who, in turn, also become increasingly aware of the potential of working with local NGOs and small farmers, such initiatives deserve much broader attention.

But apart from fostering co-operation and direct involvement at the local level, NGOs have important functions at many other levels. One feature of many NGOs is their highly interactive way of working and communicating. Sometimes organized in national, regional or international networks, while in other cases relying on extensive bilateral contacts, the highly diverse NGO family can play an important role in influencing the way biotechnology is being used.

One important function is the monitoring of what research is being done and what impact it will have. NGOs participating in different networks often focus their attention on specific corporations, many of which are deeply involved in biotechnology. NGOs already contribute substantially to understanding the impact of biotechnology by monitoring ways in which the industry is being restructured, research priorities are set, which companies are dominating the market, trade and marketing practices of the companies involved, and so on. Another feature that all the issue networks have in common is an active participation of NGOs from both industrialized and developing countries. Also important is the differentiation in their expertise: some work at the local level, others are active in trying to change national policies, while yet others work more at lobbying international agencies. Co-operation in many of the existing issue-oriented networks ensures communication and the necessary flow of information. NGOs lobbying in the corridors of different UN bodies and other policy making institutions need the experience of those working at the local level, while grass-roots organizations might be helped with information more accessible to groups working at the international level.

International NGOs work in stimulating discussion on patents at WIPO, and encouraging Third World diplomats to take a stronger stand in that discussion. The same is true for debates about the changing trade relations arising from biotechnology in bodies like UNCTAD and GATT, and on labour aspects in the ILO. The impact of biotechnology on health and the environment is raised respectively within the World Health Organization and the UN Environment Programme (WHO and UNEP) and the impact on agricultural production at FAO. In many of these bodies the discussions are heavily dominated by the North because of lack of information, resources and expertise on the part of the developing countries. NGOs have often played a crucial role in bridging this gap by providing concrete and timely information to Third World delegates and by discussing strategies with them. The positions of Northern delegations can be influenced by mobilizing public opinion in industrialized countries and through direct contacts with national governments. In all cases, this work of what has become known as the Third System (25) is of utmost importance in shaping developments in biotechnology in such a way that those who need it most, benefit.

Notes and references

1. Quoted In Jack Doyle, 'The Agricultural Fix', In Multinational Monitor, February 1986, pp. 3-15.

2. Quoted in Jack Doyle, Altered Harvest, Viking, New York, 1985, p.280.

3. Calestous Juma, Biological Diversity and innovation, ACTS, Nairobi, 1989, p.35.

4. Miguel Altieri, 'The Significance of Diversity in the Maintenance of the Sustainability of Traditional Agroecosystems', in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol. 3, No.2, Leusden, July 1987, p.3.


6. Mogbuama example from Paul Richards, 'Spreading Risks Across Slopes: Diversified Rice Production in Central Sierra Leone', in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol. 3, No.2, Leusden, July 1987.

7. Robert Rhoades, 'Thinking like a Mountain', in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 1, Leusden, March 1988, p.4.

8. Miguel Altieri, 1987, op. cit., p.3.

9. Quoted in Albrecht Benzing, 'Andean Potato Peasants are Seed Bankers', in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol.5, No.4, Leusden, December 1989, p.13.

10. Purna Chhetri, 'Bishau's and Kheti's Sustainable Farm in Nepal', in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol.4, No. l,Leusden,March 1988.

11 . 'Intercropping: Farming for the Future?' in SPORE, bulletin of CTA, No.15, Wageningen, July 1988,p.4.

12. Interview with T. Odhiambo, Director of ICIPE, in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol.6, No. 1, Leusden, March 1990, p.4.

13. Ibid.

14. Flores Milton,'Velvetbeans: An Alternative to Improve Small Farmers' Agriculture', m ILEIA Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 2, Leusden July 1989, pp. 8-9.

15.'Intercropping: Farming for the Future?, 1988, op. cit., p.5.

16. Miguel Altieri, 1987, op. cit., p.4.

17. 'Intercropping: Farming for the Future?', 1988, op. cit., p.5.

18. 'Tapping Farmers' Knowledge of Crop Protection', in SPORE, No.26, Wageningen, April 1990,p.12.

19. 'Sustainable Agricultural Production', in SPORE, No.16, Wageningen, September 1988, p.6.

20. 'Intercropping: Farming for the Future?', 1988, op. cit., p.5.

21. Jurgen Carls, 'Land-use Systems in Marginal Highland Areas', in ILEIA Newsletter, Vol.4, No. l, Leusden, March 1988, p.10.

22. M. Altieri, 1987, op. cit., p.6.

23. Puma Chhetri, 1988, op. cit., p.16.

24. For a description of the MASIPAG programme, see 'proceedings, Asian Regional Workshop on Plant Genetic Resources Conservation', Malang, 6-11 December 1987, SEARICE, Manila, 1988, pp.70-1.

25. The Third System comprises NGOs and their networks, the first system being the governments and the second system the industry.