Juanita Chaves Posada, working on behalf of the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR) is on a mission. She is passionate about informing smallholder farmers in developing countries about their rights. She is passionate about finding ways to translate those rights into practice. The rights she is championing flow from what subsistence farmers have cultivated, protected and shared for thousands of years – seeds – and our food security depends on them.
The indigenous farmer, with little access to bigger markets, actually enables bigger markets to exist. Without his (very often her) quiet innovation, adapting the genetic properties of seeds to meet real consumer and real climate needs, we would not have the choice and quality of food that today we take for granted. In fact, without the traditional knowledge and generosity of the smallholder farmer, the world’s food security, already compromised by climate change, would be seriously threatened.
The good news is that these smallholder farmers can help the world respond to climate change. Indeed they already are helping and always have—but in order for their contribution to be effective and timely, two things need to happen. First, the farmers themselves need to be aware of their rights as smallholder farmers and the importance of their role. Second, their rights and that role need to be recognized and rewarded by others. This is where Juanita comes in. “Farmers’ rights are human rights, collective human rights,” she says. “They are essential not only for food security but also for reducing hunger and poverty. But often even the farmers do not realize the importance of their role.”
Farmers’ rights were recognized as a counterbalance to the 1961 declaration by the international community of rights to breeders on new varieties of plants. Breeders’ rights imply that the breeder has the right to authorize actions taken by others on the new variety, including selling and marketing, importing and exporting, keeping stock and reproducing it. On the other hand, the rights of farmers over plant genetic resources used as raw materials for further innovations and the development of new plant varieties were not recognized by the international community until 2001. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, currently with approximately 132 Contracting Parties recognizes farmers’ rights and the realization of those rights is left to national governments. Often farmers do not know that their country is a signatory to the Treaty, let alone that these rights exist
Often, however, farmers do not know that their country is a signatory to the treaty, let alone that farmers’ rights exist. Indeed, when Juanita asked farmers’ organisations in Guatemala what they most needed in order to exercise their rights, the answer was resounding. They needed information about their rights. Juanita is therefore spearheading GFAR’s efforts to bring that information to both farmers and governments. She has organized and run numerous meetings with multiple stakeholders, particularly farmer organizations, and from that experience has produced six awareness-raising booklets. She has also engaged decision-makers in the Guatemalan Government and discovered that governments too need support. She has therefore drawn up steps that governments could follow in order to develop national legislation on farmers’ rights.
Next, she will take what she has learned in Guatemala to Honduras, Nicaragua and Malawi. She does not have all the answers. She is very aware of the challenges.
“The difference between plant genetic resources and other natural resources is human. Without people, the seeds that feed the world would not exist. Because ownership of the genetics nurtured by the smallholder farmer is collective, it is difficult to measure their rights in monetary terms. Yet, potentially, they are a much-needed source of income.”
Translating farmers’ rights from theory into practice is not straightforward. From her observations to date, however, Juanita is convinced of the need for three types of action.
The first is communication via a process that is inclusive and participatory. Meetings and information flow need to involve all stakeholders - smallholder farmers, public sector decision-makers and private enterprise investors. International partners like GFAR can be crucial in getting this underway. Smallholder farmers, especially women farmers who are often the principle holders of traditional knowledge, need to be given a voice.
The second is support to governments for the development of legislation and implementation of farmers’ rights. Governments need help to conceive of farmers’ rights as integral to addressing their other priorities e.g., climate change, so that the implementation of those rights can be included under established budgets.
Third, GFAR and international consultation processes like the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development must be venues not only for motivational communication and sharing of experiences, important as both those are. They must also be venues for the harnessing of political will and for action-oriented advice that speaks directly to the situation back home, on the ground.
Looking forward, might a lead country emerge, help set an example and create a race to the top? Might a strong female figurehead come onto the scene and become a game-changer? Working on behalf of GFAR, Juanita will continue to raise awareness, bridge interests and demonstrate through practice that we are all actors in the same future.