Biodiversity and genetic resources

Via Campesina III Int. Conference

Aspects related to our daily life and peasant activity are being discussed in the world at this time; such as the regulation and use of biodiversity, the use and preservation of genetic resources and release of transgenic organisms affecting the health of the population, the rural environment and peasant economy. The international institutions responsible for such aspects are facing a great dilemma: To adopt the rational and intelligent use of the natural resources in order to achieve a sustainable development, or to adopt, under the pressure exerted by the free trade, the domination of the financial capital, and abandonment of food security.
Biodiversity: Life in good hands For La Via Campesina, biodiversity has as a fundamental base the recognition of human diversity, the acceptance that we are different and that every people and each individual has the freedom to think and to be. Seen in this way, biodiversity is not only flora, fauna, earth, water and ecosystems; it is also cultures, systems of production, human and economic relations, forms of government; in essence it is freedom.

Diversity is our own form of life. Plant diversity gives us food, medicine and shelter; just as human diversity, with people of different conditions, ideologies and religions, give us cultural richness. This shows that we must avoid the imposition of models in which just one way of living or model of development predominates.

Biological and cultural wealth is concentrated in the so-called developing countries, located mainly in the tropics and always protected by peasant or indigenous communities. Culture and biodiversity always develop together.
Peasant women and men and small-scale farmers, together with fisherfolk and artisans, indigenous peoples and black communities, are the ones who have historically preserved, created and sustainably managed the agricultural biodiversity which was, is and will be the basis of all agriculture.

Therefore, La Via Campesina proposes:

1. That biodiversity should be the basis to GUARANTEE FOOD SECURITY as a fundamental non-negotiable right of all peoples. This right must prevail over the directives of the World Trade Organization (WTO). We must go back to the beginning: human beings developed agriculture to meet their need for food; now there are 800 million hungry people in the world. To solve this problem we must think in terms of using the local foods which diversity offers us, supporting regional and local markets, and applying research and technology more equitably.

2. A MORATORIUM on bioprospecting (exploitation, gathering and harvest, transport and genetic modification) and access to genetic resources and to the knowledge that peasant and indigenous communities have of these resources; until there are mechanisms to protect the rights of our communities to prevent and control biopiracy.

3. Protect and promote the RIGHTS OF FARMERS to genetic resources, access to land, work and culture. This must be done through a broad informational and participatory process involving the actors in biodiversity; for this purpose a process and mechanism of permanent consultation and monitoring with the organizations of producers, indigenous people and their communities must be established.

Genetic Resources, the Rights of Farmers and Rural Communities The Importance and Evolution of Genetic Resources For us, seeds are the fourth resource that generates wealth for us from nature, after land, water and air. Genetic resources are the basic element for producing food, clothing, shelter, fuel, medicines, ecological balance and rural aesthetics – all of great importance to us and to consumers. Since human beings created agriculture, more than 10,000 years ago, we the peasants have been protecting and preserving genetic diversity; we have selected more productive varieties and improved less efficient ones. Conservation, storage and development of new varieties has been carried on from generaton to generation, thus genetic resources were considered a responsibility of rural producers.

After the Second World War and the middle of the century, when the urban population underwent enormous growth in relation to the rural population, food became a theme and domain for international organizations, and food production was also dealt with by governments and institutions. In short, the so-called "Green Revolution" came about; agri-business companies grew rapidly; everything related to the production of inputs and seeds began to acquire greater value as it became a profitable enterprise. Later, new uses were found for genetic resources; the Human Genome Project was created and biotechnology encroached into the genetic manipulation of plants, animals and human beings. These different historical stages were accompanied by corresponding concepts of property for genetic resources. Before the incursion of transnational corporations, genetic resources were considered humanity’s heritage, and this was reflected in international agreements, granting producers the concept of Farmers Rights over genetic resources.

Later, the seed and input companies, along with some plant breeders, pressed for recognition and protection of "plant breeders’ rights", and created the International Union for the Protection of Authors’ Rights over Plant Varieties (UPOV). At the present stage, a great deal of the work in biotechnology is being conducted under a scheme of protected patents by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO?) and the World Trade Organization (WTO), under which living materials come under regimes similar to those controlling industrial property. As peasants we know we have the sovereign right to use our resources while ensuring that they are handled in an environmentally healthy way. We therefore consider that we have the supreme authority to decide in the regulation of access to genetic resources.

The Rights of Farmers and Rural Communities Full recognition of Farmers’ Rights is a right which we can only explain through history and diversity. This right goes beyond the legal frameworks for intellectual property. It is accepted by the governments and peoples of the world through FAO Resolution 5-89, International Labour Organization Convention 169, Clause 8-J of the Biodiversity Convention, and Point 14.60 of Agenda 21, signed by the heads of state of almost all the countries of the world. Thus, as peasants, indigenous people and communities, we claim the right to ownership of life; we recognize the great plant and human diversity which exists in the world; we support the development of the necessary relevant national regulations and legislation to defend genetic resources through respect for and implementation of farmers’ rights.

La Via Campesina’s Proposal on Farmers’ Rights
1. Farmers Rights have a profound historical character. They have existed ever since human beings created agriculture to meet their needs; we have kept them in force through our conservation of Biodiversity; we ratify them with the continuing development of new resources and their improvement. We are the ones who protect genetic resources, who assist in the evolution of species; we are the repository of the effort and knowledge of the generations who created the biological richness. Therefore we demand that our rights be recognized.

2. Farmers Rights include the right to the resources and their associated knowledge, inextricably joined together; this means accepting traditional knowledge, respect for cultures and the recognition that cultures are the foundations of knowledge.

3. The right to control, the right to decide the future of genetic resources, the right to define the legal framework of ownership of those resources.

4. Farmers Rights are eminently collective; they should therefore be considered as a different legal framework from those of private property and intellectual property.

5. These rights must apply at the national level; there must be a commitment to promote the enactment of the corresponding legislation, respecting the sovereignty of each country to establish local laws based on these principles.

6. The right to the means to conserve Biodiversity and achieve food security, such as territorial rights, the right to land, water and air.

7. The right to decide in defining, formulating and executing policies and programs related to genetic resources.

8. The right to appropriate technology, and the right to participate in, designing it and to carry out research programs.

9. The right to define the control and use of benefits derived from the use, preservation and management of the resources.

10. The right to use, choose, store and freely exchange genetic resources.

11. The right to develop models of sustainable agriculture which protect Biodiversity, and to influence policies which promote them.

Intellectual Property

We oppose intellectual property over any form of life. We want to elevate to a universal principle the fact that genes, as the essence of life, cannot be owned. The only owner of life is the holder of that life, who lives it, sustains it, feeds and preserves it.

It is an aberration that genetic materials which peasants and indigenous people have kept alive, cared for and protected for more than 10,000 years could now be the property of corporate business. And that we have to pay royalties for those seeds which were gathered from our lands and homogenized or modified abroad.

Ownership of knowledge about forms of life carries a grave risk; the monopolization of patents. This phenomenon could be beyond the control of governments, and the inappropriate use of genes by the transnationals could cause severe problems of biosecurity by promoting the use of large homogeneous populations susceptible to pathogens.

We oppose, not advances in knowledge, but its monopolization and inappropriate use. To show the dimensions of how the ownership of knowledge is concentrated and how inequities are growing, suffice it to mention that 95% of the world’s food patents are held in only 7 countries, all of them OECD (developed countries), and the other 5% of patents is distributed among the more than180 remaining countries.

In the field of health, it has been shown that 74% of the curative knowledge of medicine, principally from plants, comes from popular and traditional knowledge; that is, it was not created in a laboratory, only gathered and patented. But so far the transnational pharmaceutical companies have not remunerated or recognized this knowledge to the communities.
Patenting of plants, animals and their components means that peasant and indigenous communities lose control of the resources that we have traditionally used and known. This means limited and controlled access to genetic resources which no doubt will impose new forms of control over nations and their human populations. Use of patented (material) by farmers can mean that purchased seed comes with a technological package which leads to a lack of sustainability in the agricultural ecosystems and in the family economy. That is not all; it also breaks rural traditions like the keeping of seed for later cycles of cultivation, exchange of seeds among farmers and communities, and the development of knowledge linked to practice in the management of natural resources.

We are opposed to the cloning of human beings, for it is an attack on the dignity of our species; it favours the homogenization of people; it promotes the formation of perfect prototypes; and it revives racist and xenophobic phobias which we believed had been overcome. The Human Genome Project has been developed in various institutions and universities of the world and is encountering problems related to the ownership of the research. For example, the United States Health Office patented plasma from Papua New Guinea indigenous people without their consent. It is estimated that the Office of Patents and Trademarks has already delivered more than 1250 patents on human genetic sequences.
Genetic Contamination (Transgenic or GMO Food) A large number of tests are being carried out across the world with transgenic organisms, in plants, animals, microorganisms and human beings; a significant proportion is being mass-produced for commercial distribution.

What are Transgenic Organisms (GMOs)?
These are plants, animals, microorganisms or human beings in which one or more genes from another species have been inttroduced; for example, plants with genes from animals, humans or microorganisms, or vice versa. With this, the dynamic evolutionary and reproductive systems of life are broken. The former barriers, where it was only possible to cross-breed members of the same species, are now non-existent. To produce these transgenic organisms, they use techniques like bombardment with micro-particles of gold or tungsten covered with the DNA which they are trying to introduce, or the micro-injection of DNA into germ cells or embryos. Another technique uses biological vehicles like viruses or bacteria to introduce the new genes through artificial chromosomes, or even the creation of synthetic DNA.

Transgenic Foods Worldwide there are 37 million hectares sown to transgenic crops, which compared to the world’s agricultural area of 1,400 million hectares is 2.6%. From this area is obtained a considerable quantity of food whose use is not regulated. Transgenic products are basic materials for a large amount of foodstuffs, the majority of which are manufactured. On the label there is no proper notification that this is a transgenic food, nor is the massive import or export of these foods regulated.

The Risks
a) Impacts on Health: For human health the main risk that has been identified is that GMOs become carriers of the trans-genes which they have received from other species, presenting a secondary mobility which enables them to integrate themselves into human cells. This is highly possible, since in order to produce GMOs, they use fortified genes, mainly with resistance to antibiotics. For example, Novartis’s transgenic maize uses Penicillin G which is a medication no longer used by humans and capable of producing the enzyme penicilaze which degrades penicillins. In the case of Calgene’s transgenic tomato, they used genes resistant to Kanamycin and Geomycin. Monsanto’s transgenic cotton is resistant to streptomycin which is widely used as a mediciine. The Scientific Committee of the European Union has recently determined that milk and meat produced with Bovine Growth Hormone (Bovine Somatotrophin, rBST) has a carcinogenic effect, principally fostering prostate and breast cancers. It has been found that consumption of Monsanto’s transgenic "Round-Up Ready" soy, treated with the herbicide Round-up (glyphosate), has the effect that glypohosate causes the production of phyto-estrogens which can provoke severe reproductive disturbances; transgenic soy can also cause allergy problems.

b) Effects on the Peasant Economy: GMOs can mean the loss of peasant autonomy and greater dependency on the transnational corporations, both technologically and economically. Proof of this is that the companies which promote GMO varieties demand a contract with the farmer in which, in addition to the seed, there is also a commitment to buying inputs. As well, penalties are established if the farmer lends this seed to someone else, and the responsibility for possible ecological risks that the GMOs may entail is assigned as the farmer’s responsibility. The most important effects on the peasant economy and on national production have to do with the genetic manipulations carried out to substitute raw materials which the industrialized countries need from the Third World. In this respect we cite the following cases: A). "A technology has been produced which incorporates into plants a sweet substance called Thaumatina, which could displace sugarcane crops and negatively impact economies dependent on this crop." B). "The Calgene company has produced a compound which is an alternative to cocoa butter in colza, which is a temperate zone crop. The product could displace from the market thousands of third world peasants and farmers, and lead to the collapse of the economies of various countries which depend on exports of cocoa." c) Impacts on the Environment: Transgenic plants have alien genes which could cause genetic pollution. But moreover, since it is a question of plants which are resistant to herbicides, they become potential plagues which would be difficult to control. Because of this, we can anticipate that a transgenic plant would be dominant over traditional crops; it could also establish itself in regions of wild flora, altering the ecosystems. They could also transfer their genes horizontally to other organisms and make them into potential plagues.

Proposals on Transgenics (GMOs)
1. That a moratorium be declared on the release and trade of transgenic organisms and their derived products. The Precautionary Principle – described in Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit – should be applied. It establishes the right not to authorize transgenic organisms until there exists complete evidence of their safety and absence of risk. Societies must have had the opportunity to understand and debate in an informed manner the potential risks and impact of these technologies, and to exercise the right to decide about their use. This is the right of future generations.

2. Given that genetic manipulation constitutes a risk which could unleash unpredictable and irreversible impacts, all decisions related to the use, handling and release of transgenic organisms should be the subject of consultation and informed participation by all sectors of society which could be negatively affected,

3. Evaluation and risk management must be carried out, taking into account in a holistic way all aspects of biosecurity. This includes investigating interactions with the environment, biodiversity, socioeconomic and cultural aspects, human health, and food security.

4. There must be guarantees of effective protection of local and traditional agricultural systems and food security, and assurance of human and collective rights.

5. Agreements and considerations of Biosecurity and multilateral agreements on the environment must overide trade agreements and policies.

1. That Via Campesina strengthen its participation and formalize its presence in international organizations and forums such as: the Biodiversity Convention, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Cartagena Protocol, and the International Forest Forum.

2. That an international campaign be carried out within Via Campesina to inform and publicize themes of biodiversity, genetic resources and biosecurity.

3. That Via Campesina conduct a campaign in each country where we are organized to demand from our governments a fair legal and economic framework for a model of rural development with peasants and farmers.

Action Plan
1. To organize regional meetings to exchange experiences among organisations of Via Campesina, promote training,and develop specific strategies and actions to be carried out in each country.
2. It is necessary to share information between organisations on the situation in each one of our countries and organisations.
3. To develop a campaign against patents on life forms which are a major cause of destruction of food sovereignty and of food security. This campaign should ask that governments stop projects that include the production of GMO crops at the expense of local varieties.
4. To establish a program for the commercialisation and exchange of seeds within the organisations of Via Campesina and the knowledge linked to it so as to establish an alternative market of seeds and thus avoid the patenting of our seeds by the transnational companies.
5. Organise a day(this could be the 17th of april, the International day of farmers’ struggle) with activities on the national regional and global level to protest against genetically modified seeds and agrochemical transnational companies, and to fight for food sovereignty.
6. Take measures to promote and develop local plant varieties and to stimulate the natural control of infestations.
7. To present a letter to the High Commissioner of Human Rights asking for support on the issue of the "violation of life" committed by the transnational companies through the privatisation of – via the patenting of seeds, genetic resources, etc.. – processes that for more than ten thousand years have been developed by farmers, in order to avoid that patents will affect our ways of life.
8.To promote the creation of an ombudsman or international observer to oversee the activities of big transnational companies that work with genetically modified organisms, control inputs, and the marketing and trade in agriculture – all of which affects the gains that should go to farmers.
9. To establish a campaign so that all the activities that are carried out by the Via Campesina vis-à-vis the international institutions will be supported by our organisations with documents that are also directed to their governments to show our strength and will to defend our interests.
10. To demand that the CGIAR, and all other organisations involved in agricultural reasearch, avoid the patenting of knowledge, prevent the privatization of research and the concentration of knowledge by the transnationals.
11. To promote in society in general the right to healthy and sufficient food which means also freedom to choose what foods one consumes. Therefore it is necessary that countries who accept genetically modified products provide clear labelling for the public.
12. Demand that governments stop implementing rural development policies which place conditions on credit and agricultural subsidies that encourage the use of genetically modified products.
Bangalore, India, Octobre 2000