New barriers to developing country farmers’ participation in global forum

Council of the UPOV in Geneve.
(Photo: Magrama)

The Council of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV) adopted this month new rules on the granting of observer status to its meetings that will restrict the participation of NGOs and farmer communities, especially their biggest and more important organization worldwide, La Via Campesina. The UPOV Convention has over the years been systematically changed to increasingly favor formal plant breeders, endowing them with rights that are far stronger than those of farmers, warned the Third World Network (TWN).

Developing country farmers are being most affected under the treaty as last amended in 1991. The new rules approved on 1st. November were criticized by The Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society (APBREBES), that is actively advocating for the transparency of UPOV and civil society participation in its Council meetings and processes, on the basis that as an intergovernmental organization it should be aligned with the practices of UN bodies and treaties.

On the other hand, according to APBREBES, “companies like Monsanto or Syngenta are represented several times. Syngenta for example is represented in UPOV by CropLife, the International Seed Federation, the European Seed Association, CIAPORA, the African Seed and Trade Association and the Asian and Pacific Seed Association.”

APBREBES is a network of the following organizations: Berne Declaration (based in Switzerland); Center for International Environmental Law (USA); Community Technology Development Trust (Zimbabwe); Development Fund (Norway); Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (Nepal); Searice-The Southeast Asia Regional Initiative for Community Empowerment (based in Philippines); and the TWN, based in Malaysia.

Below is the press release by APBREBES, which also criticizes the UPOV Secretariat for its inappropriate actions to get developing countries to become members of the organization.

UPOV creates barriers to farmers’ participation

The UPOV Council adopted new rules for granting of observers status to its sessions. These amendments are aimed at restricting the participation of NGOs and farmer communities in UPOV meetings.

Since 2010, UPOV has been working on new rules for granting observer status. APBREBES provided substantial inputs into these negotiations since the very beginning, but has been excluded from the negotiations. “APBREBES had hoped that a revision of the rules would lead to new rules which are more consistent with international principles of good governance, including transparency and participation”, said François Meienberg from Berne Declaration, one of the founding members of APBREBES during the Council today. “On the contrary, these rules make UPOV less inclusive. This is both surprising and disappointing.”

The new rules are in sharp contrast to practices in other international bodies such as WIPO, the Convention on Biological Diversity and the FAO Seed Treaty, which encourage participation of a broad spectrum of stakeholders. UPOV’s new rules, on the other hand, will further exacerbate the current imbalance in the representation of stakeholder groups.

For example, a new rule is that “In the case of an international NGO with different coordination entities, observer status will be granted to only one coordination per organization”. This strange article is not found in the rules of any other international organization. It is clearly aimed at targeting farmer groups such as La Via Campesina which has “regional coordination entities” as part of its structure.

The European Coordination of La Via Campesina (ECVC) presently has observer status at UPOV. But the new rule will prevent other coordination entities such as Latin American Coordination of Countryside Organizations (CLOC-Via Campesina) from obtaining observer status although La Via Campesina is the biggest and most important organization of farmers worldwide.

“This new rule is most of all a bad sign, with more impact on the reputation of UPOV then on observers. It sends the message that the views of vulnerable farmers are neglected by UPOV,” says Sangeeta Shashikant, President of APBREBES.

If the Council is worried about over-representation it should have a look at the seed industry. Today companies like Monsanto or Syngenta are represented several times. Syngenta for example is represented in UPOV by CropLife, the International Seed Federation, the European Seed Association, CIAPORA, the African Seed and Trade Association and the Asian and Pacific Seed Association. It seems that this current multiple representation of multinational seed companies does not pose any problem to UPOV, but the small and only potential possibility of a double representation of a farmer organization has inspired UPOV to adopt a new rule to prevent this.

The delegate of Bolivia raised serious concerns about the revised rules and asked for a revision in the near future to take into account the critiques raised. European Commission expressed its willingness to take into account all collected views in a next revision. Nevertheless, the Council adopted the revised rules.

Push for UPOV ‘91

At the same Council meeting, the Director-General of UPOV, Francis Gurry, called on all member states to ratify the UPOV Act of 1991 in order to ensure a “constitutional clean-up”. One major difference between the UPOV Act of 1991 and the UPOV Act of 1978 is the stronger rights to the plant breeder at the cost of farmers’ rights. “It’s not the role of the secretariat of UPOV to tell member countries what to do. It’s the duty of the national governments to develop laws that fit to their different needs and priorities,” says Françis Meienberg from the Berne Declaration.

In a public statement the representative of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO) acknowledged that the draft regional framework on Plant Variety Protection was developed with inputs from the UPOV Secretariat, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), CIOPORA (a global Seed Association) and the French Association representing the Seeds Sector (GNIS). This shows that the process to develop new laws on plant variety protection for the 18 Member states of the ARIPO region is unbalanced as it has not considered the views or interests of small-scale farmers which dominate more than 80% of the agricultural systems of ARIPO member states. This is a gross violation of human and customary rights of African communities.

It needs to be recalled that Article 9(2)(c) of the FAO Seed Treaty recognizes the rights of the local and indigenous communities and farmers “to participate in making decisions, at the national level, on matters related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food has also recommended that governments: “Put in place mechanism ensuring the active participation of farmers in decisions related to the conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture particularly in the design of legislation covering…. the protection of plant varieties so as to strike the right balance between the development of commercial and farmers’ seed systems”[1]

ARIPO needs to heed these recommendations and immediately make available adequate opportunities for consultations with farmers, farmer movements and civil society organizations working in the sector, before any further work is undertaken on the draft law

Third World Network:
Berne Declaration: