Interview with Tewolde Berhan Egziabher
Inter Press Service, March 3 2008
NEW DELHI, Mar 3 (IPS) - An attempt by a handful of developed countries and trans-national corporations (TNCs) to monopolise and control the world's seeds is doomed to failure, says Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, director-general of Ethiopia's Environment Protection Agency, and a formidable negotiator at biodiversity-related fora.
Tewolde, who won the Right Livelihood Award in 2000 for 'exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources', explained to IPS correspondent Ranjit Devraj why 'the attempt to reduce the world's farmers to serfs of a different kind' is doomed.
IPS: What gives you grounds for such optimism? After all in major agricultural countries like India we have been seeing steady inroads made into the farming sector by such TNCs as Monsanto.
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher: First of all the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which made the control over seeds by TNCs possible through its Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) mechanism is slowly getting paralysed -- especially after Doha. As WTO weakens, the controls that have been creeping in will automatically disappear.
IPS: What about the bilateral agreements outside the WTO?
TBGE: These bilateral agreements favoured by the United States and the European Union, and also other countries, have only served to create greater uncertainty. They have certainly undermined the hope that the MNCs once harboured, that the WTO would become an instrument with which to subjugate the world.
IPS: What do you foresee?
TBGE: Well, we seem to be heading back, briefly, to the chaotic world that existed before World War II when a handful of colonial powers were able to exert their influence on the world. But, this will be a temporary stage because the Western world did not earlier have to contend with the emergence on the world stage of such countries as India, China and Brazil.
IPS: How exactly will the emergence of such countries as India, China, Brazil and South Africa help?
TBGE: To start with there will be greater room for manoeuvring. This can lead to a better global system than the one that exists in which countries that emerged victorious at the end of World War II have for too long continued to dictate the agenda. If you look at China's investments and involvement in Africa you will see that they steer clear away from interfering in what is not their business. So the tone is already being set for a new world order.
IPS: What are the worst results of TRIPS impinging on agriculture?
TBGE: Without doubt the idea that the patenting of mechanical inventions -- that began in the city-state of Venice -- can be transferred to plants, animals and microorganisms is misconceived. Most farmers are illiterate and living in countries that are not developed but are vulnerable to pressure with WTO members creating conditions ideal for TNCs to patent seeds. This is an unbelievable distortion of justice. And it becomes truly absurd when the onus falls on farmers to prove that they have not been using seeds without a license from the TNC that claims to own them. What can farmers do in the event of natural pollination? Call in the birds and the wind as witnesses?
IPS: What about genetically modified organisms and genetically engineered crops -- especially those that are claimed to help increase the production of biofuels?
TBGE: Firstly the deployment of genetically engineered organisms or crops must be resorted to only after they have been rigorously tested for safety. Many developed countries, especially those in the EU, are already wary of genetic engineering products. As for production of biofuels they can be useful in reclaiming land that is unsuitable for agriculture, but if they are dependent on fertilisers that go back to fossil fuels what is the benefit to the environment? What I say is that there should be no hasty action when it comes to adopting genetically engineered crops.