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Battle for biodiversity: AfCFTA’s Intellectual Property Protocol unveiled

Battle for biodiversity: AfCFTA’s Intellectual Property Protocol unveiled

Food Tank | 17th February 2024

By Liza Greene

The African Union is finalizing the draft protocol on intellectual property rights to the agreement establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). While the AfCFTA aims to eliminate global trade barriers and boost intra-Africa trade, many civil society organizations worry that regulations will endanger seed systems and smallholder farmers’ rights.

The AfCFTA, which entered into force in May 2019, is one of the flagship projects of the African Union Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. As the largest free trade area since the formation of the World Trade Organization, the AfCFTA intends to advance trade in value-added production across all service sectors of the African economy. By contributing to the establishment of regional value chains in Africa, the African Union hopes to foster industrialization, job creation, and investment to enhance the continent’s position in the long term.

The draft protocol will apply to all categories of intellectual property, including plant varieties, genetic resources, and traditional knowledge. The specific objectives will aim to promote coherent intellectual property rights policy and a harmonized system of intellectual property protection in Africa.

But many small farmer associations and alliances for food sovereignty are questioning the implications of this protocol on seeds and rural communities in Africa.

“You cannot protect or help farmers rights when you are talking about plant breeders’ rights,” Susan Nakacswa, Africa Programme Officer at GRAIN, tells Food Tank. GRAIN is a small international non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggle for community-controlled and biodiversity-focused food systems.

There are an estimated 33 million smallholder farms in Africa, contributing up to 70 percent of the food supply, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Most of these smallholder farmers are women who work on less than two hectares of land, grow mainly subsistence crops, and rely on family labor, according to GRAIN.

“We are a continent where about 60 percent of the people depend on agriculture for their livelihoods,” Famara Diedhiou, Coordinator of Seed Working Group at Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), tells Food Tank. “So whenever a protocol, or whenever a policy is related to agriculture, we need to wake up and stand up to see what it is about.”

For the past 30 years, industrialized countries have been forcing governments of the global South to adopt laws that privatize seeds so that farmers have to pay for them and keep seed companies afloat, according to GRAIN. The 1994 World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights was the first global trade agreement that set international norms for private intellectual property rights over seeds. Because the notion of allowing patents on life forms, such as plants or animals, is widely contested, the WTO agreement aimed to create a compromise between governments. This allows countries to exclude plants and animals from their patent laws while requiring that they provide some form of intellectual property protection over new plant varieties.

Nearly half of all African countries have already introduced an intellectual property rights system on seeds. Most of them follow the model of the 1991 convention of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). The UPOV system faces substantial criticism for promoting genetic uniformity of crops and preventing peasants from reusing seeds. The key question revolves around whether the AfCFTA will challenge this dominant system. According to Nakacswa and Diedhiou, the outlook is not optimistic.

“We’ve sort of looked at the whole conversation around free trade agreements as an extension of what we know as colonialism,” says Nakacswa. “It’s the power dynamics and control that is taking place because governments, corporations, foundations and development agencies want to commercialize and industrialize farming, especially African farming.”

As of August 2023, 47 of the 54 signatories (87 percent) have deposited their instruments of the AfCFTA ratification.

Looking ahead, Nakacswa and Diedhiou emphasize that raising awareness around the importance of farmers rights and local sovereignty are critical steps towards addressing the AfCFTA.

“The next step is now to create, to make it a public discussion, for any citizen to know this actor, including farmers and simple citizens,” Diedhiou says, “And then we start to denounce it.”

 source: Foodtank