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Circumventing the law in the Basque Country

When the laws do not allow or facilitate the exchange and use of farm-saved seed, the options available to farmers might seem minimal. This example from the Basque Country in Spain will demonstrate how it is possible to achieve results with regard to the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed even within such circumstances. The Basque Seed Network, officially a social movement, has managed to create operational space for such rights by circumventing the law.

The Basque Seed Network was started in 2001; as of 2007 it consisted of approximately 80 voluntary members. Many of these represent different organizations, such as farmer unions, while others are members in an individual capacity. The Network is aimed at raising awareness regarding farmers' seeds and Farmers' Rights. For this purpose it disseminates information, holds up for scrutiny national laws and proposals as well as international agreements with relevance for Farmers' Rights, facilitates information sharing regarding seed-saving activities, and advocates Farmers' Rights towards the Basque authorities and the general public. Inspired by the Australian Seed-Savers Handbook, the network has published its own seed-saving manual, as well as a seed catalogue. Members attend local markets and fairs to publicly exchange seed, encouraging people to use local seed varieties or buy food produced from local seed varieties. Exchange is also carried out through schools.

According to Helen Groome, member of the Basque Seed Network, legislation is severely detrimental to Farmers' Rights in the Basque Country. In general, it is not permitted to exchange or sell seeds among farmers, and this represents a serious constraint on all efforts at conserving and sustainably using plant genetic diversity in agriculture. According to the network, both legislation and agricultural policy have contributed to a loss of local seed varieties. In addition, local markets are gradually becoming smaller and scarcer, so local produce from local varieties has fewer outlets.

The main achievements of the activities of the Basque Seed Network have been greater acceptance and approval of farmers' customary practices of saving, using, and exchanging seed. For example, farmers who use, save and exchange local varieties are now met with greater understanding from various stakeholders, particularly local consumers, local environmentalist groups and the environmental department of the Basque Government. The Basque organic farming sector considers local varieties to be the basis for work in the organic sector. At a very local level, food producers and consumers have shown greater interest in the seed and produce from certain local varieties. Trainings in a dozen of schools every year contribute to this interest, along with the collaboration with other seed networks in Europe and elsewhere.

As a result of all these developments, there is heightened awareness of these issues in the local Basque Government, and a possibility that the Agricultural Department will take greater account of the question of local seeds. It has become clearer that the issues of Farmers' Rights, seeds and food sovereignty are closely interlinked.

The Basque Seed Network does not wish to label their achievements a success, as there is still a long way to go until Farmers' Rights are legally secured in the Basque Country. According to the network, the official Basque policy is still to rely on industrial and registered hybrid seeds, and they have yet to reach an agreement with the local government to lobby for change with regard to Farmers' Rights within higher-level institutions. In terms of achieving partial goals, however, the Basque Seed Network may serve as a good example of how otherwise detrimental policies can be approached from within. By showing the importance of farmers' vital contributions to the conservation and sustainable use of crop genetic diversity, the organization contributes to changing attitudes in this regard. The Basque Seed Network employs civil disobedience, in that it performs seed exchange publicly, and encourages farmers to follow their example - which is in turn increasingly regarded as legitimate, thanks to the information work of the organization. In this way, the Basque Seed Network paves the way for de facto acceptance of farmers' customary practices in broader circles and possibly including the authorities, thereby slowly undermining the detrimental laws.

How can these achievements be explained? In the opinion of Helen Groome, there is still considerable interest in food quality in the Basque Country, and thus also in local varieties. Also, the environmental movement understands the importance of farming based on local seeds. An important factor is that the Basque Seed Network not only provides information but actively makes seeds available, even if this is barely tolerated. Finally, the Basque Seed Network has been inspired by other seed networks and seed-saving groups, and their publications.

The Basque Seed Network coordinates its work with other seed networks and initiatives such as Grain (Genetic Resources Action International) and Vía Campesina. It works closely together with the Basque Farmers' Union, the Basque organic agriculture organizations, and Basque environmentalist organizations. The environmental department of the Basque Government is also involved, through financing some of the activities, and it is hoped that the network will be able to reach an agreement with the environmental department of the Gasteiz town council regarding allotments as well.

According to the Basque Seed Network, there are basically three lessons to be learned from their experiences. First, it is essential to keep close contact with farmers, as they are the backbone of the work. Furthermore, it is important to include as many stakeholders as possible in the network, to make it broad-based and thus facilitate awareness-raising. Finally, international coordination of the lobbying work is central, supporting the efforts at both the national and the local levels.

(This text is based on information provided by Helen Groome, member of the Basque Seed Network, in response to a questionnaire survey carried out in December 2007)

Pages in this sub-section:
   India's Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act
   Norway's 'no' to stricter plant breeders' rights
   Circumventing the law in the Basque Country
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 In this section:
  What is a 'success story' of FR?
  Success stories from the realization of the right to save, use, exchange and sell farm-saved seed
  Success stories on traditional knowledge related to agro-biodiversity
  Success stories on benefit-sharing measures
  Success stories on participation in decision making
  Common features

Photo: Pratap Shrestha, Nepal