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The state of Farmers' Rights in Ethiopia

Ethiopia is an agrarian country with 85% of its population deriving their livelihood from small scale agriculture. It is also one of the centres of diversity and origin of agricultural crop genetic resources to which farmers' role and activities are strongly linked. Farmers therefore, play an important role in the agricultural sector of the country, and their varieties serve as major sources of planting materials. The role of farmers and the importance of their varieties were for the first time officially recognized with the National Seed Industry Policy in 1992. Various policies that recognize farmers' and community rights have been formulated since then. The development of various legislative measures to implement the formulated policies is lagging, and the level of awareness among various stakeholders regarding the issues of farmers' or community rights is still found to be rather low. For these reasons, and because it involves diverse social, economic and cultural elements, the realisation of Farmer Rights is a challenging task in the Ethiopian context.

To overcome the challenges at the national level, concerted support from the international community through the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture is critically important. The international community should support efforts to minimize the serious problems of erosion of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture which takes place in almost all countries. This requires clear commitments by states and intergovernmental actors to protect and support farm communities in order to ensure universal food security for the present and the future.

A study written by Regassa Feyissa, Director of the Ethio-Organic Seed Action, and published by the Farmers' Rights Project in 2006, highlights perceptions of different stakeholders, the achievements made, and existing barriers and opportunities regarding the implementation of Farmers' Rights in Ethiopia. It also proposes possible measures to be taken at the global level. The following text is the executive summary from the report.

Farmers' Rights in Ethiopia: Executive summary from a case study by Regassa Feyissa (2006)

At the FAO Conference in 1989 member countries endorsed the concept of Farmers' Rights in Resolution 5/89 for the first time. The resolution vested the International Community as trustees for Farmers' Rights, to ensure that the need for conservation of plant genetic resources is globally recognized and that sufficient funds are made available for this purpose. It also emphasized the need to assist farmers and farming communities in all regions of the world, and to allow farmers and their communities as well as their countries to share benefits derived from the use of plant genetic resources.

Realizing the spirit of this resolution required a lengthy process and years of dialogue and negotiations that were concluded in 2001 with the adoption of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) as a legally binding international agreement. The Treaty stresses the necessity to promote farmers' rights at both national and international levels, but there is as yet no common understanding of how this can be achieved. It is clear, however, that there can be no standard package for implementing farmers' rights in all countries, and governments are expected to implement farmers' rights according to the prevailing situations and needs in their respective countries. From this point of view, this report provides an overview of the state of implementation of farmers' rights in Ethiopia by examining the existing situation and progress made in the country. It also assesses perspectives for global support towards this end.

Ethiopia is an agricultural country where over 85% of its population derive their livelihood from small scale agriculture that contributes about 50% of the country's domestic product (GDP). Farming in Ethiopia is practised under diverse farming systems and cultural contexts, and farmers' varieties play a very vital role in the agricultural productivity as a whole. As a matter of fact, the highest portion of the country's genetic resource wealth essential for food and agriculture is still being conserved and improved on small-scale farmers' fields, and farmers practices in these regards are essential to meet their livelihood needs. The vital roles that farmers and their varieties play in the agricultural development of the country make promotion of farmers' rights very essential in order to support farmers in continuing to play their role. Considering the existing and potential contribution of the farming communities to the overall agricultural development of the country, promotion of farmers' rights should be included as one of the highest priority issues for socio-economic development in the country. Various efforts have been made to formulate policies that recognize farmers' and community rights. The National Seed Industry Policy of 1992 recognizes farmers' participation in the seed industry for the promotion of sustainable use of local plant varieties, and also emphasizes farmers' right to share benefits arising from the use of local varieties they have developed over generations. The Environmental Policy and the National Policy on Biodiversity.

Conservation and Research recognize community rights to biodiversity resource ownership and use, as well as their rights to share benefits deriving from such use, and to participate in planning and decision-making in the conservation and use of these resources. Protection of farmers' and community traditional knowledge is recognized in all relevant policies and is aimed at ensuring that farmers decide on the access to, and use of their knowledge, combined with the right to equitably share benefits arising from the use of such knowledge. Regardless of all these policy commitments made to address farmers' and community rights, the process of formulating legal instruments for the implementation of the policies has been very slow. A recent proclamation on Access to Genetic Resources and Community Knowledge, and Community Rights as well as a proclamation on Plant Breeder' Rights are seen as progressive steps taken to address issues of community and farmers' rights. The proclamation on Access to Genetic Resources and Community Knowledge, and Community Rights provides communities with the right to receive 50% of the share that the state obtains in monetary form from the use of genetic resources. According to this proclamation, communities have the right to decide over access to their knowledge, while the state has the authority to decide over access to genetic resources - on behalf of the communities. Communities do, however, have the right to disagree in cases where access to genetic resources affects their culture and their livelihood. There is some lack of clarity regarding the process of prior informed consent, particularly as related to access to genetic resources. It is anticipated that clarification of this and other aspects may be achieved when implementing rules and regulations for this proclamation are adopted.

The Plant Breeders' Rights Proclamation upholds farmers' rights to save, use, multiply, exchange and sell farm-saved seed of protected varieties, but they are not allowed to sell seed protected with plant breeders' rights. Although this proclamation provides for farmers' rights in a separate article, these provisions are limited to the conditions under which farmers can use protected varieties. There is no mention of how farmers are supported and recognized for the role they play in conserving and developing crop genetic diversity, and how their rights to share benefits derived from the use of their varieties are ensured.

There are noticeable gaps in both proclamations with regard to a clear definition of farmers and communities as well as clarity on farmers' role within the local community structures in Ethiopia. The result is weak emphasis on the role that farmers play in crop genetic resources conservation and development as well as on their rights to be rewarded for contributions they make in maintaining and developing plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. The gaps necessarily require careful examination and treatment when adopting implementing rules and regulations.

Perceptions on farmers' rights in Ethiopia are based on varying degrees of understanding of the issue itself. The majority of respondents involved in the case study are not aware of the concept of farmers' rights. Awareness on the issues of farmers' rights is limited to circles of a few individuals and institutions that are involved in international negotiations. Similarly, although policies like those on seed, plant breeders' rights, access and community rights, biodiversity and environment all address farmers' and community rights, the details of these policies are not known to most local farmers.

However, the general reflection gathered during the interviews shows that basic requirements for implementing farmers' rights are that farmers are provided with ownership and use rights, and are recognized and rewarded for the responsibilities they shoulder in both resource management and production. Emphasis is also on treating breeding work of farmers on a par with that of formal breeding. The point here is that since over 90% of crop production in the country depends on farmers' varieties, and formal breeders also depend on the same, fair recognition of farmers and their varieties should be included in the agricultural development strategy of the country.

Suggestions of the stakeholders stress the need to strengthen the promotion of the concept of farmers' rights at all levels, and to involve farmers and communities in the process of developing policies and legislation that are directly relevant to them. The concern is that lack of understanding of the content of farmers' and community rights can result in inconsistent perceptions and conclusions about farmers' and communities, especially while formulating relevant policies. This in turn may affect the process of proper implementation of the rights. Although there is a conducive policy environment for implementing community and farmers' rights in Ethiopia, there is a need to study the nature of community structures as well as relevant policies thoroughly, in order to avoid unnecessary gaps and overlaps that may hamper the implementation of farmers' and community rights.

Support to farmers from both national and international levels is required, as emphasized by all respondents. In a situation where genetic erosion of agricultural crops is increasing in all corners of the world, and would eventually affect humanity as a whole, protection of these resources is left to the poor farmers particularly of the centers of origin and diversity for plant genetic resources. If this situation continues, global targets for food security may not be achieved, mainly due to eroding sources of food and breeding materials. It is therefore critical that farmers are supported in order to protect and develop these resources, and as one of the measures to recognize farmers' contributions. Support to farmers should not be provided as charity, but as a means of meeting the survival needs of humankind - today and in the future. In this context, there should be a strong concern for the protection, development and sustainable use of agricultural genetic resources managed and nurtured by local farmers, similar to the concerns for trade issues, human rights, environment pollution, weapons of mass destruction, and other issues.

Various efforts have been made and are underway to support farmers of Ethiopia. This however, is not directly done in the context of farmers' rights. Farmers are supported through various governmental, non-governmental and international programs and projects aimed at improving the livelihoods of local communities. Most of these programmes and projects provide services in the area of seed and input supply, genetic resource conservation and improvement, education and health care, water supply, road construction, and others. Although the farmers' rights concept is not articulated in the implementation of such programmes and projects, they all contribute support to farmers. Considering such programmes and projects in the context of contributions toward the realization of farmers' rights may provide a ground for establishing a gene fund system for the purpose of supporting farmers work in the conservation and development of genetic diversity.

Farmers' contributions play a significant role in Ethiopia's agricultural productivity. Taking this into account, and considering the enormous role that farmers' varieties play in the agricultural development of the country, it is necessary to develop a strategy that fairly recognizes and encourages the contributions of farmers and breeders alike. Such strategy should also consider the needs and priorities of local communities, farmers and other relevant stakeholders. It is also important to develop laws on farmers' and plant breeders' rights that take sustainable management and use of agricultural genetic resources into consideration. In this case, some elements of the African Model Legislation may be adopted in addition to the farmers' rights provisions under the Plant Breeders' Rights Proclamation as appropriate to Ethiopia.

Promotion of farmers' rights at the international level requires coordinated efforts at a global level where the ITPGRFA Governing Body can play a role in developing systems for this purpose. The Governing Body can create such systems for facilitating support for the implementation of farmers' rights at the national level, and for creating awareness within the international community. The international community needs to share responsibility for supporting farmers to ensure the continuing existence of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. The international community should also recognize that farmers in various parts of the world are important to the global society and economy, and further marginalization of these farmers would affect the global food system. From this point of view, protection of farmers' rights and support for their contributions should be of common concern, and clear commitments by states and intergovernmental actors are needed in order to ensure universal food security for the present and the future.

Download full-text version (PDF) of the case study:
Feyissa, Regassa: The Farmers' Rights Project – Background Study 5: Farmers' Rights in Ethiopia – A Case Study. FNI Report 7/2006. Lysaker, FNI, 2006, 64 p.

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   Legislation pertaining to Farmers' Rights in Ethiopia

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