Biodiversity Conservation and Development:
The collaboration of formal and non-formal institutions
Gigi Manicad
Keywords:  Germplasm conservation; Access to genetic resources; Non-Governmental Organizations; Grass root technologies; Intellectual property rights.
Correct citation: Manicad, G. (1996), "Biodiversity Conservation and Development: The collaboration of formal and non-formal institutions." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 26, p. 15-17.

The Keystone Dialogue concluded in 1991 that ex situ and in situ conservation strategies need to complement each other. This view has been the starting point of the Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation (CBDC) Programme, in which historical proponents and opponents of the Green Revolution work together. The difficulties encountered in the Programme are part of the growing pains of collaboration between the formal and non-formal agricultural research systems. Its success and failure is of great value in lessons in scientific collaboration between the two systems.

The rationale of the CBDC Programme is to find the synergy of two forms of crop improvement and conservation which usually operate separately. One form is the formal institutional system, linking ex situ gene banks and public and private breeders. This system includes production of improved modern varieties and their distribution to farmers. The second form is the non-institutional informal system, which consists of farmer households and communities that grow landraces, improve crops and produce seeds based on local knowledge systems.
The CBDC Programme recognizes that adoption of modern varieties is normally limited to favourable environments and high input agriculture. In marginalized areas, modern varieties remain largely inaccessible and inappropriate. In these areas, resource-poor farmers have developed a multitude of landraces for different agronomic and use requirements. The Programme is a global initiative that recognizes the challenge of decentralized breeding. It aims to validate farmer/community systems, to which  attention has largely been limited to anecdotal description or limited case studies of local practices. Although there is a growing acceptance to integrate farmers’ conditions and requirements in agricultural research, many approaches in this respect are based on the idea that finally the formal institutional research will be superior to local knowledge systems, and could replace such systems. The CBDC Programme, on the other hand, focuses on the strengthening of farmers’ knowledge systems themselves.

Organizations involved
All the organizations involved in the Programme (see box) have at least 10 years of experience in plant genetic resource (PGR) conservation or policy studies and advocacy. The NGO regional networks of CLADES and SEARICE have worked with local communities in utilization and conservation of PGR, as part of their programme on sustainable agriculture and rural development. They have long-standing cooperation with their partner communities and other NGOs.
In Africa, the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, a public gene bank, has coordinated and monitored activities in the field of germplasm conservation and exchange of germplasm and information since 1976. It has been providing technical assistance to farmers and has gained international leadership in establishing on-farm conservation strategies for crop germplasm as a way to complement its off-farm (gene bank) conservation programme. The Netherlands’ CGN has been involved in PGR conservation and plant breeding for 11 years. The Centre has also been active in dialogues regarding in situ conservation.

Projects and activities
At the regional level the national activities are coordinated, research methodologies and instruments are developed, policy studies are conducted, and seminars organized for information exchange.
The South East Asian project involves the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, Nan province in Thailand, Sabah in Malaysia and Bohol in the Philippines. In Vietnam, SEARICE in cooperation with the Can Tho University is assessing the performance of local landraces and modern varieties of rice in irrigated, rain-fed and flooded systems under different socio-cultural conditions. The researchers will conduct comparative laboratory analysis of landraces and modern varieties in terms of seed quality. The research also aims at policy recommendations concerning PGR conservation and development in the province. In Bohol, the Philippines, SEARICE together with local farmers’ organizations are investigating the genetic diversity of planting materials with emphasis on root crops such as sweet potato, taro and yam. In the Philippines, these tubers are known as the ‘poor people’s crops’. They are commercially unprofitable for private seed companies, but essential to the food security of marginalized farmers.
The Latin American project involves NGOs in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Chile. They are all members of consortium CLADES. Overall regional activities involve diversification of PGR through reappraisal and reactivation of local PGR, and its broader utilization; reappraisal of farmers knowledge and skill; and enhancing awareness of the formal institutions regarding farmers’ practices and contributions to PGR conservation. Central focus of the project is the participation of farmers in the whole process of conservation and utilization of PGR. In Colombia, for example, farmers are trained in participatory appraisal and planning of farming systems and community actions to achieve wider crop diversity. Farmers are also involved in the identification of species and varieties for research. In Chile, participating communities have initially identified the existing diversity of native forest and medicinal plants, and useful cultivated and protected plants. They have also enumerated uses of native and exotic plants.
The African project is initially composed of two public agricultural research centres in Ethiopia and Sierra Leone and a NGO in Zimbabwe. In Ethiopia the planned activities include the organization of institutional capacity at the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, farm communities and formal institutions for the improvement of land races; the establishment of community-managed on-farm landrace selection; an evaluation and enhancement programme for major food crops; the establishment of linkages between the formal and informal crop improvement technologies; and promotion of a community based crop improvement network. The International Technical Programme (ITP) is based at the CGN and at NORAGIC. ITP’s main activities include the formulation of research methodologies for assessing the status of PGR, farmers’ breeding methods and techniques, and local seed supply systems. ITP assists in identifying training needs and providing infrastructure for research. The CPRO-DLO, which houses the CGN, provides laboratory facilities for genetic analysis, seed analysis and data processing equipment.
The International Policy Programme (IPP) has a decentralized structure and is composed of RAFI/GRAIN and regional representatives. It works at advocating policies, establishing institutions and legal mechanisms in support of community based biodiversity activities. IPP also assesses and proposes mechanisms to deal with the ethical, gender and policy implications arising, which are relevant to the Programme.

The Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation Programme

The Community Biodiversity Development and Conservation (CBDC) Programme is one of the main results of the third and last series of the Keystone Dialogue on Plant Genetic Resources, held in 1991. This meeting gathered 92 participants from 30 countries, representing international and national agricultural research centres, non-governmental organizations, multinational companies, universities and UN organizations. The often contending formal and informal conservators and breeders recognized the need to complement in situ and ex situ conservation and the mutual benefits of further cooperation. The objectives of the CBDC programme are to investigate and assess community innovation systems in conservation and use of plant genetic resources; provide support to strengthen these systems; and suggest ways to improve formal institutional support for community innovation systems. 

The members of the Programme are:

  • The Centre for Genetic Resources (CGN), part of the Centre for Plant Breeding and Reproduction Research (CPRO-DLO), a public research centre from the Netherlands;
  • Community Technology Development Association (COMMUTEC), an NGO from Zimbabwe;
  • The Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, a public gene bank;
  • Genetic Resources Action International (GRAIN), an NGO from Spain;
  • Latin American Consortium for Agroecology and Development (CLADES), an NGO regional network based in Chile;
  • Norwegian Centre for International Agricultural Development (NORAGIC), a public research centre from Norway;
  • Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), an NGO from Canada;
  • South East Asian Regional Institute for Community Education (SEARICE), an NGO regional network based in the Philippines.
The CBDC Programme is funded by the Directorate General for International Cooperation (DGIS) from the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) from Canada and the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) of Sweden, and has a four year budget of US$ 5.5 million. Although the Programme started in 1995, the initial project activities were limited to inventory of biodiversity in the regions due to a delay in funding remittances from the donors. 

Contract address:
Camila Montecinos
Global Coordinator CBDC Programme
CET, Casilla Postal 16557, Correo 9, Santiago, Chile
Fax (+56) 2 233 7239; E-mail adm@cet.mic.cl

Obstacles and achievements
The development of the CBDC Programme reflects the struggle in understanding the differences in nature and operation between NGOs and formal research institutions. From the Keystone Dialogues in 1991, it took the CBDC Programme as long as three years of intense dialogues to agree on a common proposal and protocol. Considering the historical backgrounds of most of the NGOs, which were opponents of the Green Revolution, and of the formal organizations, of which many were proponents of the Green Revolution, it is already an achievement that they agreed to cooperate on a common project at all. According to Regassa Feyissa of the Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute, the Green Revolution per se was not an issue. Developing mechanisms for the complementarity rather than polarization of the formal and informal approaches to the problems of conservation and food security, as well as issues of farmers and indigenous community rights were complex matters that took a lot of time to be solved.
What fuels this relationship is the changing research paradigm. There is a mutual understanding that both formal and informal institutions have their own limitations and potentials, and could benefit each other. According to Jaap Hardon of CGN and Programme leader, for scientists who recognize the limitations of plant breeding based in laboratories, NGOs provide easier access to farming communities, their local knowledge and germplasm. According to Rene Salazar of SEARICE and Asian regional programme leader of the CBDC Programme, working with formal institutions can strengthen the research capability of NGOs, which is needed to support and advocate their policy. Camila Montecinos of CLADES, the Programme’s global coordinator, states that there are great benefits in sharing information, since different sectors have differentiated access. All parties see that they need each other.
Equally important are the personal relations within the Programme. Trust and friendships developed through decades of debates between the scientists and activists at the height of the Green Revolution. After clashes of interest between the formal and informal sectors, and beside the innate mutual suspicion, at the end of the day, they have their friendships to pull them through the CBDC Programme, so far.

A common understanding on the operationalization of the Programme’s concepts and methodologies still needs to be reached. As all parties need to compromise, they also need to agree on resolving conflicts arising from issues of representations, accountability, methods of work, and interpretation of concepts like ‘participation’, and ‘integrity’. For example, the protocol contains, amongst others, details of the responsibility and accountability of formal institutions. The protocol, however, does not include particulars on the accountability of NGOs to their partner communities, nor to the CBDC Programme. The accountability of NGOs seems to have been simply assumed by both the formal institutions and by the NGOs themselves. Likewise, the Programme’s publication titled "Cultivating Knowledge: Genetic diversity, farmer experimentation and crop research" presents an uncritical and almost naive view of NGOs active in farming systems research. The vagueness of the accountability of NGOs is a common problem, and not unique to CBDC. While the mandate of the formal institutions is clear, i.e. they represent the scientific sector, the NGO partners could only ‘constantly try’ to represent their communities. Both Montecinos and Salazar agree that NGOs cannot give a clear cut guarantee that they represent their communities. They state, however, that their system of accountability is based on decades of cooperation with the communities, and has its base in social movement against oppression in society. Besides, many NGOs critically monitor each other in this respect.
Participation and methodologies
While both the scientists and NGOs agree that the CBDC Programme should be participatory and use the principle of a bottom-up approach, they do not always agree on the qualitative interpretation. For example, the ITP proposed to test certain hypotheses in the fields, and to call afterwards a consultation to ensure community participation. However, SEARICE questions the level of community participation in such an approach. In their opinion farming communities should be the one to define the research objectives and hypotheses.
Other differences exist about methodologies to gather information. For example, formal institutions proposed to use methodologies such as Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA), but this has been partly rejected by the NGOs since RRA fails to take into account power relations within the communities. Likewise, project decisions taken by formal institutions in the North need to relate power relations in the communities. On the other hand, NGOs are slow in coming up with alternative methodologies.
In general, there are growing debates and literature that question the presumed comparative advantage of NGOs. Most of the critiques come from within the NGOs themselves. As Salazar points out, NGOs tend to be suspicious and rhetorical. In order to give direction to its criticism, SEARICE has come out with a rough draft of alternative experimental design, but this needs to be tested and improved.

Research focus
There are also problems of research focus and objectives. Salazar points out that formal institutions tend to concentrate only on understanding genetic variation, the process of genetic selection and recombination within communities. However, NGOs are further concerned about the way these studies would translate to analysis of empowerment for the farming communities. Montecinos says that matters of interest to formal institutions, such as evaluation of seed uniformity and grain size, are not necessarily of interest to farmers. On the other hand, according to Walter de Boef of ITP, formal institutions do appreciate that working with NGOs means putting the development perspective before research.

Intellectual property rights
The biggest concern is the question of intellectual property rights (IPRs). While all parties within the CBDC Programme are against patenting, there are concerns as to how international developments on IPR legislation can affect the germplasm collection within the Programme. Tensions arose for example when ITP proposed to analyze seed qualities in laboratories in the Netherlands. NGOs are suspicious with regard to the integrity of community germplasm once they are stored in gene banks. NGOs in the regions are more in favour of seed analysis in the field. They suggest that ITP should assist in developing laboratory facilities and training of NGO partners, upon local request. In this way, communities could retain the rights to their germplasm and local knowledge. As yet, everybody agrees that there is no ready-made solution for this and that the CBDC Programme experience can contribute lessons and policy recommendations. Despite problems, all parties agree that the main strength of the CBDC Programme is its diversity of organizations and working approaches. Because it is a global programme, there are numerous opportunities to test hypotheses in diverse environments and under various socio-economic conditions. While there are conflicts between formal and informal institutions, their working experience offers solid grounds for policy formulations in research that favour farming communities in marginalized situations. As Salazar points out, the CBDC Programme is not just a scientific study, it also embodies a strong political component of policy formulation in support to farmers’ conservation systems and to the development of countries in the South. The challenge is in translating diversity of experiences and projects into a common, workable programme.
In the meantime, the approach of the Programme is gaining recognition by mainstream international agricultural research centres. For example, Hardon is involved in the formulation of a research programme concerning in situ conservation of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI). CGN is also discussing farmers’ participatory breeding methods with plant breeders of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). According to Hardon, this is breaking new ground within formal research institutions. Not so long ago, involving farmers in plant breeding was not considered scientific. In this way, the influence of CBDC Programme is likely to go beyond the activities of its member organizations.
Gigi Manicad

Werkzijde 26, 2543 CA The Hague, the Netherlands

CBDC (1995), First Progress and Final Reports. Unpublished document. Santiago: CBDC Global Coordination.

CBDC (1994), Proposal to DGIS, IDRC and SIDA for Implementation Phase 1, 1994-1997. Unpublished working document with Barcelona Protocol. Wageningen: CGN.

The Keystone Centre (1991), Oslo Plenary Session Final Consensus Report: Global initiative for the security and sustainable use of plant genetic resources. Washington: Genetic Resources Communications Systems, Inc.

W. de Boef, K. Amanor, K. Wellard and A. Bebington (1993), Cultivating Knowledge: Genetic diversity, farmer experimentation and crop research. London: ITDG.

Personal communications with Camila Montecinos (CLADES), Rene Salazar (SEARICE), Regassa Feyissa (Ethiopian Biodiversity Institute), Jaap Hardon (CGN) and Walter de Boef (CGN).

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.


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