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Putting Farmers' Issues on the (Negotiation) Table

Sherma E. Benosa

On the surface, international negotiation appears to be a mere linguistic battle. Long hours are spent debating on seemingly mundane issues, like the acceptability of a word. Arguments are exhausted over the phrasing of a statement or provision.

In truth, it’s so much more than just a battle for linguistic precision as the use or non-use of a word can have serious consequences in different spheres—political, economic, environmental, and/or social. A correctly phrased statement is not only clear; it also nails the intended meaning, and as such, free of (or at least, has less) loopholes which may be exploited in the future by any other party.

This is the white-knuckle world of international negotiations—a world where linguistic ability, suave negotiation skills, patience, and a solid grasp of national and international issues, laws and alliances are not only necessary, but a must. This is the world where SEARICE stands tall and unbending as it puts forward

positions based on ground realities in order to influence

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international policies to be more sympathetic and supportive of small holder farmers.



Having long earned credibility to take on issues affecting farmers, SEARICE participates in international fora either as a regional CSO or as a member of the Philippine delegation, or both. It is a member of the Philippine technical working group (TWG) that debates on Philippine positions both at the International Treaty on Plant Generic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It participates in the Commission on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA), and has made a presentation at the Convention of the Union for the Protection of New Plant Varieties (UPOV).

“As NGO, SEARICE seeks to influence deliberations by the government-parties by reading statements during plenary discussions and participating in small group discussions, and lobbying governments to support specific positions. SEARICE also, at times, sponsor side events to heighten interest on its advocacies, distribute materials, and sponsor awards to bring attention to its causes,” shared Normita Ignacio, SEARICE Executive Director.

“As a member of the Philippine delegation, SEARICE acts as an advisory arm on issues affecting PGRFA, suggesting and drafting government interventions which are voiced out and argued by the Philippine government representatives,” she added.

According to Ignacio, working as part of the Philippine delegation and as a CSO gives SEARICE tremendous advantage. “SEARICE positions which are taken as Philippine position have higher chances of being adopted by the international body. However, we also have issues or positions that cannot be taken as Philippine position, and there are also instances when our positions have better chances of being taken up when put forward as a CSO position. That is when our being a CSO works better for us. By building alliances with governments and/or other CSOs that are supportive of our positions, we have louder voice,” she explained.

Ignacio shared that SEARICE usually drafts positions and statements, sometimes with and for the Philippine delegation, and at other times, as a CSO. SEARICE-as-a-CSO positions are lobbied to alliances—other governments or CSOs that are sympathetic to such positions.

Although sometimes, these positions are simply text insertions to documents, they can send like-minded country representatives from the opposite side of the fence to band together to water down what to them is an unpalatable word or statement, if not completely block it from getting written in the document.

One example is what happened at the CBD in 2012. SEARICE, together with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) which is the head of the Philippine delegation, introduced a text intervention on the topic on biodiversity development and poverty eradication saying that whereas the Expert Group created at the CBD to look at poverty may have gone (cursorily) through the root causes of poverty that are possibly linked to biodiversity loss, it has not suggested specific and concrete measures to remove or remediate such causes by fulfilling the three objectives of the convention.

“Besides mainstreaming biodiversity and ecosystem, we need to find other ways of removing or remediating poverty. We need to address this question to suggest more specific and practical steps that development agencies and governments may take to answer this question,” SEARICE argued.

Part of the text intervention that SEARICE forwarded for adoption read:

“5. Encourages all partners and stakeholders involved in biodiversity and development processes and programmes to consider different people’s perspectives and priorities in all biodiversity valuation processes. Safeguards need to be put in place to ensure that development projects, processes, mechanisms, initiatives, and policies sustainably use biodiversity and ecosystem services. Safeguards are also needed to be included in the design of policies and projects for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity to ensure that the customary and traditional user rights of all stakeholders are taken into account and protected.”

This text intervention, however, was nearly deleted during discussions on the negotiated document which contained the said paragraph. “Canada, EU, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, and India argued for its deletion, mostly stating that it came from nowhere and does not concur with the CBD agreed language. But we were able to show that it came from the WGRI 4 document on biodiversity and poverty eradication,” shared Ignacio.

In the end, a watered-down version of the text was adopted:

4. “Encourages all partners and stakeholders involved in biodiversity-related programmes to consider different perspectives and priorities in all biodiversity and ecosystem services valuation processes.”

According to Ignacio, moves to block, delete or water down interventions are typical in international negotiations, so much so that sometimes, just having a word inserted in the adopted document is a great achievement. This is because the delegations understandably bring with them their own country realities, interests and agenda which they must push by building alliances with like-minded countries.

But armed with its own experiences from the countries it work with, SEARICE is not easily discouraged. To the contrary, it stands firm in its suggestions.

Thus, in its years of negotiating, SEARICE has earned the reputation of being resolute, having steadfastly demonstrated its commitment to promoting farmer-centric positions.

Now enjoying a good reputation among CSOs and government representatives, SEARICE is often asked to participate in discussions beyond the negotiation table, as development organizations often request SEARICE to give comments on positions and suggested interventions and statements.

“It is that we worked hard and remained steadfast that many of our positions have been adopted, and why we enjoy a good reputation in the international community,” shared Ignacio.


“Farmers’ rights is human rights.”

SEARICE noted that there is no talk about farmers’ rights in discussions involving human rights. It thus submitted a statement to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UNCHR saying that farmers’ rights are human rights. In the UPR statement, SEARICE argued that viewed from the perspective that farmers’ rights are human rights, the Philippines has been violating the human rights of its farmers for passing laws that negatively impact them, denying their participation in processes affecting them, and allowing the introduction of genetically modified organisms into the country are violations to human rights.

At the 5th Governing Body of the ITPGRFA, SEARICE likewise made a position statement arguing for the establishment of “a reporting system or mechanism in which each country is strongly urged to report to the governing body its views and experiences on farmers’ rights, including, and most importantly, a national plan to implement farmers rights; as part of its obligations in abiding with the ITPGRFA.”

In particular, SEARICE proposed that there be a standard review mechanism on the implementation of FR at the national level which shall take into account the participation of the farmers in the formulation of the seed laws and regulations as these have a direct impact on the rights of farmers to save, exchange, use and market seeds at the community and national level. Together with Norway and other like-minded countries, SEARICE as a member of the Philippine delegation successfully pushed for the adoption of farmers’ rights resolution at GB5.

“Put farmers at the center.”

Work on agriculture should put at the center the very ones who are affected by it—the farmers, particularly the smallholder farmers. And putting the farmers at the center, for SEARICE, is not only involving them but, more importantly, empowering them to make decisions on their own. SEARICE made this definition of “putting the farmers at the center” during the discussions on food security and climate change at the 39th session of the Committee on World Food Security in 2012.

A major victory for SEARICE and other CSOs on putting smallholder farmers at the center happened at the 15th session of the CGRFA when the text interventions it made on the draft guide for national seed policy formulation were taken on. The text added by SEARICE highlighted 1) the role and importance of the informal seed system; 2) the need to strengthen national seed systems such that role and rights of small holder farmers are acknowledged; 3) the need to create policies that encourage sustainable development of and production practices of farmers instead of policies that not only fail to recognize but also marginalize the small holder farmers; and 4) the need for participatory processes in policy formulation such that small holder farmers are included in the drafting of seed policies and law

SEARICE reiterated its stand of putting farmers at the center in various venues. At the 18th CBD-SBSTTA in 2014, SEARICE again pushed for farmer involvement and cooperation. At the CBD Conference of the Parties held in 2014, SEARICE called for changes in CBD’s work by pushing that small farmers be put at the center of CBD’s work on agricultural biodiversity. SEARICE likewise called for the promotion of public policies and incentives for small farmers to continue their work in providing the world’s food and recognition of small farmers as managers of agricultural biodiversity.

“Rethink IPR and PBRs.”

In the 14th CGRFA, SEARICE reiterated its position on intellectual property rights (IPRs) and plant breeders rights (PBRs), saying that the discussion on ABS should benefit small farmers and that a review should be conducted on how intellectual property rights impact on farmers’ rights; GRFA conservation, development and use; and agricultural biodiversity.

Take Precautionary Approach to Biofuels

In the discussion on biofuels and biodiversity, the Philippine delegation, with SEARICE, proposed to urge parties to use the precautionary approach in dealing with new biofuels “where there is still lack of tools to assess the impacts of these new generations of biofuels.”

Agreeing with the stand of Switzerland and other countries to consider the socio-economic impacts of biofuels on land tenure, local livelihoods, and production systems, the Philippine delegation proposed the inclusion of the following additional text which encourages parties to:

b) Make use of tools for strategic environment assessment and integrated land use planning that will consider the impacts of new biofuels on biodiversity not only on land, but also in water, and other resources; ) Use the precautionary approach in dealing with new biofuels where there is still lack of tools to assess the impacts of these new generations of biofuels;

d) To use assessment tools that will assess the socio-economic and cultural impacts of biofuels most especially on agricultural food production systems.

Take Precautionary Approach to Synthetic Biology

Apprehensive of the plans of several countries and/or corporations to promote the introduction of genetic biology in the environment, SEARICE likewise pushed for the precautionary approach to synthetic biology, specifically highlighting the need to include socio-economic risks to livelihoods, culture and traditional knowledge and inserting the words “food security.”

SEARICE noted that in some countries where it works, no regulatory mechanisms on synthetic biology are yet in place and no consultations and report yet made reflecting the participation, views and decisions of men and women farmers, and how synthetic biology will affect socio-economic, cultural, environmental, and spiritual rights, including the right to food.

Take Precautionary Approach to Geo-engineering

SEARICE pushed for the precautionary approach to geo-engineering, strongly criticizing it for its capacity to destroy biodiversity. For SEARICE, geoengineering is a quick-fix and a myopic solution to climate change whose possible impact on biodiversity has not been fully considered. SEARICE voiced out opposition to experimentation of geoengineering and its entry into the environment without first considering the views of farmers on this technology and scrutinizing it under a food and gender lens. Pushing for the inclusion of the adverse effects of geoengineering in the official document submitted to the COP, SEARICE highlighted the need to integrate the views and opinions of indigenous peoples and local communities.

SEARICE likewise proposed that instead of geo-engineering, anthropogenic climate change should be “addressed primarily through rapid and significant reductions in greenhouse emissions from human activities, together with adaptation to those climate change impacts that are unavoidable through ecosystem-based approaches to mitigation and adaptation.” END

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