Date: Mon, 5 Feb 1996 16:46:00 GMT
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Subject: Asian Farmers Struggle Against Transnationals

Asian Farmers Struggle Against Transnationals

Forest Networking a Project of Ecological Enterprises

/* Written 7:58 PM Jan 17, 1996 by twn in igc:twn.features */
/* ---------- "Asian Farmers Struggle Against TNCs" ---------- */

Asian Farmers Struggle Against Transnationals

By Yuli Ismartono and Teena Gill, From Third World Network. 4 February, 1996

Asian farmers and indigenous people are bringing to international attention their struggle against the activities of transnational corporations which threaten to deprive them of their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, genetic resources, a habitable environment, their land and homes.

Jakarta: Asia's farmers are coming out of their agricultural hinterlands to seek protection from transnational corporations (TNCs) and industrialists who, say activists, have reaped billions of dollars at the expense of the environment and indigenous peoples.

They say the sum total of their losses are difficult to quantify because of the nature of what has been taken from them -- their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge, a habitable environment, their land and homes.

And while the methods used by the industrialists and TNCs may differ according to what is sought -- be it land or genetic materials of plants and other biological resources - - the deprived say the result is the same: the farmers and indigenous people get ground in the dirt, while the rich get richer.

'The experience with TNCs has so far not been very good,' says Vitoon Panyakul, an advocate for farmers' and indigenous rights, and the coordinator of the Thai environmental group Green Net.

'A significant amount of our genetic resources have been taken away or pirated,' Vitoon added. 'These resources are used for the development of pharmaceutical drugs or agricultural pesticides and herbicides which are then sold back to Thailand at high prices.'

A similar cry is heard across the Asia-Pacific region and when it is not regarding TNCs like pharmaceutical companies seeking to patent indigenous resources, it concerns big logging firms intent on raping forest cover with little regard for the environment or those who depend on it.

In South Asia, Indian farmers are pressuring their parliamentary representatives to protest the patenting by a US company of a 'neem' tree extract; in Sri Lanka, activists have raised alarm that a British company is seeking to patent the venom of a spider native to Sri Lanka for medicinal purposes.

And in the South Pacific, a tiny Melanesian tribe living in a remote jungle in Papua New Guinea's mountainous interior has become a cause celebre for groups campaigning against 'biopiracy'.

Ravaged by malaria, the Hagahai tribe has been the subject of a decade of research and a rare virus strain has been isolated. Medical experts recently patented their discovery in the United States.

Meanwhile, in South-East Asia, Thai activists are campaigning against Japanese drug firms striking gold from the centuries-old know-how of farmers in Thailand; in Indonesia, villagers are up in arms because foreign logging firms are about to trample their habitat.

'Our land is sacred. We cannot convert the forests though by custom we are allowed to take the timber and hunt the animals,' said Maniamas Midin, a tribal leader from West Kalimantan, one of the larger, but less developed islands in the Indonesian archipelago.

Midin was one of several forest inhabitants from East and West Kalimantan, South Sumatra and West Java, who journeyed to Jakarta in November 1995 to register their protest against the activities of national and international logging concerns which have been granted new concessions by the Indonesian government.

The villagers used Indonesia's hosting of the second Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, as a means of gaining international attention to their plight.

The Nov. 6 - 17 November meeting was attended by delegates from 120 countries who decided, among other things, to establish a working group, to formulate a protocol on biosafety focusing on the safe transfer, handling and use of genetically modified organisms.

This protocol will zoom in on the transboundary movement of such organisms and while environmentalists and farmers' rights campaigners in the developing world laud this development, they worry that other issues that require urgent action were not tackled at the Jakarta meeting.

One such issue concerns the protection of the rights of traditional communities.

'Intellectual property rights and the collective rights of traditional communities are two sides of one issue,' said Vandana Shiva, Indian author of 'Biodiversity, a Third World Perspective'.

Shiva,whoattended the November meetinghere, estimates that the value of raw materials 'collected for free' from the South for pharmaceutical companies in the North, could reach $47 billion by the year 2000.

That apart, indigenous peoples and small farmers are in a desperate, uphill battle to protect the ecological balance of lands they have inhabited for many years.

According to Lukas Alpius, a villager from East Kalimantan, the proposed construction of a logging estate that would cover 1,600 hectares of land, threatens to wipe out much of the province's 52 species of paddy, 42 varieties of rattan, 70 varieties of fruit and scores of herbal plants.

Indonesia is second only to Brazil in tropical forest area. It is home to the greatest diversity of palm species and an estimated 20,000 varieties of flowering plants. It also harbours a rich range of fauna, and has the largest mammal diversity on earth -- 515 species.

Thailand also used to be rich in biodiversity and at the turn of the century up to two-thirds of the kingdom was covered with forests of remarkable diversity. Now, only scattered patches occupying about 15% of the country's land area is covered by reasonably intact ecologically viable natural forests.

Between 1961 and 1985, at least 125,000 square kilometres of forest land -- about one quarter of Thailand's land area -- was denuded by logging companies and large landholders growing upmarket crops.

This has upset not only the ecological balance, but has forced many indigenous people and small farmers off their plots of land.

Vitoon, of Green Net, says that even the Thai government's conservation efforts 'in the name of biodiversity', have been detrimental to the indigenous communities.

'This (conservation effort) is done by declaring areas wildlife sanctuaries or national parks and evicting local indigenous communities who had settled there for a long time,' says Vitoon.

'While the government talks about the need to share the benefits of these resources, the needs of the local people who are part and parcel of these ecosystems are never taken into consideration,' he charges.

Thai farmers meanwhile remain concerned about the replacement of local species of crops by TNC-promoted varieties. 'This invariably leads to the loss of valuable crop diversity and the disruption of the ecological balance,' Vitoon says.

He says that the only way to prevent a complete loss of biodiversity is for the Thai government to enact legislation that would provide for 'the registration of local peoples' rights to ownership of, and knowledge of, local bio-resources'.

'Only if such registration is enacted will there be any possibility of fair dialogue with the World Bank, other international institutions and private pharmaceutical companies, since according to the Biodiversity Convention, local knowledge is still seen to be public knowledge,' Vitoon said.

The Jakarta meeting was actually a follow-up to the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) at which the Biodiversity Convention to which Vitoon referred, was agreed on.

Thailand is yet to ratify the convention, and while Vitoon would like to see Bangkok do so, he would first like the government to 'accept and guarantee farmers' rights and by law protect the indigenous knowledge of farmers'.

- Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writers: Yuli Ismartono and Teena Gill are correspondents for Inter Press Service, with whose permission this article is reprinted.

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