Acceptance speech – Tewolde Berhan

I am local, rural, communal. And I find that the whole world is a community. We have made progress in asserting our local community rights globally. We shall continue to do so.

Honourable Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen, You have already honoured many in this manner, and more. It is my first time to be honoured in such a grand manner. When it is done for the first time, even honour weighs heavy.

The fact that I am a rustic from the remotest of reaches, and that I am being honoured on the basis of rural thought, adds awkwardness to the weight I feel.

I was born into a farming community in Northern Ethiopia, several thousands of kilometres south-east of here. Geographically speaking, it is not the furthest away of places.

I was born in 1940, when Mussolini’s Italy was trying to establish a colonial rule in my hitherto isolated, inward looking country. The world of my childhood relied entirely on its local communities and endogenous social, political and economic organization to look after everybody around. Not only born members, but also outsiders had all basic rights respected: a third of all the land was set aside for everybody who needed land to share from.

The local community had to survive the attacks of robber bands. It did that effectively through unity.

The local community needed to survive the attacks of confused, centralizing, so-called “modernizing” state, itself buffeted by the trade and political interests of the outside world. This outside world considered only the variables in Washington and Moscow.

Now, here I am, having acquired a modern scientific education, and having visited both Washington and Moscow. More importantly, here I am with the acute awareness that what is true of my local community is true of all indigenous and local communities in rural Ethiopia, in rural Africa, in rural Asia, in rural America and in rural Oceania. I have recently gained the awareness that it is approximately true also of the local communities in the ghettos of New York, London, Johannesburg, Calcutta, Mexico City, Sao Paolo.

I am now gaining awareness that the world is becoming too much for Washington alone to manage with justice, or even without justice. I am gaining awareness that, therefore, for increasing numbers of peoples globally, survival is going to depend, as in my childhood, on local communities.

I am also gaining awareness that such local communities, though of necessity remaining local in the action they take, need not continue isolated from one another. With the help of urban local communities and their allied organizations, they can keep in touch, and act in concert.

Starting in 1991, I thought I could help in this process. I decided that I should fight for the rights of indigenous and local communities. The main thrust of my fight had to aim at changing the global norms so that they can recognize the indigenous and the local community.

I wrote down the elements that I felt should constitute a legally recognized set of Community Rights. With the help of the Third World Network, a Malaysian NGO, these elements were examined by a group of Southern experts, amended, and formulated into a law. This happened in 1993.  Many countries are now modifying and codifying them into their domestic laws.

In a parallel effort, we have been trying to gain legal recognition for Farmers’ Rights, which is a sectoral subset of Community Rights, through global negotiations on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. It was my good fortune to lead the African Group in these negotiations.

It is an unfortunate reflection of the sorry condition of post-colonial Africa that cross continental communication is still difficult. But it turned out to be our fortune that the Gaia Foundation, sitting in the ex-colonial capital of London, accepted to act as our relay station. Therefore, we communicated effectively. Now the first section fully agreed to in the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic  Resources for Food and Agriculture, which is being negotiated under the FAO, is on Farmers’ Rights.

One specific threat that I saw in 1992 as looming over the future of the meagre economic base of indigenous and local communities was possible mistakes in genetic engineering.

The biotechnology industry is global; communities are local. If genetic engineering caused human health problems, the global pharmaceutical industry would come up with drugs for New York and Stockholm. As you know, for reasons of unprofitability, it is currently discontinuing the production of drugs needed by rural communities, e.g. for bilharzia and for river blindness.

Sick people die; and healthy babies replace them. But if the economic base dies, the babies also die, or even fail to be born. The bigger threat is, therefore, that on biological diversity, on which indigenous and local communities completely depend for survival. So, we had to do something on biosafety.

We pushed for the start of negotiations on a biosafety protocol. Again it was my good fortune to lead the African Group. They asked me to have a draft Biosafety Protocol developed in Ethiopia. As an ecologist, it was within my competence to identify the possible risks and to suggest what should be done to cope with them. I was lucky to have a team of lawyers, molecular biologists and other ecologists working with me. We developed a draft protocol. The Third World Network financially supported us to get together as an African Group.

The meeting revised our draft Biosafety Protocol and authorized me to submit it in the name of Africa. The immediate reaction in many quarters was that nothing as serious, detailed and accurate could come out of Africa. It must be some Green NGO that did it for us. We would founder in the negotiations.

We did not founder in the negotiations. Instead, all the developing world joined us. I became the chief negotiator of the South, the Like-Minded Group. It became clear that we knew what we wanted, and we were not being proxy to any green NGO. We now have a Biosafety Protocol, the Cartagena Protocol. We also cherish our contacts with the NGOs that stand for the same causes as we do.

In conclusion – I am local, rural, communal. The individualist life that challenges the family, the community, and the whole world is not for me. And I find that the whole world is indeed a community. We have made progress in asserting our local community rights globally. We shall continue to do so. We feel that global phenomena that are not locally rooted are insensitive. We fear them. My award today is our award today.

What I am being awarded for took my family, and my locally rooted Ethiopian, African, Southern and Northern global colleagues to join heads and hands to achieve. It is, therefore, with the greatest pleasure and gratitude that I note that I have my family members, not all, and my fighting global colleagues, only a fraction of them, here to witness this award. I receive it in the name of all of them.

The struggle for a humane localized world for our children goes on globally.

Thank you very much.

Tewolde Berhan
Environmental Protection Authority
P.O. Box 12760
Addis Ababa