Jaci van Niekerk reflects on a seminar held in Lusaka.

It was never going to be easy – travelling with a 1,25-metre square flat-packed wooden baobab tree from Cape Town to Lusaka. The tree would be assembled and displayed as part of an exhibition of materials at a seminar on securing Farmers’ Rights in South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe on 25 and 26 October 2022. As it turned out, the tree was slightly too wide for one of the aircraft en route, but by summoning lots of positive energy and a heavy dose of patience, the baobab landed safely.

The two-day seminar, organised and convened by the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Bio-economy Research Chair and the Zambia Alliance for Agroecology and Biodiversity (ZAAB), in partnership with the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI), was attended by over 50 delegates from the four southern African SKI countries as well as those from further afield, including Kenya, Senegal, Norway, and Italy. Those in attendance included academics, government officials, NGO representatives, and small-scale farmers.

Prior to the seminar a farmers’ dialogue was held outside Lusaka, allowing the voices of small-scale farmers from the four countries to be heard. These voices were brought into the seminar by a singing and dancing group of farmers who delivered a set of demands related to their rights as farmers, in other words their rights to maintain and develop crop genetic diversity, and for them to be recognised and rewarded for this indispensable contribution to local and global food security (https://www.farmersrights.org/). Among other demands, the farmers asked that their seed be viewed as seed and not grain; they requested that their indigenous seed and knowledge be protected; they demanded to be included in decision-making around laws which affect them; and they asked their governments to reject the implementation of UPOV-91, which imposes restrictive conditions for the sale and exchange of seed.

The evening of the first day was devoted to the opening ceremony of the Our Seeds | Our Rights | Our Lives campaign. This campaign was born out of the desire for SKI partners to work together, unifying around a key strategic advocacy focus. SKI partners understand that farmers’ seed systems and sovereignty need to be strengthened at their roots, by farmers everywhere. At the same time, favourable legislation and government support need to be secured. Farmers’ seed systems should be revived where they have been lost, whilst corporate privatisation of seed should be dismantled.  In 2022, this vision began to be implemented through the Our Seeds | Our Rights | Our Lives campaign which thus far has included practical learnings, exchanges, and policy engagements.

An official from the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture, Dr Francisco Miti, the Director General at the Seed Control and Certification Institute, gave an address at the opening ceremony, as did UCT Bio-economy Chair Prof Rachel Wynberg and the Director of ZAAB, Mutinta Nketani. It was time for the baobab tree to shine – adorned with quotes from farmers and wrapped in strings of fairy lights it was the focal point of the materials exhibition and turned out to be a popular backdrop for selfies!

The first day comprised of presentations from researchers and practitioners, many of whom represented NGOs under the SKI partnership. Dr Regine Andersen from the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway gave a background on farmers’ rights while Drs Christophe Golay and Karine Peschard  joined remotely from the Geneva Academy in Switzerland, delivering the keynote “Farmers’ Rights, Human Rights and the Need for a Paradigm Shift”. The Malawian SKI partner Biodiversity Conservation Initiative was represented by Fredrick Sanga who talked about community seed banks. Thereafter, Charles Nkhoma from the Community Technology Development Trust in Zambia introduced participatory plant breeding. Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson from Participatory Ecological Land Use Management Zimbabwe and Nelson Mudzingwa from the Zimbabwe Small Holder Organic Farmers’ Forum discussed agroecological practices and in-situ conservation strategies. The final set of speakers was Vanessa Black from Biowatch and Mashudu Takalani from Earthlore, both members of South African NGOs, who talked about cross-cutting approaches to seed systems.

The second day saw more presentations from around the region as well as further afield. Famara Diédhiou from the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa spoke about a legal framework for the recognition and the promotion of farmer-managed seed systems. Rutendo Zendah from the African Centre for Biodiversity highlighted South African experiences with seed laws which constrain and enable farmers’ rights. Daniel Wanjama from the Seed Savers Network in Kenya talked about open source approaches for protecting farmer varieties, and Andrew Mushita from the Community Technology Development Trust in Zimbabwe discussed approaches to protecting farmers’ knowledge and innovations. Finally, Mario Marino from the Plant Treaty Secretariat spoke about experiences and lessons learned in the SADC region with regard to the inventory on Farmers’ Rights.

Overall, the seminar granted a dynamic space for a diverse set of voices to be heard and interrogated, with small-scale farmers placed front and centre of the proceedings. It provided a platform for the on-going conversation on farmers’ rights in the region, to be facilitated in the long-term by the Our Seeds | Our Rights | Our Lives campaign.

Besides recording the events in a traditional report format, artist Claire Rousell performed a graphic harvest of the proceedings. Some of her illustrations are included in the seminar report which can be downloaded here.

Photograph: Fahdelah Hartley.