The development of a system to provide legal protection for a collective rights regime that protects and controls farmers' knowledge, innovations, materials, and practices relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources. National governments should review, assess and where appropriate modify relevant national policies and legislation to ensure that they support and do not run counter to farmers' rights and to relevant international agreements.
Farmers' rights are understood in many different ways by governments. Some governments treat farmers' rights as a moral principle but with little practical meaning. Others see such rights as a legal tool to share benefits between countries. And others see it as a critical way in which small-scale farmers and farming communities can be empowered to further improve their farming systems and conserve genetic resources. Central to the debate is the development of sui generis systems for the protection and compensation of informal innovations in the area of plant genetic resources, and the protection of the so-called "farmers' privilege" under the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). It is argued that the adoption of such measures could ensure that farmers and farming communities share equitably in the benefits derived from the utilisation of their traditional knowledge, innovations and practices.
Farmers rights include: the right to control and decide the future of genetic resources; the right to define the legal framework of property rights of these resources; the right to the means to conserve biodiversity and achieve food security, such as territorial rights, right to land, right to water and air; the right over resources and associated knowledge, traditional knowledge, respect for cultures and recognition that these are the basis of the creation of knowledge; the right to participate in the definition, elaboration, and execution of policies and programmes linked to genetic resources; the right to appropriate technology as well as participation in the design and management of research programmes; the right to define the control and handling of benefits derived from the use, conservation and management of these resources; the right to use, choose, store and freely exchange genetic resources; and, the right to develop models of sustainable agriculture that protect biodiversity and to influence the policies that support it.
Through their daily activities, experience and knowledge women have a major stake in protecting biological diversity. However, at national and local levels rural women are still hampered by a lack of rights to the resources they rely on to meet their needs. In general their rights of access to and control over local resources and national policies do not match their increasing responsibilities for food production and management of natural resources.
Farmers' rights are "rights arising from the past, present and future contribution of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centres of origin/diversity". The purpose of these rights is to "ensure full benefits to farmers and support the continuation of their contributions" (FAO, 1989).
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities.
One of the key elements in the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources concerns that of farmers' rights. A 1989 Annex to the Undertaking defines farmers' rights as "rights arising from the past, present and future contributions of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, particularly those in the centres of origin/diversity. These rights are vested in the International Community, as trustee for present and future generations of farmers, for the purpose of ensuring full benefits to farmers, and supporting the continuation of their contributions, as well as the attainment of the overall purposes of the International Undertaking". The Undertaking envisages that such rights be realised multilaterally through an international fund, the proceeds of which could be used to support plant genetic resource conservation and utilisation programmes.
There has been little discussion on issues related to farmers' rights, and policies to process such rights are poorly developed. One of the most immediate needs is to initiate a consultative process with small-scale farmers and other farming communities on the nature and application of farmers' rights.