Indigenous farmers in Peru, the birthplace of the potato, have slammed a move to overturn a UN moratorium on using genetically modified "Terminator" technology in agricultural production.
Genetic Use Restriction Technology, commonly known as Terminator, means that food plants could be genetically modified so that their seeds are rendered sterile, thus preventing farmers from reusing harvested seed.
However, according to a new report from indigenous leaders, Peruvian farmers and small farmers worldwide "are dependant on seeds obtained from the harvest as a principal source of seed to be used in subsequent agricultural cycles."
More than 70 indigenous leaders representing 26 Andean and Amazon communities have agreed that Terminator represents a dangerous technology that could undermine traditional livelihoods and damage the environment. Meeting in the mountain village of Choquecancha in southern Peru late last month, they produced a report detailing their concerns to be presented to UN and government officials.
A defacto moratorium has existed on Terminator under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, applying the "precautionary principle" to potentially dangerous GM technology.
The fear is that Terminator would transfer sterility to and effectively kill off other crops and wider plant life, as well as increasing the reliance of farmers on big agribusiness which is already patenting seeds traditionally owned by indigenous people. Industrialised "mono-culture" farming would benefit at the expense of tried and tested local agricultural knowledge, threatening livelihoods, cultures and biodiversity.
The indigenous leaders warn that, in Peru alone, 2,000 varieties of potato could be put at risk by Terminator technology.
Felipe Gonzalez of the indigenous Pinchimoro community said: "Terminator seeds do not have life; they only work once. Like a plague they will come infecting our crops and carrying sickness. We want to continue using our own seeds and our own customs of seed conservation and sharing."
Recently, the Swiss-based company Syngenta won the patent on Terminator potatoes, but the UN moratorium blocks the commercialisation of the product.
Some governments led by Canada have challenged the UN's safety regulation, leading Convention on Biological Diversity officials to consult widely on whether the moratorium on Terminator should be relaxed.
The issue is expected to come to a head in March 2006, when Brazil will host the next international meeting on biodiversity (8th Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, COP8). Peruvian indigenous leaders are urging the UN to expose the dangers of Terminator technology and uphold the moratorium. They also demand that indigenous people have a say in the process equal to the influence of the agribusiness lobby.
The indigenous leaders meeting in Choquecancha was co-organised by the Association of Communities in the Potato Park in Pisaq near Cusco. The recently-established "Potato Park" is a ground-breaking initiative that puts indigenous people back in charge of managing biological resources.
The meeting was supported by the Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature and Sustainable Development (ANDES) based in Cusco and the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Dr Michel Pimbert, Director of the Sustainable Agriculture, Biodiversity and Livelihoods Programme at IIED, said: "Indigenous peoples from Peru are asking the international community to 'stay strong' in the face of huge pressure from corporations that now promote terminator technology for their private gain and monopoly control over the global food system. Decisive and coordinated action is needed by world governments to fully apply the precautionary principle in biosafety policies and reinforce the United Nations de facto moratorium on the release of terminator technology."
Alejandro Argumedo, Associate Director of ANDES, said: "The UN moratorium helps to protect millenarian indigenous agricultural knowledge and the agrobiodiversity and global food security it enables. The rush to exploit Terminator technology for corporate profit must not be allowed to sabotage vital international biosafety polices."
For further information
Tony Samphier on +44 208 671 2911
Liz Carlile on +44 207 388 2117
Alejandro Argumedo on +51 849721852
Spokespeople are available in Lima and London.
The Quechua-Aymara Association for Nature Conservation and Sustainable Development (ANDES) is governed by a general assembly which is largely composed of indigenous people from villages in the Andes. ANDES has three professional staff in their office in Cusco, in southern Peru, while another 15 technicians and university-trained professionals and 25 local villagers work in the field with local communities.
The International Institute for Environment & Development (IIED) is a London-based think tank working for global policy solutions rooted in the reality of local people at the frontline of sustainable development.