February 14, 2013

Custodian farmers and global agro-biodiversity

This week I attended two conferences in Delhi (and have one left to go): one on "custodian farmers" and the other on global agro-biodiversity. My host organization did a large part of the work for the custodian farmers conference, which brought together 20-30 farmers from south and southeast Asia as well as experts in agro-biodiversity. It was interesting, definitely innovative, and somewhat logistically challenging to bring together farmers, some of whom had not travelled before, and who spoke at least 5-6 languages between the group. They each gave a short presentation that was translated by their country's research/NGO partner. Throughout the meeting I learned exactly what a custodian farmer is: someone who actively maintains, conserves, adapts, and shares agricultural biodiversity. Similar to what we might call "early adopters" or innovative farmers, although in some cases they said their communities did not recognize the importance of what they were doing. They have a lot of different motivations for doing this. Many of the farmers (which was a limited sample size, for sure, and only included one lady farmer) seemed to have some intrinsic motivation to conserve different species and varieties of crops. They were also motivated by financial benefit, and were very interested in how they could get more education, technology, and access to markets to make value-added products or to market their rare varieties. The two-day workshop was very interesting to hear about some of the research and policy related to custodian farmers, and we also had some interactive (participatory agricultural research, you could call it) activities with the farmers about what they valued and what suggestions they have to get more people to become custodian farmers.

The next conference was a global consultation on agro-biodiversity, more specifically, plant genetic resources (for a brief background, see my previous posts here and here). I know that at previous conferences on this topic, there's always a lot of strain between the "global north" and the "global south" because the global south contains most of the in-situ (in nature, or on-farm) biodiversity, but the global north has historically housed most of that diversity in seed/gene-banks while southern countries sometimes struggle to build their capacity at collecting and banking different plant (and animal, insect, and microbial!) species/varieties. But attendees at this conference were mostly Indian scientists (India has one of the largest biodiversity collections), country-representatives from the global south, and international research center representatives. So it was interesting to hear the perspectives from this group of people, and for me to talk to a bunch of scientists who I have studied so much about!

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