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Workshop on Custodian Farmers of Agricultural Biodiversity: Policy support for their roles in use and conservation (New Delhi, 11-12 February 2013)

Characterization of the custodian farmers

A recent workshop, Custodian Farmers of Agricultural Biodiversity: Policy support for their roles in use and conservation, brought together farmers and researchers in New Delhi, India, to discuss their perspectives on the use and maintenance of agricultural biodiversity.

The 20 South and Southeast Asian farmers from Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal and India, were each considered important members of their communities for their cultivation and conservation of diverse, rare or wild species of crops and fruit trees, such as one farmer who maintains 135 rare mango varieties in his orchard, another who grows over 80 varieties of rice and one who maintains a wide range of high mountain tuber crops. Many farmers in the group have domesticated wild tree species (Garcinia and Mangifera), including some farmers who have developed varieties that grow in sandy soils. The motivations of the 20 farmers were diverse, responding to the personal, socio-cultural, economic and environmental needs of each farmer.

Defining custodian farmers

The workshop assisted in redefining the working definition of “custodian farmer” as follows:

Custodian farmers are those farmers (men and women) who actively maintain, adapt and promote agricultural biodiversity and related knowledge over time and space, at farm and community levels, and are recognized by community members for doing this. Often, custodian farmers are actively supported in their efforts by family or household members.

Recommendations

The workshop confirmed that custodian farmers exist and play a distinct and important role in agriculture. They maintain and conserve a wide range of crop species and varieties based on their own interest. They are often a nodal point for the informal exchange of seed and plant material among farmers. They are key providers of seed and plant material and related knowledge to breeders and seed improvement or adaptation programs. Custodian farmers provide key functions that link the traditional and modern seed systems and their efforts contribute to the evolutionary process of crop adaptation in a changing context.

Considering their key roles in on-farm conservation of agricultural biodiversity, the workshop recommendations are as follows:

1. Advocate for the formal recognition of (the concept of) custodian farmers, similar to the special recognition of concepts such as outstanding, progressive farmers or gene bank curator as steward of the world’s food and nutritional security. (Action: Local and national government agencies)

2. Create and raise awareness of the roles, responsibilities and rights of custodian farmers at different levels, including staff and managers of genebanks, agricultural departments and extension services, seed companies, development NGOs, agricultural research institutes and farmer or community organizations. (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs).

3. Support the identification and documentation of at least 1000 case studies of custodian farmers in the next two years for various neglected and under-utilized crops, fruit trees, spices and vegetables. (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs)

4. Assess the importance of custodian farmers for on-farm/in situ conservation of local crop diversity. (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs)

5. Accept farmers’ elite/unique materials for registration in the name of the custodian farmer or the community, according to appropriate standards. (Action: National PGR System/Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority)

6. Establish and recognize  networks of custodian farmers to empower them to share knowledge, skills, seed or planting material, and potentially engage in research and development interventions. In order to gain experience and institutional innovation, pilot 10-20 networks of custodian farmers to consolidate their roles as conservers, innovators and promoters of agricultural biodiversity, and strengthen a framework that can lead to policy formulation. At international level, Bioversity International can play research and advocacy role and promote enabling policies (Action: National PGR System/Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority, Bioversity International)

7. Further develop the framework of responsibilities and rights of custodian farmers in those countries where a relevant policy is not in place. This includes the right to participate in national decision making processes and benefit-sharing policies as well as international agreements such the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs).

8. Use a community-based approach to build capacities of custodian farmers on: i) protection of traditional knowledge of PGRFA, through documentation, use and conservation of traditional knowledge (e.g. community fruit catalogue, community biodiversity register, community seed banks etc.), ii) the right to save, use, exchange and self-farm saved seed/ planting material, (e.g. community seed banks, community based seed production (CBSP) and participatory crop improvement (grassroots breeding, participatory variety selection, participatory plant breeding, farmer field schools, etc.), iii) the right to participate in making decisions at the national level on the matter of conservation and use of PGRFA and overall community development, (e.g. community biodiversity management, institutional strengthening and governance, establishing CBM fund, etc.), iv) the right to equitably participate in sharing benefits arising from the utilization of PGRFA by creating economic and nutritional benefits (e.g. product development, marketing and home processing) (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs).

9. Formulate a national on-farm/in situ conservation strategy with participation of custodian farmers and other key stakeholders through which their voices are heard and their specific needs are addressed. Custodian farmers’ networks could be an integral part of the national and international conservation strategies and linked directly to agricultural biodiversity conservation institutions, such as genebanks to document diversity and involve custodian farmers in research on seed regeneration, improvement or adaptation programs (Action: national PGR system/protection of plant variety and farmers’ rights authority). Connect custodian farmers to agricultural extension services (e.g. KVK in India and similar agencies in other countries), NGO sectors and the formal and commercial seed system. (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs)

10. Mobilize social capital to create locally-driven financial assets to establish community biodiversity management funds that can directly support custodian farmers and their communities at the local level. (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs)

11. Support custodian farmers and their communities with product development, market linkages and home processing activities to utilize the special nutritional and commercial traits of a wide range of neglected landraces and crops. (Action: State and National Agricultural Research and Development agencies; Conservation NGOs)

Bhuwon Sthapit, Hugo Lamers, Ramanatha Rao, Ronnie Vernooy, Vasudeva Ramesh, BMC Reddy, Shailendra Rajan, Pichit Sripinta, Idha Widi Arsanti, Aditya Kiloes, Salma Idris, Shafie Md Sah, EDI Oliver King, Sajal Sthapit, MP Vasimalai, Gennifer Meldrum, GV Ramanjaneyulu, Camila Zanzanaini, R.C. Agrawal, KC Bansal, NK Krishna Kumar and Prem Mathur