Jane Kirambia, farmer, and agricultural biodiversity

On her eight acres of earth, 90 kilometres from the nearest tarmac road, with nothing but scrub between her and the dusty, hungry regions of Wajir, Somalia and the Ogaden to the north, Jane Kirambia scratches out a living.

Last year, when the rains failed again, her margins were squeezed tight. Her husband's wages as a schoolteacher saved her from selling any of the animals, but it was a close call.

Yet Jane is a success. She and her three children did not starve, nor did they depend on relief. The animals remained healthy, and this January her crops were once again standing tall in the field. Close attention to her science explains why.

She intercrops her produce, using nitrogen-fixing cowpeas between the rows of grain, and mixing grains within one plot to ensure the soil is not exhausted. She pens her animals at night, using the dung for organic manure. She maintains a small nursery, continually experimenting with new plants - mango seedlings this year.

She expands the family diet by finding new ways to support vegetables in this harsh dry climate. The latest is a drip irrigation kit - little more than a bucket draining into a length of hose with regularly spaced holes - which has produced a bumper crop of tomatoes.

Above all, she maintains variety. Jane Kirambia grows up to ten varieties each of sorghum, millet and maize. Many of them are locally developed, locally adapted varieties known only by dialect names and mysterious to research institutes. By growing them together, she is spreading her risk and increasing her options.

Jane grows maize, sorghum, green grams, cowpeas, melons, gourds, pumpkins, pigeon peas, and some cotton which is sold at Gatonga market. "I am also trying cassava and bananas, onions and mangoes, carrots and kales." Jane's enterprise has won her several prizes in recognition of the diversity she maintains at the annual local seed fairs organised by ITDG. Other farmers at the shows benefit from discovering the varieties she brings there.

"I won the spade and panga for the best cereals one year. When I go there I have time to meet other farmers, get to know their seed and improve my varieties. I also learn how to take care of my seeds. I learn about seed storage, and the best way to prepare the farm so that I can manage pest control. Last year I took several varieties of millet and sorghum, but what I gave out a lot was a local variety of cowpea seeds, the 'big red'."

A variety of grain crops means she won't starve if one fails. It also prevents a concentration of killer pests. Local adaptations mean her varieties may be better suited to the soils, the aspects, and most importantly the drought conditions found in Maragwa location in northern Kenya, where she and 20,000 others live.

So while 16 million people across East Africa are said to be at risk of famine, Jane and her family are unlikely to be among the statistics - despite a climate in which, as an ITDG project manager puts it, "four out of five rainy seasons may fail".

If the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers like Jane Kirambia are under threat, it is not necessarily from the weather. The greater menace may be the loss of agricultural biodiversity - the vast range of seeds, soil microbes and animal forms which have been developed and managed by these farmers over centuries.

Jane and her peers have no words in their language for 'agricultural biodiversity', yet it is the stuff of life itself. It provides the livelihoods for up to 80 per cent of the population in Kenya and developing countries like it. More than that, it provides the food security for a quarter of humanity.

Some 1.6 billion people make ends meet thanks to farm-saved seed. Yet a small handful of multinational companies now control the commercial seed trade around the world. The industrialised farming model, involving production for sale, monocropping, and dependence on commercial seed and associated chemical packages, and which is promoted and protected by international instruments from the World Trade Organisation's rules to the structural adjustment policies which force developing country governments to emphasise export crops, is rapidly pushing its way into the last corners of the market.

If farmers in Maragwa have a poor year, they must get new seed from somewhere. Whether it is government relief or the market, it will be commercial seed, with a limited number of varieties produced for a generic goal of 'higher yield' which takes no account of conditions in this or any other individual locality. It will be promoted by government and local authorities, by national seed institutes and commercial agents.

As a result of this model, up to 70 per cent of some seed varieties has been lost this century. The recent coming to market of genetically modified crops, claiming to 'feed the third world', is but the latest of the commercially developed false dawns.

There are some answers to these threats. Some are local. Jane and her neighbours have set up community seed banks where local varieties can be stored and later loaned to members for the next planting. Every March they participate in a seed fair inspired by ITDG where they can exchange their varieties and knowledge with other farmers from the location.

But for such grassroots efforts to succeed with any real scope across developing countries, they need to be backed by a new approach to sustainable agriculture, and to protecting farmers' rights to continue developing and benefiting from the genetic resources for agriculture which they themselves have developed, without fear of the biopiracy, patenting of life forms, and intrusions of externally-driven 'miracle' crops. And that policy approach in turn needs an international instrument as powerful as the WTO to recognise and protect it.

As Jane clears her fields for the next planting, 300 kilometres away in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, over 170 national delegations will meet to discuss the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) at the fifth Conference of the Parties (COP V). The CBD came out of the RIO Earth Summit as the main commitment of the world to preserving the myriad life forms which make up our environment.

So far the CBD has mainly been used to protect 'naturally occurring' life forms in, for example, original wetland areas. But increasingly it has begun to recognise the special nature of agricultural biodiversity - special because it has been developed by people, to sustain people. And like the WTO, the CBD is a global instrument which is legally binding upon its members.

At this conference, the same nations who are members of the WTO can set a rather different policy direction. They can sign up to, and bring into force a Biosafety Protocol which will allow countries to protect their smallholder farmers by refusing to accept GM imports. They can recognise the paramount importance of agricultural biodiversity and commit themselves - and some global finance -- to plans of action to support it.

That means backing farmers like Jane Kirambia, building their capacity and their institutional support to manage agricultural biodiversity, and in the process to sustain their own livelihoods and the food security of their communities against threats like the current East African drought.

To add a little extra pressure, ITDG, ActionAid and their partners will be bringing farmers from across Kenya and other countries in the region to the heart of the policy process, to tell the delegations what support they need. And in the very venue of COP V itself, they will hold a seed fair to show the policy makers what their reams of rhetoric on agricultural biodiversity are really about.

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