Stolen treasures

Friday 30 September 1994

Film>>Report>>

ETHIOPIA, one of the oldest of farm civilisations, has been mercilessly ravaged by war and famine. Fortunately, Valiant & Khan's Treasures of Ethiopia spares the viewer the stereotypical images of hollow-eyed children and food convoys. Instead, it wanders into the countryside to look at its plant treasures. Covering about a dozen villages, the film sends a powerful message -- crop diversity is a survival kit for the Ethiopian farmers. And this is being threatened by the transnational seed corporations.

A visit to a gene bank shows rows upon rows of seed samples collected by Dr Malaku and his team. About 50,000 samples of more than 100 plant species which have been indigenously developed have been stored under controlled temperature in the Gene Bank. Drought and war have destroyed some varieties of seeds, but Dr Malaku optimistically feels that there are many more which can be collected, classified and preserved.

Ethiopia has about 90 different communities, each with a language of its own. The country's main crops are barley, wheat and coffee, and the cropping patterns and methods vary from community to community. Over the years, each community/village has identified many varieties of germplasm that are specifically suited to its soil and climate condition.

The ingenuity and the inventiveness of the farmers is visible in the manner in which they have developed a frost resistant variety of barley which is planted in the inaccessible mountain regions. A farmer living off a field at 11,000 feet claims to have harvested 2 crops in a year. Another village has adopted mixed planting -- a number of crops are planted together on the same land: barley, flowers and spices. In the next village, a farmer plants barley under the shade of a coffee plant.

Men and women have made equal contributions to the development of the plant resources of Ethiopia. In one village, an old woman agrees to share her traditional secret of storing excess grain. What she reveals is a cache which is deep enough for a man to stand upright. This is filled with grain and the top layer has a bitter-tasting grain which prevents weevils from entering. These caches can preserve the grain upto 4 years. It seems that every village has 12-15 caches, the whereabouts of which are known only to some village elders who permit their opening only during emergencies. Good quality grain is usually stored in mud-and-straw baskets inside the houses.

This national heritage is being eyed askance by transnational corporations. Western countries have been transporting seed samples to their gene banks without paying compensation to the farmers. A strain of barley that is resistant to the yellow dwarf virus was taken from Ethiopia and bred into high-yielding North American varieties. This has prevented North America from incurring yield losses worth $150 million each year.

The same corporations are now demanding that Third World farmers buy genetically-engineered seeds from them. A representative of Pioneer Hi-bred seeds boasts about his campaign to promote hybrid seeds in Ethiopia and claims that only those progressive enough will understand the advantage of high technology.

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