Every pastoralist knows that their animals are best adapted to their environment. Introducing high-yielding exotic breeds to the highlands and drylands is the sort of thing scientists talk about, because they are unfamiliar with the realities of pastoral environments or with the extreme risks that are implicit in replacing tried-and-tested breeds with animals that have been tried and failed.

For decades, the breeds developed by pastoralists were scorned by animal scientists as unproductive. An increasing genetic homogeneity of livestock (with millions of stock descending from a very small pool of hybrid animals) can be observed as a result of well-intentioned, but often technically misguided breeding programmes. It has been realized that there is a danger that certain breeds, especially indigenous livestock breeds become extinct and people are beginning to become concerned about the loss of the diversity of breeds, or the watering down of their genes.

The recognition of the value of indigenous livestock breeds

The value of indigenous livestock breeds has always been beyond doubt for pastoralists and they have developed refined techniques and institutions for breeding activities. Having developed in harsh environments, pastoralist breeds represent reservoirs of genetic diversity and retain many genetic traits, such as fertility, vitality, and resistance to diseases and drought, that no longer exist in animals kept in industrial systems. This value is increasingly being recognized also by the commercial livestock production industry. Interest in the traditional breeds of pastoral people has risen after it has been realized that bacteria and internal parasites have started to become resistant to antibiotics and other medicines. This creates the need to breed animals that are both highly productive and disease resistant. Scientists are systematically screening livestock breeds for genetic traits that may have commercial potential. Multinational companies, well aware of the future potential that lies in these breeds, are eager to appropriate the genetic material of pastoral livestock and patent the breeds for their own commercial gain.

The recognition of the immense work of pastoralists as creators of breeds

Since the value of these genes has been discovered by scientists the question is discussed who is having the intellectual property right over these genes. Having invested considerable resource in their research for such genes scientists wish to patent the gene they discover and license it right to use so that they can recover these costs. This neglects the immense work the livestock breeder and his community have undertaken over years to come out with such a breed. Furthermore, the protection of a large reservoir of Animal Genetic Resources is best pursued by in situ conversation and protection and preservation of specialized livestock production systems and their livelihoods.

Despite this fact livestock keepers are in danger of losing the right to breed their own animals in the long term. For pastoralists to continue to survive in the drylands, and for them to continue to sustainably manage these environments, they need to maintain viable breeding stock of animals that are adapted to their environment. They also need the skills and resources to enable them to identify genuine opportunities for enhancing their breeds and to share their genetic resources with pastoralists in similar environments.

Lobbying for Livestock Keepers’ Rights

Since the World Food Summit in 2002, Civil Society has been advocating for recognition of Livestock Keepers’ Rights, initially in allusion to the Farmers Rights that are included in the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources. However, this is where the similarity stops, and the concept has been further developed to take into account the specifity of dealing with living species. Livestock Keepers’ Rights will only become a reality if governments take up the issue. Because the concept so far has only been backed by Civil Society, the term is not even included in the draft State of the World Report on Animal Genetic Resources (although the individual cornerstones are). However, efforts are gradually being made to change this.

Livestock Keepers’ Rights

Livestock Keepers’ Rights are a “bundle of rights”, consisting of the following cornerstones:

-Recognition of livestock keepers as creators of breeds and custodians of Animal Genetic Resources;

-Recognition of the dependency of the sustainable use of traditional breeds on the conservation of their respective eco-systems;

-Recognition of traditional breeds as collective property, products of indigenous knowledge and cultural expression;

-The right of the livestock keepers to make breeding decisions;

-Right of livestock keepers to participate in policy making processes on Animal Genetic Resources issues;

-Support for training and capacity-building of livestock keepers and provision of services along the food chain.

Protecting Animal Genetic Diversity by supporting pastoral livelihoods

Animal genetic diversity may be best protected by supporting the “keepers of the genes”: namely the rural livestock farmers. Such support includes removing policy disincentives, satisfying rights to social services and to good governance, protecting resource rights and land tenure, providing infrastructure and encouraging investment. Incentives may be regulatory and/or market based, and may include micro-credit for women in rural areas, appropriate access to natural resources and to the market, resolving land tenure issues, the recognition of cultural practices and values, and adding value to their specialist products.

* Prepared for WISP with the assistance of the League for Pastoral Peoples