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Kazhila Chinsembu says Africa risks being 'enslaved' by technology it doesn't own and urges African nations to regain control over their biological resources and indigenous knowledge.

Africa is the birthplace of humankind. Unsurprisingly, over many thousands of years, its people have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge about their environment.

Look, for instance, at how Africans have used plants to treat wounds and disease. Long before the discovery of antibiotics, Africans had identified plants that could treat bacterial infections. Families guarded — not patented — such indigenous knowledge, passing it down from generation to generation.

But in the modern age, Africa is in danger of losing custody of this knowledge, even as acceptance of the power of plant-based remedies grows.

What about African agriculture? It used to be based on multi-cropping ecosystems where crops such as cassava, maize and beans grew together. There were no chemical fertilisers — we used manure as compost instead.

But 'monocultures' of single crops, combined with chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers — produced mainly by multinational corporations — have replaced our environmentally friendly traditions.

And as the companies' profits grow, so does the reliance of African farmers on their technologies. Seeds produced by new hybrid crop varieties cannot, for instance, be saved for planting the following season as they do not share their parents' genetic vigour.

But it seems Africans have not learnt their lessons. If we did, we might not be so excited about genetically-modified (GM) crops.

Implications of ownership

An old African proverb says: 'if you want to test the depth of a river, don't do it with both feet'. Although African scientists can earn lucrative consultancy fees for developing and promoting GM crops, we should think with our heads, not our stomachs, and advise our governments about not only the technology's prowess and potential, but also the implications of who owns it.

African agriculture has always depended on farmers owning and sharing seeds, storing them to plant the following season. Farmers using GM seeds made by multinational companies will lose this right.

 

We also risk losing control over some of the desirable characteristics, such as drought and pest-tolerance, that farmers painstakingly selected and preserved in our local seeds over hundreds of years.

I don't deny that African agriculture would benefit from some Western biotechnologies such as molecular marker-assisted selection to screen for seeds with characteristics suited to our different conditions.

We also need irrigation to overcome the droughts that can cripple rain-fed agriculture. Such improvements, together with land, seed and the collective indigenous knowledge about our fragile environment, are cardinal to the survival of African agriculture.

But we must not try to solve our problems with technologies that could enslave us because we do not own the patents on them. This is the prism through which we should view GM crops.

Tapping African resources

This issue of ownership also relates to pharmaceutical research. In fact, multinational companies have already been tapping Africa's biological resources and traditional knowledge to develop drugs and other products.

African scientists have been complicit, sending specimens abroad in the name of research collaborations without understanding that Africa rarely gets a share of any economic benefits that such research brings.

That is why I support calls by Stephen Lewis, the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, for the "big multinational corporations that have exacted such huge wealth from Africa's mineral, diamond, oil and other resources over the decades, and… the pharmaceutical industry" to contribute towards the US$7.1 billion needed for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Time to wake up

That Africa will face new problems in the future is apparent. Human health, for instance, is linked inextricably to a healthy environment, and we are destroying ours.

A growing body of evidence suggests that new diseases are more likely to emerge when contact between humans and wildlife increases as a result of habitat destruction (see Conservation medicine's time has come OP439ENG). The SARS and bird flu epidemics are reminders of how over-crowded ecosystems fail to function and ultimately succumb to disease.

Meanwhile, the world's biggest producer of greenhouse gases, the United States, has refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, which would force it to reduce its emissions. Researchers agree that Africa will experience some of the worst impacts resulting from climate change.

African scientists must wake up, get out of the laboratory more, and be alive to the intrigues of commercialism and politics that can cloud science. African governments must invest in their own scientific research if the continent is to leap forward on the path to genuine sustainable economic development.

And African presidents must have scientific advisors, just as they have political and economic advisors. Without engaging our own scientists, how will our political leadership face threats such as bird flu, bioterrorism, HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, biodiversity loss, drought and natural disasters?

We should be returning to the good old days when older people were living libraries of knowledge critical for our survival. But our sciences will be useless and our knowledge wasted unless they are used to help the vast majority of African people.

Kazhila Chinsembu is a lecturer in the department of biology at the University of Namibia, and a former lecturer at the University of Zambia and researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, Kenya.

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