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Farming communities in Peru have signed an agreement with the International Potato Centre (CIP) to protect both the genetic diversity of the region's numerous potato varieties, and the rights of indigenous people to control access to these local genetic resources.

Under the scheme, CIP scientists and local farmers will 'repatriate' potato varieties from CIP's collection of specimens — the world's most comprehensive — and conserve them in a 'potato park'. As well as providing food for the six communities that jointly own the land in southern Peru, the 15,000-hectare park will serve as a 'living library' of potato genetic diversity.

Peruvian farmers have 'lost' some of their traditional potato varieties for various reasons, including government policies to push ahead with commercial production and discard old-fashioned growing methods.

The agreement, which is the first of its kind, aims to ensure that the control of genetic resources is kept with local people. Alejandro Argumedo, associate director of the Association for Nature and Sustainable Development — a Cusco-based civil society group that helped broker the deal — believes that it could serve as a model for other indigenous communities.

"Biological diversity is best rooted in its natural environment and managed by indigenous peoples who know it best," says Argumedo.

Despite this, he says that the agreement was not drawn up for local communities to secure intellectual property rights over indigenous potato strains. Rather, the intention is to ensure that the genetic material does not become "subject to intellectual property rights in any form" and that the diversity of Peruvian potato varieties is maintained.

Argumedo told SciDev.Net that CIP has agreed to pay for the cost of reintroducing the strains as an acknowledgment of the benefits the organisation has derived from the indigenous knowledge of the region.

However, he maintains that this agreement would not hamper collaborative research between the CIP and scientists elsewhere — provided that the research is not used for exploitative or commercial purposes.

CIP is one of the 15 research centres of Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), which aims to reduce poverty and increase food security in developing countries through scientific research.

Rachel Wynberg of Biowatch South Africa, an organisation that monitors the commercialisation of biological resources, hopes that "this agreement signals a new way of working for CGIAR centres — one which advances the rights of local farming communities, over those of corporations, and which places the ownership of genetic resources firmly with the local custodians of these resources".

At a meeting in Mexico in November 2004, environmental activists protested that CGIAR was building too many links with large biotechnology corporations that promote genetically modified crops (see Agriculture group panders to GM giants, say activists).

Alejandro Argumedo is on the advisory panel of SciDev.Net's indigenous knowledge dossier

For more on this subject, visit SciDev.Net's dossiers on intellectual property and indigenous knowledge