Seeds of Justice - The Legacy of Dr Melaku Worede

Depending on your field of work, your interests, and perhaps your age, you may or may not have heard of Dr Melaku Worede. His work and legacy may not be quite as high-profile as that of African change-makers such as the late Professor Wangari Maathai, but his impact is of huge significance.

Dr Melaku grew up in Ethiopia, where his intrigue into the richness of his country's landscape, diversity and farming life grew from passion to profession. In 1972, he secured his PhD in Agronomy (Genetics and Breeding) at the University of Nebraska, USA, and then he returned to Ethiopia to take up a position in the Ministry of Agriculture. Some years later he set about on the stage of his career which has perhaps had the most significant impact on Ethiopia's genetic legacy and food sovereignty. Inspired by the vast wealth of biodiversity in Ethiopia (which is celebrated as a 'Vavilov centre', one of the most bio-diverse countries in the world, and a centre of origin of species), Melaku set about establishing the Plant Genetic Resource Center (PGRC) in Addis Ababa. This was the first gene bank in Africa; the first time that Africa was asserting its own rights to its genetic wealth.

Now known as the Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (IBC), the centre still serves thousands of farmers, communities and scientists as a hub of exchange, activity and preservation of Ethiopia's seed diversity. The IBC is very much 'alive'; it is part of a dynamic seed complex, linking with local seed banks and farmers in a way which has been trailblazing in recognising that any system conserving seed must ensure that the seed remains in use, that it is exchanged and that it can continue to adapt. It serves as an important reminder that seed and gene banks, whether based in capital cities or communities, must not fall into the trap of becoming seed museums.

Working with USC Canada in the 90's, Melaku's Seeds of Survival programme saw him connecting farmers with scientists and breaking down barriers of supposed superiority between the knowledge bases of those working in the lab and in the field. Melaku ensured that the knowledge of farmers lay at the very heart of the seed recuperation, education and conservation system. He recognised that they were the knowledge holders of minute detail relating to breeding, selection, planting and use. Detail which has been fine-tuned over thousands of years, within the context of their specific farming systems, landscape and climates.

As a long-term ally of both The Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network, Dr Melaku has been mentoring the African Biodiversity Network as part of their Community, Seed & Knowledge (CSK) programme. Melaku's experience, understanding and approach is being shared with field officers working across Africa to revive seed diversity and related knowledge amongst rural communities. As foreign hybrid seed takes over vast swathes of landscape across Africa, followed closely by the threat of GM, there has perhaps never been a more critical time to protect Africa's seed diversity and the abundance of rich traditional knowledge associated with it.

And so in November 2012, as the monkeys chanted their evening chorus and the last of the sun faded away, a group of colleagues from across the African continent gathered together in Ethiopia at the close of the first day of training on enhancing seed diversity. The workshop was taking place at a lodge one hour east of Addis Ababa, set amidst huge, wise old fig trees, dancing with monkeys and bird-call. It felt like a fitting setting for discussions which celebrated the biodiversity of the continent.

The training group was made up of representatives from grassroots organisations working in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Africa, each bringing with them varying levels of experience relating to seed recuperation, and each working in different contexts and landscapes. They were joined by Henk Hobbelink from GRAIN, Liz Hosken from The Gaia Foundation and special guest Dr Melaku Worede. The first two days were spent sharing experiences of their work, dissecting its impacts and lessons learnt. Sharing included presentations of eco-cultural calendars which have been drawn with communities as a means of unearthing and mapping the knowledge which relates intimately to ecological cycles of the land and seed. This work provides critical depth for the work which follows, as it is through re-membering these cycles, knowledge, rituals and practices that communities feel the confidence and motivation to revive their seed, and with it this abundance of activity.

We have a wealth of genetic resources here in Africa, so how do we share it without letting others simply take it, only to sell it back to us? We are sitting on a gold mine, yet crying for gold. It's time we started being the bread basket that we are, and not the basket case .... Dr Melaku Worede, ABN Seed Training, Ethiopia November 2012

On the third day of the process Dr Melaku took centre-stage and talked to the group about the science of seed and farmers' intricate understanding of selecting, breeding, crossing and diversifying their crop varieties. Melaku's audience were thirsty for detail and the group discussed well into the darkness of the evening. And so the training went on, each day adding new layers of understanding and depth to the process, each day catalysing more imaginative and inspired responses from those who would be taking the learnings back to their respective countries and communities.

In order to spread the wonderful insight which Dr Melaku and the group shared with one another, two films were being made alongside the training process. These will provide an insight into the training process and the life and work of Dr Melaku for both practitioners in the field, and audiences around the world who are thirsty to know more about what is being done to challenge the industrial agriculture model. In June 2012 The Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network released the film Seeds of Freedom, which featured Dr Melaku, alongside many others, explaining the threat posed to the global food system, and the south in particular, via the corporate takeover of seed. Now it's time to equip audiences with the positive side of this story; to provide a practical guide to seed recuperation on the one hand, and on the other, to show that the same science used by corporations to control seed can be used to enhance farmers independence, food and seed sovereignty and increase their productivity by building on farmers' knowledge. This is the legacy of Dr Melaku's life.

We plan to release Melaku's film Seeds of Justice - In the Hands of Farmer in 2014. In the mean time, those who formed part of the training will begin to implement their ideas and understanding in the field; more seeds will be revived and planted; and Dr Melaku's legacy will continue to germinate.

Blog by Rowan Phillimore, Head of Communications at The Gaia Foundation.