Enhancing Seed Diversity with Dr Melaku Worede & Dr Regassa Feyissa

Dr Melaku, Ethiopia 2012, photo by The Gaia Foundation

Gaia was introduced to Ethiopian plant geneticist Dr Melaku Worede in the 90s and he has remained an advisor to our work ever since. Dr Melaku, his esteemed colleague Dr Regassa Feyissa, and their dedicated team had together spent over a decade committed to restoring Ethiopia’s local seed diversity following the infamous famine of 1984. They recognised that the most critical knowledge for cultivating seed diversity was in the hands of the farmers.

Through in-situ plant breeding Dr Melaku demonstrated that to enhance resilience, seed production must remain in the fields where it can adapt to local conditions. In 1989, Dr Melaku received the Right Livelihood Award, acknowledging his work to “preserve Ethiopia’s genetic wealth by building one of the finest seed conservation centres in the world”, serving the needs of small farmers. We shared Dr Melaku’s inspiring story in our 2015 film, Seeds of Justice.

The foundation for regenerating traditional farming systems is to work with communities to revive their former seed diversity and related knowledge. In most communities in Africa it is the women who have the greatest knowledge about seed breeding and biodiversity. Once this foundation is laid, scientists can add a little support to further enhance genetic and crop diversity and thereby productivity and climate change resilience.

Dr Melaku Worede, Ethiopian Plant Geneticist and Right Livelihood Award Winner

Dr Melaku is now in his eighties and we are supporting him to pass on his rich knowledge to the next generation. We are working alongside Dr Regassa Feyissa and his organisation  Ethio-Organic Seed Action, and their Canadian partner USC Canada. Together with allies La Via Campesina, the African Biodiversity Network (ABN) and GRAIN, we are collaboratively developing an apprenticeship programme for farmer leaders and their allies, in order to spread his understandings across Africa.

Climate-Seed-Knowledge Apprenticeship Trainings

Seeds in the hands of an Ethiopian farmer. Photo The Gaia Foundation

In 2012, in collaboration with Ethiopian scientist Dr Melaku Worede, and partners MELCA Ethiopia, Institute for Sustainable Development (ISD), ABN and GRAIN, Gaia organised a specialist training for agro-ecologists and those practicing seed and knowledge revival in Africa. Twenty participants from long-term grassroots partners in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda and South Africa gathered for the training.

At the training, Dr Melaku presented ways to take the work of seed revival and enhancement to scale. Participants learnt how an ethical and practical understanding of genetics and plant breeding could be used to support farmers to further enhance their seed diversity, productivity and climate change resilience. Participants also learnt how networks of seed ‘banks’ and local markets could be webbed up into what Dr Melaku terms a ‘community seed bank complex’, led by the farmers themselves. This dynamic seed bank complex would serve the communities needs whilst continuing to breed crops for resilience, productivity, nutrition and diversity.

This important meeting helped to reinforce powerful community processes with partners and communities across Africa. You can listen to many of their stories walking alongside local communities who are reviving their indigenous seed varieties in our film Seeds of Sovereignty.

In April 2016, core partners re-grouped in Uganda to develop a training and support a programme for farmer leaders – especially women as custodians of seed – and their allies.  The programme for apprenticeship trainings to continue this work, putting seed back into the hands of farmers is currently seeking support. If you would like to find out or make a donation to this programme more please contact rowan@gaianet.org

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We live in a time of multiple, complex crises. There are no easy answers. Working to uphold the health and diversity of our living planet is always rewarding, but we think you’ll agree it can sometimes feel like swimming against the stream. And yet like salmon we leap, and more often than you might expect, we make it. We invite you to make the next leap with us by making a donation of any size. Thank you for your solidarity.

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