Tewolde Berhan

(2000, Ethiopia)

...for his exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources.


Tewolde Berhan was born in 1940, graduated in 1963 from the University of Addis Ababa and took a doctorate from the University of Wales in 1969.
He went back to the University of Addis Ababa and was Dean of the Faculty of Science, 1974-78. From 1978 to '83 he was keeper of the National Herbarium, President of Aswara University 1983-91 and Director of the Ethiopian Conservation Strategy Secretariat 1991-94. Since then he has been General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, which is effectively the country's Ministry of the Environment.

Contact Details

Tewolde Berhan
Environmental Protection Authority
P.O. Box 12760
Addis Ababa


Tewolde Berhan was born in 1940, graduated in 1963 from the University of Addis Ababa and took a doctorate from the University of Wales in 1969.

He went back to the University of Addis Ababa and was Dean of the Faculty of Science, 1974-78. From 1978 to '83 he was keeper of the National Herbarium, President of Aswara University 1983-91 and Director of the Ethiopian Conservation Strategy Secretariat 1991-94. Since then he has been General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia, which is effectively the country's Ministry of the Environment.

During the 1990s Tewolde put much of his energy into negotiations at the various biodiversity-related fora, especially the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). In this time he built up a strong group of well-prepared African negotiators who began to take the lead in the G77 and China Group.

Africa came out with united, strong, progressive positions, such as no patents on living materials and the recognition of community rights. This strengthened the G77 and China's negotiating positions.

Tewolde was instrumental in securing recommendations from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) encouraging African countries to develop and implement community rights, a common position on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), and a clear stance against patents on life. Tewolde also guided the drafting of the OAU model legislation for community rights, which is now used as the common basis for all African countries.

At the 1999 biosafety negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia, Tewolde was the spokesperson for the majority of the G77 countries, called 'The Like-Minded Group'. These negotiations ended in deadlock, but reached a successful conclusion in Montreal in January 2000. Tewolde's leadership of the Like-Minded Group in the negotiations played a key role in achieving an outcome - against strong US and EU opposition - that protects biosafety and biodiversity and respects traditional and community rights in developing countries.

In 2004, Tewolde Berhan was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Science Honoris Causa by the Addis Ababa University, in recognition of his leadership in developing the science of botany in Ethiopia and in conserving biological diversity globally. In 2006, he received a 'Champions of the Earth' award, presented by the United Nations Environmental Programme to outstanding environmental leaders.


Acceptance Speech by Tewolde Berhan G. Egziabher

December 8th, 2000

Honourable Members of Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen, You have already honoured many in this manner, and more. It is my first time to be honoured in such a grand manner. When it is done for the first time, even honour weighs heavy. 

The fact that I am a rustic from the remotest of reaches, and that I am being honoured on the basis of rural thought, adds awkwardness to the weight I feel.

I was born into a farming community in Northern Ethiopia, several thousands of kilometres south-east of here. Geographically speaking, it is not the furthest away of places.

I was born in 1940, when Mussolini's Italy was trying to establish a colonial rule in my hitherto isolated, inward looking country. The world of my childhood relied entirely on its local communities and endogenous social, political and economic organization to look after everybody around. Not only born members, but also outsiders had all basic rights respected: a third of all the land was set aside for everybody who needed land to share from.

The local community had to survive the attacks of robber bands. It did that effectively through unity.

The local community needed to survive the attacks of confused, centralizing, so-called "modernizing" state, itself buffeted by the trade and political interests of the outside world. This outside world considered only the variables in Washington and Moscow.

Now, here I am, having acquired a modern scientific education, and having visited both Washington and Moscow. More importantly, here I am with the acute awareness that what is true of my local community is true of all indigenous and local communities in rural Ethiopia, in rural Africa, in rural Asia, in rural America and in rural Oceania. I have recently gained the awareness that it is approximately true also of the local communities in the ghettos of New York, London, Johannesburg, Calcutta, Mexico City, Sao Paolo.

I am now gaining awareness that the world is becoming too much for Washington alone to manage with justice, or even without justice. I am gaining awareness that, therefore, for increasing numbers of peoples globally, survival is going to depend, as in my childhood, on local communities.

I am also gaining awareness that such local communities, though of necessity remaining local in the action they take, need not continue isolated from one another. With the help of urban local communities and their allied organizations, they can keep in touch, and act in concert.

Starting in 1991, I thought I could help in this process. I decided that I should fight for the rights of indigenous and local communities. The main thrust of my fight had to aim at changing the global norms so that they can recognize the indigenous and the local community.

I wrote down the elements that I felt should constitute a legally recognized set of Community Rights. With the help of the Third World Network, a Malaysian NGO, these elements were examined by a group of Southern experts, amended, and formulated into a law. This happened in 1993.  Many countries are now modifying and codifying them into their domestic laws.

In a parallel effort, we have been trying to gain legal recognition for Farmers' Rights, which is a sectoral subset of Community Rights, through global negotiations on plant genetic resources for food and agriculture. It was my good fortune to lead the African Group in these negotiations.

It is an unfortunate reflection of the sorry condition of post-colonial Africa that cross continental communication is still difficult. But it turned out to be our fortune that the Gaia Foundation, sitting in the ex-colonial capital of London, accepted to act as our relay station. Therefore, we communicated effectively. Now the first section fully agreed to in the International Undertaking on Plant Genetic  Resources for Food and Agriculture, which is being negotiated under the FAO, is on Farmers' Rights.

One specific threat that I saw in 1992 as looming over the future of the meagre economic base of indigenous and local communities was possible mistakes in genetic engineering.

The biotechnology industry is global; communities are local. If genetic engineering caused human health problems, the global pharmaceutical industry would come up with drugs for New York and Stockholm. As you know, for reasons of unprofitability, it is currently discontinuing the production of drugs needed by rural communities, e.g. for bilharzia and for river blindness.

Sick people die; and healthy babies replace them. But if the economic base dies, the babies also die, or even fail to be born. The bigger threat is, therefore, that on biological diversity, on which indigenous and local communities completely depend for survival. So, we had to do something on biosafety.

We pushed for the start of negotiations on a biosafety protocol. Again it was my good fortune to lead the African Group. They asked me to have a draft Biosafety Protocol developed in Ethiopia. As an ecologist, it was within my competence to identify the possible risks and to suggest what should be done to cope with them. I was lucky to have a team of lawyers, molecular biologists and other ecologists working with me. We developed a draft protocol. The Third World Network financially supported us to get together as an African Group.

The meeting revised our draft Biosafety Protocol and authorized me to submit it in the name of Africa. The immediate reaction in many quarters was that nothing as serious, detailed and accurate could come out of Africa. It must be some Green NGO that did it for us. We would founder in the negotiations.

We did not founder in the negotiations. Instead, all the developing world joined us. I became the chief negotiator of the South, the Like-Minded Group. It became clear that we knew what we wanted, and we were not being proxy to any green NGO. We now have a Biosafety Protocol, the Cartagena Protocol. We also cherish our contacts with the NGOs that stand for the same causes as we do.

In conclusion - I am local, rural, communal. The individualist life that challenges the family, the community, and the whole world is not for me. And I find that the whole world is indeed a community. We have made progress in asserting our local community rights globally. We shall continue to do so. We feel that global phenomena that are not locally rooted are insensitive. We fear them. My award today is our award today.

What I am being awarded for took my family, and my locally rooted Ethiopian, African, Southern and Northern global colleagues to join heads and hands to achieve. It is, therefore, with the greatest pleasure and gratitude that I note that I have my family members, not all, and my fighting global colleagues, only a fraction of them, here to witness this award. I receive it in the name of all of them.

The struggle for a humane localized world for our children goes on globally.

Thank you very much.


FAQ about Tewolde Berhan

asked in 2005

1. You are an internationally experienced negotiator. What advice can you give on the art of negotiating in international environmental policy?

First, know your facts. Second, analyse and express them clearly and simply so that the non-specialist can understand you fully. Express your ideas in writing to your regional group well ahead of negotiations. Refuse to be baited into belligerence both within your regional group and with opposing groups; but always be clear and unwavering in expressing yourself; clarity can go with humility. Your regional group will give you more work, do it. Never fail to fulfil your commitment, and your group will win.

2. If you had one choice: What new binding international agreement would you like to introduce?

A globally binding liability and redress regime for preventing environmental and human harm; a regime which cannot be escaped by changes in the identity of any culprit company or other agent through take-over, sale, bankruptcy or death; a regime which holds the state of the country of the culprit agent responsible when the culprit agent is unavailable.

3. What does biodiversity have to do with community rights?

A local community lives in an ecosystem interacting with, making use of, and caring for the living and non-living components. Because the living components are both the more complex and the more essential for human life, the major components of knowledge and technologies relate to biodiversity. But existing intellectual property rights regimes attribute it all to the individual. Community right therefore, tries to correct this error and recognizes the local community as the creator of the knowledge and technologies on biodiversity.

4. Unilateral action by the most powerful has killed multilateralism. Why do you waste your time in negotiations?

The unilateral acts of the last decade may have made it seem that multilateralism is dead. It is not. However, it is changing shape. The very globalization that has made unilateral acts so invasive, underlines the need for multilateralism, and the ease with which it can be achieved. Unilateralism is a passing phase championed by the greedy. In this interconnected Earth, the universalisation of the respect for human rights and learning to live within what the biosphere can allow are steadily taking over. The need for survival will force humanity to heed them more and thus value multilateralism more.

5. You are from a poor country. Why do you not leave the rich, who can afford it, to worry about the environment?

In a deteriorating environment, it is the poor like my people that suffer the most. This is because the poor are the more intimately related with the environment, in fulfilling their needs from their immediate environment, in being vulnerable to any deterioration as they have very little to cushion them.

6. What effect has the RLA had on your work?

The RLA has given the issues I have been fighting for a greater visibility. It has, therefore, increased global awareness on these issues and made it easier for me to be heard. On the other hand, putting me and my ideas in the limelight has meant greater stress for me. Fortunately for me, my wife and children are very supportive, and this helps me bear it.


Biosafety for local communities that are secure. Long speech prepared for the Right Livelihood Award Ceremony, December 2000. Download(pdf)

The Life's Salvation Manifesto - A Draft. 2005. Download (pdf)


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