Free trade or women`s rights?
January-March 2018
By: Kate Lappin

RCEP and other trade agreements currently being negotiated include intellectual property protections that go well beyond the requirements of the WTO agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). If the TPP provisions are replicated in RCEP, states will be required to sign the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV91). The convention provides intellectual property protection for seeds and plants, which generally prohibits farmers from saving and sharing protected seeds, including seeds that they had been freely using prior to the protection being granted. UPOV91 allows agrifood companies to utilize both the plant breeder rights restrictions and patent protection. Effectively, it means that farmers must purchase new seeds every year.

While an exemption exists for small landholders who grow subsistence crops, the exemption applies only to landowners. The vast majority of women farmers are not landowners. Consequently, the provision exacerbates existing discrimination that precludes women from land ownership.

Currently developed countries within the RCEP – Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore – are signatories to UPOV91, while Vietnam is the only “developing” country within RCEP to have signed on to the convention. However, after years of pressure from both multinational seed corporations and developed countries seeking to impose the convention through trade agreements, Thailand has also recently drafted laws to comply with UPOV91. The draft law makes seed saving and sharing subject to criminal sanctions that can include imprisonment or a fine or both. Women farmers are faced with the choice of risking prison or going into debt annually to buy seeds that, if crops fail, could bankrupt them.

Women’s health and access to medicines

Trade agreements seek to harmonize intellectual property rights awarded to corporations and remove hard-fought TRIPS provisions designed to give developing countries flexibilities in the implementation of intellectual property rules. The intellectual property provisions within the TPP, if replicated within RCEP, would have a profound impact on women’s rights. The provisions within the TPP extend the period of protection for medicines and protections for small variations, and provide additional periods for testing and licensing.

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