BACKGROUND: In February 1999, when the patent offices of 16 francophone West African states (OAPI – L’Organization africaine pour la propriété intellectuelle) agreed to join a Geneva- based intergovernmental convention that would provide intellectual property "protection" for plant varieties, they were convinced they were helping farmers into the high-tech agricultural world of the 21st Century, and they assumed they were also meeting their international treaty obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO).
FUROR IN AFRICA: The rest of Africa disagreed. Before the ink was dry on the OAPI agreement, African delegates to a UN Biodiversity Convention session in Colombia whipped off a fax to their patent people asking them to hold off. Simultaneously, a number of Civil Society Organizations, including RAFI, warned that the OAPI decision could imperil the food security of the more than 20 million subsistence farmers in francophone West Africa. By the time the 16 patent representatives made it home to their capitals, the 62 member Organization of African Unity (OAU) was heavy into damage control - pointing out that the move contravened a Heads of Government decision of January, 1998 that had determined to create an Africa-wide strategy for plant varieties that would merge the interests of plant breeders with the region's political commitment to Farmers' Rights. Even OAPI's anglophone counterpart - the 14 member countries of the African Regional Industrial Property Organization (ARIPO) announced, pre- emptively, that its Harare meeting in March would stand by the OAU position and not endorse any specific intellectual property regime for plants. Meanwhile, African governments and Civil Society Organizations were asking OAPI country parliaments not to ratify the decision reached by patent bureaucrats. The OAU would have something more to say about the renegade initiative when leaders gathered in Algiers July 8-14.