With heavy hearts, we honour the passing of a dear friend and Gaia Associate from Ethiopia, Dr. Tewolde Gebre Berhan Egziabher – one of Africa’s most outstanding advocates and defenders of community and environmental rights. He passed away in March 2023.
Tewolde, a respected scientist, became internationally known for his “exemplary work to safeguard biodiversity and the traditional rights of farmers and communities to their genetic resources” (Right Livelihood Award, 2000). In the 1990s, he was instrumental in working with African countries to resist the push for genetically modified organisms and patents on life. In response to the threat of patents to communal rights he developed the African model law for community rights with colleagues.
Our shared story began nearly 30 years ago, when we met at the 1995 Life Sciences conference in Penang, Malaysia. The event was organised by the Third World Network and brought together many of the early pioneers of social and ecological justice – Gaia Associates such as Mr Idries, Martin Khor, Jose Lutzenberger and Vandana Shiva. It focussed on the issues around genetic engineering, privatizing life through patents and ways to enable people to make informed decisions.
Director of The Gaia Foundation, Liz Hosken, recalls
“I remember meeting Tewolde sitting under a tree in his elegant Ethiopian white garment. He was holding the attention of some of the participants with his sharp mind, sense of humour and, always, a twinkle in his eye. He held strong views which he argued convincingly and enjoyed being challenged. Our friendship of many decades was seeded under that tree.”
Soon after, Gaia worked with Tewolde and his wife Sue Edwards to set-up the Institute of Sustainable Development (ISD) in Ethiopia, which continues to thrive as a civil society organisation committed to agroecology, as it is called today, and working with local farmers to improve their livelihoods. Together with Tewolde, and in collaboration with key allies such as GRAIN, we initiated some of the first African dialogues with environmental groups on the dangers of genetically engineering organisms and patents on life and the importance of protecting community rights.
Tewolde and his family became regular visitors to Gaia House in north London. Aside from strengthening the bonds of friendship, these visits were opportunities for strategy meetings with other activists and scientists from the UK, Europe and the Global South, all facing the onslaught of genetically modified organisms and patent laws.
From his position as General Manager of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Agency, we worked with Tewolde and allies to build a strong, informed group of African negotiators to participate in developing international legal instruments to protect biological and cultural diversity. The ‘African Group’ as they were known, were a unified presence at key international meetings in the latter part of the 1990s on trade, agriculture and biodiversity. Tewolde’s formidable negotiation skills resulted in him being nominated as lead negotiator by the G77 group of developing countries, called the Like Minded Group, which took a strong stand on genetic engineering and patents on life – leading to the legendary Cartagena Protocol on biosafety.
Juan Mayr (Colombia’s former Environment Minister), who presided over the 1999 biosafety negotiations in Cartagena, Colombia, has fond memories of Tewolde’s wit and tenacity:
“A great friend. I was in Ethiopia with him and at his home in Addis Ababa. At the Cartagena Protocol negotiations he was the key person for the G77 due to his knowledge, his way of being and his mindful use of language. A wonderful person.”
That year, when the negotiations were over, we took Tewolde and another Gaia elder, Gurdial Singh Niger, to visit our partner organisation Gaia Amazonas and Indigenous communities in the Colombian Amazon. As Liz remembers, it was an unforgettable experience:
”Tewolde was entranced by the huge diversity of life in the forest. He had endless energy to explore, from the smallest organism to the large, magnificent trees. He loved the long conversations at night with the elders and shamans, and was thrilled to hear their clarity on genetic engineering of living organisms – as they said ‘we are able to put the energy of, say, a bee into a human. But we agreed as shamans not to do so because it does harm. That is what should be done with genetic engineering of life’ they said. ‘This is exactly our stance in negotiations!’ Tewolde responded”
We nominated Tewolde for the Right Livelihood award, which he received in December 2000 for his outstanding leadership. He was named a UN Champion of the Earth in 2006, amongst many other forms of recognition.
We will miss the presence of dear Tewolde in this dimension – dear friend and champion for biosafety and the rights of traditional farmers and communities, and are comforted by knowing he will accompany us as an ancestor now. And we hold his lovely three daughters and their families in our hearts – Sara, Roman and Lem Lem.