The development of the concept of farmers' rights in the Food and Agriculture Organization, and its adoption by the African Union as a counterbalance to the private property rights of plant breeders, highlights the divisiveness of the question of ownership in biodiversity and biotechnology. This article examines the development of the African Model Law, a regional regime intended to promote indigenous control over local biodiversity. The principal argument is that key nongovernmental organizations were able to draw on African efforts and concerns regarding conceptions of private property rights embodied in international agreements, framing the question of farmers' rights in a way that spoke to the African experience. Farmers' rights thus came to be a focal point for African negotiators at international discussions on intellectual property rights and biodiversity, enabling Africa to take a key role in the articulation of alternatives to the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) Agreement.

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Author notes

Noah Zerbe is Assistant Professor of Politics at Humboldt State University, Arcata, California. He is the author of Agricultural Biotechnology Reconsidered: Western Narratives, African Alternatives (2005) and has published articles on biodiversity, international trade, and food politics.

I would like to thank the interviewees for discussing various aspects of farmers' rights in the context of the African Model Law with me. The anonymous reviewers and editors at Global Environmental Politics also provided insightful comments to help improve the arguments presented here. Any errors, of course, remain the responsibility of the author alone.