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ENVIRONMENT: Africa’s Top Biosafety Envoy Shut Out of Canada Talks

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, May 19 2005 (IPS) - Africa’s chief negotiator for the Cartegena Protocol on Biosafety has been denied entry into Canada to attend meetings to finalise key provisions regarding the international movement of genetically engineered organisms.

Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher, the Ethiopian government’s chief scientist, had his passport returned without the requested Canadian visa Wednesday despite previous visits to Canada. Tewolde is trying to attend talks starting May 30 in the Canadian city of Montreal.

”I have been to Montreal many times,” Tewolde said in an interview from Addis Ababa. ”I have never heard of something like this happening before.”

While this may be just a case of ”exceptional bureaucratic bungling”, he said, he wonders if it’s a not-so-subtle but effective way of preventing him from participating.

”I have always been on the opposite side of the Canadian delegation especially on biosafety,” he said.

The U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) adopted the biosafety protocol in 2000 to address the safe transfer, handling, and use of living genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that could have an adverse effect on biodiversity.

A respected scientist and champion of biodiversity, Tewolde received the Right Livelihood Award (also known as the alternative Nobel prize) from the king of Sweden in 2000. He is considered by some to be the father of the Biosafety Protocol.

Unlike the U.S. and Canadian governments, he firmly believes in the need for strong international regulations for genetically engineered (GE) seeds and crops.

Tewolde had planned to go to Montreal to ensure that GE seeds and food products would be labeled under the agreement. He also wanted to see companies and governments accept liability when their seeds lead to GE contamination.

”Canada doesn’t want to see any serious regulations regarding GMOs,” Tewolde said.

”They wouldn’t want me there because I have been the spokesperson for the African group and other developing countries.”

Canadian-based non-governmental organisations that support Tewolde’s position blasted the visa denial.

”We’re not just upset, we’re pissed off about this,” said Pat Mooney, executive director of ETC Group.

”I wouldn’t have believed it was deliberate but after the CBD meeting in Bangkok I’m not so sure,” Mooney told IPS.

In Bangkok last February, he said, the Canadian government used ”heavy-handed tactics” to try and lift a de-facto moratorium on the so-called Terminator, a GE technology that makes seeds sterile. Only strong objections from African countries, Austria, Switzerland, Peru, and the Philippines kept the moratorium in place.

The son of a farmer, Tewolde has publicly clashed with Canadian and U.S. representatives at international meetings over issues such as patents on seeds and the risks of GE crops.

The visa denial ”is a real embarrassment for Montreal which hopes to be a U.N. city,” said Mooney.

The CBD is based in Montreal and holds many of its meetings there.

”We’ve pulled as many strings as we can to get Dr. Tewolde a visa,” said a spokesperson for the CBD Secretariat. ”We don’t know why this is happening but we’re doing our best to get him here.”

There have not been any other visa issues for the upcoming meeting, she said.

Canadian officials responsible for issuing visas said Tewolde’s statements that his visa has been denied ”conflicts with our information” but refused to comment further.

”It’s a matter of protecting the privacy of the individual involved,” said Cara Prest, spokesperson for Canada’s Citizenship and Immigration department.

Tougher rules for those requiring visas to enter Canada have been in place since June 2002. When it comes to granting visas, Prest said, ”we’re also always researching new developments.”

The visa foul-up has also meant that Tewolde missed an African preparatory meeting for upcoming talks on the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, he said. He also will miss inter-regional negotiations on the biosafety protocol in Oslo, Norway because the Canadian High Commission in Nairobi held on to his diplomatic passport.

”Now that I have been prevented from coming to Montreal, who knows which ones of you will be prevented next time?” Tewolde wrote in an open letter of protest.

Now, he said, he is waiting for the Canadian government to respond.

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