Recording Traditional Knowledge of Biodiversity for the People’s Biodiversity Register of India

Project Contributor: Yogesh Gokhale

India is rich in biodiversity resources and the associated traditional knowledge of the properties and uses of these resources. However, the social, political, economic, technological and cultural milieu is changing rapidly, and this is significantly affecting the way in which India’s living resources are being used. Further, India is lacking in well-organized, well-substantiated, well-documented information on this knowledge. There is a steady erosion of knowledge and practices of traditional systems – knowledge and practices that still have much to offer to humanity. The challenge is how to establish a relationship of mutual respect between traditional systems and formal science and how to synthesize the knowledge and practices of these two ways of understanding. The Indian National Government considers it imperative that traditional systems of information on biodiversity and associated knowledge be documented in order to protect the interests of the “ecosystem people” of India: people who have played a vital role in conserving the country’s biodiversity, in augmenting it by developing thousands of varieties of cultivated plants and domesticated animals, and in developing a vast body of knowledge about their sustainable use (Gadgil 2002).

This kind of system is now under development through the National Biological Diversity Act of India (2002), which mandates that local knowledge of biodiversity be registered in a national database, called the People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR). The register is filling the need for the documentation and organization of oral and traditional knowledge that people choose to disclose, in addition to local innovation, all of which often goes unrecorded. There is little ground-level understanding of the various processes involved, and the PBR is designed to generate such an information base. Local knowledge that is being registered includes utilitarian uses of biodiversity such as for food, fodder, firewood, medicines used in the Ayurveda traditional medicinal system of India, as well as knowledge of traditional conservation practices such as sacred groves and sacred water bodies. In the latter case, the sacred areas that are set aside are acknowledged by the national government of India and are given recognition as heritage sites. The register also includes local peoples’ perceptions of ongoing and desired patterns of biodiversity management. Other legislation, such as the system of Panchayati Raj for the decentralization of administration and ecosystem management, gives special attention to local traditions and allows for the local-level implementation of India’s biocultural policy in a coordinated effort at implementation at both local and national levels.

The project “Local Level Ecosystem Assessment in India” contributed to this process by recording species’ names in the local vernacular, in order to link them to scientific nomenclature and provide critical material for claims related to Intellectual Property Rights and Access and Benefit Sharing concerning biodiversity, as per the provisions in the CBD. A manual called “Ecology is for the People: Methodology Manual for People’s Biodiversity Register” was produced for the National Workshop on People’s Biodiversity Register held in 2006 in Chennai, India.

The People’s Biodiversity Register is expected to serve as a tool to: (1) document, monitor and provide information for sustainable management of local biodiversity resources; (2) promote biodiversity-friendly development in the emerging process of decentralized management of natural resources; (3) establish claims of individuals and local communities over knowledge of uses of biodiversity resources, and ensure equitable benefit sharing from the use of such knowledge and resources; (4) teach environmental science and biology; and (5) perpetuate and promote the development of practical ecological knowledge of local communities and of traditional sciences such as Ayurveda and Unani medicine.

The intention is that a countrywide decentralized yet networked system of information will serve several important purposes. It will for the first time create a mechanism for monitoring the fate of a variety of biodiversity resources throughout the country, be it medicinal plants, landraces of crops, breeds of regional livestock, or wild relatives of cultivated plants. Such information could then form the basis of a strategy for the conservation of these resources. The information system will give full and proper credit to informants and will give recognition and encouragement to “practical ecologists” everywhere, many of whom are formally uneducated, yet have a wealth of knowledge about the living world and its human uses (Gadgil et al, 2002).

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