Biodiversity: the local touch
Keya Acharya on conservation developments in southern India.
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April, 2002: Sitting on handwoven reed mats inside a mud hut still cool despite the summer heat, 25-year-old Laknoo Biddika admits to never having heard of The Hague or big-sounding words like "biodiversity". But he does not underrate what he has to offer the world. "We are 14 village representatives gathered here with a single objective of documenting and promoting our skills and knowledge," he says.

The gathering was organized in Kuruppam district in Andhra Pradesh by Sanyasi Raju of Village Reconstruction, a local body in charge of compiling indigenous cultures and livelihoods of the region under India's $970,000 National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP). This socially sensitive conservation planning process, underway since 2000, is funded by the Global Environment Fund and United Nations Development Program (UNDP) through the Ministry of Environment and Forests and an NGO called Kalpvriksh (Tree of Life). "We organize people's representatives who list what they want to do, and then get them together with government officials so that existing government policies can become more effective," says Raju.

There is plenty to document. There are medicinal plants, formulas and healers in an ancient system of Indian herbal medicine, nutritious traditional vegetable and cereal seeds such as red gram, ragi and millet, and a host of marketable forest commodities like honey, nuts and seeds that tribals have used sustainably for centuries. But exploitation by outsiders, who pay tribal healers a pittance for both formulas and shrubs, has kept the healers in penury, with this oral tradition now practically dying out.

Soil degradation and aridity is pervasive due to theft by commercial loggers of almost all the trees in tribal lands, sometimes in collaboration with tribals who have been duped to sell 50-year-old trees for as little as a dollar apiece. Also, The government's distribution of non-tribal staples like chemically-grown rice and wheat has led to the neglect of traditional nutritious staples, engendering malnutrition in a community that does not have access to alternative vegetables.

"The government prepares schemes for us in their offices without asking us what's best for us," says schoolteacher T. Rama Rao, one of the community's rare graduates. "The Forest Department is using millions of rupees in the name of Joint Forestry. But they plant all the wrong trees that use too much water or kill other native plants. There is no understanding of the tribal situation," says Lingaraju, secretary of a network of village groups.

Village self-help groups have now begun preserving their own seeds and marketing herbal medicinal formulations and products from the region. Efforts at collective income generation through growing indigenous mangoes and a medicinal garden are also underway. "I am optimistic about this form of decentralization, wherein village livelihoods are integrated into government schemes that already exist," says Raju. The government's Integrated Tribal Development Agency as well as Agriculture and Horticulture departments have begun collaboration with self-help groups. Raju's efforts at helping the tribals by enjoining village self-help groups might well allow some measure of success in this part of Andhra Pradesh, but NBSAP's plea at a comprehensive government policy looks set to have mixed results elsewhere.

In neighboring Tamilnadu, herdsmen of an ancient and indigenous cattle species named Malaimadu, a hardy animal that fetches a small income from manuring, draught and sale in an emergency, have locked horns in battle with the Forest Department over being denied grazing rights inside the Giant Grizzled Sanctuary in Virudhunagar District. Neither party is willing to compromise. Ironically enough, it is Tamilnadu's Forest Department that is the official nodal agency for NBSAP in the State. NBSAP state forest conservation coordinator Dr. R. Annamalai says the state has not yet convened even a preliminary meeting to discuss state-level plans.

Another ecologically-rich southern state, Karnataka, is the first in the country to draw up a clear and detailed plan that involves making an inventory and monitoring biodiversity with satellite-imagery based mapping in-situ and ex-situ conservation involving schools, higher educational institutions, government departments and the general public. Its coordinator, Professor Madhav Gadgil of the Indian Institute of Science's Center for Ecological Sciences, hopes the measures will get sustained under the country's Biodiversity Law approved by India's Parliament early 2002. But with the state's over-riding concern for industrial development projects, many of which are already in conflict with biodiversity interests, conservation remains a sensitive issue.

Under NBSAP, the country has been divided into 10 ecosystem regions having 18 subregions. Within this system a complex mesh of micro-planning at village-level then feeds into 33 state-level plans for conserving all kinds of national resources. Kalpavriksh expects to draw up final plans for state and national-level policies by mid-2002. "Innate wisdom, simple logic, refreshing innocence and indigenous profoundness, I believe our plans must have a combination of all of these together with sound science," says Kalpavriksh coordinator Ashish Kothari.

This explains why the remote foothill village of Neridimanuguda, beautiful with its flowering medicinal shrubs and Terminalia Arjuna trees in Kuruppam district, is a part of the NBSAP process. Home to the Jatapa, Kondadora, Savara and Gadaba tribal communities who were India's original forest inhabitants centuries before the invasion of land-races from its northern borders, this region remains in poverty and illiteracy, unable to keep up with the rest of the state.

Keya Acharya
April 2002

Keya Acharya is a noted environmental jounalist. This article is made available to India Together by Inter Press Service, a global news resource faciliating south-south and south-north dialogue on important economic, social, environmental, and other issues. IPS is distributed in the U.S. by Global Information Network,