Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

ADIVASI : JULY 16, 2000

Curators of biodiversity

Dr. K. K. Chakravarthy

The author is Director, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya (National Museum of Mankind), Bhopal (MP).

The tribals of India have been seen by some developmental planners as agents for the destruction of biodiversity though they are its curators and victims of its destruction due to thoughtless developmental interventions. Two hundred years ago, before the establishment of British colonial rule, most of the Indians could claim to be tribals, living in a state of harmony with organic and inorganic communities in nature. The British created the issue of a separate tribal identity by inventing categories like tribal and non tribal, criminal and non criminal tribes, included or excluded territories, to isolate rural Indian communities from one another. The British opened up rural India to western technology - railways, roads, banks, courts, forest contractors, liquor, flesh and poppy traders, land grabbers, comprador and bureaucratic capital. With this began the degradation of the biocultural habitats of rural Indian communities and the erosion of their coevolutionary dependence on the country's ecosystems.

Kamal Sahai

Because of their thin physical presence, the British had confined themselves to indirect rule in India and their penetration in the rural hinterland was thin. After their departure in 1947, the destruction of biodiversity was accelerated by an interventionist policy of development. Universal democratic mechanisms superseded ecospecific community systems of subsistence, resource management and self governance.

Internal colonial elites aligned themselves with external colonial elites, to carry homogenising developmental processes, geared to mega-irrigation, power, forestry, building and mining projects, into the farthest hills and forests. Rural or tribal India continued to be a stage affixed to urban India, and was subjected to the self assumed, redemptive, civilising mission of the latter. The colonial jurisprudential concepts of res nullius and terra nullius assigned land and forest, that had not been assigned by the sovereign, and were not under visible occupation, to the sovereign. These concepts have been allowed, even after Independence, to supersede the precolonial Indian jurisprudential approach, akin to lex loci rie sitae, whereby law derives legitimacy from the relationship, traditionally established by the people, with their land and forest.

In this manner, the biocultural democracy of Indian communities, sustained by principles of symbiosis, reciprocity, diversity and sustainability, are being eroded in the name of political and economic democracy. Fragile and biorich ecosystems, like coast lines, savannahs, mountains and rain forests, managed by tribal communities, have been invaded by biocultural pirates. Whether it is in the primary sectors of agriculture, industry or mining, secondary sectors of drugs, chemicals and foods, or, in the tertiary sectors of education, culture, and social services, social and ecological categories have been steadily reduced to economic and industrial categories.

The tribal has been stereotyped as a consumer rather than as a producer, since, as per colonising discourse, the tribal only reproduces with nature, and the real production takes place in organised factory or laboratory conditions. The role of the forest as the source of physical and psychological sustenance for biocultural diversity has been ignored for treating forest as a timber mine, for monocultural commercial plantations, as empty land for development, as carbon sink or ecological park. The consumptive tribal uses of forestry for shelter, food, fodder, medicine, mulch, fire wood, has been dissociated in planning from their non consumptive uses of forestry, including photo synthesis, climate regulation, soil and water conservation. The sui generis community intellectual property right regimes of tribal stake holders and stewards of biodiversity are being integrated into the western individualistic IPR regimes, without their prior informed consent, consultation or compensation. The onus of proof for establishing the novelty, uniqueness, stability, uniformity or biosafety of tribal knowledge systems is being put on the tribal community by individuals regarding, court, lawyer and money mediated laws and institutions. As a consequence, there is a beginning in the unprotected flow of knowledge from gene-rich India to the capital-rich West, and a protected flow in the reverse direction.

The result, despite positive political, institutional and financial commitment to tribal development, has been large scale displacement and biological decline of tribal communities, a growing loss of genetic and cultural diversity, and rising trends of shrinking forests, thinning soils, sinking aquifers, crumbling fisheries, surging temperatures, increasing unemployment, hunger and conflict.

The solutions are implicit in these problems. The developmental planners have to stop acting as teleological agents of history and refrain from appropriating biocultural diversity curated by tribals, by treating them as passive objects of history. The affirmative discrimination in favour of homogeneous developmental interventions for the tribals has to be reoriented to replenish the variety of life sustaining technologies, adapted by tribals in response to specific agro climatic situations. The validity of slow track "tribal" science has to be recognised over fast track "modern" science. High yielding, fast growing, mass producible, monocultural, hybrid species adapted in the green revolution in agriculture, white revolution in dairying, blue revolution in fisheries, have to give way to the slow growing poly cultural, natural species, grown, gathered or managed by tribals. Support has to be extended to the variety of tribal water management strategies of drip, terrace, diversion and least interference. Different tribal architectural technologies, adapted to thermally efficient local material, have to replace uniform use of steel, concrete and glass. The diversified trophic base of tribals of nutrient giving food and medicine, should be prized over a homogenised trophic pattern, dependent on a few animal and plant families and a limited fruit and cereal basket. The multiple forest use and conservation approaches, adapted by tribals through niche specialisation, seasonal restriction, restriction by life history stages, sacred groves, should replace exploitative silvicultural approaches.

The holistic, neurophysical, psychosocial folklore medicinal knowledge of tribals should be processed into a digital bioinformatics data base in global knowledge network for IPR protection. The developmental process has to be enriched with inputs from the life enhancing knowledge which has been codified, classified and communicated transgenerationally through tribal oral traditions. The layering of the languages of tribal cultures should be unravelled by linguists and glottochronologists, to recover the blend of beauty and utility, form and function, equity and efficiency in tribal biodiversity conservation approaches.

Just as 95 per cent of the DNA has been dismissed as junk, valuable crops and herbs as weeds and scrub because of ignorance about their functions, so tribal knowledge about biodiversity protection has been ignored as irrelevant. To the tribal, nature is homologous to the maternal womb. It is a source of his affinity and consanguinity. Its denizens, animate or inanimate, are his siblings, lovers and friends. The hum of the forest, the wind, the dance of the fire fly, the stalk of the crane, the prowl of the tiger are part of tribal dance and music. Every pebble, river, mountain is instinct for them with life, vibration and purpose.

Tribals officially constitute about 7.5 per cent of the country's population. But, they have preserved 90 per cent of the country's biocultural diversity. They have protected the polyvalent, precolonial, biodiversity friendly Indian identity from biocultural pathogens. The question of tribal survival is also a question of the survival of this identity.

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