Parvathy Nagaraj, from Nallur village in Tamil Nadu, would watch her grandmother make medicines from plants she collected from the forest and treat the villagers for many common ailments. Today, Parvathy can identify 100 plants in the forests she grew up in. “I am the sixth generation of healers in my family; and I want to use my knowledge to treat people and also conserve the plants in the forest,” she says.
Some 2,000 km away, in Rajasthan, Harji Ram, from the Raika camel herding community, says his community can identify 36 different trees and shrubs that the camels feed on. These plants also happen to have tremendous value in medicine.
Before the Biological Diversity Act (BDA) was passed in 2002, there was no formal recognition of the knowledge that men and women like Harji and Parvathy possessed. The ‘discovery’ of flora and fauna was either the prerogative of the colonial explorer or the modern scientist with a university degree. The traditional knowledge of millions of forest dwellers, fisherfolk, pastoralists and hunting communities about the biodiversity in their backyards was never considered to be on a par with formal research. And if a private company wanted to exploit these natural resources, they were not required to pay the communities that had known about and nurtured them for centuries.
The pathbreaking Act not only supports the conservation and the sustainable use of biological resources, it also promotes an equitable sharing of benefits that come from their use. This one law has the potential to revolutionalise the rights of communities over the natural resources they live with. The BDA has made it mandatory for every local self-governing institution in rural and urban areas to constitute a Biodiversity Management Committee (BMC) within their area of jurisdiction. Once constituted, the BMC must prepare a Peoples’ Biodiversity Register (PBR) in consultation with local people. A PBR comprehensively documents traditional knowledge of local biological resources. The BMC is the custodian of these resources, and any industry that extracts biological resources from these areas has to share part of its revenue with the local community.
But the wheels of change have been slow to turn. Years later, by 2016, only 9,700 BMCs had been set up for the 2,70,573 local bodies across the country; compliance was thus a mere 3.58%. And just 1,388 PBRs were completed that year.
Then, in 2016, an order was passed by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which shook the entire administration out of its lethargy. A petition filed by Chandra Bhal Singh before the NGT asked for the effective implementation of the BDA. The NGT directed 100% compliance in the constitution of BMCs and in the creation of PBRs by January 31, 2020. The NGT said States would be fined ₹10 lakh per month from February 1, 2020 if they failed to comply with its order.
That was the game changer. States began work at a frenetic pace. Today, eight months after the NGT deadline, some 1,90,950 PBRs have been completed or are in various stages of preparation, representing 70% of the country’s PBR coverage. These figures come from V.B. Mathur, Chairperson, National Biodiversity Authority, tasked with ensuring the monitoring of PBRs and BMCs.
“While the NGT order was quantitative, we wanted to make sure it doesn’t affect the quality of the process, as people’s participation is necessary,” he says. But in the hurry to meet the deadline, have the people been left out?
In Uttarakhand, for instance, the onus seems to be on the forest department to implement the law. Dhananjay Prasad, Deputy Director of the State Biodiversity Board, admits that with the lack of funds and the large number of local bodies, the task of setting up BMCs and creating PBRs is an unwieldy exercise. “There are around 8,000 local bodies in Uttarakhand, and the budget allotted could barely cover the compilation of PBRs for all these bodies,” says Prasad. So the BMCs were initially formed using the manpower of the State Forest Department. Forest guards were roped in and trained. Then, to record biodiversity, technical experts who specialised in agriculture, botany, animal husbandry and urban biodiversity were brought in.
In Himachal Pradesh, the ‘contract’ for making PBRs was awarded to several universities, with each one getting a contract for 30-40 villages. But it meant that public participation was low. Jhabe Ram, chairman of the BMC, Jana Gram Panchayat in Naggar, Himachal, says that the State Biodiversity Board sent him to Bengaluru for training, but other experts were called in to prepare the PBR. Says Ram, “I possess a lot of knowledge about the plants in the forest but I don’t know their botanical names. So they got experts from Shimla to prepare the PBR. It was created two to three years ago, and I have yet to see it.”
Various environmental groups have also come forward to prepare the registers. For instance, The Energy and Resources Institute prepared the PBR for the village Ghukhuyi, in Zünheboto, Nagaland. Likewise the People’s Biodiversity Register of Tourenga Gram Panchayat in Chhattisgarh was published with technical guidance from the Wildlife Trust of India.
In Jharkhand, a local NGO, Pragati Educational Academy, applied for the process of setting up BMCs and PBRs in response to an advert put out by the State Biodiversity Board seeking consultants. Babita Kashyap, who coordinated the NGO’s efforts, says they try to ensure people’s participation by visiting every Panchayat for demographic information. For biodiversity information, however, they bring in experts. “We use botanists and zoologists. People from the village describe plants in their local languages, which we may not understand.”
Similar stories emerge from other parts of the country such as Maharashtra and Telangana. With PBRs being outsourced to NGOs or universities, the role of local people has been restricted to that of helping researchers in data collection. And this is not in sync with NBA’s guidelines on PBRs. A PBR, says environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta, is more than just a compilation of species. “The preparation of PBRs by consultants defeats the whole purpose of having this register. Local people are central to the process; the task cannot be outsourced to a third party.”
Created over centuries
Besides this, there are also some communities glaringly missing from the process altogether. Nomadic pastoralists, for instance, and the livestock breeds they have created over centuries. Ilse Köhler-Rollefson has spent a lifetime with the camel herding community, the Raikas of Rajasthan. She says, “Moving around in the spaces between villages, they are major producers of food without cultivation, while at the same time they conserve and add value to biodiversity.” Being nomadic, they are crucial for biodiversity conservation, yet they fall outside the scope of the village BMCs, even of State biodiversity boards.
Hanwant Singh Rathore, from the Raika community, who set up the Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan, rues that not even one BMC has been prepared in conversation with his community. “Even though we possess so much knowledge, our views have never been considered, nor has any BMC been formed.” The Raika herders have even prepared their own ‘Biocultural Community Protocol of the Camel Breeders of Rajasthan’ as an example of what a PBR for their community could look like. The document has been submitted to the forest department “but no one has responded,” says Rathore.
Likewise, Kaustubh Pandharipande, who has worked extensively with denotified tribes in Central India, argues that non-pastoral nomads may not keep animals but have a deep relationship with biodiversity. “This has never been recognised; many of them sell medicinal plants and depend on the forest.”
Long before PBRs were recognised as a legal category, Pandharipande had started work with the Phasepardhis (a hunting community socially ostracised since colonial times). The process he initiated included field surveys of birds, their populations and habitats, documenting local knowledge and practices, and monitoring and protecting the birds. “People like the pardhis have been completely ignored, there should be some legal space for them,” says Pandharipande, who heads the Foundation for Economic and Ecological Development.
Perhaps no one knows more about the process of the PBRs than ecologist and scholar Madhav Gadgil. Gadgil, who was the first to call for recognising the rights of communities over their resources, says the PBRs have become nothing more than an exercise in listing species. He laments the lack of community participation and the fact that the PBR is still not being used as a people’s tool.
Indeed, the only way communities can use these PBRs to control their natural resources; prevent (or get a fair price from) industries coming in to exploit these resources; and contribute overall to conservation is to increase their participation in the process.
Look at the instances where handing over control of natural resources to the people has reaped big rewards. The Uttarakhand State Biodiversity Board issued notices to nearly 600 industries — including Dabur and its rival Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali — for using natural resources in the hill State without adequately compensating the communities.
In Kerala, the Eraviperoor Biodiversity Management Committee rejuvenated a tributary of the River Pampa, successfully recovering 13.5 acres of riverbank. It has also done exemplary work in plastic waste management.
The BMC in Raipassa village in Tripura has signed an agreement with companies for harvesting broom grass and making sure that the funds are transferred back to the community.
Meanwhile, NBA’s Mathur says he wants to incentivise conservation “keeping in mind adequate protection and restoration of biological resources while promoting livelihoods for local communities through generous benefit-sharing protocols.”
A critical question comes up: Will the NGOs and consultants who helped prepare the biodiversity registers and committees join hands with the communities when it comes to fighting the bigger battles, such as those against mining companies coming in to acquire land, or a new dam that submerges their forests?
This is where the true litmus test of the power of the PBRs lies. It has the scope to become the ultimate tool for a people-centric environment impact assessment process that allows communities living next to the resource to remain the real commanders. If implemented with the right degree of people’s participation, the PBRs could indeed become a trailblazer on the road to environmental democracy.
The writer is an Associate Professor at Shiv Nadar University and an environment journalist.