An important group of “stakeholders” in India’s biodiversity falls through the gaps of the country’s Biodiversity Act and requires a special tool to document their knowledge and the genetic resources they steward.
India’s biodiversity management strategy and action plan rests on Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) – village level institutions tasked with establishing local Peoples’ Biodiversity Registers (PBRs) that document local biological diversity, including wild flora and fauna, as well as traditional knowledge, especially about medicinal plants.
But a crucial group of biodiversity guardians, together with a significant slice of biodiversity, falls through the gaps of this system: nomadic pastoralists and the livestock breeds they have created over centuries. Moving around in the spaces between villages, they are major producers of food without cultivating the soil, while at the same time conserving and adding value to biodiversity.
India (still) has a large number of pastoralists who migrate with their herds and flocks between different locations – sometimes far apart – utilizing natural vegetation and crop aftermath to support a major part of India’s livestock population. They perform something remarkable: systematically producing food WITHOUT tilling the soil and WITHOUT replacing bio-diverse natural vegetation with monocultures of crops. In order to achieve this miracle feat, they have developed, and depend on, domestic animal biodiversity – breeds of livestock that are highly mobile and convert biodiverse vegetation into high value protein.
These people are the holders of immense bodies of traditional knowledge – about the medicinal uses of plants, about the habits of wildlife, about the effect of plants on animal health, about the interrelationship between them. In short, they are privy to holistic ecological knowledge that is still our best bet in the practical management of eco-systems and vastly superior to the atomized perspective of scientists who tend to focus on minute aspects and often fail to see the forest for the trees.
Being nomadic, these people who are crucial for biodiversity conservation as well as India’s present and future food security, usually fall outside the scope of the village BMCs, even of state biodiversity boards, as they routinely wander between different states. In order to record and do justice to their role in biodiversity conservation and to ensure their rights as “Keepers of Genes” , a tailor made approach is required – an approach that captures the fact that they are mobile social groups roaming over different geographical zones of the country together with specific livestock breeds that they continuously adapt to changing ecological and economic scenarios.
A group of NGOs working with pastoralists in different parts of India has developed such a tool that is known as “Biocultural Community Protocol” . It corresponds to the “community protocols” that India – and other countries – are mandated to establish by an international legal convention: the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits arising from their utilization. Already a corpus of such BCPs has been developed by pastoralist groups, including the Raika , the Kutchi camel breeders , Rajasthan’s camel breeders and the Bargur Hill Cattle Breeders . Various others are in progress, covering a significant part of India’s biodiversity.
So far they have not been recognized nor even acknowledged by India’s National Biodiversity Authority. The National Biodiversity Authority may to some extent be aware of the role of pastoralists as stewards of biodiversity as it has been supporting the annual Breed Saviour Awards promoted by the NGO SEVA. But these awards are given to individuals, not communities and represent a one-time reward, they do not imply any rights over animal genetic resources as envisioned by the Nagoya Protocol. BCPs would fill this gap and explicitly recognize what these communities do for India – producing food in marginal areas and from crop by-products, manuring fields with organic fertilizer, often supporting wildlife, and providing various other ecological services such as dispersing seeds.
As of 17th July, 2017, 62,502 BMCs had been established in India, covering less than 10% of the country’s 650244 villages. These are very unequally distributed, with some states such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh having tens of thousands while a state like Rajasthan only has less than one hundred. This difference is because of the presence of NGOs in that have actively supported and built the capacities of communities to establish People’s Biodiversity Registers. Without NGOs as catalysts and facilitators, village people rarely have the motivation to establish BMCs. It is certainly worthwhile and immensely important to encourage village people, especially youths, to take an interest in the biodiversity around them and to value the traditional knowledge held by the older generations. But rural people are already occupied with a host of issues and are likely to take action only if some component of biodiversity that is crucial to their livelihoods is threatened.
Strategically it therefore makes more sense to aggregate biodiversity at a higher geographical level; acknowledging and supporting (Biocultural) Community Protocols for pastoralists would be an important step towards a more efficient and regional approach to biodiversity documentation and management then relying only on village based BMCs.
The importance of Community Protocols will really come to the fore if and when international interest in livestock breeds that are adapted to challenging environmental conditions increases. In times of climate change, this may be sooner rather than later. Already there is a case of Access and Benefit-Sharing with respect to an Indian livestock breed. In 2012, Brasif, a Brazilian agribusiness investor, applied to the National Biodiversity Authority of India for access to 4,000 cattle embryos from Gir and Kankrej breeds. The embryos were supplied by a Trust in Bhavnagar in Gujarat. In 2015, the expert committee on access and benefit sharing of the National Biodiversity Authority set a price of INR 12 million (USD 190,000) which was paid by BRASIF. But apparently the National Biodiversity Authority is unsure who is entitled to receive this money, as it wants to benefit the creators of the breeds. IF A Community Protocol existed, the decision would be much easier.
Such issues are currently also discussed at the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture at the FAO in Rome. But Africa seems to be taking the lead in pushing for Biocultural Community Protocols, as I will report in my next blog post!