Keeping the woods lovely, dark and deep…

Keeping the woods lovely, dark and deep…

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By S Gopikrishna Warrier

India was the first country to develop a legislation for biodiversity. Yet, conserving this resource needs to be part of the national policy instead of it being seen as the goose which lays the golden eggs.
In the feint and parry of electioneering, there are times when some attacks backfire. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi compared the development indices of the tribal population in Kerala to that of Somalia, he perhaps did not expect a strong backlash. But the people responded on social and traditional media, objecting to the unfair comparison.
Even though Kerala and Somalia are not necessarily comparable, there was a kernel of truth in the PM’s statement. The development indicators for tribal populations are usually worse off than those of communities living in other parts of the country.There is an irony in biodiversity’s linkage with economics. Those communities that have conserved biological diversity and the associated traditional knowledge are economically poor, whereas those who make use of it through industrial products are rich.
ON THE FRINGES
Biodiversity and the people who have helped in conserving it are somehow seen as being outside the system—somewhere there, to be used when needed, but otherwise forgotten. They need to be mainstreamed into public, policy and media consciousness, and that is what the 12 National Biodiversity Targets (NBTs) set out to do by 2020.
The NBTs—if revisited time and again—can help focus governmental action so that biodiversity is kept in mind while formulating policy. The first two targets aim for just that—increasing public awareness and incorporating the value of biodiversity into national policy. Currently, the policy attitude is that biodiversity has to be quickly turned into money. This has to change to the understanding that conserving biodiversity can give more income.
Target 6 is ambitious—aiming to take the geographical coverage of the protected area network to 20 percent of the country’s area in the next four years. Currently, protected areas cover less than 5 percent. There are other important targets that aim for the enumeration of ecosystem services, and also the protection of traditional knowledge associated with biodiversity conservation and use.
One of the targets was in the past. It wanted the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing to be made operational through national legislation by 2015. Did it happen? Yes and no.
LEGAL FRAMEWORK
The Nagoya Protocol is a supplementary agreement to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). It came into effect in October 2014, and provides a transparent legal framework for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising out of the use of biodiversity. In other words, it aims to put into place the process by which a tribal community that has conserved a biological resource gets economic benefit when it is turned into a commercial product. And as with all other parts of the CBD, it can come into effect in India only when it is incorporated into the national legislation.
Interestingly enough, India was the first ever country to develop a legislation to put into effect the CBD’s Biodiversity Act of 2002. This Act also includes provisions on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS), which are the main thrust areas in case of the Nagoya Protocol.
However, there are gaps between the Indian Act and the Protocol, said biodiversity experts Shloka Narayanan and Balakrishna Pisupati. “Current provisions of the Act and the Rules as well as implementation measures indicate that there is limited or no focus on issues related to traditional knowledge associated with the resources with regard to ABS except for passing mention of traditional knowledge in the Act and Rules.”
CALL OF THE WILD: A meandering stream follows into the lush. depths of a forest.
Similarly, while the Nagoya Protocol specifies prior informed consent of the conserver community before the user can access the biodiversity and the associated traditional knowledge, the Act only talks about consultation with the biodiversity management committee of the panchayat. Truly, consultation and consent are not one and the same.
With many of the forest-dwelling communities having lived lives secluded from market-oriented forces, they have not quoted or negotiated for high prices for the biological resources amongst which they live. The mainstream has also neglected the resources from the forests and its denizens. Whether it be Niyamgiri or Kudremukh, the priority has always been to convert the forests into an industrial estate, agricultural field or a mine so that high economic returns can be obtained once and for all.
CONCERNS FOR FLORA
Even in Kerala—whose tribals Modi spoke about—the oft-quoted example of bringing biological resources and its associated traditional knowledge into the market loop is not considered a full-fledged success. The example relates to the knowledge of the Kani tribe—about the rejuvenating properties of the fruit of a plant Arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus) that grows wild in the Agasthyamalai Hills of the southern Western Ghats—which was scientifically developed by a research institution and commercially used as a drug by a private company.
Scientists from the Jawaharlal Nehru Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (JNTBGRI) in Thiruvananthapu-ram discovered Arogyapacha from the Kani elders when the latter accompanied them as mountain guides during their trek into the forests in 1987 for an ethnobotanical survey. The elders would not tire while climbing the steep slopes, while the scientists huffed and puffed their way up. The fruits of Arogya-pacha was giving them energy.
A tripartite agreement was worked out in 1996 between the Kani community, the JNTBGRI and a private company, Arya Vaidya Pharmacy Ltd. The scientists identified and isolated 12 active compounds and the private company turned it into a commercial drug called Jeevani. A licence fee of Rs 10 lakh and a 2 percent royalty was fixed, of which half was shared with the Kani tribals. A trust fund was also established.
TRIBAL VOICES
Shivendu K. Srivastava, a senior forest officer who recently published a study on the commercial use of biodiversity, wrote: “The benefit sharing, however, went through some chaotic phases. The forest department had its reservations against declaring Arogyapacha as a minor forest produce for fear of its overexploitation. There was a lack of uniformity among the Kani people about their understanding on the benefit sharing and trust arrangement since they were not speaking in one voice on the issue. Then there were the complexities related to who owns the resource and the traditional knowledge and on whether the plant was growing on private or government land.”
The JNTBGRI model may be an old one, but unfortunately there has been no other prominent model that could showcase access and benefit sharing in India. That, in turn, is a poor indicator of the seriousness with which the idea of access and benefit sharing has been implemented in the country.
During the Kerala assembly elections, the BJP aligned with the political party of the tribals, the Janadhipathiya Rashtriya Sabha headed by CK Janu. Her group has been campaigning against the political neglect that the tribals in the hill district of Wayanad have been facing for decades. That could have been the reason for Prime Minister Modi to talk about the development indicators for the community.
For any government that is serious about the welfare of communities living in close proximity to forests, the answer should be less rhetoric and more mainstreaming of biodiversity and traditional knowledge to policies and action. It is only then that the development indicators of the tribal community can be expected to improve—whether in Kerala, Gujarat or Odisha.

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