A RECENT publication of the United Nations Education,
Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) discusses TEK
- Traditional Ecological Knowledge - and its functioning in
the tropical countries. It identifies 3 broad categories Of TEK.
The first is the knowledge about specific components or
aspects of plants, animals, soils and environmental phenomena. Then comes the development, evolution and use of appropriate technologies for farming, forestry, hunting and fishing.
And finally, the most complex, and the least understood, is the
understanding of an intimate relationship with environmental
systems as a whole.
A lot of the debates and programmes on biodiversity, trade
and intellectual property rights-related issues, including the
recent Seville Strategy Of UNESCO's Man and Biosphere (MAB)
programme held in Spain in March 1995, have stemmed from
the overall awareness Of TEK. The recurrent question, however,
is: what do we really know about TEK? The best thing, therefore, is to analyse the Indian TEK that we are familiar with.
TEK is believed to have been recorded in a variety of ways.
These include symbols, phonetics, narratives, rituals, music
and dance. Subsistence technology, fertility control,
settlement patterns, social structure with specific values and
norms, acceptance and practice of sorcery, reliance on
shamanic powers, forest spirits and supernaturally protected
areas (sacred groves), are all considered telltale signs of
In India, TEK of medicinal plants and conservation of crop
genetic resources in the form of seed banks and locally grown
land races have attracted the attention of conservation biologists. Some of these knowledge systems and practices are being
systematically documented. Although TEK of the various
ecosystem components has been quite convincingly recorded, the appropriate technologies for farming and harvesting,
which we frequently search for amongst the indigenous peoples, are as yet not fully authentically documented. There is little doubt that TEK does include appropriate technologies for
harvesting of natural resources. However, experience suggests
that the supportive evidences quoted regarding TEK and
sustainability are anecdotal and equivocal.
For example, some forest dwellers in the Annamalai Hills
in south India, called Malasars, are subsisting largely as
hunter-gatherers today. Ethnobotanists have highlighted their
prudent harvesting practices. Tubers of wild plants, such as
Dioscorea, are collected only when the plants show signs of
maturity. What is not used is ploughed back for regeneration.
Larger tubers are shared among the community members.
However, the same Malasars are extremely wasteful in
their fishing practices. An 91d saree is dragged along the bottom of the pool and everything that cannot possibly pass
through or jump to safety is@, brought to the shore and emptied
on the sand. The choice Ash are picked up and put inside a
small pit dug beside the pool, while the rest, including tadpoles and smaller fish, are just allowed to perish on the shore.
Further, the pool remains in that state till, probably, the next
rains. Again, the Irulas, huriter-gatherers around Madras, set
up pitfall traps and nets in @arge areas for catching small vertebrates. They too pick only lbe choice prey, leaving the others to die in the pits.
Away from these negative examples, however, we may now
consider a few positive cases. In south India, traditionally, July
is a month closed to sea fish harvesting. This is the breeding
season for the choice fish. They come closer to the shore for
spawning. One may very well interpret this practice as a prudent TEK in favour of the sustainable harvesting of fish. The
practice of using plant poisons to temporarily paralyse fish in
pools of freshwater, collecting the select individuals and allowing the rest to 'recover', also speaks of the TEK of sustainable harvesting.
Thus, one can keep quoting examples supporting or
contradicting the "TEK of sustainability" hypotheses. Yet,
my purpose is not to make the readers feel that there is no
truth in TEK. This system, which has been tried and
practised over a few thousand years, cannot be ignored
altogether. What is needed is an emphasis on carefully
collected and analysed data which is scientifically scrutinised
R J Ranjit Daniels is Principal Scientific Officer, and Jayshree Vencatesan a researcher, at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Madras