Some knowledge is forever

The validity of traditional ecological practices, in terms of sustainability, has to be examined scientifically

By R J Ranjit Daniels, Jayshree Vencatesan
Published: Friday 15 September 1995

-- (Credit: Malay Karmakar)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 prevailing TEK.

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 and interpreted.

R J Ranjit Daniels is Principal Scientific Officer, and Jayshree Vencatesan a researcher, at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Madras

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