The healing touch

Centuries-old tribal knowledge about our environment is the wellspring of local health traditions

Published: Tuesday 15 November 1994

The healing touch

-- RESEARCHERS from all over the world will gather at Lucknow from November 17 to 21 this year for the Fourth International Congress of Ethnobiology, organised by the Society of Ethnobiologists. They will debate on indigenous knowledge and the utilisation of plants and animals to societal use.

For the vast majority of India's people, the land resources provide not only food, fuel and fodder, but also medicines. This is particularly true of the tribal people, according to Virendra Kumar, director of the Delhi-based Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Mountain and Hill Environments, which documents the ethnobiological information about the people of the mountainous environments. "Nature is integral to the tribal lifestyle, permeating every aspect of their culture. They have specific reasons for choosing a particular wood for making an idol, or leaves for manufacturing insecticides," says Kumar.

Stan Thekaekara of the Nilgiri-based Action for Community Organisation, Rehabilitation and Development (accord), which has initiated an inventory exercise in the Gudalur area, says enthusiastically: "The tribals do not exploit natural resources which for them are living, dynamic beings. Here the tribals themselves have started documenting and analysing their use of the forest, listing the species in their own languages." The survey revealed that some of the plants which were abundantly available earlier have now become rare. It has prompted conservation efforts by the people.

According to Darshan Shankar, founder of the Lok Swasthya Parampara Samvardhan Samiti (LSPSS), Coimbatore, in India today there are 60,000 herbal medicare healers and 60,000 village bone setters. Ethnobiologists are interested in this vast repository of indigenous technical knowledge which could provide a wealth of useful information for modern science, especially medicine. The LSPSS is a network of NGOs working towards the documentation and promotion of local health traditions. Shankar is also associated with the Foundation for the Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), Bangalore as its founder-director. FRLHT is presently working on a tribal medicinal plants project which includes the identification and protection of such species.

The Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), New Delhi, is also involved in ethnobiology. P V Unnikrishnan, the programme officer at VHAI explains how: "VHAI works towards making community health a reality. So we started looking at the traditional systems of medicine, something that is familiar to the community and not thrust upon from outside. Ethnobotany deals with the local knowledge of flora and fauna and is therefore connected with the study of traditional systems. We found that a lot of money is spent on simple ailments like colds and coughs; while for them, traditional systems offer a number of medicines." VHAI regularly holds workshops and co-ordinates with other NGOs in the dissemination of information on traditional medicines.

SAHAYOG (Society for Participatory Rural Development) in Almora was established in 1992. In addition to balwadi programmes and awareness generation on various issues, SAHAYOG is also engaged in documenting the herbal wealth of the region and has inventoried the local health practices for selected diseases with the help of vaids (traditional health practitioners). It also plans for commercialisation of some of the plant species.

The identification and commercialisation of plants following ethnobotanical surveys is also dealt with by the Central Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (CIMAP).

CIMAP conducts research on aspects such as germination, flowering, and also tissue culture so as to improve the cultivation of the plants.

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