Written word protects

Registers can help preserve the traditional knowledge of India's healers

Published: Monday 15 August 2005

Written word protects

-- Among the remotest of tribes across India, there exist vast untapped reservoirs of medicinal knowledge -- most of it is scientifically unresearched. Transmitted orally through the generations by local healers, it provides invaluable health care for those without access to the most basic of medical facilities.

Such wisdom is, however, inevitably vulnerable to abuse. Communities are being sapped of future healers by the lure of cities; the patenting and sale of local herbal remedies by outside companies is driving an already dwindling art out of existence. Without immediate action, indigenous communities will be left with neither ancient traditions nor basic medicines.

The Sustainable Life Trust in the Kolli Hills, Tamil Nadu has a solution: a tribal health knowledge register. Maintained by the community, this written resource would provide a way of tapping local learning for the benefit of future generations and for the protection of the current populace. The documented medicine would become the intellectual property of the community that generated it, arming local people against companies infringing on their collective rights. It will also enable them to demand a share of profits from the users of their knowledge.

The register would catalogue the medicinal resources of each area and community, transcribing the traditional health practices into a permanent record. It would also validate these medicines through modern pharmacology. This would also help create a symbiotic relationship between traditional and modern knowledge. The register can also help to monitor previously unexplored biosystems in remote regions and aid in the understanding of the culture of an area and community.

Testing the register As a small-scale test of the system, an experimental register was created in the Kolli Hills in the Eastern Ghats in Tamil Nadu. With a population of around 40,000 -- mostly Scheduled Tribes -- the region is known for its traditional herbal medicines and local healers, the Nattu Vaidyas.

Eighteen local healers participated in the survey documented by female village resource persons (vrps). Personnel from local non government organisations trained the vrps to record information. The purpose of the exercise was fully explained to the vaidyas beforehand, and they signed an informed consent document prior to the investigation. The vrps assembled a list of the 15 primary health problems of the region; each healer was then interviewed individually for three days about each of the conditions and their local remedies.

Meanwhile, local Ayurvedic and Siddha doctors verified the reports and conducted their own correlating research, and a botanist collected and recorded the various herbs used by the healers. Only one vaidya refused to participate, saying that revealing the secrets of his medicines would deplete their potency.

The resulting trial register was pretty comprehensive. The documented knowledge included the local name for the condition, its description, causes and diagnostic features as understood by the vaidyas. The treatment was then recorded, including the local names of the ingredients and the details of its preparation and application. The list of plants was indexed and attached to the register; comments from modern doctors, such as the modern medical terms for the conditions and whether the remedy was proven to be beneficial, were added. The Bangalore, Karnataka-based Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions also commented on the medicines. Of the 55 remedies analysed, all but one were effective.

Fortified against abuse Through the register, the knowledge of the community of the Kolli Hills is fortified against outside abuses. With more information about the importance of the register, its safeguarding and maintenance, the panchayat leaders can ensure the continuation of a dynamic system of rural wisdom.

The model register shows that oral wisdom can be responsibly recorded. This process now needs to be taken into a wider sphere.

D Dhanapal is with the Sustainable Life Trust, Koli Hills, Tamil Nadu

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