Reason to cheer

Meet two pioneering grassroots leaders nominated for the Equator Initiative Awards

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Kuttimathan's search for sustainable development started way back in 1987, when he started work as a guide for scientists from Kerala's Tropical Botanic Garden and Research Institute (tbgri) in Agasthyar Hills. He informed these scientists about the many secrets of the herb Trichopus zeylanicus, known in local parlance as aarogyapacha.

In 1995, tbgri entered into a partnership with the Kani tribe, which led to the development of a commercially successful drug, called Jeevani, in partnership with a well-known ayurvedic pharmacy. The initiative has since been recognised by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Trade Organisation as a global model in benefit sharing, as also in recognition of the intellectual property rights of indigenous people. The Kani Welfare Trust has taken up commercial cultivation of the plant under a buy-back agreement with the pharmacy.

How does it feel to be in the middle of a huge debate on sustainable development and the environment?
I don't know for sure, or maybe I am unable to express it. But it did feel great that there was a large crowd listening to the things I wanted to say, and with such attention, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) . My own government in India had no time to listen to me.

What does sustainable development mean to you?
My community is firmly on the path of economic development with the new arrangement. A plant that we have used sporadically for generations has now fetched us a fortune. And quite honestly, when we were working out an arrangement with the scientists, I had no clue that it would be a role model for the rest of the world.

When I look at my community today, I feel that sustainable development is the life that we are leading now. Use everything, and give every stakeholder his/her due. This will not adversely affect anybody, and will ensure growth.

Do you feel the world will change for the better after WSSD? Do you, for example, expect a change in the government's attitude?
I am not convinced that wssd will work any miracles. Our experience is that the government did not even consider our stake in forests, let alone get us the right deal. It is our fight that got us our rights. The world will change only when governments change their attitude to indigenous people. I was told that communities like ours were not even allowed to participate in the main discussions at wssd.

When you address people from different countries at a forum like WSSD, what message do you give?
I usually narrate our experiences, and through that, tell them that the world outside our forest is not that honest. And I say this despite the huge gathering at wssd, and the honour they gave me. We must chart our own way to use our traditional resources. Yes, there are some good people who do help us on our way.

How much stake you have been able to claim over your rich forest resources?
For control over the herb aarogyapacha we are still fighting the forest department. There is a fight over whether it is a rare herb or not. This is typical of the way government departments function. And in this process they keep human interest out of governance.

I have the feeling that if the tribal people are allowed to trade with medicinal plants, India's vast natural resources can easily be saved. The forest department has been around for a century, but it never bothered to ascertain whether aarogyapacha is a rare plant. Once they saw the economic benefit, they stopped its trade.

Will your new fame and recognition help you in getting stake over other valuable medicinal plants that the Kanis traditionally use?
Everybody is happy and supports our struggle. But the problem is that the governance structure, like the forest laws and provisions, has not changed. That will change only when you genuinely feel for our welfare.

Kamala hails from Koraput district in Orissa, known during the British era as the secondary centre of origin for paddy, with about 1,750 paddy varieties. The rice variety stands at an insignificant 102 today. Koraput is now known for starvation deaths and poverty.

Kamala and farmers like her were the worst hit. She, with others from her community, initiated a programme that would enable sustainable livelihoods and promote agro-biodiversity conservation, community gene management and environmental protection. The M S Swaminathan Foundation supported their effort. Critically, market linkages that allow communities to benefit financially from their conservation activities have also been created.

Kamala crossed the borders of her country to recount her story in the African continent. In the Ubuntu village, her story was like a fairy tale for the citizens of famine-stricken states like Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

How do you explain the poverty in your home state?
It is very difficult to explain, given the resources. During times of crisis, we put together a life out of spoiled forests, barren lands and dry streams. We endure. It was only when we organised the community to ensure food security that it dawned on us: it is possible to live without assistance from the government.

Here, the largest congregation of governments is talking about people like you. How do you see this exercise?
I am not sure they understand our problem clearly, or even understand the nature of our poverty. Why should we remain poor despite availability of resources? Governments should discuss the failings in their approach to poverty.

What do you suggest?
The three pillars of survival -- water, land and forest -- should be left to the people who depend on it. And there is no target required for devolution of control. It should be done immediately.

Did you realise the extent of poverty in the world before you came here?
I did know that there are people like us all over the world, and also knew about their struggle. But given our experience and efforts, I still question the need for such a huge summit. The best way to development is to leave it to the people. Governments should only play facilitative roles. We don't need world leaders to sympathise with us. But we do wish they would leave some of the decision-making powers with us.

You work for conservation of indigenous seeds. How crucial is indigenous crop for food security?
Indigenous crops are nature's gift for a particular region and its demands. The hybrid varieties are for quick production; but in case of a calamity it will fail to give you any return. On the other hand, the indigenous varieties can withstand adverse weather for months. For poor areas, the indigenous varieties are an insurance against weather.

Why did your home district witness this unprecedented extinction of paddy variety?
It is partly due to environmental degradation and partly due to government policy. The situation became so acute that with every drought, a few local varieties of paddy would vanish. Deforestation, soil erosion and the government's propagation of high yield crops resulted in less and less use of the local varieties.

Chronic drought has crippled our economy. This means less interest in agriculture. Those who take up agriculture are using the high-yield varieties. Poverty is so rampant that people consume their normal storage of seeds also. In fact with every drought, we lose a few varieties of paddy.

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