Poverty abounds in bio rich areas

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PEOPLE who live in areas prone to droughts, floods and cyclones or amidst hills and forests have developed lifestyles best suited to their natural resources, thereby enriching the biodiversity of their areas.

Diversity emerges only through the human ability to combine varied and often opposing patterns of life - to seek adventure and pleasure and to search for a means of survival. It is impossible in high-risk environments to survive merely by relying on crops, livestock, trees and labour power. Ecological circumstances have generated a survival ethic based on collective rather than individual solutions. This is why various social groups have shared information about, among other things, edible and non-edible plant species, migratory patterns of wildlife and antidotes for snake and insect bites.

Emerging social institutions used various cultural codes to help link diversity with collective survival. For instance, moral boundaries were often created around human needs. Sacred groves were preserved as a sphere of collective control. At times, the deities provided clues to the nature of diversity in the area: certain plants or animals were found in abundance in a region considered historically as the favoured abode of a deity and rituals to honour the deity served to preserve diversity.

But then why has this ethic of preserving biodiversity resulted in community deprivation? The answer lies both in the nature of the ecology of high-risk regions and in the economic and political institutions that govern them.

Nature imposes limits on the choices available. States and markets always find it difficult to deal with diversity. Many insurgency movements are actually protests of indigenous people in bio-rich regions against the destruction of their habitat. The protests end up being portrayed as law-and-order problems. Often, the declaration of forests as sanctuaries leads to tension with the people who have resided there for generations. The destruction of forests is frequently because of a market-oriented approach to forest management. Local residents become party to it only when other means of survival are exhausted or when they find that their resources are being depleted despite their efforts to conserve them.

There are numerous examples of people living in harsh environments readily resisting subjugation by a centralised authority. Often, these residents, over a period of time, were either totally crushed or wound up depending on the state for their very survival. The more able among them -- particularly the men -- migrated in search of jobs and eventually become assimilated in other cultures. Those left behind also began to change once they realised that their awareness of biodiversity around them and their skill in reproducing or maintaining this diversity, did not meet the needs of the market.

Diversity is sustained only when local skills enjoy market support, like in the instance of French wines extracted from grapes grown in specific areas.

A tragedy in tropical countries of the South is that neither market nor state is interested in maintaining diversity in farming systems or resource management. Thus, diversity becomes a source of deprivation because the skills and resources required to maintain it are not valued.

Not surprisingly, organisations that are held responsible for their environment becoming backward and harsh usually find it difficult to develop the flexible procedures and norms needed for the financial credit to sustain highly diversified enterprises. Studies show that Indian banks, anxious to finance short-term, low-risk activities, make it easier to get loans for certain kinds of activities at the expense of others. Those managing apparently high-risk activities are thus forced to borrow from informal sources at high rates of interest or switch to other enterprises. In most Southern countries, the ruling elite plays the decisive role in development, which is why it rarely benefits the communities that need help. However, increasing violence and separatism in backward regions indicate that communities which have withstood the loss of their biodiversity may not be willing to suffer the loss of cultural diversity.

Linking diversity
Biodiversity is usually maintained through cultural diversity and thousands of gods and local dialects signify both cultural diversity and diverse philosophies of life. The state usually resorts to coercion to control cultural diversity, including confining "stubborn" cultures to enclosed regions like American Indian reservations in USA. But with the rise of the unified state, biodiverse regions such as forests wind up becoming sanctuaries for rebel groups.

Conservation of diversity is often high in regions where local populations are not responsive to state control. For instance, in the Jhabua tribal region of Madhya Pradesh, forests are intact only in the pockets occupied by the Bhils -- the most ferocious of tribal communities.

While the modern state would like to benefit from the knowledge of deviant and non-submissive cultures, it invariably resorts to educational and developmental strategies that destroy these cultures. Once an inferiority complex is institutionalised, cultures self-destruct. Cutting of forests or excessive exploitation of medicinal plants becomes acceptable only when accumulation of wealth becomes a matter of social status.

International institutions also work against cultural pluralism. An example of this is the United Nations in its formulation of national conservation strategies. In almost every country, UN strategies have been developed through bureaucrats who often show little professional sensitivity to cultural pluralism in local languages.

Cultural diversity influences people's choice of lifestyle. Those who conserve biological diversity most effectively often have minimal expectations from life. They do not lack entrepreneurship to transform their local environment, but limit the use of their ecological resources. For example, the tradition in Chitradurga, Karnataka, is to leave three rows of crops (known as akkadi -- one run of a drill) in the field for birds and animals.

Compensating for conservation
How can communities which exercise restraint in their use of resources be compensated? One way is to value biological diversity, though this would be difficult should the resource have little or no immediate value. Several common resources have also suffered because the institutions managing them have weakened over time and because perceptions of the government or international agencies of resource value did not match local perceptions. An example of this is the stand-off in Canada between the government and Mohawk Indians who objected to a former tribal graveyard being developed into a golf course. It is often argued that development cannot be achieved without paying a price, but many now ask why the price should always be paid by the marginalised population.

In most developing countries, though conventional boundaries of common property resources were first violated during the colonial era, they continued even after independence. In many instances, state control proved to be worse than feudal control. The answer to whether the original boundaries can be respected today and whether the state will allow local communities to control these resources and renew their biological diversity may lie in instituting environmental courts with the jury consisting of local residents.

Another form of compensation would be to pay royalties to communities which conserve their diversity. Studies have shown that about 70 per cent of 119 pure chemical substances extracted from plants for use internationally in medicines were used for similar purposes by local communities. Clearly, the intellectual property of these people has been usurped by multinational drug companies.

Norman R Farnsworth, an eminent authority in the field of medicinal plants whose database on such plants at the University of Illinois in Chicago is reputed to be the largest in the world, estimates that the drug sold under the brand names of Oncovin and Velban, based on vincristine which has anti-tumour properties, generated income of about US $100 million, of which about 88 per cent went as profit to Lilly Research Laboratories.

The entire debate on Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and farmers' rights over biodiversity reveals clearly the reluctance of multinationals to pay dues to countries that have conserved some of the most biologically diverse, ecological sites. Instead of passing on the benefits of this biodiversity to metropolitan centres, regional development boards comprising of representatives of various interest groups could be set up to identify democratic alternatives for biodiversity management.

If it is accepted that the intellectual property of peasants, pastoralists, horticulturalists, fisherfolk and women needs to be properly recognised and rewarded, then this could be the new criterion for allocating fiscal and other resources and only those communities which have maintained diversity would be compensated.

But two problems could arise if this system of compensation is adopted. It may be difficult to separate the human contribution in maintaining diversity from nature's contribution. In those areas that are inherently more diverse, the human contribution would lie in refining and adding value to the existing diversity base. Secondly, institutions for maintaining diversity may be controlled by local power brokers and so routing compensation through them may marginalise the disadvantaged even further.

There are many instances of individuals going it alone. In Junagadh district in Gujarat, Haribhai of Baglu village stopped using pesticides seven years ago after noticing disastrous effects on birds which ate the pests killed by the chemicals. However, his yields were about the same as those of neighbouring farmers who had used pesticides and in addition, there was a wider variety of insects and pests, birds, frogs and earthworms on his land. Unlike organic farmers in the West, Haribhai did not stop using pesticides to enhance biodiversity or so that he could demand higher prices for his products. He was motivated by religious and cultural beliefs, and a welcome by-product was that his costs were greatly reduced.

Are there legal, organisational and fiscal instruments existent to compensate preservers of biodiversity like Haribhai? The value of drugs from plants found in tropical rainforests in the developing world alone is estimated to be US $43 billion or more a year. The developing world must be compensated not only for their contributions but also to protect their cultural and technological skills for nurturing biodiversity.

Indian patent law excludes from its purview "methods of agriculture or horticulture" and "processes for the treatment of plants to render them free of disease or to increase their economic value or that of their products". Also, even though there is no explicit exclusion of animal or plant varieties or other biotechnological products, patenting them would appear doubtful.

The international debate on germplasm conservation has resulted in acceptance of the concept of farmers' rights, although the precise mechanism of enforcement has not been spelt out. The plant breeder's rights in Europe have been extended in such a manner that a company can be prevented from incorporating even a small part of a patented germplasm.

Patenting germplasm
Unless India patents the country's germplasm and provides a similar facility to other developing countries, Indian seed companies and R & D institutions will not be able to withstand the onslaught of Western multinationals. India should respect patents and simultaneously apply international patent protection to all of the country's wild and domesticated plant and animal resources. Indian officials must insist that seed companies using genes from parent plants collected from India directly or through institutions like the International Centre for Research in Semi-arid Tropics in Hyderabad, should pay royalty to India. The argument that plant varieties and breeds selected by farmers are the common heritage of humankind will no longer wash because the status of a region's biodiversity is not entirely the result of a natural process. Human activity, in both a negative and a positive sense, has also played an important role.

Indian subsidiaries of large seed multinationals have been able to transmit germplasm to their parent companies without let or any hindrance. Unlike the repatriation of profits, the repatriation of germplasm or genes is far easier. However, thanks to the efforts of scientists like Lalji Singh of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, India is perhaps the only country in the South with an entirely indigenous technology of DNA fingerprinting. This is a technique of characterising each specie, family and individual within it with a unique nucleotide (genetic unit) sequence in a specific portion of the chromosome. DNA fingerprinting has often been used to settle court conflicts over parenthood. This technique can be used for plants as well, making it possible to trace the illegitimate transfer of genes from one country to another. A joint project is likely to be undertaken by the CCMB and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research to characterise the germplasm in Indian gene banks and this expertise could be extended to other developing countries.

Like many other tropical countries, India has considerable genetic diversity. Together with Bhutan, Nepal, China and some African countries, India should insist on a major income transfer from the seed companies of the North to the countries of the South. The returns on research into seeds would improve and Indian companies would be able to compete with the best in the world. All this would lead to an increase in the prices of many essential drugs that are either imported or manufactured by the Indian subsidiaries of MNCs, but it will give a much-needed boost to ayurveda and other alternative systems. It is ironic that only a small fraction of India's national resources is spent on research into these systems even though more than 80 per cent of human and about 90 per cent of animal health care, is still predominantly based on them.

Sharing data
Often, public-spirited professionals arguing on behalf of disadvantaged communities have to seek the support of those very agencies of whose policies they disapprove. But some normative principles must guide their work: data on biodiversity and its possible uses after compilation must be shared with the communities or the individuals from whom it was collected; the organisation should be persuaded to respect the cultural and institutional context of indigenous knowledge systems; the nature of intellectual discourse should reflect the values of the original systems; and there can be no gain from a particular system unless the spiritual and cultural concerns of the people who have maintained their biodiversity is shared.

In each developing country, there is a body of indigenous thought on the subject of biodiversity. India has ancient texts like Vriksha Ayurveda and Krisi Parasar. If the ethic of conservation is to be revived, it has to built on each country's traditions. Several modern technologies, including DNA fingerprinting, have generated a false hope that genetic diversity can be preserved through laboratory methods. But biodiversity is not a static concept and people who live in a bio-rich but economically poor environment keep on making selections to enrich a given diversity. To safeguard the ability of these people to continue enriching their biodiversity, there is a need for an institutional mechanism on the same pattern as that sought for Western innovations in the Dunkel draft.

Most countries of the South have still to realise the value of what they possess. Genes for disease resistance, stability and survival in harsh environments are available only in the tropical, Himalayan and Andean environments. If global climatic changes are likely to be even half as serious as they are being made out to be, the skills of reproducing biodiversity under harsh conditions will be in great demand. If this is so, pastoralists, forest people and mountain communities may become the dominant cultures of the future.

Just as the honey-bee does not impoverish the flowers from which it picks its pollen and connects one flower to another through pollination, academics participating in the discourse on biodiversity should extract a people's knowledge, but ensure that they do not make them poorer as a result.

Anil K Gupta is a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. He edits Honeybee, an informal newsletter documenting innovative indigenous practices.