Tried and tested
In Andhra Pradesh dip their hands in fresh milk while transplanting seedlings.They know - but until now, not why - that this traditional practice prevents the spread of tobacco mosaic virus. Researchers at the Centre for Cellular and Mollecular Biology in Hydrabad say their studies indicate that an enzyme in Hydrabad say their studies indicate that an enzyme found in the milk can break into the virus' protein coat and destroy it.
Similarly, meteorological officials in Nairobi disdainfully dismissed as superstition a report that Kenyan farmers time sowing on the basis of a link between lunar phases and rainfall. It took a subsequent analysis of weather records to confirm the farmers were right. Add a feather to the cap of people's knowledge.
The traditional wisdom of rural communities -- people's knowledge -- has been acquired over generations of environmental adaptation and David Atte, an economist who has studied African indigenous knowledge systems, explains, "It is an unwritten body of knowledge. There is no systematic record to describe what it is, what it does, how it does it."
People's knowledge is also often undervalued, ignored, despised, rejected and threatened by modern trends, such as single-crop agriculture and urbanisation. Says British academic Robert Chambers, "Urban-based professionals and officials often do not know the rural reality; worse, they do not know that they do not know." The modern intellectual, observes Anil Gupta of the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, "is networked globally, but alienated locally".
Recording know-how But the battle is not quite lost. A number of organisations in India and abroad have started documenting the knowledge of farmers and villagers in a bid to get them recognition. Honeybee, published by Gupta from Ahmedabad, The Smallholder published in Canada and the Agricultural University of Cochabambo (AGRUCO) in Bolivia record examples of people's knowledge.
The battle-cry of "sustainable development" has also fuelled interest in traditional know-how, especially with hi-tech approaches spawning more intractable problems. Says David Thurston, a plant pathologist at Cornell University in New York, "It is time to re-examine the potential for traditional agriculture to contribute to an improved sustainable agriculture."
Thurston has harsh words for funding agencies, saying that in their eagerness to promote modern agriculture based on molecular science, they neglect the value of traditional farming systems.
This fragmented movement has been joined by another, more powerful driving force -- pharmaceutical and agrochemical companies wanting to use people's knowledge of plants and animals as a pointer to potentially profitable products, such as drugs.
They have good reason to be interested. One study shows that of 119 chemical substances extracted from plants for medicinal use worldwide, about 70 per cent were used for similar purposes in local communities. Individuals and communities can identify scores of local plants and have extensive knowledge of their medicinal applications. Says US ethnobotanist Harry G Plotkin, "Each time a medicine man dies, it is as if a library had burnt down."
When PRADAN, a rural development organisation in Tamil Nadu, held a biodiversity contest for farmers and children recently, the prize-winning farmer identified 240 plant species and a shepherd's son could not only identify 116 local plant species but also list their uses. Says Gupta, "Such children are unsurpassed in their field of expertise. They may not be literate, but they are educated in their own way."
People's knowledge is not static, but is the result of constant adaptation and innovation. For example, four years ago, Umarbhai Rasulbhai Kariwalla, a farmer in Deshad village in Gujarat, began using the extract from a local plant, naffatiya, to protect his cotton crop from lashkari (bollworm). The extract's effectiveness encouraged him to continue experiments on his two-ha plot and he now has largely dispensed with commercial pesticides at a saving of Rs 800 per ha.
This is just one of the many innovative methods of pest management used by farmers in Gujarat. Says Astad Pastakia, the student at the Indian Institute of Management who discovered the practice during a survey in Bharuch district, "Indian farmers have been known for centuries for coming up with creative solutions depending on the challanges of their times."
The story repeats itself elsewhere. Bolivian, scientist Gustavo Saravia reports, "AGRUCO has found from its research that the technologies of farmers are effective and relevant. Not only do they meet their needs from an ecological perspective, they are also in tune with the sociocultural and economic needs of farmers."
For example, among practices documented and disseminated by Saravia's group is predicting rain from observations of the leke-leke bird's nesting habits: When the bird lays its eggs at higher elevations, heavy rainfall is expected; when it lays eggs in low-lying areas, rainfall is likely to be sparse.
AGRUCO information is circulated widely and is used as teaching material in rural schools. According to Saravia, "Children are now learning about things related to their own reality, instead of concepts, objects and facts remote from their everyday experience".
Gupta, too, is convinced that the knowledge of people who live in close proximity to their environment, is a valuable resource that must be protected and nurtured. He has been doing research on people's knowledge for more than a decade and started Honeybee in 1990 because "the academic world can become too insular and it is all too easy to lose touch with the people for whose welfare one is ostensibly working."
Honeybee has documented more than 500 cases of the ingenuity of farmers scattered over 300 villages in India (See boxes). Published originally only in English, the journal is produced now in many Indian languages, including Hindi, Gujarati, Oriya, Kannada and Tamil.
Individuals in Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and some other countries, says Gupta, want to bring out editions in their native languages. "The level of response that Honeybee has generated in such a short time," he adds, "shows that it is fulfilling a long-standing need." Noting that "the scope for linking the research of scientists and farmers is enormous", Gupta cites an example: Farmers in Kanjari village in Gujarat spread juice from the branches of the karanj (Pongamia pinnata) tree over the hooves of animals infected with the foot-and-mouth disease. An investigation by Gujarat Agricultural University scientists showed the extract has antiseptic and soothing properties and is fatal to maggots.
Some Honeybee readers have argued that scientific validation undermines people's knowledge because it suggests modern science is better authority. Gupta, however, backs a two-way exchange of information, "Value can be added to local concepts with the help of modern science and technology. Perhaps the boundries of science itself will expand in the light of these concepts."
Surveys and studies
Innovations listed in Honeybee are compiled on the basis of annual surveys conducted with the help of college students. In Gujarat, for instance, second- and third-year students meet in summer camps and are taught identifying practices and instructed on the kind of information they are to collect. These include the ecological environment in which the practice is found, its coverage, when it began, its source, any modifications made, and the precautions taken. Ways of collecting and preserving samples of plants and other artefacts for subsequent identification are also discussed and the students follow up two weeks of work in the villages with detailed documentation.
The Honeybee team tries not to miss out practices on grounds of irrationality. Editor Kirit Patel says hasty judgements may result in good practices being thrown out with the bad. "While we believe," explains Gupta, "that some farmers' practices may not stand scientific scrutiny, either because of wrong documentation or because they are indeed not effective, many will stand the test." And, Patel adds that even if a small fraction proves effective, the enterprise would have been worthwhile.
A common criticism of documenting peoples' knowledge is that little effort is made to share the results with locals. Gupta, at pains to avoid the charge, responds, "We are determined to keep the villagers involved at every step." He says he is aware that documenting traditional practices makes them liable to be used for profit by others and concedes that legal mechanisms to defend peoples' intellectual rights are still a long way off. However, by mobilising awareness, he hopes to persuade companies that derive profits from people's knowledge to pay compensation.
As part of his efforts to lobby for the recognition of people's rights at the legal and political level, Gupta has set up the Society for Research and Initiatives for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI), which will also support research on deriving herbal pesticides, veterinary medicines and other commercial products from traditional cures. Gupta also plans to set up a body to register individual or community innovations and assign each one a code.
The concept of community is considered particularly important in terms of people's knowledge because there is growing awareness that a community's cultural conventions provide the framework for preserving and propagating knowledge. Practices that emerged through trial and error, for example, may be enshrined in religious myths, folk songs and rituals. Many of these practices are based on a respect for natural resources and ensure they are used with restraint. For example, in Rajasthan, large areas of land called auran are designated as sacred groves within which tree-cutting and animal grazing are forbidden.
Cultural diversity is, therefore, as vital as biological diversity, but Gupta warns market imperatives are inimical to both forms of diversity. There are exceptions, of course, such as the wine industry in France, where rare varieties of grapes grown in specific climatic and soil conditions are prized for their unique qualities. But in most cases, mass production requires uniformity of products and processes. As a result, practices that deviate from the norm are neglected and die out. And, this is one reason why, in many cases, documenting people's knowledge is a race against time.