Conserving biodiversity and generosity

THREE kilometres off the Hoshangabad-Itarsi road in Madhya Pradesh lies the village of Nitaya. If you can't get hold of a bicycle to get to this village then you'll have to walk down. And that was what I was doing one afternoon in early March. On my way to a workshop of activists, I was already late and was pre-occupied with the theme of the workshop: the impact of the recent economic reform on the weaker sections of Indian society. The ripened wheat fields on both sides of the path provided a soothing, green, non- invasive backdrop to my thoughts.

A young lad, whose name I later learnt was Hemant, caught up with me along the way. We talked about the environment and activity-based science teaching course we run in all the middle schools of Hoshangabad district, which he had been through two years ago.

Suddenly Hemant casually asked, "Ber khoyenge (Will you,have some ber)?" My pre-occupied mind took some time to register his offer. Interpreting this as hesitancy on my part, he elaborated, "Desi hain (They we of a local variety)."

This jolted me out of my reverie and I began to notice the fields of hybrid wheat, the soyabean plants and all the other signs of modern agriculture with some amusement. For I was in the heart of the command area of the Tawa Dam and Nitaya was the centre of the campaign against waterlogging from the irrigation canals of the dam, the Mitti Bachao Andolan.

In the middle of a heavily commercialised cultivated area that has seen the coming in of monocultures and where the traditional arhar dal has been substituted by cash crops, someone was offering me desi ber from trees that still existed amidst these exotic monocultures! No slogans could have mocked the surroundings so well as these two murmured words. As long as desi ber remained in fields that were ripe with everything non-desi, there was hope. And I couldn't help hoping that the swadeshi seed of self-reliance would survive all the liberalisation and structural adjustment onslaughts of the debt perpetrators, and suddenly come to life when the "non-market" masses could take no more.

Over the next two months I spent a lot of time looking closely at the issue of biodiversity, particularly in relation to the convention that is likely to come up at the UNCED conference at Rio. My encounter with Hemant assumed added significance in this context. Through the Biodiversity Convention, the industrialised world was pushing proposals that would bind many developing countries to identify, document and preserve genetic material, which can then be freely accessed by corporate biotechnological interests in these countries to produce exotic varieties. Access to these would, however, be restricted through monopoly controls like patents. Young Hemant's generosity in handing over desi ber symbolises the ignorance of people in the Southern world about the politics of a resource that they have traditionally controlled.

But if it is found that his desi her contains an important gene that needs to be isolated for commerce, trade and profit-making, his generosity in handing it over to a visitor would be foolish and naive. Legally, he would be expected to remain informed of such happenings and if such an eventuality should occur, rather than being silly by being generous, he should know exactly how much to extract for his desi resource.

Hence preserving biodiversity, in the manner being discussed at international forums, implies that those who live close to the world's genetic resources are stupid and they must jettison values which are riot in keeping with the commodification and market value of biological resources.

In effect, whereas some biodiversity may remain preserved for the benefit of the Northern technologies and trade, the pressures on the Southern populations are not likely to remain confined to their plant or animal resources but is bound to invade their value systems.

If his desi ber becomes economically important for the corporate monopolies of the North, would Hemant be wrong to make village elders fence off the village's fields? In that way he may get a tiny fraction of the enormous earnings which a Northern biotech transnational company is likely to amass from his genetic resources through monopoly control. But as things stand, the moment his resource becomes important or endangered, the fence and guards will come, not from the villagers but from the government and Hemant and his village will be legally displaced.

But I have faith in the toiling Southern humans. Aware or not, they will put no such fences on their own; will continue to remain generous; lose whatever little is paid for their resources to national agencies !who shall exercise the sole right to trade in their resources. They are living examples of a practice that sees no conflict in values like generosity and the preservation of biodiversity.

In fact, it is such practices and the principle of a common heritage of all species, natural and exotic, rather than the facilitation of monopoly rights of a few to genetic resources that should be the:genda for the Earth Summit. Hopefully, when the few exotic varieties fall prey to an unforeseen disease some day and the Brave New World Economic and Structural Adjustment Order begins to crumble, they would still have preserved a few desi seeds, biological, cultural and ethical, that will renew the integrated diversity on this earth.

Vinod Raina, a physicist, gave up teaching to become science and environmental activist. He is attached to Eklavya, a popular science forum. He will writing regularly for this column.