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Power to the people

In depth

Village seed bank

Village seed bank

If traditional knowledge and natural resources are to be made better use of, community participation is essential. Poor villages in the Indian part of the Ganges Delta have experienced progress in terms of food security, health care and off-grid electricity supply. A non-governmental organisation was crucial for finding and implementing technologically appropriate solutions.

[ By A.K. Ghosh ]

Biodiversity is the new buzzword in environmental politics. However, rhetoric rather than real action has dominated the era since the Convention on Biological Diversity was passed at the World Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Like-minded megadiverse countries have grouped together to exchange ideas and share experience. As biodiversity is particularly great in tropical countries, they are especially and logically from the developing world. So far, however, good intentions have been expressed regularly, but only rarely been implemented.

India has moved ahead by introducing strong legal regulations and establishing a three-tier system to deal with the matter. There is a National Biodiversity Authority at the centre, there is a State Biodiversity Board in every state, and there are Biodiversity Management Committees at the local level. The latter are to work with the help of People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs).

The idea of PBRs dates back to the early 1990’s. At the time, people’s participation in documenting local bioresources and the associated knowledge was considered essential for getting a grasp on the natural-resource base in any given landscape. It was expected that the process would lead to a more rational use of bioresources, and perhaps even help to initiate a process of interregional and even international benefit sharing. In India in the past 15 years, at least 50 PBRs were prepared, thanks to the leadership of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and several civil-society organisations across the country. While research revealed an indeed amazing biodiversity in India, utilisation of natural resources has remained below potential. Moreover, it has hardly been enhanced by science and technology.

That need not be the case. ENDEV - Society for Environment and Development, a non-governmental organisation based in Kolkata - has shown that applying traditional knowledge in new ways not only makes sense in general. Doing so can substantially improve rural people’s lives in areas as different as agriculture, medicine and energy provision. This is particularly true of remote, environmentally challenged areas, as is exemplified by the Sundarban forests in the Ganges Delta.

These forests span India and Bangladesh, they are the World’s biggest mangroves. In Bengali, Sundarban means “beautiful forest”. Historically, they are the habitat of the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger, the Estuarian Crocodile and deadly poisonous cobras. The area is still particularly rich in biodiversity. Today, some islands remain wilderness, and they are legally protected as such. Many other islands, however, have long been settled by people and much of their surface transformed into farmland.
Nonetheless, Sundarban villages remain very disadvantaged. Infrastructure is poor. There is no road network and no electricity grid. The metropolis of Kolkata is only several dozen kilometres away, but it takes hours to get there by boat. Health-care services and schools are inadequate, and the villages are time and again exposed to floods and heavy storms.

In this context, it is appropriate to make better use of natural resources. In the State of West Bengal, a PBR exercise was undertaken in different agroclimatic zones across 10 villages. Two hundred local-level students, male and female in equal number, were led by ENDEV. They documented land and water resources, the range of agrobiodiversity as well as wild resources. Moreover, they did research on villagers’ traditional knowledge.

One result was that two village-level seed banks were set up. They serve to store traditional rice varieties for free exchange among the farmers. Thanks to demonstrations conducted by ENDEV, farmers were convinced of the benefits of organic methods which make them independent of expensive fertilisers and pesticides. So called land races are particularly well adapted to local conditions. Growing them therefore enhances food security. This project was supported by a small grant from the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility.

Medicinal gardening

Elsewhere, bioresources were used to boost – and even re-introduce – healthcare according to traditional knowledge. With the help of local women who volunteered their support, ENDEV surveyed locally prevalent diseases as well as medicinal plants in Choto Mollakhali, an island in the famous Sundarban mangroves. This island has a population of 30,000, but only one doctor and one primary healthcare centre (PHC).

In course of the project, 50 species of plants were carefully identified to be raised in a herbal nursery. They were selected on the basis of the disease-profile based on the survey with the goal of revitalising the traditional health-care system. Moreover, a medicinal-plant garden was established. ENDEV designed an easy-to-understand instruction manual on the use of each of the medicinal plants. It provides guidance on the use of specific plant parts for treating common ailments like fever, colds or stomach pain.

A small, but permanent Medicinal Plant Resource Centre named after scientist J. C. Bose has been set up adjacent to the nursery and the garden. When the Centre was inaugurated, the island’s only doctor expressed his gratitude. The Centre will ensure supply of saplings to any villager interested. It encourages people to set up a small herbal garden for every household.

Intelligent use of bioresources has also changed island life in another respect. Asked by the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency (WBREDA), ENDEV’s team selected five species of fast growing plants for supplying biomass to a power plant. This stand-alone, off-grid facility has a capacity of 500 Kw. Before, Choto Mollakhali had not enjoyed electricity. It was not feasible to connect the island to the grid, and other renewable options (including wind or solar power) proved too expensive for the poor villagers. Thanks to advanced gasifier technology, biomass is now in use, reducing the new power plant’s need for expensive diesel by 80 %.

After a first feasibility report, ENDEV requested the Panchayat, the elected local government, to allow raising a captive-energy plantation as a resource for the entire community. This programme has been running successfully for five years. The local population is actively involved, and the benefits accrue to the community at large. The plantation-land in use should suffice for every following five-year cycle (Ghosh and Das, 2003). The success of this pilot project in the Sundarbans convinced the Union Ministry of Non Conventional Energy (MNES) to consider options for such plantations, whenever a wood-based gasifier power plant is being proposed.
In all instances mentioned, the success of individual village-level projects established replicable models. No doubt, community participation was crucial. As a non-government agency, ENDEV could contribute to fostering credibility among the people. Transferring relevant knowledge to the Panchayats, the democratically legitimate local-governance authorities, makes sense. Such knowledge has always been relevant to rural life, but innovative ways of using it make it even more valuable. Participation of women in all the above programmes was necessary to access all traditional knowledge, and it further strengthened the notion of gender equity.

Today, India’s National Biodiversity Authority is making efforts to launch databases, designing mechanisms for sharing benefits, and scrutinising ways to transfer of resources. Some of the State Biodiversity Boards are quite active in sensitising Panchayats. However, the potential of civil society remains largely untapped. Government agencies should become more cooperative in respect to non-governmental organisations, as these normally have better access to local communities. In any case, civil-society efforts to provide models for sustainable bioresource use in West Bengal have been hailed by international and national agencies.