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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 25

Indian Cultural Heritage and Environmental Conservation through Traditional Knowledge

Sunday 8 June 2008, by Bharti Chhibber


Nature has always been very vibrant, giving and resilient to a very large extent. We, as Indians, take pride in our strong cultural heritage. Religion protects and nurtures nature. If we take a look at Hinduism, we worship the sun, wind, land, trees, plants, and water which is the very base of human survival. Likewise, respect and conservation of wildlife—garuda, lion, peacock, and snake—are part of our cultural ethos from time immemorial. Almost the entire living of God Ram and Goddess Sita was very close to nature. Further, ancient texts written in Sanskrit, Pali or other languages can provide significant details. For instance, the scripture Vishnu Samhitâ in Sanskrit language contains some direct instructions dealing with biodiversity conservation.

In fact, whole civilisations have come into existence near sources of water like Indus Valley Civilisation. In this sense, nature and culture become intertwined. Culture reflects our history, tradition and our beliefs. Revolutions in the technological and communication fields and the advent of globalisation have made an impact on our culture which have also evolved with time. However, it becomes imperative that we adapt new things without losing the basic character of our long cherished traditions and values which include environmental conservation. India is a culturally rich and diverse country where people speak many different languages, with many communities which live in their respective social structures completely depending on their environment to ensure their livelihood.

The process of economic growth and development, though vital for any nation’s progress, done at the cost of environmental degradation through industrialisation and urbanisation—transportation, burning of fossil fuels and deforestation—has led to the emission of green house gases into the atmosphere. These gases absorb the heat of solar rays, which results in the warming of the atmosphere, seas and oceans leading to floods, droughts, severe storms, melting of ice at the poles, receding of glaciers and rise in sea water levels. These issues have brought the concerns for environmental conservation and sustainable development to the forefront.

At the international level, the Convention on Biological Diversity, signed at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, is dedicated to promoting sustainable development. It recognises that biological diversity is about more than plants, animals and microorganisms and their ecosystems—it is about people and our need for food security, medicines, fresh air and water, shelter, and a clean and healthy environment in which to live. At the national level, Article 48(A) of the Indian Constitution imposes a constitutional obligation on the state to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Article 51(A)(g) imposes a constitutional obligation on the citizens of India to protect and improve the natural environment, including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for all living creatures. We also have laws to deal with air pollution, emission of greenhouse gases and use of ozone-depleting substances like the Water Act, the Air Act and the Environment Protection Act but the need is for their strict implementation.

The Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, adopted by the 32nd session of the General Conference of UNESCO in September 2003, calls for safeguarding knowledge and skills that are recognised by communities, groups, and in some cases individuals, as forming part of their cultural heritage; are transmitted from generation to generation and constantly recreated; are crucial for the sense of identity and continuity of communities and groups; are in conformity with human rights, and, mutual respect and sustainable development. This is commonly known as traditional or indigenous knowledge. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in June 2006, recognises “that respect for indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices contributes to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment”. In India, the Biological Diversity Act contains a framework provision for the protection of this rare knowledge of indigenous communities but it is always in the implementation part that we lag behind.

TRADITIONAL knowledge had always contributed to modern medicine and health care. Further for centuries, indigenous communities were used to surviving and adjusting their agriculture, fishing and hunting in the event of changes in climate. It is ironical that now when the threat of climate change is so imminent we are looking for solutions outside. However, there is another threat looming large, that is, of losing these communities to outright annihilation or due to their amalgamation in the mainstream. Moreover, with the commercialisation of even natural resources, traditional knowledge that managed to maintain sustainable levels of harvest has been sidelined. Issues of privatisation, alienation and ‘bio-piracy’ are major areas of concern. With globalisation these pressures are stronger than ever. The existing policy and legal mechanisms to protect traditional knowledge usually does not involve these communities themselves. Hence they do little to safeguard local community needs, values and customary laws relating to traditional knowledge and genetic resources of indigenous and local communities. We have to preserve this aspect of culture and amalgamate it with modern methods to work towards environmental conservation.

By analysing the ethnic communities we can understand this aspect of inherited knowledge. I shall substantiate this point further by highlighting some instances very briefly.

In the first instance, we have two success stories in two different eco-cultural landscapes, that is, Demazong (the Buddhist eco-cultural landscape in Sikkim Himalayas) and the Apatani eco-cultural landscape in Arunachal Pradesh, which illustrate the utility value of traditional ecological knowledge in sustainable natural resource management.1

Another example is that of natural resource conservation at the village of Mendha in Gadhchiroli district of Maharashtra. In 1987, the villagers renewed their efforts at biodiversity conservation. It was decided that no commercial exploitation of the forests, except for Non-Timber Forest Produce, would be allowed. Further, villagers would themselves regulate the amount of resources they could extract from the forests and undertake measures to tackle soil erosion. Forests would not be set on fire. Encroachment would not be allowed. The important aspect of this community is that the villagers decide for themselves, yet they are open to information from the outside world.

A third case study is that of the North-Eastern region of India which is home to diverse tribal and other ethnic groups. These communities meet a substantial proportion of their resource requirements from a relatively small catchment area in which they have been living for a long time. They live in complete harmony with nature. For example, the Meetei communities in the States of Manipur and Assam. Sacred groves, or Umang Lais, as they are called in the Meetei language, form an integral part of the Manipuri tradition of nature worship. Several species of plants are protected in these groves, which also offer protection to birds and animals. These include teak, several fruit trees like lemon, plants of medicinal value such as ginger, eucalyptus and bamboo. Fishes, waterfowl and other aquatic animals like snails and insects are very common items in the diet of the Meetei. However, many of these animals are not eaten during certain periods, probably with the motive of sustainable harvesting and conservation.2 Thus, in this case certain religious beliefs and practices help in the conservation of nature and its biodiversity.

Similarly, the indigenous inherited knowledge provided by the fishermen of Greater Mumbai and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra was found to be rich, varied with potential technical know-how associated with the management of bag net, shore-seine, gill net, long line and traditional trawl fishery.3

In another case study, ethno-botanical surveys were conducted during 1998 and 1999 in villages of Bhadra Wild Life Sanctuary area, situated in the Western Ghats region of Karnataka. The utilisation of leaves of Centella Asiatica, and roots of Ichnocarpus Frutescens in the treatment of jaundice, diabetes were found to be noteworthy.4 It is ironical that at a time when the West is seeking solace in our traditional practices be it medicine, meditation or Yoga, we, despite having a rich herbal wealth, have a share in the world herbal market that is not even 1.5 per cent.

Another example is that of medicinal expertise of Yanadi tribals in Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh. The alienation of the Yanadi from forest resources and the resultant loss of Yanadi traditional knowledge is a serious issue.

Policy Implications

FIRST, the government should take further steps to preserve, protect, and promote the traditional cultures and knowledge of the indigenous people. Second, side by side they should also be encouraged to develop, and opportunity be provided for education and scientific study. Third, related departments should coordinate to avoid overlapping as well as for smooth implementation of a particular policy. Fourth, there is further need to involve related non-government organisations as at times it is easy for NGOs to interact and get across to tribal people. Fifth, another important aspect is to sensitise and educate concerned officials at the state and especially at the local levels to understand and respect the culture differences. Sixth, ways have to be worked out so that benefits can be shared from accessing traditional knowledge. There is need for synergy between locals and scientists. Oral presentations complemented by video can bridge the gap between the two. Both are complementary to each other. Modern science can give a broader perspective to local sustainability whereas traditional knowledge can provide in depth experience in the local context. Seventh, though it may be crucial that in the designated areas, customary landowners are prohibited from excessive harvesting of biological resources to protect biological diversity, however their rights to land and resources should be formally approved. Eighth, to promote alternative means of livelihood products and services, including forest and agricultural products, herbal medicines, cultural heritage or traditional health-based tourism, ecotourism, scientific tourism and handicrafts based on traditional knowledge and skills be encouraged. Ninth, indigenous people should be fully involved in every stage of policies and plans related to sustainable development. Finally, young people should be encouraged to learn more about their cultural heritage as well as tolerance and respect for other cultures and traditions.

Hence, we are faced today with the challenge of not only industrialisation, liberalisation and urbanisation but also to make sure that fresh air and clean water are available to our people. This is possible only by active participation both by the government and the people in resource conservation and management. This requires political will, education, and a change in the mindset of the people at large. Conservation of natural resources and culture can be achieved only through the empowerment of indigenous communities and their development. Finally, it is good to know that our efforts at preservation of natural resources have been recognised the world over with the latest survey by National Geographic magazine calling Indians as the most environment-friendly people. But this puts an additional responsibility on Indians, that is, not only to protect, preserve and promote Indian cultural heritage and traditional knowledge, but also to lead the world in environment conservation through sustainable development through the ages.


1. Rai, S. C. (2007), “Traditional ecological knowledge and community-based natural resource management in northeast India”, Journal of Mountain Science, Volume 4, Number 3, pp. 248-258.

2. Singh, L. Jeetendro et al.(1998), “Environmental Ethics in the Culture of Meeteis from North East India” in Song Sang-yong et al.(eds), Bioethics in Asia in the 21st Century, Christchurch: Eubios Ethics Institution.

3. Nirmale, Vivek H et al. (2004), “Assessment of indigenous knowledge of coastal fisherfolk of Greater Mumbai and Sindhudurg districts of Maharashtra”, Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol. 3(1), pp. 37-50.

4. Parinitha, M. et al.(2004), “Ethno-botanical wealth of Bhadra wild life sanctuary in Karnataka”, Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol. 3(1), pp. 51-58.

Dr Bharti Chhibber is a Lecturer in Political Science, University of Delhi.

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