Credit for conservation

Published : Nov 22, 2002 00:00 IST

Three community-based initiatives in India bag the inaugural prize of the Equator Initiative, a UNDP-initiated programme to alleviate poverty while sustaining biodiversity.

PROTECTING medicinal plants in Pune. Conserving agro-biodiversity in the Jeypore area of Orissa. Helping the Kani community of Kerala benefit from its traditional knowledge. These are all community-based initiatives aimed at alleviating poverty while sustaining biodiversity the mandate of the Equator Initiative, the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) worldwide movement started in January 2002 to recognise, support and sustain innovative partnerships that simultaneously address biodiversity loss and poverty. The three Indian initiatives that carried out this mandate have bagged the UNDP's Equator Initiative Prize for 2002. This year the awards went to 27 such "outstanding innovative'' projects in the tropical ecosystems, which are, ironically, concentratations of both biological riches and abject human poverty.

The prizes for the Indian initiatives went to two organisations the Chennai-based M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF), for its partnership initiative with the tribal people of the Jeypore tract in combining biodiversity preservation with livelihood enhancement, and the Medicinal Plant Conservation Centre (MPCC), Pune, for conserving 50 species of uncommon medicinal plants. The third winner is an individual Dr. P. Pushpangadhan, Director, National Botanical Institute, Lucknow, who gets it for developing an equitable benefit-sharing model between the Kani community and the Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute (TBGRI), Thiruvananthapuram (Dr. Pushpangadan was earlier Director of the TBGRI.). They were presented the $30,000 prize along with a citation and a trophy on October 17.

According to UNDP Administrator Marc Malloch Brown, the Equator Initiative, set up with seven global partners this January, "addresses a critical gap that exists between common challenges facing the biologically rich equatorial belt and little-known local solutions". The project aims at disseminating worldwide successful local experiences, and the Equator Prize is the first step in this effort.

Selected as outstanding initiatives "in confronting common problems with innovative solutions'', the three Indian projects were chosen from among 420 nominations drawn from 77 countries lying between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn the focus area of the Equator Initiative.

The Jeypore tract of Orissa is rich in agro-biodiversity; 1,750 varieties of rice have originated from here, though hardly 150 exist today. It is now a tract of squalour and poverty. To conserve biodiversity as well as to enhance livelihood systems, the MSSRF launched, in 1998, an innovative project among the tribal communities in the villages of Tola, Baliguda, Patraput, Kashiguda, Nuaguda and Mohuli, making commercialisation the trigger for conservation. The initiative, according to the UNDP, "has resulted in the revitalisation of on-farm conservation traditions and livelihood systems through conservation of agro-biodiversity, in partnership with local communities''.

The MSSRF plans to create a corpus from the prize money, the interest from which is to be used for the welfare of the tribal communities in the project area.

The MSSRF initiative included, first of all, the setting up of three banks gene, seed and grain with a difference. The Community Gene Bank stores distinct local varieties (land races), the seeds of which are assessed for genetic characteristics and conserved both by ensuring their continued cultivation and by stocking them in cold storage. The Seed Bank stores excess seeds belonging to the farmers so that they can be used during times of shortage. The Grain Bank stores excess produce, which is lent to farmers' families in times of need. The three banks, integrated to support one another, are managed by the palli samitis (village committees) and panchayats with help from the MSSRF.

Through a series of initiatives, the MSSRF encouraged the tribal communities to cultivate the local varieties by helping them with inputs (particularly quality seeds), production knowhow (organic cultivation, which reduces cost and enhances quality; community water harvesting techniques; participatory plant breeding initiative to enhance soil fertility and raise productivity; community gardens of medicinal plants), knowledge of the market (for special characteristics such as fragrance, taste and medicinal properties), and market linkages (to commercialise conservation and to sustain livelihoods).

These efforts have given excellent returns. The tribal communities of the six villages are now self-sufficient and have become market-savvy. Of the 150 land races, 102 are being conserved by the local communities, whose incomes have increased several fold from the enhanced sale of local rice varieties such as Kalajeera and Barapanka, as also medicinal plants and organic products. Thanks to the MSSRF, the palli samitis maintain a community biodiversity register to document local plant varieties and indigenous knowledge.

THE MPCC, Pune, the third recipient of the prize, is part of a Medicinal Plant Conservation Area (MPCA) programme that is in operation in five States of peninsular India Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The programme, created by the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), is a multi-pronged effort for the conservation of medicinal plants within an ecosystem, the production of traditional medicine aimed at eventually aiding primary health care, and for increasing the income levels of the local populace. The programme allows tribal communities, which were previously excluded from conservation work, to participate actively in efforts to protect and gain from their botanical heritage.

The FRLHT said that although the Prize had been awarded to the MPCC, Pune, MPCAs in all the five States would share the cash component.

The MPCC's programme has been recognised by the U.N. as having "...achieved great success in advancing the cause of medicinal plant conservation while also lifting rural people out of poverty''. In Pune, the MPCC conducts floristic studies, documents traditional knowledge, imparts to the community self-help skills for the use of traditional plants, helps raise nurseries, and formulates local management committees to implement and monitor plans. The other centres also follow this strategy.

"The MPCA project took shape in 1993 when we began looking towards conserving our Indian medical heritage,'' says Dr. Darshan Shankar, director of the FRLHT. When we started, we realised that traditional health care was dying because the resource base was getting eroded. Therefore, it was essential to conserve the system within which medicinal plants need to survive," Shankar told Frontline. "You cannot conserve them in laboratories.''

India has more than one fourth (8,000) of the world's known medicinal plant species (30,000). Almost 90 per cent are found in forest habitats. "We should be able to protect as well as tap this potential,'' Shankar says. He says it became a multi-stakeholder programme that included the local community, NGOs, community-based organisations (CBOs) as well as the government in the form of the Forest Department and research institutions. "It is a unique structure and has made implementing the programme relatively easy.''

The MPCA programme works at three levels. First, there are 54 forest or in situ gene banks that are in fact pockets within the forests encompassing 200 hectares of land and consisting of hundreds of medicinal plants of different species. These are no-harvest zones and are fully protected by the Forest Department. At the next level are community based medicinal plant gardens. Looked after by the local community, these gardens are used to protect and catalogue plants. The most interesting is the next level home gardens. Every house in every village involved in the programme has its own small garden where plants such as tulsi, aloe vera, lemon grass and various herbs are grown. Most of these are used for household consumption, but some enterprising people have made significant monetary gains from their home gardens.

"One of the most satisfying aspects of the project is the empowerment it has given women,'' says Satish Elkunchwar, project director, MPCC, Pune. Although the programme aims at conserving medicinal plants, it has also been instrumental in creating women's self-help groups, micro-credit societies and home production centres. "The project is hugely successful in that it has served a much larger purpose," he said.

DR. P. PUSHPANGADHAN won the prize for his work in developing a successful model that recognises the Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) of the Kani community (an indigenous semi-nomadic forest tribe dwelling in the Western Ghats in Kerala), which has the knowledge of the properties of a wild medicinal plant species called Trichopus zeylanicus, locally known as Arogyapachai, and provides them a share of the profits from its use.

According to the UNDP, "the benefit-sharing model evolved by Dr. Pushpangadan is the first of its kind in the world to recognise and reward the IPRs of an indigenous community for sharing their knowledge''. The initiative led to the development and commercialisation of "Jeevani'', a herbal formulation with profound immuno-enhancing properties.

Dr. Pushpangadan discovered the properties of Trichopus zeylanicus by accident. On a scientific expedition to the Agasthiar Hills in the Western Ghats in December 1987, he noticed that his guides, belonging to the Kani tribe, were very energetic in sharp contrast to the scientists. They had walked for several hours with the scientists the difference was that they ate the fruits of a wild plant (Trichopus zeylanicus) as they walked. Dr. Pushpangadan found from the tribesmen that it was indeed the fruits they were eating that made them energetic, a fact about the plant well known to the tribe for ages.

The tribesmen were reluctant to share their knowledge, and had to be promised rewards to do so. Seeing an opportunity, Dr. Pushpangadan and his co-scientists combined Trichopus with other herbs such as Withanis somnifera, Piper longum and Avolvalus alsinoides, to develop the herbal complex Jeevani.

It was after years of clinical trials that Jeevani hit the market. As Director of the TBGRI, Dr. Pushpangadan adopted an ethno-pharmacological approach first to evaluate the plant. The two-year scientific study involved experts from botany, pharmacology, phytochemistry, biochemistry, pharmacy and ayurveda. After scientific validations and evaluations for toxicity, shelf life and clinical properties, Jeevani was ready for commercialisation by the end of 1994. In 1996, the technology for the commercial manufacture of Jeevani was transferred to Coimbatore Arya Vaidya Pharmacy for seven years for a licence fee of Rs.10 lakhs, and royalty of 2.5 per cent on the sale of the product. Now it is all set to go global as an energiser, adaptogen and immune stimulator.

Crucial was the method of benefit sharing between the Kanis and the TBGRI, particularly as the nomadic tribe had no institutional arrangement to receive the benefits of the commercialisation of Jeevani. After several rounds of discussion, a trust comprising 60 per cent of the Kani families in Kerala was registered with support from the TBGRI, the Kerala government and some non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The benefit from the technology transfer (licence fee and royalty) was to be shared between the TBGRI and the tribe in the ratio of 1:1. In 1999, Rs.5.35 lakhs, the share of the Kani tribe, was transferred to the Trust. The understanding is that only the interest from the accruals is to be used for the welfare of the Kani community. Several pharmaceutical companies are now directly negotiating with the Kani tribe to sell Trichopus.

BUILDING on the experiences of the 27 prize-winning community initiatives, the Equator Initiative is promoting an extensive outreach programme to share with millions of local communities the ingenuity and effectiveness of local partnerships in the equatorial belt, in order to conserve biodiversity and reduce poverty. For example, the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE) is producing 27 short programmes one on each initiative as part of its award-winning programme, "Hands On''. This comprehensive exchange programme, according to Marc Brown, is sure to ensure sustainable development, something the world needs badly.

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