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MEDIA RELEASE
August 13, 2007

GOVERNMENT WARNED ABOUT THE DANGERS IN DOCUMENTING PEOPLE’S KNOWLEDGE

Participants of a National Consultation  Express Concern to the Government of India and its National Biodiversity Authority


Documentating traditional knowledge on biodiversity without adequate safeguards for protection of this knowledge will lead to a host of risks, the government has been cautioned by a national consultation on Documenting Diversity. It will offer the rich knowledge heritage of the Indian people to the predatory corporate interests, the Consultation has warned the Government.   The Consultation has also  demanded that any such documentation must be designed and led by communities, and be given legal and other protection against theft and misuse through ‘biopiracy’.

Farmers, scientists, community representatives, civil society organisations, concerned individuals and government officials from across 10 states participated in the Workshop held at Pastapur Village in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh. The Consultation was organised by the Deccan Development Society, Andhra Pradesh, Kalpavriksh and GRAIN. Andhra Pradesh was represented by the Chairperson and the Member Secretary of the AP State Biodiversity Board, NBPGR, Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Krishnadevaraya University.


The workshop was held in the context of the Government of India’s proposed nationwide documentation of indigenous knowledge on biodiversity in tune with the National Biodiversity Act passed by the Parliament in 2005. The National Biodiversity Authority, the apex body created under the Act leads this activity through creating Biodiversity Management Committees in every panchayat of the country and each such BMC is mandated to create a People’s Biodiversity Register, which will be the documentation of the community knowledge on biodiversity. The resolution passed by the Consultation was seriously concerned that this government imposed documentation would lead to further erosion of the limited freedom that India’s rural and forest communities enjoy.

Threats to Community Knowledge

In India’s 60th year of independence, local communities are facing multiple threats to their freedom. The lives and livelihoods of such communities are dependant on biological diversity and related knowledge. For generations they have used generated and transmitted knowledge through various means, including by carrying out their customary practises, and through songs, rituals, art forms, scriptures and written texts.

Today their knowledge of the living world is being commercialised and exploited by wealthy nations and large corporations, especially through Intellectual Property Right (IPR) systems such as patents. Infamous examples of this include the patenting of neem products, the properties of turmeric, and even the poses of yoga! The loss of community control over knowledge and the loss of many informal knowledge systems, goes to the heart of the very survival, dignity and identity of local communities.

The Workshop

The Consultation had 30 participants from ten states (Punjab, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Kerala, West Bengal and Meghalaya) including farmers, scientists, civil society organisations and the  chairmen and representatives from two State Biodiversity Boards.

The participants discussed various community, NGO, and official processes of documentation ongoing in the country. Several key questions were asked. How many of these processes are really led by communities? How much are directed towards conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits? Would some forms of documentation, especially when integrated into centralised databases, fall prey to commercial interests? On the other hand, does documentation offer an opportunity for communities to revitalize their knowledge, record what is otherwise being lost, and become a proof that they already hold this knowledge so that commercial interests cannot patent them and claim it as theirs?

The workshop specially discussed the preparation of People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs),  that is being promoted by the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. Though documentation exercises may have some perceived advantages, including their potential use as a community-based planning tool, there are also many  pitfalls, especially since there is still no legal protection for PBRs, and because the NBA is proposing to promote its PBRs as the only methodology for documentation across the country. Additionally, the proposal to integrate documented community knowledge into a national database without either providing it legal protection or ensuring community control, enhances the risk of biopiracy. Finally, it was also pointed out that such PBRs are supposed to be prepared by Biodiversity Management Committees in each panchayat, but there were still no guidelines on how such Committees were to be formed.

Workshop resolution

Participants resolved to convey the following points to the Government of India:

  • Any documentation of community knowledge must be what the National Biodiversity Authority itself has recommended: “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
  • Formats for documentation being promoted in the official PBR process should not be uniform and pre-designed. Instead, the National Biodiversity Authority needs to respect and support the diversity of approaches towards documentation, list them and spread information on them to the State Biodiversity Boards and Biodiversity Management Committees.
  • Documentation processes should be conceptualised, designed and implemented by communities in their own diverse site-specific and culture-specific ways. Women and marginalized sections should be at the centre of the process.
  • Documentation must be able to establish community control over their knowledge, and help in continuing the environmental and social conditions in which such knowledge is generated.
  • Documentation must also help communities challenge the current IPR regimes, and counter any attempt to promote privatisation and monopolisation of knowledge.
  • Community or People’s Biodiversity Registers should not be linked to any larger database (state, national, or international), without clear mechanisms to protect the knowledge from being stolen and misused. Any such linking should be purely voluntary on part of the communities, and only with their prior informed consent.

Participants will also remind the National Biodiversity Authority of three of its own commitments, made a year back at an official workshop on PBRs but not yet carried out:

    • To provide legal protection to community knowledge;
    • To formulate guidelines for the setting up of Biodiversity Management Committees;

To formulate guidelines for how the documentation process has to be carried out.

Issued By:
Participants of Documenting Diversity, Documenting Diversely – A National Workshop on Community Control over Knowledge, 8-9 August 2007, Pastapur, Andhra Pradesh,

P V Satheesh, Deccan Development Society, Andhra Pradesh
Ashish Kothari, Kalpavriksh, Pune
Shalini Bhutani, GRAIN, India

Sridhar, Thanal, Kerala
Krishna Srinivasan, ECONET, Pune
Raghunandhan Velanker, RANWA, Pune
Umendra Dutt, Kheti Virasat, Punjab
Vijay Jarhdhari, Beej Bachao Andolan, Uttarakhand
Suresh Kannan, Kudumbam, Tamil Nadu
Banteillut P L Nongbri, Farmers Action Together, Meghalaya
Mayfereen Ryntathiang, Farmers Association Raijthaing, Meghalaya
Bishnu Prasad, THREAD, Orissa
Prashant Mohanty, VASUNDHARA, Orissa

Dorjee Pem Bhutia, Centre for Mountain Dynamics, Kalimpong