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Knowledge documentation: Kiss of death, or new lease of life?

The Indian government is planning a major initiative to document all traditional knowledge on biodiversity and natural resources in order to safeguard against biopiracy. Notwithstanding its many potential benefits, without inbuilt safeguards this move could prove to be the undoing of traditional knowledge, says Ashish Kothari

The Indian government is poised to launch a major national initiative to document community knowledge on biodiversity and other natural resources. This is being projected as a significant move to reduce the theft of knowledge, to generate benefits for people, to help in decentralised planning, and to provide a basis for further innovation in various economic fields.

But will documentation achieve all these, or will it become another threat for communities to deal with?

Farmers, hunter-gatherers, herders, fisherfolk and craftspeople have, over the last several millennia, developed an incredible array and depth of knowledge about nature. Such knowledge is an intrinsic part of the daily life of communities, not a separate academic exercise. It is constantly evolving, responding to changing ecological and social conditions, and is transmitted within and across generations through a myriad oral, visual, auditory and written forms. It is what helps people survive; it underpins how they harness nature for livelihoods; it is the fulcrum of cultural responses to environmental surrounds.

Why document traditional knowledge?

But it is also under serious threat. As the cultural and economic lives of these communities change, as nature itself gets transformed around them, knowledge once essential for survival becomes redundant. Or, with demographic changes such as migration of young men and women to places well away from natural surrounds, it simply is no longer transmitted down the generations. The change that accompanies loss of knowledge is often violent: tens of millions of people have been physically uprooted from their lands (and waters) by dams, mines, industries, cities, roads, and even, sadly, wildlife conservation strategies. At times the knowledge remains, but the natural resource that it was related to, is lost. For instance, many elderly farmers remember several varieties of crops that they used to grow, but newer forms of agriculture have no use for them and the seeds themselves are gone forever. Even the modern education system is a serious threat, for it trivialises the local knowledge that students learn from their elders and peers, and forces them to believe that only that which comes in textbooks (mostly written by outsiders) is relevant. Entire languages are being lost; some social scientists estimate that over 50% of the world’s 6,000 languages are threatened with extinction, most of these not being used even in schools in which their speakers study. With every extinct language, humanity loses a storehouse of knowledge.

This erosion of knowledge is one major motivation for documentation of what remains.

There are other equally important objectives. Across the world, traditional or local community knowledge related to biodiversity has been pirated (ie, taken without the consent of their originators or holders) by unscrupulous corporations, scientists, and NGOs. Commercial products based on such knowledge abound in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, seed, and other industrial sectors. Everyone has heard of the piracy of knowledge (or genetic material) related to the neem tree, basmati rice, and turmeric, but there are thousands of other such examples.

One reason for such widespread and unchecked piracy is the fact that the commercial and academic worlds do not give much importance to oral or ‘informal’ knowledge which is not codified in written and published form. Except, of course, as ‘raw material’ for them to use. When the Indian government challenged the patenting of turmeric properties in the USA, they had to dig deep into ayurvedic and modern medical texts to ‘prove’ that knowledge of these properties was already widespread. The fact that several hundred million Indians may have had this knowledge in their heads (who does not know that haldi is good for healing wounds?) was of no import to the US patent office; it required documentary proof, that too in scientific texts.

And so, once again, the urge to document. The Indian government launched, in 2001, the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, intending to computerise as much of the textual knowledge of ancient medicine and other fields as possible (see The reason? To make it easier to challenge anyone who tries to steal such knowledge and claim it as his/her own, or commercially utilise it without sharing any of the benefits with the original holders of the knowledge. It is not clear if, eventually, the idea is to extend this also to knowledge that is currently oral, held in the minds of several hundred million people.

There are other motivations for documentation. It could lead to a revival in the pride that communities once had in their own knowledge. In original or modified form, or mixed with modern ‘outside’ knowledge, it could lead to a renewed sense of the relevance of traditional knowledge in the current context. It could be used as a means to analyse their problems, and work out solutions. Indeed, various experiments in India have done one or more of these, though the experience is as yet very scattered.

Kiss of death…

Notwithstanding its many potential benefits, the current nationwide move to document traditional knowledge on biodiversity could well prove to be its undoing. The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) has embarked on an ambitious programme to devise a common methodology for documentation, and initiate the process in communities across India. It has legal backing for this: the Biological Diversity Act (BDA) 2003 mandates the setting up of Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) in all settlements, and the rules under the Act (notified in 2004) state that the primary function of such BMCs would be to make registers of biodiversity-related knowledge.

The stage for this documentation exercise was, however, set well before the BDA 2003. In fact I remember a phone call from Darshan Shankar of the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions (FRLHT), in the early-1990s, asking what I thought of a process by which communities could be helped to document their knowledge. A meeting shortly thereafter of a handful of us came up with some ideas on this, and several sporadic initial attempts were taken up by organisations such as FRLHT, Indian Institute of Science, and Kalpavriksh, in conjunction with community-based organisations. These were expanded into a coordinated exercise for several dozen “people’s biodiversity registers” under the Biodiversity Conservation Prioritisation Project coordinated by WWF-India in the late-1990s.

By then, activists were beginning to raise a number of concerns about such documentation. What were the safeguards against the commercial misuse of the documented knowledge by outsiders? How would the most disempowered and poor people of the villages really benefit from such an exercise? Would this create a new hierarchy, with written/printed knowledge being seen as superior to oral knowledge? Could this in fact lead to a ‘freezing’ of local knowledge into documents prepared at a single point in time, whereas such knowledge in oral form is constantly evolving?

Some of these issues were part of the discussions around the new legislation on biological diversity that was then being drafted. One of the direct results was that an explicit provision was put into the draft, for the protection of knowledge through various means. When the Biological Diversity Act was finally gazetted in 2003, it contained this provision, and many of us hoped that this could be one cover against the misuse of documented community knowledge.

Unfortunately, five years later, this remains a hope. The relevant provision has not been operationalised. The rules notified under the Act, in 2004, have nothing on how protection can be offered to community or traditional knowledge. There are some provisions for ‘benefit-sharing’ with communities that share their resources or knowledge, but the processes determining this are in the hands of bureaucrats and are in any case so convoluted that there is little chance of communities receiving any significant benefits.

Meanwhile, and this is now the greatest source of concern, the National Biodiversity Authority has provided the platform for a national programme to produce People’s Biodiversity Registers (PBRs). A process led by well-known scientists has produced a detailed manual for this, through a series of consultations across the country. Currently, the NBA is finalising a simplified version of this methodology.

A national workshop organised by the NBA to discuss the detailed manual, in 2006 came up with a statement that began with the grandiose declaration that “PBRs must be documents of the people, by the people and for the people”. It also recommended the following: 

  • “Developing, within the next six months to a year, ways and means of effectively providing control of the PBRs to the relevant communities, including through appropriate legal means (such as rules under the Biological Diversity Act), administrative mechanisms, and local empowerment; this should include all PBR exercises/documents/collections, including those that communities desire not to incorporate into the national database…”
  • “Developing guidelines for the process by which PBRs are to be initiated; such guidelines should stress that PBRs should be tried out at a few sites to start with, especially where the women and men of communities are well-organised to carry them out, and lessons from these learnt, before spreading to other sites; the appropriate unit of settlement at which PBRs should be formulated, and the flexibility of adapting to local conditions…”
  • “Preparing, within the next six months, guidelines for the formation of BMCs (in view of the fact that PBRs are essentially to be prepared by BMCs, which therefore presupposes the existence of strong and effective BMCs)…”

Unfortunately none of this has happened, although the NBA is pushing ahead with the national PBR programme. Several dozen organisations and individuals have questioned this, pointing out that such a programme could pose more of a threat than a boon to traditional and community knowledge. In the absence of clear legal protection, and the empowerment of village communities (or committees like BMCs) to safeguard knowledge, it could expose vast amounts of knowledge to biopiracy. Computerised databases in the hands of state and central governments could easily be subject to leaks and theft, and there is nothing in place for communities or NGOs to challenge the resulting misuse.

Moreover, though the detailed PBR methodology explicitly mentions that communities are free to document knowledge in their own forms (including traditional means), the fact that a standardised computerised format is being promoted by the NBA (through state governments), will mean that unconventional formats such as song, dance, art, seed banks, etc, will not be encouraged. Imagine a few thousand government extension workers, or for that matter schoolteachers who have, for years, been working with standardised Board of Education formats, preparing PBRs with communities… can one really foresee use of a diversity of documentation forms? Inevitably, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, oral/visual/auditory forms of knowledge transmission will be displaced by the written, typed, and computerised forms -- precisely the ones that are still most out of reach of the average villager.

It is true that computerisation is spreading rapidly even in villages, but a situation in which the most underprivileged and poorest people in rural India have meaningful access to such technologies is still at least a decade or more down the road. Meanwhile, any mass documentation exercise with its core in computerised databases, could take their own knowledge further away from them.

There is still also a clear hierarchy between modern formal knowledge and the knowledge of local communities, for example in the idea that the former will ‘validate’ the latter (and never the other way around!).

The simplified PBR methodology being put out by the NBA, in its draft form, raises even more doubts. It contains no reference to issues of knowledge protection, is clearly oriented to being used by outsiders rather than by villagers themselves, in no way encourages diverse forms of documentation, and has no explicit methods to elicit the participation of locally weak and poor people (though it does recommend that both genders be involved). About 25 civil society organisations from around the country have written to the NBA, in April 2008, voicing their serious concerns. They are not very hopeful though; a previous letter, dated September 13, 2007, expressing similar concerns about the PBR programme evoked no response at all from the NBA (or from those academics pushing the programme).

…or new lease of life?

As stated above, documentation of knowledge could well be of great benefit to communities. Indeed, some communities and organisations have taken up ambitious documentation exercises, calling them ‘community biodiversity registers’ (emphasising that much local knowledge emanates from community-level processes, not only through individuals, and therefore should belong to the entire community or to society as a whole). The Deccan Development Society (DDS) in Andhra Pradesh, for instance, has facilitated farmers and other villagers in several dozen settlements to prepare such registers. These are done in highly participatory forms, for instance with the use of visual aids in village squares where everyone can take part. The resulting documents are then exchanged amongst the communities, but are not available to outsiders without the explicit consent of the holders of the knowledge. DDS reports that such exercises have created great excitement, reviving interest and pride in local traditional knowledge, and forming a cornerstone for the re-emergence of organic, biologically diverse, self-reliant agricultural practices.

Even in some of the more academic PBR exercises, one aspect with great potential is their role in local-level planning. Combined with the increasing powers being given to communities through measures such as the panchayat laws, the Right to Information Act, and now the Forest Rights Act, knowledge documentation exercises could actually be extremely empowering. They could lead to innovative planning initiatives in which communities regain some control over their surrounds, and move towards both enhanced conservation of natural resources as also more secure livelihoods. There are even signs that this could lead to greater collective confidence and cohesion.

But for all this to happen, a number of crucial factors need to be in place. Firstly, communities rather than academics and government officers need to be in strong control of the documentation exercise; outsiders must only be facilitators. Target-oriented government schemes that require an ‘x’ number of PBRs to be produced within ‘y’ months should be thrown out of the window; the process by which communities make this their own exercise is vital, even if this means that it takes months or years. It needs to be done through diverse, locally appropriate means, not necessarily oriented towards centralised databases. Oral, visual, auditory, and other forms of knowledge transmission and collation must be encouraged as much as written and published forms. Clear provisions for legal protection must be in place, with local institutions (gram sabhas, tribal councils, etc) given the authority and power to use such protection.

Most important, the conditions under which community knowledge is generated need to be safeguarded or revived. This includes the conservation of biological and cultural diversity itself, and the ability of communities to take or be part of decisions about natural resources. If the government remains intent on displacing communities for massive ‘development’ projects, and erasing cultural diversity by pushing uniform top-down education programmes, no amount of documentation will help communities. Such knowledge will only remain dead or dying museum pieces.

If the NBA, state biodiversity boards, civil society organisations, and the respected academics that are encouraging PBR exercises can adhere to these principles, the documentation exercise could well offer a new lease of life for traditional and other community knowledge. Devoid of these, as is currently the case, they could constitute yet another threat to such knowledge and to the communities that hold it.

InfoChange News & Features, May 2008