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Revolutionising bio-cultural research

By Ashish Kothari

'Western' science has treated the knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities as a resource to be exploited. Now, a more collaborative relationship between the two is being forged. The most remarkable development is the return of 420 potato varieties to the Quechuas of Peru by a scientific establishment

Quechuas of Peru

“We don’t want you to tell us what to do. We want you to travel with us in our explorations.” This statement from a Quechua indigenous elder in Peru, made to a group of scientists and academics, encapsulated a slow but revolutionary change taking place in the field of ecological, agricultural and anthropological research. For the last couple of centuries or more, ‘western’ science has treated the knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities as a resource to be mined, exploited, and privatised. Finally, now, a more mutually respectful and collaborative relationship between these various forms of research and learning is being forged.

The occasion at which the Quechua made this statement was the 11th Session of the International Congress of Ethnobiology, June 25-30, 2008. It was held at Cusco, Peru, and was organised collaboratively by the NGO ANDES, the International Society for Ethnobiology, local community organisations, and others.

Cusco is part of the region that is the centre of origin of one of the world’s most important crops: potato. It is here that indigenous farmers, 8,000 years ago, found the wild potato and domesticated it. Experimenting with it in various ecological, climatic, soil and water conditions, they developed several thousand varieties with an incredible range of flavours, shapes, textures, smells, colours, growing characteristics, resistance to disease, and other features. Holding the Congress here was significant in view of 2008 being the International Year of the Potato.

One of the participants of the Congress was the Centro Internacional de la Papa (CIP) or the International Potato Centre, Lima. The CIP has a collection of over 5,000 cultivated varieties collected from farmers. Its story is symptomatic of the way in which the formal research sector has often treated indigenous and local communities.

Set up in 1971, it went about scouring the landscape to collect as many potato varieties as it could. With this was also collected substantial local knowledge on the characteristics of these varieties. The CIP conducted its own research to ‘characterise’ each variety, made them available to other institutions and companies for various purposes, and helped develop new varieties with greater productivity or other such features. Meanwhile, however, the farmers knew little of what was happening to their varieties and knowledge.

Research institutions around the world have done the same, or worse. Tens of thousands of farmers’ crop varieties and livestock breeds have been collected, analysed, modified, and made available for commercial use. In many cases, intellectual property rights (IPRs) such as patents and plant breeder rights have been claimed on such material or on derived products. In many more instances, the material has been given to corporate entities, which in turn have found commercial uses and claimed IPRs on it.

Of course, much of this has been justified in the name of public good, and indeed the fact that research institutions have helped to transfer traditional varieties and produce new ones of use to farmers and consumers cannot be ignored. But the inequity and lack of transparency with which farmers have been treated remains a sordid part of the story.

In fact, farmers in many regions have been dealt a double whammy. On top of the appropriation of their resources and knowledge, they have been forced or enticed into adopting new varieties and technologies, many of which are only attractive traps. In the 1970s and ’80s, the Andean farmers in Peru and elsewhere were given so-called ‘improved’ varieties of potato to increase yields. This, according to our native hosts at Cusco, was one of the main reasons they abandoned a lot of the traditional varieties. By the 1990s, however, many farmers had realised that the new technologies were disrupting millennia-old sustainable agricultural systems. Chemicals were needed, and farmers’ dependence on the government and private sector increased substantially. Most damaging was how farmers were brainwashed into believing that agriculture was all about producing maximum output, as measured in the quantum of potato produced per unit of land, rather than a complex system that encompasses ecological, physical, cultural, and economic features. Farmers observed that they were getting caught in a vicious cycle of ever-increasing input costs, while productivity did not necessarily keep pace. Apart from a number of cultural impacts, farmers also reported that the new varieties did not have anywhere near the nutritional value of the traditional ones, and thus their health was suffering.

Led by some elders and youth, and helped by NGOs like ANDES, farmers began to question this trend. Over the last decade, this questioning has led to a remarkable revival of biologically diverse organic farming and the reconstruction of landscape-level management that integrates various land and water uses, including cultivation, forestry, pastures, and settlements. Six communities have got together to declare a Parque de la Papa (Potato Park), and have developed a range of livelihood options related to the sustainable management of the landscape.

But wait, this article is not about the Potato Park initiative… that deserves a separate article in itself. What is significant for the issue of research is that the Potato Park villagers have also convinced the CIP to work with them rather than on its own. An astonishing part of this growing collaboration is that, in 2005, the CIP entered into a formal agreement with the communities, through ANDES, to repatriate (return) many of the potato varieties it had earlier collected from farmers of this region. Astonishing, because this is amongst the first occasions in the world that a formal sector institution has returned biological or genetic material to communities.

So far, 420 potato varieties have been received back from the CIP by the Quechua. They already had over 600 varieties, and obtained another 150 from exchanges with other communities… all together they now hold over 1,200 varieties. What are they doing with this diversity? They are being stored in community gene banks, subjected to farmer-led research in the fields, and distributed back to interested farmers to grow. The Quechua and the CIP have entered into a collaboration in which the latter provides sensitive inputs that can help the local people, such as increasing productivity without affecting the diversified nature of agriculture.

The confidence with which the Quechua farmers answered a barrage of questions from scientists and academics, on our visit to the Potato Park, was a powerful display of the holistic nature of indigenous knowledge. Questions regarding the range of diversity of potatoes, for instance, were not answered only in terms of the number of varieties but also in terms of taste, food qualities, nutrition, smell, texture, and other features. Farmers also noted that this diversity was linked to the management of the entire landscape including forests and waterways, and to spiritual beliefs and practices. We were left speechless when an elderly woman told us that many potato varieties were never cut with a knife out of respect; that the potato was part of her family; and that rituals were held to ensure that it remained happy. Many (most?) scientists would scoff at such beliefs and practices, but that is precisely the crisis of western science: it compartmentalises the ‘rational’ aspect of knowledge from its ethical, spiritual, and emotional content, artificially dividing life’s experiences and enabling the annihilation of cultures and knowledge systems that have given humanity so much value.

The kind of mutually respectful partnership that the Quechua farmers and the CIP have developed is urgently needed in all countries. International institutions of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have already adopted ‘material transfer agreement’ policies requiring those taking genetic material from them to commit that they will not claim ownership over the genetic material to be received, nor seek intellectual property rights (IPR) over that genetic material or related information, among other conditions (for example, for the CIP, see http://research.cip). But much more is needed to make the relationship equitable.

Here in India we are still far from such partnerships. Research methodologies for the best part acknowledge local collaborators, but almost never do they treat local people as partners with decision-making positions. Government research agencies related to plant and animal genetic resources, botany and zoology, and agriculture, do not yet involve tribal groups or farmers or pastoralists in the core decision-making. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Government of India conducted an All-India Coordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology, under which thousands of bits of traditional knowledge on biodiversity were collected. The information has never been shared back with the communities from which it was collected, and it is not at all clear how the project has benefited them. They are not involved in deciding what is to be done with the information.

Implementation of India’s Biological Diversity Act 2002 also continues in the same mould. A spate of permissions for research related to biological resources has been granted, but none of these build in collaboration with communities, nor any benefit-sharing arrangements.

An initiative towards more participatory research is the formulation of community or people’s biodiversity registers (CBRs or PBRs). This was started a decade ago by researchers and activists interested in helping communities document their biodiversity-related knowledge, in a bid to revive it, make it more meaningful for the younger generation, and use it as evidence against IPR claims by others. Several hundred CBRs have been made by or with communities in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and other states.

However, many concerns have dogged this initiative (for a more detailed analysis, see article in this column, May 2008, Firstly, without adequate legal and institutional means of protection, documented knowledge could become even more susceptible to piracy. Though the Biological Diversity Act has a provision to protect community knowledge, five years after the Act came into force this provision has not been operationalised through subsidiary rules. Secondly, in the way that the government is adopting the CBR initiative, it remains heavily dominated by officials and academics; communities are unlikely to have much control over the process. Nonetheless, where carried out in a truly community-centred way, used by people to revive pride in their knowledge and plan their own resource management strategies, and supplemented by the best of what western science can offer, CBRs hold the potential to generate truly respectful collaborations between various forms of knowledge. In India, dalit women farmers in Medak district in Andhra Pradesh, and Gond adivasis in Vidarbha have demonstrated this potential as much as have the Quechua farmers of Peru. The Quechua too, however, face the challenge of getting the Peruvian government to recognise and provide legal protection to their knowledge registers.

Many other models of collaborative research are emerging. In climate change, possibly the most serious crisis facing humanity, the world has so far heard the verdict of formal sector scientists gathered under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But increasingly it is being realised that indigenous peoples have been making observations that are as important. For instance, the Inuvialuit of Canada have for over a decade been reporting significant changes such as thinning of sea ice, delays in the autumn freeze, alterations in sea ice distribution, and changes in seal behaviour. A collaborative project between indigenous peoples of the Arctic (through the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental institution formally involving several indigenous peoples’ networks), and scientific institutions under the International Arctic Science Committee is combining indigenous and formal western scientific studies and insights to better understand climate change impacts. A number of institutions and indigenous peoples’ organisations (including the UNU-IAS, ANDES, the Christiansen Fund, and IIED) are now proposing a series of indigenous climate change assessments to feed into the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, into national and international policies, and into the responses of indigenous peoples themselves.

Increasingly, communities will have a crucial role in generating and providing the knowledge that the world still seriously lacks, about the full range of climate change impacts, and about how to deal with them.

Unfortunately there is little evidence that similar collaborations are taking place in many other countries, including India. The prime minister has just released a National Action Plan on Climate Change, but local communities and their knowledge were hardly taken into account in its formulation.

I should clarify that I am not for one moment in favour of shackling scientific research by bureaucratic requirements of any kind. If the Biodiversity Act or other laws are misused for this, it will only be because the government is scared of truly independent research. But scientific freedom cannot also be used to abuse the rights and interests of indigenous and local communities, and it is in the interests of research institutions to imbibe the principles of truly collaborative and respectful research.

Apart from a respect for indigenous and community knowledge, and collaborative research projects with them, a range of radical steps towards this are being discussed in various circles. These include the granting of joint or collective PhDs where scholars have significant inputs from local community representatives, joint authorship of research articles in scientific journals, bringing on board community members to be teachers in educational institutions, and others. Education paradigms too need to change, to integrate diverse community ways of learning and transmitting knowledge (including powerful oral and cultural traditions such as songs, stories, art, and spiritual means). The academic world is very far from adopting these sorts of steps, but the sooner it does the better for all.

The International Congress on Ethnobiology ended with a Cusco Declaration, adopted jointly by the several hundred western and indigenous scholars, scientists and activists present. Amongst various crucial points relating to the rights and responsibilities of communities, it stated:

“We embarked 20 years ago on the challenging and essential task of decolonising the process of research with indigenous and other local and traditional peoples. We can conclusively report that by valuing all kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing, and by respecting the rights of the guardians of bio-cultural heritage, significant advances can be achieved both in understanding and in creating a richer future for our planet. We are still struggling with how to achieve truly collaborative research, and how to best link research with transformative action… We also celebrate the ever-increasing degree to which indigenous scholars and communities are undertaking research on their own terms, and we will work towards nurturing an increasingly healthy variety of partnerships between scholarly institutions and such local efforts.”

The Cusco Declaration also noted the importance of obtaining free and prior informed consent from communities before carrying out any research, conservation, or development action impacting them.

The International Society of Ethnobiology also adopted, in 2006, a Code of Ethics that requires academics to move towards such respectful forms of research and engagement with communities. Though it could do with improvements, this and the Cusco Declaration provide a good basis for India’s research institutions to begin the slow but crucial path towards new paradigms of research.

InfoChange News & Features, July 2008