09 / 1997
The erosion of biodiversity is only one facet of the loss in cultural diversity that is taking place in India. According to Darshan Shankar (of the Foundation for Revitalisation of Local Health Traditions), this loss emanates in part from the current political and economic hegemony imposed by the Indian Establishment after the colonial period. Indigenous knowledge systems are systematically discredited while Euro-centric conceptions serve as a basis for the dominant discourse. State policies - in fields as diverse as forest managment, health, agricultural research or even education - embody a clear bias against the "traditional". Indigenous technologies and conceptions of irrigation, metallurgy, textile-making, architecture or logics have been consistently discarded. In the field of health, for instance, over a million practioners of local health traditions work in rural India, carrying forth, among others, the Unani, Sidda, or Ayurvedic traditions. Over 7500 species of plants are known and used in the various health practices of India. Yet, these have no place in the dominant health care system derived from Western medical notions. Similarly, schools of architecture pay little or no heed to the rich and diverse architectural traditions of rural India.
Further, modernisation is invariably interpreted as a greater degree of acceptance of concepts and techniques that emanate from Western culture. Traditional farming or irrigation methods are commonly supplanted by imported models promoted through government policy.
Darshan Shankar argues that in its efforts to modernize, India is presently suffocating its own traditions. While adopting and embracing aspects of other cultures is indeed a driving force in modernisation, building-up and strengthening local traditions should be a priority. This conviction does not emanate from a nostalgia of the past or a desire to revive traditions, but in recognition of the contemporary relevance of indigenous knowledge systems.
The traditional understanding of biodiversity is, thus, essentially dynamic and evolving. Local communities are perfectly capable, for instance, of manufacturing plant extracts on the domestic and international markets, of integrating exotic species into their farming practices, or of adopting some local technology to suit a local need.
What needs to be restored is the confidence in traditional knowledge, which has been greatly shattered. One example in the field of agriculture is the practice of soaking seeds in cow urine to enhance gremination. It has been largely given up, not because it had proved unsuccessful, but mainly because of a newly acquired negative stigma.
So pervasive is the bias towards modern science that indigenous knowledge is now being assessed and validated through Western scientific parameters. Yet the theoretical foundations and conceptual frameworks underlying the indigenous knowledges systems and the Western one differ. It is therefore absurd to gauge one in the terms of another.
In Darshan Shankar’s mind, the cultural destruction is such in India that traits of indigenous knowledge are reduced to serve as ’raw material’. In the name of bioprospection and ’research and development’, plants are being gathered along with knowledge, as has been the case for turmeric or neem, two plants used by people in a myriad of ways in the Indian countryside. The idea is then to ’reward’ the communities or the states for granting access to their genetic and intellectual resources. This process denies, in a sense, the value of folk knowledge, since there is an implied acceptance that bioprospectors will improve upon these indigenous resources. The scientific community ’validates’ the information gathered by isolating a gene, for instance, which may then be patented. Members of the FRLHT recognize the value of scientific and technological pluralism, but they argue that it can not exist without a recognition that folk knowledge can be internally validated and understood in terms of the codified indigenous knowledge systems.
Yet intellectual property rights in the international context are defined within the parameters of a single epistemological tradition, the Western tradition. This means that indigenous knowledge systems are not given due recognition. It also means that globalisation is being enacted as the imposition of a system on all others, which, to Darshan Shankar, represents a threat to the very evolution of civilizations.
It seems very important to me to analyse present debates over property rights in the light of Darshan Shankar’s argument. Discussions on patenting tend, for instance, to revolve around technical or juridical matters, thus evincing the larger issue of ’what lies behind the notion of patents?’: what conceptual representations, what vision of the natural world, what type of hierarchies? These questions obviously call for deeper debates over hegemonies and North-South relations.
Address of the Foundation for the Revitalization of Local Health Traditions: FRLHT, N°50, MSH Layout, 2nd stage, 3rd main, Anandnagar, Bangalore 560 024, Ph.: 91/80 333 9275 or 333 4167 or 333 6909.
Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.
Interview with Interview with Darshan Shankar, Bangalore, April 1