Biodiversity Conservation and Indigenous Knowledge Systems

India has a rich history of indigenous knowledge systems. But how well has it fared in preserving them? This reading list compiles cases from different parts of the country to sketch out the state of biodiversity conservation.


In the 1980’s, conservation researchers Paul R. and Anne Ehrlich put forth an important proposition ( also known as the Rivet Popper Hypothesis) in their book “The Population Bomb”- that species are to ecosystems what rivets are to a plane's wing.

Globally, as well as in India, there has been an alarming decline in biodiversity. Interestingly, this rate is “lower in areas where indigenous people own land”, according to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

This can be explained through several factors. The information that indigenous communities possess has gradually  been built up over many years of observations that have been passed down from generation to generation. Indigenous people are crucial stakeholders in preserving, and in some cases, promoting, and even restoring biodiversity in areas where they have depended on local surroundings for a range of resources, for a long time. Put simply, they have developed unique mechanisms to co-exist with nature by managing resources judiciously.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment conducted by the United Nations “assessed the impact of environmental change on human well-being and called for several actions toward conservation. The report popularised the term ‘ecosystem services’ in lieu of the life-supporting services ecosystems provide to human wellbeing.” It suggests that the indigenous communities provide “provisioning, regulating, cultural and supporting services.”

As this report from the World Forestry Congress, 2003  points out, cultural beliefs have often shaped indigenous practises. “Many plants are conserved in their natural habitat by tribals due to magico - religious belief that they are the habitat of god and goddess. The tribal culture prevalent in tribal pockets in Central India has been recorded in Dindori, Balaghat and Mandala districts of Madhya Pradesh and Kawardha and Bilaspur districts of Chhattisgarh states.” ( Nath and Rai, 2003)

Further, as Sanjay Kumar in his 2001 Special Article titled ‘Indigenous Communities’ Knowledge of Local Ecological Services’  explains how the local knowledge and management of forest/ tree resources for cultural/ religious purposes is set within the complex social framework of the area. “Forests are integral to the ‘cosmovision’ of indigenous communities of the study area [Parajuli in Press], which manifests in a direct relationship between cultural events and beliefs with trees or forests. For example, ‘sarhul’, one of the important festivals of the forest population across the eastern India plateau, is observed to mark the flowering of sal trees in April-May. No person can bring any flower to the home for consumption, or otherwise, before sarhul as it will invite a deadly snakebite.”

Tales of Resistance from India

Several studies published in EPW point out, indigenous communities have fought against the loss of land, disregard for treaty and land rights, exploitative policies and practises, and environmental degradation caused through anthropocentric activities.

 In ‘Education for Species’, 2016, Nirmalangshu Mukherji transports the reader to powerful tales of resistance in the Niyamgiri hills of Odisha. According to his study “These hills contain about 1.8 billion tonnes of high-grade bauxite, the source for aluminium, which a mining giant—euphemistically called “Vedanta”—wants to extract to feed into giant factories built on this land. As they were pushed out of the plains by the thrust of mainstream civilisation, the local poor, mostly tribals, had lived on this hilly land for thousands of years. After years of resistance by them, and much manipulation and show of muscle by the state, financed by the mining oligarchy, the government was compelled to organise a referendum for 12 carefully-selected villages.

Mollica Dastider in her 2020 Special Article, ‘Practices as Political: Tribal Citizens and Indigenous Knowledge Practices in the East Himalayas’ explains that the practising Adivasi or indigenous peoples are indeed presenting empirical sites of “ethico-political articulations,” or “Ecosophy.” They have formed important sites of resistance and contingency in their efforts to replenish nature. She takes the case of the Lepcha community in the North-east regions of India. “Any visit to the Dzongu region of the Khangchendzonga National Park would confirm the oft-claimed statement that Lepcha people—with their traditional practices of farming, jhoom cultivation and hunting, and annual rituals of worshipping the deities of forests, snowcapped mountains, lakes and rivers—have helped the world famous eastern Himalayan biodiversity to prosper in its pristine form.” 

 As Deepak Misra writes inState, Community and the Agrarian Transition in Arunachal Pradesh’, 2018, community-based institutions for natural resource management and conflict resolutions are undergoing a multilevel transformation. “Collective institutions have been at the forefront of the movements questioning the privatisation of collectively owned land and forests. This resistance, in turn, has facilitated the establishment of apex coordination committees, involving people and local-level institutions from different villages and tribes, as well as interstate coordination and support from non-local non-governmental organisations.”

Challenges in Governance

In India, over the years there has been a steady dilution of the biodiversity laws in order to expedite environmental clearance. Local communities’ opinions and grievances find little space in the process. 

For instance, as Deva Prasad M remarks in his Book Review ‘Mapping the Narrative of Environmental Law’ - “The State Biodiversity Boards are not empowered to function in a proper manner in the issues relating to access and benefit sharing (ABS), which has resulted in the dilution of the biodiversity law. The Forest Legislation Act is yet another example of the tussle witnessed where the indigenous communities’ issues are primarily unaddressed, leading to diffused legislation.” However, such exclusivist practice of politics ignores the alternative pathways to conservation that indigenous imagination may provide.

Even in states that led the way in championing preservation of indigenous knowledge, continue to face challenges. In the 2022 Commentary, ‘From Paper to Practice: Operationalising Biodiversity Management Committees in Madhya PradeshIndrani Barpujari demonstrates how in Madhya Pradesh, the preparation of peoples’ biodiversity registers (PBRs) containing comprehensive knowledge on the availability and knowledge of local biological resources, their medicinal, or any other use or associated traditional knowledge and  their achievements, through biodiversity management committees (BMCs). However, “these BMCs face many challenges such as the lack of sustained funds for their work, the inability to generate funds of their own by collecting access fees, and the lack of requisite infrastructure such as dedicated office space. There is also the issue of sustaining the collective interests of the BMC members over time.”

Curbing threats to agriculture

India remains a largely agriculture- dependent economy. But the sector is becoming more prone to instability due to rise in extreme weather events such as droughts and flooding. In Agro-biodiversity as a Resource Suman Sahai warns that this will only further increase food insecurity. As a solution to this, she contends that we need to go back to resources such as indigenous knowledge systems that have stood the test of time.

She states- “We need to correct this mindless techno-fix approach and look at the time-tested resources like genetic diversity and indigenous knowledge that has delivered solutions in the past and will do so again. The farmers over millennia have faced adverse situations before; and they have the tools to face these again.”

Making changes in our approach to conservation

Our laws suffer from a colonial hangover. The colonial notion that nature should be preserved by distancing, or completely removing humans from it has not bode well for our efforts in conservation. This 2022 EPW Editorial, ‘Etuaptmumk to Preserve Biodiversity’ provides an alternative- “Rather, indigenous approaches of people–place relationship at the centre of cultural and care practices have shown quicker and better results. Etuaptmumk—two-eyed seeing: one, indigenous and the other, mainstream and implementing the knowledge and understanding from both—holds the future.”

On similar lines, Sanjay Kumar had suggested in his 2001 Special Article titled ‘Indigenous Communities’ Knowledge of Local Ecological Services’ - “The first task, of course, will be to collate the rural people’s knowledge with the existing systematic forestry management literature, in the manner we call an ‘action research’. The second task will be to build an appropriate institutional framework in which the findings of the action research are replicated on a larger scale.”

Thus, a recognition of the indispensable role that indigenous communities play in biodiversity conservation combined rights-based approach can lead the way in catapulting India’s conservation trajectory.

Must Read

Do water policies recognise the differential requirements and usages of water by women and the importance of adequate availability and accessibility?
Personal Laws in India present a situation where abolishing them in the interest of gender justice also inadvertently benefits the reactionary side.   
Back to Top