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Time to preserve traditional ecological knowledge

Our compensation and relocation schemes disregard traditional ecological knowledge

Time to preserve traditional ecological knowledge

As we have read an idiom ‘The child is father of the man’ from the poem ‘My Heart Leaps Up’ by William Wordsworth which clearly states that man is the product of habits and behavior developed in youth. Hence, in the formative years of life, parents and family members play a vital role in the life of the child and so, too, does the entire community in which they grow and traditional ecological knowledge as a whole. Generally, knowledge is embodied with the actors and in their practices, tools, and technologies, as well as in institutions. Knowledge is inherently dynamic, involving constant evolution of knowledge-based resources and processes for governing those resources.

The knowledge possessed by communities about the characteristics and management of their local environment are of particular interest for Western ecologists and sociologists. A few onomasticon ‘folk knowledge’, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and indigenous knowledge were developed to the aforementioned knowledge. In fact, Huntington defined it in 2000 as the knowledge and insights acquired through extensive observation of an area or a species, which may include knowledge passed down in an oral tradition or shared amongst users of a resource. In contrast to indigenous knowledge systems, TEK focuses on the interrelationships and communications of living entities with one another and their surrounding environment and TEK doesn't mandate for indigenous communities either.

Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) has identified the five key drivers of biodiversity loss: Changes in land and sea use; direct exploitation of natural resources; climate change; pollution; and invasion of alien species. Changes in land use have been identified as the main driver of “unprecedented” biodiversity and ecosystem change over the past 50 years. Three-quarters of the land-based environment has been altered by human interventions. TEK in diverse conditions may provide remedy in resource management while dealing with these worries for ecological crisis.

According to the World Bank’s ‘Global Economic Prospect Report,’ Nepal was expected to have an estimated growth rate of 5.8 per cent in the fiscal 2021-22. Though the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war led global supply chain disruptions and associated hindered economic activity, Nepal has been slowly experiencing a glimpse of infrastructure development despite soaring inflation, rampant unemployment, hiked interest rates, and the looming fears of a recession have been experienced. For example, the rate of hydropower dam construction on rivers, transmission lines, road construction, and the river diversion multipurpose project is increasing in Nepal. These large infrastructure projects are likely to have many negative consequences on TEK about associated ecosystem, ecosystem services that it provides, but have not yet received much consideration in environmental studies reports (environmental impact assessment/initial environmental examination). Compensation and relocation schemes of such developmental activities disregard the TEK that communities possess. The major reason for not considering TEK is probably due to the lack of robust legal provision or due to compensation and relocation focused approaches. Concomitantly, if these projects provide equal opportunities to document TEK and may provide guiding bases for future.

Transhumance practice of animal husbandry, harvesting of valuable non-timber forest products (NTFPs), sky burial of corpse management in the Mountain region; Slash and Burn Agriculture, sedentary and shifting cultivation practices and hedgerow practices in the Hill region; and the stall-fed system in the Tarai region are the most common examples of traditional ecological knowledge for resource management in Nepal that we have come across. During my childhood days in Kathmandu, Parma, may be due to sparse farm hands to work in the agriculture field, or may be limited working days in the rain fed fields due to lack of irrigation facilities is one of the practices that I had first experienced. Availability of immigrants from rural sectors in the time of civil war and associated livelihood diversification ceases these practices in my community.  Successors of these practices in Kathmandu and other practices in the previous localities of immigrants have compounding impacts in the loss of TEK. Now, their way of linking, adapting and adjusting in the dynamic environment and compromising human livelihoods with people who have cherished cultural, traditional, environmental, economic, social, and political views may now become diverse among modern lifestyles. TEK is dependent on the communication of man with nature, which helped them thrive over thousands and millions of years.

In June 1992, five years after the Brundtland Report, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in its Rio Declaration stated that indigenous peoples have a vital role in environmental management and development, that their knowledge and traditional practices clearly established the relevance of indigenous peoples and the importance of protecting their rights in order to attain sustainable development.

Nepal is rich in biological resources and cultural resources and it is imperative that the country should take active legislative steps to protect the valuable TEK of the country. Concomitantly, Nepal signed two contradictory agreements i.e. TRIPS and CBD without absolute and concrete homework. Intellectual property rights (IPRs) applied on biodiversity are protected by the WTO TRIPs agreement (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights), and biodiversity objectives that are covered by the Convention on Biological Diversity, contradict each other on most accounts. Article 8(j) of CBD requires that the traditional knowledge of indigenous and local communities be respected, preserved and maintained; that the use of such knowledge should be promoted for wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge; and that they should equitably share in the benefits which arise from the use of their knowledge. CBD also requires, in Article 10(c), that customary uses of biological resources in accordance with traditional cultural practices should be protected and encouraged.

Article 27.3(b) of TRIPs provides that members may exclude animals and plants from patentability, though microorganisms for products, and microbiological and non biological processes for plant and animal production, must be subject to patenting. For instance, patent on the use of turmeric in wound healing granted to the US was revoked as its use was already known and used in South Asia for centuries. India proved an absence of novelty via scientific literature through a costly and time-consuming legal process against this sort of probable biopiracy. Under the mandate of TRIPS, all the members have to either patent or legislate an “effective sui generis system” for the protection of plant varieties. By virtue of this compliance requirement, Nepal framed document like Nepal Biodiversity Strategy 2002, which identifies biodiversity registration that aims at documenting the rich traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples, sharing local knowledge of bioresources with other communities in the country and abroad for mutual benefit, and conserving local traditional knowledge for sustainable utilization and equitable sharing of the benefits of natural resources through active support and participation of local communities and recognizes the need to protect farmer’s rights. However, the document falls short as there has been no strategy to effectively implement its provisions. 

Yet a substantial chunk of TEK of Nepali communities at grassroots level in the local community is not felt, hence prioritizing TEK has not been realized and such huge treasures of such knowledge remain unreported and hence are on the verge of being lost. The search for a sustainable economy is a global endeavor; for achieving these, as the need to conserve existing biodiversity and ecological processes becomes ever more pressing.

In the light of this, the government of Nepal, conservation partners and concerned stakeholders need to harp the importance of Nepal’s biological diversity and associated TEK and the concept of susceptibility toward bio-piracy and the biological resources. This scenario also calls for attention to the shortcomings of the legislation, or the lack thereof. TEK in the form of intergenerational learning and knowledge transfer may be particularly useful in situations where a community has co-existed for an extended period of time with one or more endangered species with the purpose to avoid the “knowledge crash.” The recent country’s priority species conservation action plan even failed to prioritize TEK as an important objective. So, it might be an opportunity to include TEK as an important component of any species conservation plan. Concomitantly, Sub-section 11(j) of Section 102 of the Local Government Operation Act, 2018 has the provision of formulating, implementing, and monitoring the local-level policy, and plan, related to biodiversity conservation in municipal jurisdiction as duty, responsibility, and rights of the rural municipality. This might add another brick in the wall for the conservation of TEK.