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Biodiversity study with replay whiff

New Delhi, Jan. 4: India is trying to capture afresh its oral, traditional knowledge of biodiversity for food, fibre and medicine while the findings of a similar 16-year-long project remain largely untapped.

Several states are documenting local traditional knowledge, orally passed down the generations, to help build a People’s Register of Biodiversity under India’s National Biodiversity Act of 2002, environment ministry officials said today.

The register, to be built with contributions from local biodiversity boards from across the country, is intended to document traditional knowledge based on local biodiversity wealth, the officials said. It is also expected to lead to fair and equitable sharing of any benefits that might emerge from the commercial exploitation of such traditional knowledge.

But the environment ministry itself had supported an All India Co-ordinated Research Project on Ethnobiology from 1982 to 1998, under which nearly 300 scientists from 27 institutions had recorded the uses of more than 10,000 wild plants.

“We documented nearly 8,000 plants used for medicinal purposes. Among these, about 5,000 species had not been documented ever before. The 5,000 species were based on oral traditional knowledge,” said Palpu Pushpangadan, former director of the Tropical Botanical Garden Research Institute in Thiruvananthapuram, who was then the chief co-ordinator of the project.

“We began in an era when we had no computers,” Pushpangadan said. The scientists often trudged deep into forests to find out how local communities were using the plants and animals around them.

“But we weren’t allowed to publish most of the findings. There were concerns that the knowledge may be unfairly exploited,” Pushpangadan said.

But while the National Biodiversity Act of 2002 brought in legal provisions for benefit-sharing, most of the knowledge from the project remains unexploited, he said.

An environment ministry official said that while the 1982-98 project was primarily aimed at documenting plants for medicinal purposes, the current effort would document biodiversity for food, fibre and medicine. “The initiative has taken off in some states — Kerala, Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Sikkim — but it needs to pick up in others,” the official said.

In an earlier parallel effort, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research had created a digital library for traditional knowledge which has documented more than 200,000 formulations used in traditional Indian medicine.

The digital library and the proposed register are expected to help foreign patent agencies reject inappropriate patents that involve traditional knowledge.

Summit in India

India will host the 11th conference on biodiversity in 2012, the 20th anniversary of the Rio Earth Summit.

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