In the early 2000s, when botanist R Ganesan was exploring the forests of Biligiriranga hills in Karnataka, he came across a peculiar-looking tree. At the time, Ganesan, a researcher at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, was closely studying the Indian gooseberry in the region, also known as amla or nellika, and how trees bearing the fruit were responding to over-harvesting in the Biligiriranga hills. Dismissing the unfamiliar-looking tree as a local variant of another species, Ganesan turned to his field assistant, who was a member of the Soliga tribe native to the region.
The assistant insisted it was another species of gooseberry, which the locals called ittu nelli as it was larger than the regular gooseberry. The fruit was a local delicacy, he said.
Ganesan initially refused to believe him. “I was very surprised,” he said. “I had 15 years of experience with forest plants and I was very confident that there was only one species that gives the amla fruit. This one looked very different.” But upon examining the fruit and reading literature on the species once again, he found that there was indeed another species of gooseberry, which had been described in Chamaraj forests in Karnataka, way back in 1925. But it had been over-exploited over the years and the fruit had become very rare.
“I am very sure that most of the botanists did not know of the existence of this species,” said Ganesan. “All the botany professors have been teaching that the Indian gooseberry belong only to that one species.”
The incident made it apparent to him that the knowledge of local communities was critical to understanding forest biodiversity, but was rarely acknowledged in scientific research, said Ganesan. “The scientific community is not so generous or magnanimous in acknowledging them in publications and reports.”
Ecologists admit that while communities living in the vicinity of an area, with their traditional knowledge of flora and fauna and sense of the landscape of the region, often form the backbone of their research, they are hardly acknowledged for their contributions. For some years now, this has been a point of an inconclusive discussion among researchers.
“Once in while, there may be a sentence or two in the acknowledgements section of the paper, thanking the assistant or community for their contribution,” said Ganesan. “But rarely more than that.”
According to ethnobotanist D Narasimhan, a former professor at Madras Christian College in Chennai, exploitation of the communities by scientists and pharmaceutical companies is rampant. Ethnobotany is the study of plants and their significance or use by a particular culture. “The scientific community simply exploits the local communities,” Narsimhan said. “Based on their [the communities’] botanical knowledge, scientists may write research papers. Based on these findings, pharmaceutical companies will use the ingredients to make medicines and earn profits.”
He added, “There is a very thin line of difference between pure academic research and commercial research. It is always very difficult to define.”
To protect the interests of these communities and to prevent the exploitation of their traditional knowledge for commercial use, rules were framed under the Biological Diversity Rules, 2004, which states that a percentage of the benefits arising from the commercial use and extraction of biological resources should be shared with the local communities.
Narasimhan said every research institute in India which works with communities should have a Code of Ethics that specifies how locals should be recognised for their contributions to research. “At institutions in the US, there is a very strict code of ethics that has to be followed while working with indigenous communities,” said Narasimhan. “But in India, none of the institutions have constituted this.”
According to Aparajita Datta of the Nature Conservation Foundation, an NGO working on wildlife research and conservation, the younger generation of scientists seem more willing to admit that the local communities and tribes are fundamental to their research. The growth of social media too has an important role to play. “Now there are more number of avenues for scientists to talk about the efforts of the local people,” she said.
In one of her research papers, Datta included a Wancho tribal as one of the co-authors. To her knowledge, she is among the few scientists to have done so in the recent past. The tribesman, Japang Pansa, had helped her discover the leaf deer in Arunachal Pradesh some years ago. “He has never read the research paper since he has not received formal education,” said Datta. “But he knows the contents of the paper, and he had made important contributions that led to the discovery.”
But Datta has her doubts about how far just giving authorship benefits the local community. “At some level it is a token thing, since the person gets little out of it,” she said.
She now faces a dilemma about how to acknowledge the local people who have been field-staff on long-term projects in Pakke Tiger reserve in Arunachal Pradesh, monitoring tree phenology and hornbill nests for almost 20 years.
“Their observations and contributions to such projects are very large,” she said. “We need to find a way to give them recognition such that it would enhance their lifestyle and skills and acknowledge their contributions in a meaningful way.”
Narasimhan said that he has now made it mandatory for all his research students to credit each individual from the local community for every bit of information they gather. “They have to mention the name of the person and which village they are from, along with their contribution,” said Narasimhan.
However, progress has been slow, since many researchers still claim that their work is a result of their intellectual abilities, and the local communities were being paid money for their efforts. Nitin Rai, one of the editors of the journal Conservation and Society and a biologist at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, said that he has not yet received a research paper for the journal that acknowledges the efforts of the community entirely. For instance, local knowledge may have led to the selection of observations sites in forests, or influenced the time of day that the researcher chose for his study. But these are not credited to the local people.
According to Rai, this could be a result of the approach ecologists take towards scientific research. “We need to see if the way in which we do our science allows for such acknowledgement,” said Rai. He explained that sociologists or anthropologists, who also work with local communities, are more aware of how the landscape is being understood by the locals, and this shapes their research. But ecological research is premised on certain ideological viewpoints and conceptual frameworks that may not change with interactions with the local communities. “The blame of not acknowledging may not lie particularly on individual wildlife researchers but on the scientific systems of knowing nature,” he said. “These may exclude other forms of knowing nature, such as the way local communities do. There is often no place for that kind of understanding when it comes to ecological research.”