In Goa’s serene Divar island, encircled by the Mandovi river, a 24-year old biologist is busy prodding her neighbours, asking questions and jogging their memories, to help chronicle the island’s natural heritage resource.

Her age notwithstanding, Hycintha Aguiar, as chairperson of a local biodiversity management committee is in charge of putting together a people’s biodiversity register in consultation with the community.

“The book will be a treasure of knowledge collected from the island,” said Aguiar, a zoology postgraduate from the Goa University. “I am trying to get the students to document the biodiversity in the form of school assignments. When they speak to the elders they will learn more about their island.”

Speaking to this visiting Mongabay-India correspondent in Divar’s Piedade village, Aguiar discussed the importance of drawing up a people’s biodiversity register – an unusual scientific activity for the people and by the people.

A people’s biodiversity register contains comprehensive information on availability and knowledge of local biological resources, their medicinal or any other use or any other traditional knowledge associated with them. Preparing people’s biodiversity registers is mandated under India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and Rules, 2004.

“Conducting the surveys to document nature’s bounty is a slow but steady process but it brings people back in touch with nature,” Aguiar said. “I want people to have some ownership over the register. Different communities have different connections with nature and we are trying to bring that out.”

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Video by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay.

Traditional knowledge can conserve the future

With its elegant Portuguese-style houses and imposing Baroque edifices, mangrove-fringed Divar is home to close to 5,000 inhabitants who trace their roots to India’s smallest state before the 16th-century Portuguese Inquisition.

21st-century Divar, where everyone knows everyone, is administered under two village councils: the Goltim-Navelim village panchayat and the Sao Matias panchayat. Aguiar chairs the biodiversity management committee of the Goltim-Navelim village panchayat with 2,700 inhabitants in the throes of change.

“As an islander, I had always wanted to do something for my birthplace,” Aguiar said. “I can see that things are changing fast and things are going out of hand. When I became a biologist I realised we can do things in a more systematic way (through the people’s biodiversity register).”

One of the prominent ecosystem features in Goa, including in Divar, is the fast-vanishing ‘khazan’ agricultural lands, reclaimed over centuries from marshy mangrove swamps.

They are traditionally community managed, integrated agro-aqua ecosystems where a system of bunds (dykes), sluice gates and canals shield the fields from the invasion of saline water. Community management and monitoring have gradually collapsed and with embankments breached, salt water has submerged vast tract of paddy fields.

Khazan lands are traditionally community managed, integrated agro-aqua ecosystems where a system of bunds (dykes), sluice gates and canals shields the fields from the invasion of saline water. Photo credit: Hycintha Aguiar
Khazan lands are traditionally community managed, integrated agro-aqua ecosystems where a system of bunds (dykes), sluice gates and canals shields the fields from the invasion of saline water. Photo credit: Hycintha Aguiar

Aguiar hopes cataloguing traditional knowledge across domains and communities will prevent further disruptions of the natural wealth that Divar has to offer.

For instance, the Korgut, a traditional rice landrace known for its tolerance to salinity stress at the seedling stage. The germplasm is now registered with the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi.

Even the older sluice bunds (retaining walls) in khazan lands shelter smooth-coated otter populations. “The sluice walls have otter dens and are used by otters for eating, defecation and grooming,” said Aguiar.

Referring to the legal nature of the people’s biodiversity register as endorsed by the state biodiversity boards, Aguiar said: “Since it is a legal tool, we can use it to prevent activities that harm biodiversity. It will also ensure fair and equitable sharing of benefits of the use of the resources.”

Like other millennials, Aguiar has reached out to her peers and seniors through social media and is planning to deploy citizen science for mapping insect and bird biodiversity. Her friend Saili Shirodhkar has also played a key role among the young blood of Divar.

In December last year (2018), Aguiar and her biodiversity management committee members organised a bird walk to explore the mangroves in Divar and familiarise themselves with a variety of birds.

A bird walk organised by the biodiversity management committee in Divar. Photo credit: Hycintha Aguiar.
A bird walk organised by the biodiversity management committee in Divar. Photo credit: Hycintha Aguiar.

“There were 60 participants in the bird walk, which is a big deal for our small island. We have come together in a WhatsApp group for further discussions,” she said.

At the outset, Aguiar has been trying to get women to participate in the meetings organised for the exchange of ideas.

“We organise small group meetings where people talk to each other on the biological resources. This way we know there is no duplication of information. But we see mostly men in these meetings,” she said.

“But the women have a very good recollection of traditional knowledge. So we are modifying our approach and hopefully we will get more women to speak up,” Aguiar said.

On the importance of bridging the gender gap, Sangita Mitra of the National Biodiversity Authority said that at ground level, bioresources are handled, preserved, and cultivated by women over the ages.

“Some of the traditional healers are women. While preparing a PBR [people’s biodiversity register], they must be involved. However, there should not be any gender bias. It has to be more practical and technically sound,” Mitra told Mongabay-India.

Participation of women in documenting traditional knowledge is crucial in documenting biological resources. Photo credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri
Participation of women in documenting traditional knowledge is crucial in documenting biological resources. Photo credit: Tanmoy Bhaduri

Monalisa Sen, Programme Coordinator (Biodiversity) at ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, South Asia, observed folk songs that are connected to nature and are now diminishing come from women and so does the knowledge of the application of plants that are used in childcare.

“We always make it a point to have separate discussions with women on these. We have focused group discussions and we identify leaders who will talk a little more. We sit with them and understand what is happening,” Sen told Mongabay-India.

ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability, South Asia is providing technical assistance to the biodiversity management committees in 20 villages to develop the people’s biodiversity registers with support from the Goa State Biodiversity Board.

By and for the people

As many as 6,449 people’s biodiversity registers have been put together so far covering 21 of the 29 states in India. Karnataka has 1,777 people’s biodiversity registers while Sikkim has four as per National Biodiversity Authority’s updated list.

Drawing up the people’s biodiversity register has taken root in Goa now.

“Some of the states are in process of preparing PBR in good numbers. It is an exhaustive process and needs validation by technical support groups/ expertise of various disciplines. Hence one PBR may take one to two years even for final drafting. There is no fixed time frame. It depends on the process and richness of resources in an area,” Mitra said.

Map: Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay   Source: National Biodiversity Authority
Map: Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay Source: National Biodiversity Authority

As there is no model people’s biodiversity register or fixed criteria, we are yet to identify the best document, Mitra said. Mitra observes that it is an irony that the objective and method of preparing people’s biodiversity register are still unknown to many, even among the scientific community.

As for now, young Aguiar is ready to take on the immediate challenge: getting local community members to understand the meaning of a people’s biodiversity register.

“I want them to know that there is a thing called PBR and that they can actually put it to good use someday,” Aguiar added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.