- A young biologist is leading Divar island’s community in Goa to document its local biological resources.
- The documentation, in the form of a People’s Biodiversity Register, will contain information on availability and knowledge of local biological resources, their medicinal or any other use or any other traditional knowledge associated with them.
- Through the process, 24-year-old Hycintha Aguiar is also trying to get more women to participate in the documentation of traditional knowledge.
- Today, on International Women’s Day, we celebrate women leaders like Hycintha who are taking steps to protect the future of India’s environment while also encouraging more women to participate in decision-making on dealing with the changing environment. Read more stories in our special series on ‘Environment And Her’.
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 (BMC) is in charge of putting together a people’s biodiversity register (PBR) in consultation with the community.
“The book will be a treasure of knowledge collected from the island. 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,” gushed Aguiar, a zoology postgraduate from the Goa University.
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 PBR 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 PBRs 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. 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,” Aguiar said.
Video by Sahana Ghosh/Mongabay.
Documenting traditional knowledge to conserve the future
With its elegant Portuguese-style houses and imposing Baroque edifices, mangrove-fringed Divar is home to close to 5000 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 BMC of the Goltim-Navelim village panchayat with 2700 inhabitants in the throes of change.
“As an islander, I had always wanted to do something for my birthplace. 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 PBR),” Aguiar asserted.
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 shields 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.
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 (NBPGR), 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 PBR 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.
“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 adds 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, 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.
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 comes 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 BMCs in 20 villages to develop the PBRs with support from the Goa State Biodiversity Board.
Biodiversity conservation by the people and for the people
As many as 6449 PBRs have been put together so far covering 21 of the 29 states in India. Karnataka has 1777 PBRs while Sikkim has four as per NBA’s updated list.
Drawing up the PBR 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.
As there is no model PBR 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 PBR 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 PBR.
“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.
Banner image: Mangrove-fringed Divar island is embraced by the Mandovi river in Goa. Photo by Tanmoy Bhaduri.