The loss of biodiversity is becoming a major threat in India and across the world. Two recent reports by the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) and Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) highlight this challenge; several species have either gone extinct or are at the brink of extinction. While CSE’s 2021 State of India’s Environment Report notes that biodiversity hotspots in India have lost 90% of their area and 25 species have gone extinct, the WWF report warns of habitat loss and degradation due to changes in land and sea use as the biggest reasons behind biodiversity loss in the Asia-Pacific region, including India.

In an attempt to preserve India’s vast biodiversity, the Indian government enacted the Biological Diversity Act, 2002. Besides provisioning for a three-tier administrative structure in the form of the National and State Biodiversity Boards, along with a Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) at the local level, the Act also adopted the concept of the People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) to record local and traditional knowledge on biological heritage.

As per the Biological Diversity Rules, 2004, the main function of the BMC is to prepare a People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) in consultation with local people. The current structure of the Biological Diversity Act places the register at the centre of its focus, insisting that they are prepared by each BMC, and that the respective State Biodiversity Board be an appellate authority to ratify them. 

If compiled effectively, these PBRs can contribute enormously to the conservation of the country’s rapidly dwindling biodiversity. Dr Kishor Moghe, Executive Director, ​Gramin Samassya Mukti Trust says, “PBR is the villagers’ property… it has to be gathered periodically. The data can be used to record a village’s biodiversity and also internal planning processes. In our Adivasi project areas, Gram Sabhas used selected formats of PBR [for] their village’s long term five-year planning process for execution”. The preparation of PBRs is mandated under the Biological Diversity Act, 2002, with as many as 2,48,156 PBRs prepared nationwide as of April 2021, as per the National Biodiversity Authority

While the two-lakh figure may seem impressive, the PBR model has had varying levels of success in its multiple lives. If PBRs can be reimagined to effectively rope in local communities, there is great hope that these registers can prove to be an effective strategy for preserving traditional biological knowledge.

The Benefits of People’s Biodiversity Registers

A People’s Biodiversity Register is not a new initiative. It began as a concept in 1995 amongst a group of scientists from different parts of India, grew with the support of community members, civil society organisations, and academia, before being co-opted in 2002 by a government-led mandate in the form of the Biological Diversity Act. Initially proposed as a “community register” in a workshop to document community-based knowledge of medicinal plants (organised by the Foundation for Revitalization of Local Health Traditions in Bengaluru), there have been significant advances made through the years. In 1995 and 1996, information was collected at 10 sites in four states of the Western Ghats. Thereafter, 52 registers were adopted in seven states from 1996-98 in an initiative led by the Indian Institute of Science. Groups such as Navdanya, Deccan Development Society, Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat and M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation also contributed immensely to the initial development of PBRs. Its institutionalisation through the passage of the Biological Diversity Act in 2002 has given formal recognition to the local communities’ knowledge of their biodiversity and our responsibility to protect it.

As PBRs are integral to the Biological Diversity Act, the register has legal protection against external misuse and appropriation. Each register can address the objectives of conservation, sustainable use of resources, access, and benefit-sharing, as well as assert the presence of biodiversity that might be harmed by any proposed project, in addition to ensuring benefits from the commercial usage of said bio-resources. PBRs in biodiversity-rich areas have the potential to serve as guardians of bio-resources which can be used only after the prior informed consent of the local communities. 

Besides the ability to record new species, there was another role envisaged for PBRs: for elders to transfer their myriad understanding of natural heritage and biodiversity to what is becoming an increasingly disconnected younger generation in many biodiversity-rich regions. PBRs can combat the loss of traditional ecological knowledge by recording a region’s biological and cultural resources. So much so, that it was even decided in the twelfth national meeting of State Biodiversity Boards to keep traditional knowledge contained in PBRs out of the public domain.

Yet, despite these benefits, the design and development of PBRs continue to face hurdles today. 

PBR as an Unfulfilled Promise for Community Ownership of Resource

People’s Biodiversity Registers have faced scepticism since their inception: many considered them to be yet another well-intentioned but futile exercise that would fail the tests of the field. Nationwide, while there have been several instances of the efficient use of PBRs, the register has often flattered to deceive, failing to fulfil the promises it sought to achieve in the original framework of the Biological Diversity Act.

The challenges of preparing PBRs begin with the first stage of collecting primary information. On paper, information is to be generated by the Biodiversity Management Committee, which comprises local community members. Even the earlier versions of the PBR was envisaged as a collaboration between people working in the organised sector such as educational institutions, government agencies, NGOs, ecologists, peasants, herders, fishers and traditional healers. 

Mr Bhagvan Meshram, Sarpanch of Undarni Village in Yavatmal district of Maharashtra tells us, “Forest and biodiversity conservation is the responsibility of Gram Sabhas. Our Gramsabha is CFR-recognised. While preparing the conservation and management plan, we came to know about PBR and found that this data is useful in our village planning and can be referred to in various meetings. This traditional data is useful for our next generation also”. 

However, in practice, it is often prepared by a technical support group composed of professors, teachers, and students from a scientific background that are not necessarily from local communities. On the ground, the role of the BMC gets relegated: often, they themselves have not been constituted properly as per the norms laid out in the Act, or worse, a BMC may lay dormant after its constitution. As Ravinder Kumar from Gram Panchayat Redhuwas in Jhajjar district of Haryana states, “We don’t know when the BMC was made. I even asked its secretary, and he had no idea either!” Ambiguity over its functions prevails in many parts of the country, which limits the ability to collaboratively gather information for the register with local communities. 

One challenge to preparing useful and comprehensive PBRs pertains to the slew of orders since 2016 that made it compulsory for PBRs to be prepared in all the local bodies where BMCs are operational. This was necessitated by the Chandra Bhal Singh versus Union of India case, filed in 2016 at the National Green Tribunal, which called out the poor implementation of the Biological Diversity Act. The NGT issued an order asking for an immediate creation of BMCs in all local bodies in India. As a result, while there was a 93% shortfall in the preparation of PBRs for the 14 years between 2002-2016, the number of PBRs jumped from 1388 in 2016 to 2,48,156 in 2021. The number of BMCs leaped from just 9700 in 2016 to 2,73,451 in 2021. 

Such an exponential increase in the production of a document that demands immense amounts of detailed local knowledge over just five years is commendable, but these exploding numbers reveal two things. One, the urgency (and capability) of state machinery to adhere to the directions of NGT; and two, how hurried the process of creating these BMCs must have been.

Because several BMCs themselves are often not operational or inactive, such orders become counterproductive. The PBRs prepared in compliance to fulfil the obligation of the Biodiversity Act end up as being a “tick mark” that signifies the completion of an exercise, rather than contributing to biodiversity conservation. This has led to an enormous spike in efforts towards sourcing funds for compiling PBRs, instead of concentrating on producing less expensive but more effective PBRs; the creations of PBRs has been driven further away from local communities, becoming a process to be completed by a technical support group. 

On top of that, while the initial thrust of PBRs was to prepare a knowledge repository by and of local communities, after the 2016 NGT order, the onus of creating PBRs has shifted to the State. The State in turn has been known to constitute mega-projects for preparing such registers, such as contracting it out to universities in Uttarakhand. Various international agencies have also funded the preparation of PBRs. Converting them into project-specific outputs has further alienated PBRs from the community-owned initiative that it was intended to embody.

PBRs have the potential to aid local communities in substantiating their opposition to destructive development projects that may not have taken adequate care to protect the biodiversity of the region by strengthening existing Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) standards. However, there is a threat to this potential use-case, when PBRs which began as attempts to document the local knowledge turn into a government-mandated exercise. Once it is completed, it can remain tucked away in a government office, offering little value to the local population. As sarpanch Meshramji points out, “Data is useful in our village level planning. However, sometimes, we feel that this information is difficult to gather and understand”.

Even with the participation of local communities, the process of information-gathering is crucial to ensure that a PBR’s records are contextually situated. To ensure that no major floral species are missed, a few states have currently taken the route of preparing master checklists of floral species. While this reduces the actual time spent on the field, it also leads to a lazier form of data collection, wherein the focus is to complete the PBR survey quickly and cross-verify it with the information from the master checklist. It might compromise the quality of PBRs as the rapid data collection methodologies might lead to a homogeneity of results overlooking local niches. 

The need of the hour is to reimagine PBRs as we know them. However, this is not an easy task, as its mandate has been taken away from the realm of locals and civil society groups and been branded as a government-mandated project. The various formats which were prepared for the ease of collecting data have now transformed PBRs into a holy grail of datasheets with little scope of innovation on the part of the data collector.

A Progressive Vision for PBRs

Clearly, PBRs have much to offer, but they are yet to fully take off in India. For this to change, and for PBRs to capture complex biological relationships, the participation of local communities is a must, as the prescribed process for PBRs suggests. This will have tangible socio-economic benefits for the communities involved. 

While success stories of effective PBRs are still relatively sparse, BMCs such as Dudhai in Uttarakhand (which stopped illegal mining in the Swarna river) and Keoti in Madhya Pradesh (which filed a petition with the NGT against illegal mining in the biodiversity-rich village forest) serve as examples of the impact that active local bodies can have, if the provisions of the Biological Diversity Act are skillfully adopted. 

Globally, more reviews acknowledge the importance of nature education from an early age. In this context, PBRs have the potential to play a major role in environmental education at a local level. Karnik Priyansh, a future conservationist awardee of the Conservation Leadership Programme, a partnership of three of the world’s leading biodiversity conservation organisations adds, “With the Convention of Biological Diversity recognised internationally as a guiding force in combating degradation of biodiversity, PBRs can still become an effective tool to prevent the misuse of traditional knowledge, usurping biological resources without prior informed consent, accessing benefits, and providing a bulwark against environmentally destructive development projects”.

Locally-compiled PBRs could also be used for declaring Biodiversity Heritage Sites that are known to have rare bio-resources, thereby adding a layer of protection for endangered flora, fauna, and community habitats. PBRs which are easy to understand should be mandatorily referenced while conducting environmental impact assessments for new projects and to mitigate nuanced ecological losses that may escape the State’s eye. Dr Moghe adds, “PBR formats are useful, but for local people, they are difficult to understand when recording [their] traditional knowledge. There is scope to improve these formats to make it people-friendly”.

Preparing PBRs can also be an employment-generating activity, as many states undertake efforts to document such knowledge. Field staff can be trained to collect and enter data through the Green Skill Development Programme (GSDP), which aims to provide vocational training to the country’s youth in the environment and forest sector. More than 200 people have already been trained as biodiversity conservationists and para-taxonomists under this program.

Promising local youth leaders can also be trained as biodiversity warriors to coordinate the preparation of PBRs with other environmental justice acts such as the Forest Rights Act, 2006. This form of training can be particularly useful for developing new livelihood activities such as ecotourism while also preserving the rights and cultures of the communities indigenous to these regions.

That being said, one needs to be cautious in avoiding historical traps while preparing PBRs. The knowledge that is being documented must be situated in the local context, and reflect socio-natural relations with local biodiversity from an ecological perspective. So, the PBR needs to record not only the traditional economic use of the local biological resources—which may not necessarily be exploitative—but also the other traditional non-economic associations of communities with the local biodiversity. Examples include sacred groves, horrible or pleasant incidents of human-wildlife encounters, and how these complex associations have changed. Capturing and recognising these relationships over time—which may be experienced differently by different sections of local society—could help ensure that PBRs stay relevant to the local communities who develop them.

Sacred groves are remnants of a past forest landscape that provide integral information about local landscapes and customs | Representative image of a peepal tree shrine (ashwath katte) taken in Jakkur, Bengaluru, by Elizabeth Karippal (2018)

To that end, the endorsement of these documents by respective Gram Sabhas should not be side-lined as a procedural hurdle that slows down the process. Instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to discuss and incorporate the knowledge of sections of local communities that were missed out on while preparing the PBR. Such discussions around the PBR would not only promote local participation but would help deepen the strength of local democracy. Above all, they would ensure that PBRs do not end up being instruments to satisfy regulatory bodies at the Centre.

Featured image from Panna, Madhya Pradesh courtesy Vaishnavi Rathore.

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