How tribals preserve biodiversity through traditional practices


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International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated on August 9th each year. It is estimated that they comprise nearly 300 million tribes worldwide, 150 million of which are from Asia alone. India has a population of 68 million tribesmen who represent 573 tribal communities.

While several cultural aspects of tribal societies remain a mystery, it is a well-known fact that tribesmen have lived in some of the most hostile environmental conditions on the planet. As a result, they have gained immense knowledge about the development and management of the forest ecosystem. This was later found to be beneficial for eco-restoration and maintaining a balance in the ecosystem.

And one of the practices that helped the tribesmen establish and maintain that balance is promoting biodiversity. Here are four ways in which tribesmen have played a vital role in conserving the biodiversity of ecosystems, particularly in India.

Preserving biodiversity through traditional farming practices

As communities around the world increasingly switch to sustainable farming practices, tribal societies appeared to be the pioneers of the technique. For example, tribal communities such as Irulas, Malayalis and Muthuvas in Tamil Nadu grow conventional varieties such as millet, rice, legumes and vegetables. This choice of crops was influenced by their nutritional practices and their reliance on rain irrigation. Hence, the selection and preservation of the seeds from one season to the next has enabled them to sustain and stay on their own. But most importantly, several of these crops are now only grown and maintained by tribal communities in southern India.

Use of wild species as food, medicinal herbs

Compared to the urban population, the tribals tend to consume all parts of edible plants. Hence, they are dependent on several game species for onions, roots, seeds and tubers used for edible purposes. At the same time, when harvesting these plants, they follow the rules of environmental protection and justify ecological prudence. Tubers of plants such as Dioscorea spp. are only harvested when the leaves of the vine are physiologically ripened and turn yellow. The wild tubers are carefully dug up to avoid damage to their species.

Most of the tribes have elderly members who have immense knowledge of medicinal plants used to cure the sick who can be life threatening. These plants are used alone or in combination with other herbs. Each tribe has its own unique system of collecting plants and preparing medicines. Parts of plants used for medicines are used at a specific time, either before fruiting or at a specific time of the year. The same plant can be used for different diseases: for example, Calotropis Gigantea is used as a vermicide and chest pain. This results in the conservation of many plants, some of which are not even available outside of a particular region.

Preserving biodiversity through spirituality

Most tribal communities preserve plants because of their belief in “magico” – a religious belief that plants are the habitat of gods and goddesses. This culture is prevalent in the tribal areas of central India such as the Balaghat, Dindori and Mandala districts of Madhya Pradesh. It has also been observed in the Bilaspur and Kawardha districts of Chhattisgarh. Research shows that plants have flowers that greatly influence the religious beliefs of the tribesmen who live here. Their worship of trees has resulted in the cultivation of myriad species such as Arjun, Basi, Indian Bael, Neem, and several others.

Preservation on site

In situ conservation refers to the conservation on site (at the place of origin) or the conservation of genetic resources in natural plant populations. There are no limits to the effects produced by this tribal practice. Several primeval forests, flora and fauna have been preserved in the sacred groves of the tribesmen, which otherwise would have disappeared from their natural ecosystem.

The sacred groves refer to the natural forests found in central, northeast and peninsula India, where all kinds of human activities are prohibited. These groves are home to several unique tree species. For example, in the sacred grove of Maharashtra in the Western Ghat, there is a giant mango tree covered by the Tinospora sinensis snake with a hanging trunk that looks like an elephant’s trunk.

Also read: From garbage to treasure: This social enterprise converts plastic garbage with Charkha. in fabric

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