Electronic People’s Biodiversity Register [E-PBR]: triggering widespread Bio-entrepreneurship


Electronic People’s  Biodiversity Register [E-PBR] as the means triggering widespread Bio-entrepreneurship

After years of efforts, significant efforts have been made in setting up Biodiversity Management Committees in more than 200,000 villages leading to an equal number of People’s Biodiversity Register though of varying quality.  Kerala has been a pioneering state in making E-PBR for all the villages.  Several other states have started making progress in meeting the goals of National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) with a very wide representation of central and state governments, Forest & Environment Ministry and departments, state biodiversity boards and other stakeholders such as Botanical and Zoological Surveys of India.  A national review of the current situation and proposed pilots was organized by NBA.  The readiness of National Biodiversity Authority to listen to various voices has to be appreciated.  Because such a widespread consultation has not taken place for some time.  Tribute was paid to Dr. Madhav Gadgil and many others involved in conceiving and implementing the Plant Biodiversity Register. 

Some of the suggestions I  made may have relevance for empowering people to have the ownership of this movement and go beyond the documentation to augmentation, sustainable utilization and benefit-sharing.   It was pointed out that one of the striking asymmetries in the role of local communities vis-à-vis the outsiders, particularly scholars who documented and published the knowledge without making local communities as authors remain to be properly rectified.  For a long time, scholars and students have been documenting the knowledge of the people and bringing it in public domain by publishing it without acknowledgement, prior informed consent and reciprocity towards the knowledge providers.  Once the knowledge is brought in the public domain, it also becomes ineligible for any intellectual property protection.  Any industry or commercial agency can use this knowledge without having to seek the consent and permission with attendant sharing of benefits at mutually agreed terms.

This is not to suggest that knowledge should not be shared.  One can develop a hybrid model where people’s knowledge of resources can be considered as a part of Technology Commons in which people to people knowledge sharing is allowed and encouraged but people to a firm is through licensing.  As on date, one does not expect more than five to ten per cent of the knowledge available with communities to be unique and worthy of protection before sharing.  How should one proceed to i) widen the public domain, ii) encourage and empower the communities to learn from each other, iii) add value and generate livelihoods, iv) improve income and thus have v) incentives to conserve biodiversity resources and use them in a sustainable manner. 

The young people including children should be encouraged to participate in mapping and tapping the knowledge of elders about local resources.  The inter-generational transfer of knowledge can take place through biodiversity competitions.  The HBN has tried this for several decades. The children are asked to bring as many samples of plants and their uses in a kind of  an open book competition i.e., they can consult and learn from anybody, particularly elders.  Those who bring maximum information or more diversified information can be recognized and awarded.  In one week of such a competition, more knowledge will get transferred to younger children than may have been the case in the previous decades. 

The college students can also be involved in not only documenting but also annotating the knowledge resources with longitude and latitude values and also with references to the prior literature.  This can be a part of an applied environmental science credit course so that the goal of connecting academia with society well articulated in the new education policy is met.  The MSc and PhD students can be encouraged to take up the value addition work on behalf of the communities while protecting their rights on the resources and associated knowledge system and making them co-authors in the research publications.  If any of this knowledge is patentable, then we can assign rights to people and credit in papers shared by students.

It must be obligatory on the part of every outside individual/institution collecting knowledge from people to share the pooled knowledge back with annotation in local language.  The Plant Biodiversity Registers will eventually be a multimedia, multi-language document with one of the major purposes being to promote horizontal learning among communities, exchange and collaborative value addition.  Electronic   PBR accessible by SMS will make it useful for 75 per cent people who don’t have access to smart phones till in India.

Multimedia, multi-language databases help in overcoming three barriers of language, localism and literacy.  That is a community member would be able to learn even if he is illiterate [by looking at the video], not only from the local village but also from other regions in the country and the world and in also mother tongue.  The degree of exchange can be monitored and mentored through respect for existing rituals and also creating new rituals/festivals.  For example on 15th August, Village Panchayat can honour i) local knowledge experts for their valuable service to the community for building the capacity of the younger generation, ii) reward youth and children for extraordinary accomplishment in mapping and conserving biodiversity and associated knowledge and ii) recognize young entrepreneurs who have developed DIY and commercial products based on local resources.  On 26th January, a village community can honour the knowledge experts, youth and entrepreneurs /biopreneurs from other communities and regions.

Knowledge of women, particularly with regard to edible weeds can be very an important source for meeting the nutritional gaps in the communities.  The prior literature can be used to authenticate and augment this knowledge.  Women knowledge holders should be empowered and encouraged to set up small processing units for nutritional products based on local weeds and associated knowledge systems.  This would possibly help the economically poor women in raising their income even more.

The in-situ value addition has to become a mantra for achieving the benefit sharing with local communities and generating more livelihood opportunities.  The Panchayat Fund/other funds should be allowed to be used to buy fractional distillation equipment, multipurpose bioprocessing units and other such devices for adding value to local biodiversity resources with or without blending it with other resources.  Biotech industries should help in creating a market for herbal extracts developed by the communities, entrepreneurs and women groups.   A library of such extracts can be publicized to create even a global market implementing what Honey Bee Network says, Grassroots to Global (g2G).

There should be annual or seasonal monitoring of biodiversity to track loss of species or augmentation of various species or reduction in certain species. Consciousness about these changes might trigger local initiatives for conservation through inter-community interaction and exchange.  The PBR should also record the effects of climatic fluctuations and other factors in changing the biodiversity profile.  The plot by plot agrobiodiversity should be monitored as was tried by HBN in certain villages for the last 30 years.  On the loss of local varieties of crops or breeds, incentives could be to rehabilitate those lost species. 

Health for all is a desirable goal to link soil, plant, animal and human health.  A pilot was done with the help of scientists of Anand Agri University and a team of local voluntary doctors which showed the contribution of copper as a mineral in distinguishing the people and places with high chronic diseases compared to low chronic diseases.  Habitat conservation and characterization, therefore, should be an integral part of biodiversity mapping and tapping process.   The efforts of BSI and ZSI in reviving a dying discipline of  taxonomy have to be appreciated. Building a cadre of para taxonomist is a good idea.  AI-based applications to identify plants and their characteristics is an urgent priority.  There is no doubt that the momentum that the NBA has created can be taken forward for a decentralized bio- entrepreneurship revolution, celebrating the Gandhian spirit in 150th year of Mahatma.


Visiting Faculty, IIM Ahmedabad & IIT Bombay and an independent thinker, activist for the cause of creative communities and individuals at grassroots, tech institutions and any other walk of life committed to make this world a more creative, compassionate and collaborative place