Picking mahua | Photo Credit: Biswaranjan Rout
Every summer and winter, members of the Korku tribe near Melghat, Maharashtra, don big cotton outfits covered in fine mesh and head out to the forests.
Their mission is complex: they must collect wild honey from the trees, but do so without killing the bees or destroying the hive. So they delve carefully into the hive’s ‘kitchen’, extracting the honey without damaging the rest of the structure. “That’s the only section that has honey. It is so unnecessary to break the entire hive,” says Gajanan Kale, a conservationist who works with Korku tribals. This way, the bees can reuse the hive three times.
Sometimes wild resources can indeed be harvested sustainably. But sometimes, they are not. And as consumers who thrive both on dadima’s nuskha (home remedy) and luxury ayurvedic brands, we don’t know where our arjuna bark or forest honey come from, and how they are extracted.
A wild idea
In truth, there are several aromatic, medicinal or rare biological resources used in industry, not all of which support sustainable pickings, or share profits with local communities, who are the true guardians of these resources. Now, a landmark judgment from the Uttarakhand High Court last month sets out to change that.
The judgment dismissed a case filed by yoga guru Baba Ramdev’s Divya Pharmacy, which pleaded against sharing revenues from indigenous biological resources with local communities.
The court said Divya must pay the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board as it uses biological resources for commercial purposes. This is crucial as several biological resources are rare, or grow only in the wild and cannot be cultivated.
Take, for instance, yarsa goomba, a fungus that grows on a caterpillar, found only in the Himalayas and used widely in Chinese medicine for its supposed aphrodisiac properties.
Or the mahua tree, which isn’t rare, but its flowers — used for chutneys, pastes, and alcohol — are only collected from mature trees, many of which grow in forest land.
It is loved by both sloth bears and people, and plans are afoot to package and sell mahua liquor on a large scale.
How will this pan out? In Chhattisgarh, the government does buy the flower, but on a small scale. For most part, it is sold dirt cheap at haats (local bazaars) as seasonal produce. “On an average, a family sells two or three quintals of mahua for ₹7 a kilo. The government needs to map the places mahua is collected from. It should also provide facilities to dry it, and of course ensure greater benefit-sharing with the collectors,” says Anupam Sisodia, Chhattisgarh-based conservationist.
The judgment makes a special mention of yarsa goomba: “The local and the indigenous communities in Uttarakhand, who reside in the high Himalayas and are mainly tribals, are the traditional ‘pickers’ of this biological resource. Through the ages, this knowledge is preserved and passed on to the next generation. The knowledge as to when, and in which season to find the herb, its character, the distinct qualities, the smell, the colour, are all part of this traditional knowledge. This knowledge, may not strictly qualify as an intellectual property right of these communities, but nevertheless is a ‘property right’, now recognised for the first time by the 2002 Act (India’s Biological Diversity Act), as FEBS [Fair and Equitable Benefit Sharing].”
Sharing access and benefits
India’s Biological Diversity Act, 2002 is in line with India’s international commitments under the Convention on Biological Diversity, which call for both the sustainable use of biological resources, and also for access and benefit sharing. The judgment indeed upholds the spirit of the Biological Diversity Act, although the modalities have not been worked out and dues remain unpaid by companies and industrial units.
“At the end of the day, the benefit-sharing system is truly sustainable, as the money will go to the Biodiversity Management Committees, who will then use it for activities that sustain the biological resource — such as maintaining a water source, creating basic facilities for drying and storing the resource, or capacity building of the collectors and growers,” says Sargam Singh Rasaily, Member Secretary, Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board.
Under the biodiversity Act, benefit sharing does not cover ‘normally traded commodities’ such as wheat, rice and cotton. But it does cover other biological resources used commercially, and this should include Korku forest honey, especially as it is sustainably harvested.
The judgment could indeed be a positive development for the Korku tribe. “The rate for honey has been artificially brought down by middlemen who sell it to the companies. And many companies do not pay anything to the biodiversity board,” says Kale. “It is only fair that large pharmaceutical companies pay up a fee that is then ploughed back to local or tribal communities.”
The writer is with the Bombay Natural History Society. Views expressed are personal.