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'Down the Earth' an interview with P.S. Ramakrishnan
by Lian Chawli

'Down the Earth' 31th August 2000. INTERVIEW.

"Farmers can only teach traditional knowledge", P. S. Ramakrishnan, former director of G. B. Pant Institute, Almora, and currently professor at the School of Environmental Sceinces in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi spoke to Lian Chawli on the significance of traditional ecological knowledge.

What is traditional ecological knowledge?

The agricultural practices of indigenous people perfected over a period of time is termed as traditional ecological knowledge. Most of the farmers have been using this knowledge for making their agricultural production more yielding.

Are the instances where such knowledge has not been validated?

The list is endless and many plants have disappeared without being validated. We are realising their importance and gradually documenting them. A good example in this regard is the alder (Alnus nepalensis), which has been cultivated in the jhum (shifting cultivation) fields by the Khonoma farmers in Nagaland for centuries. It is of multiple use to the farmers as it is a notrogen-fixing tree and helps to retain the soil fertility. Its leaves are used as fodder and fertiliser, and, at the same time, it is also utilised as timber.

Has the government given due importance to this knowledge?

There are a few cases where the government has ignored traditional knowledge. In the Kumaon and Garhwal region, where oak trees grew in abundance naturally, the state forest department started cultivating pine trees for commercial purposes, totally ignoring the traditional importance of oak trees. This has disturbed the ecosystem of the region.

Are the conventional practices of the farmers scientific?

Farmers have been experimenting for ages and there is a certain amount of science behind their practices. For example, when the jhum cycle was reduced to 4-5 years from 40-50 years, the farmers started cultivating more tubers than cereals. They realised that cereals are nutrient demanding and do not yield much. On the other hand, tubers do not require much nutrients and have a good yield. Hence, they switched to tubers.

How can science imbibe traditional knowledge?

Science should try to adopt traditional knowledge in contemporary situations, appropriately combined with modern scientific inputs wherever necessary. There inputs should be complimentary to traditional knowledge. Otherwise such efforts may prove to be fruitless.

How can traditional knowledge be learnt from the farmers?

The best way to learn from farmers is by working with them at the field level throughout the year.

Why are the alternative methods for jhum cultivation suggested by the Indian council for Agricultural Research not bearing fruit in the Northeast?

Most of the scientists have only textbook knowledge. They are not trained for participatory research and they term traditional knowledge as unscientific. Before making any suggestions, they should consider that climatic conditions and topography differs from region to region. In the Northeast it rains very heavily. Therefore, the region is unsuitable for terrace cultivation which has been suggested as the alternative to jhum cultivation. It also requires a lot of labour and, hence, has proved unsuccessful.

How do communities help in preserving ecological knowledge?

Recording and documentation of traditional knowledge requires close participatory research with communities, as they help in identifying and preserving traditional knowledge in various ways. For example, there are a few trees and plants such as tulsi (Ocimun religiosum), which are considered sacred and worshipped by the people. The reason for this may be that such socially-valued trees must be that such socially-valued trees must be of great use. As a result, they have been preserved in the name of religion.

What is the procedure for documenting this knowledge?

One should look at it critically, scientifically validate it by conducting research at grassroots levels and then start analysing this knowledge for formulating strategies for better land utilisation. A broad-based study should also be conducted to find out how traditional knowledge can be applicable worldwide.

Is ecological knowledge helpful in triggering development?

Development will automatically begin when scientific traditional practices are adopted. For instance, when I was the director at G. B. Pant University, we had helped in setting up rainwater harvesting structures in nine areas, starting from the Himalaya to Nagaland. A major change was observed due to these structures. The agricultural practices of the people improved without any assistance. Water acted as an agent in bringing about positive changes, leading to the development of a new agricultural system.

Has Western technology helped in improving agriculture practices?

Western technology has helped in improving agricultural productivity to a limited extend. At the same time, it also has its drawbacks. For example, today the concept of building big dams does not hold effective in many places, particularly the drought-prone areas.

What are the functions of traditional knowledge?

The most important function of traditional knowledge is that general norms can be evolved for similar ecological systems across the world.