Every one of the diverse ecosystems of the Indian subcontinent is being degraded to some measure; but it is the freshwater ecosystems that are under the greatest threat. The root causes of this degradation lie in human institutions, in the inequities that plague our society. A significant number of our people depend directly on natural resources for their livelihoods. These "ecosystem people", however, have little control over the resource base. Instead the patterns of natural resource use are dictated by an "Iron triangle" of urban population, industry and large landholders who are the beneficiaries of the supply of a variety of natural resources at highly subsidized rates, the politicians who decide as to who gets what subsidies and the administrators who implement them. Insulated from the effects of resource depletion, these constituents of the iron triangle promote exhaustive patterns of natural resource use whose adverse consequences are felt primarily by the rural landless, small-holders, artisans, herders, tribais, and fisherfolk. It is these ecosystem people who have a far greater stake in a healthy environment, and their empowerment and involvement holds the promise of eventually slowing down a continuing meltdown of our ecosystems. India's Biological Diversity Act is a welcome move towards engaging and empowering these people. The Biodiversity Management Committees that are being established under this act in all panchayat raj institutions and town and city municipalities would be engaged in documenting local ecosystems in the form of "People's Biodiversity Registers". Biodiversity Management Committee study groups comprising interested BMC members, students, and teachers from colleges/ high schools, volunteers from CBOs, NGOs, and knowledgeable individuals representing different stakeholder groups would carry out this task. This exercise would focus on the documentation of people-natural resource links, landscape/ waterscape of the study area, local biodiversity elements, people's knowledge associated with biodiversity, and people's perspectives on management issues, culminating in the formulation of a management plan to support the functioning of the local Biodiversity Management Committee. A pilot exercise on the preparation of People's Biodiversity Registers was conducted in Mendha (Lekha), a primarily tribal village of eastern Maharashtra. This village is notable for many community level initiatives towards sustainable management of natural resources. We report here the components of the People's Biodiversity Registers exercise focusing on perhaps the most threatened of our ecosystems, namely the freshwater bodies. The major aquatic habitat of the locality is the Kathani river. It is fished by Dhivars, a community of specialist fisherfolk and Gonds who primarily fish for self consumption, and who participated in this study along with local students, teachers and scientists from the Indian Institute of Science. The study involved catching and releasing back to the river 1508 individuals through 146 fishing events. This sample comprised 32 species of 24 genera. Gonds reported 43 distinct fish names, while Dhivars reported 63. The total number expected to comprise the pool of species from which the sample was drawn is 64. About 70% of the fish species are reported to be declining, 5 species including Anguilla bengalensis are reported to have gone locally extinct, while 4 new species, primarily "Invasive Aliens" like Tilapia are reported to have appeared newly. The study led to an in-depth understanding of the diversity of factors responsible for habitat destruction and fish population depletion, including insights such as the possible impact of ash generated by forest fires. The people already possess a variety of traditional conservation practices such as protection to sacred river stretches and species. To this, prompted by the study, people have added banning of use of all poison, herbal and synthetic, for fishing in Kathani river. This ban is applicable to a cluster or Ilakha of 32 villages includin Mendha (Lekha) and has been effectively implemented for the past three years. © National Institute of Ecology, New Delhi.
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