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Biocultural protocols: empowering stewards of livestock diversity

Using a BCP, Raika pastoralists are asserting their right to preserve their animal genetic resources (Ilse Köhler-Rollefson)
Using a BCP, Raika pastoralists are asserting their right to preserve their animal genetic resources
Ilse Köhler-Rollefson

Herders of camels, cattle, sheep and goats, the Raika pastoralists of North West India have an interesting account of their origins: created by Lord Shiva from the skin and sweat of the camel, they were charged with controlling the beast, whose stubborn behaviour was becoming a nuisance. But Raika guardianship extends beyond their livestock. In the arid land of Rajasthan, their flocks and herds are integral to the health of forests and rangelands, and generations of Raika have bred animals that can thrive in these adverse conditions.

In a bid to protect the grazing rights upon which their livelihoods depend, the Raika have documented the complex links between their animal genetic resources and ecosystem health in a biocultural protocol (BCP). This 20 page document, written by the community through the facilitation of the NGO, Natural Justice, and local pastoralist support organisation LPPS*, draws on international and Indian law to show why the Raika's grazing rights should be protected and their animal genetic resources conserved in the environment where they were created.

Documenting and reflecting

Developing the protocol involved an exhaustive process of careful documentation and reflection. From initial work in South Africa, where the concept of BCPs began, Natural Justice knew that if the process was rushed, the resulting document would not be fully backed by the community. But in proving the importance of Raika pastoralism to environmental health and biodiversity, the community had plenty of evidence to offer: their five-year grazing rotation system maintains soil fertility and propagates the seeds of trees and other plants; lopping of selected trees and browsing by goats stimulates new foliage; grazing of dry grass and other ground cover prevents forest fires and keeps a check on termite numbers; and the Raika are also careful to control the spread of harmful invasive species. In areas such as the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary, they even accept some loss of livestock to leopards and wolves, as a natural consequence of living in balance with the environment.

Drafting the BCP has proved very empowering for Raika leader, Mrs Daillibai (WRENmedia)
Drafting the BCP has proved very empowering for Raika leader, Mrs Daillibai

As well as documenting their role in maintaining ecosystem health, communities record the traits of their livestock breeds, developed by generations of herders over a 700 year history. Well suited to the harsh environment and minimal inputs found in Rajasthan, the genetic traits of the pastoralist breeds, and traditional knowledge associated with them, are vital to the survival of the Raika; and they are vital to providing the genetic tools to maintain food security in the context of environmental challenges, such as emerging livestock diseases and climate change.

Also clearly documented are the challenges the communities face, including the revoking of grazing licences by forest authorities and the shrinkage of communal village grazing lands and temple groves. As a result of these challenges, Raika communities have been forced to sell large numbers of animals: camel numbers have halved in the last ten years. And as animal numbers decline so does traditional knowledge, with fewer young people from the community willing to take up an increasingly precarious lifestyle.

Asserting their rights

Drafting of a BCP is a demanding exercise, but it has proved very empowering, giving the community a clear picture of their rights according to recognised international conventions. A paragraph on prior consent and benefit sharing argues the right for the community to be consulted about any alterations to grazing access, and discusses the use of genetic material or traditional knowledge by outsiders, asserting an additional right to negotiate a benefit-sharing agreement where relevant.

The final, but arguably most important section of the protocol describes how the rights of the Raika, as creators of breeds and custodians of animal genetic resources, are protected under Indian and international law. The protocol calls on the Secretariat of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to recognise the vital role of the Raika in maintaining the diversity of the Rajasthan forest ecosystem. Taken as a whole, the BCP makes a strong case for in situ conservation of the Raika's livestock breeds under paragraph 8j of the CBD, thereby strengthening their claim to be given access to grazing.

Growing recognition in Africa

In order to protect the genetic resources of the Red Maasai sheep, Samburu pastoralists are drafting their own BCP (Ilse Köhler-Rollefson)
In order to protect the genetic resources of the Red Maasai sheep, Samburu pastoralists are drafting their own BCP
Ilse Köhler-Rollefson

Following the work in Rajasthan, Natural Justice is now working with the Samburu pastoralists in northern Kenya. This group rear Red Maasai sheep, a breed which has a unique genetic resistance to worms, but which is threatened by the widespread promotion of the Dorper breed. Raika leader, Mrs Daillibai, was invited to Kenya to explain how their BCP had been drawn up, and the Samburu are now compiling their own BCP in order to ensure they share in the benefits, if the Red Maasai genes are used by commercial breeders.

There has also been interest in South Asia, where pastoralist groups developing protocols include the Lingayat of Tamil Nadu and the Pashtoon Baluch in Pakistan. Equally encouraging for pastoralists and their supporters, community protocols are explicitly referred to in the draft text for the International Regime on Access and Benefits Sharing. This will regulate all access to genetic resources and traditional knowledge, and is expected to be agreed upon as a legally binding framework during a CBD convention in Nagoya, Japan at the end of 2010.

*Lokhit Pashu-Palak Sansthan

With contributions from: Ilse Köhler-Rollefson

Date published: March 2010


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