Building a Shared future for all

Snippets on International Day for Biological Diversity “Building a Shared future for all”

At the time of Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro held on 5th June 1992, convention for biological diversity was opened. It was on 29th December 1993, the second committee of the UN general assembly signed the “Convention of Biological Diversity”. India became a signatory to the convention agreement on February 18th, 1994. United States of America is the only member country of the UN that has not signed this convention. Article 6 of the convention mandates signatories to develop national biodiversity strategies or action plans (NBSAPs).

On 22nd May 2000, the UN General assembly declared it as the International Day of Biodiversity (IBD) to increase the understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues.

Our universe is home to 8.7 million known species and nearly 80% are not yet identified. There are 36 hotspots for biodiversity conservation. It is believed that 99% of the species that lived on the earth are now extinct. Estimates for current species range from 2 million to 1 trillion ( Locey, Kenneth,J; Lenon, Jay T. 2014). Only 1.74 million, of these have been identified and databased.




The anthropological conversations among the members of the United Indian Anthropology Forum engage constructive and critical deliberations on various important issues and highlight the importance of anthropology in such deliberations. These conversations bring about critical thinking driven by inference from anthropological research and validated information from other disciplines.

The theme of the present discussion is on the important issue that encompasses our very own existence – Human Biological Diversity. This conversation started on 22.05.2022 the International Day for Biological Diversity. Interest in the subject continues to evoke curiosity among the members of the group. We have incorporated all the inputs received till 30th May 2022.

Biological diversity among humans and other living species, specifically plants is very important for human health and existence. Anthropology is concerned with human diversity, its history, and its origins while emphasizing conserving the totality of the biosphere that is essential for human survival. Historically, biological variations among humans involved cataloguing of humans into “races”, whereas modern biological anthropology involves understanding evolutionary history, and human genetic diversity, considering cultural or environmental traits.

Prof. P.C. Joshi (former acting Vice-chancellor of Delhi University and currently president of SIMA, Society for Indian Medical Anthropology) reminded us of the importance of the day, and wrote in his morning post:

“My Greetings on International Day for Biological Diversity. Biological diversity refers to the variety of life on earth at all levels, from genes to the ecosystem. Biological diversity is primarily threatened due to habitat loss and fragmentation, unsustainable resource use, invasive species, pollution, and climate change. With over one lakh protected areas in the world (including 987 in India), the biological loss has been checked to some extent but, a lot more needs to be done.

The weighted index using five groups of animals - amphibians, birds, fish, mammals, and reptiles and one group of plants - vascular plants ranks India in 9th spot (0.442 BioD Index) with Brazil and Indonesia occupying first and second spots, respectively. In India, there is a need to intensify efforts in increasing indigenously rooted biological diversity. “We need to adopt a bio-cultural approach where the latest in science and technology must combine with cultural wisdom contained in the collective memory of communities. All of us need to lend a helping hand as we are all part of the solution.”

The biodiversity of the living species is existential for human health and survival. They help in delicately running natural cycles that make the planet earth habitable and reduce the impact of natural disasters such as floods, drought etc. There is a functional complementarity between biodiversity and ecosystem which implies that if humans want to be benefitted from the natural goods, biodiversity must be preserved. Further, humans themselves are biologically diverse owing to their environment. The morphological and physiological changes such as body size, body shape, skin colour, eye forms, nose forms, lung volumes, heart rates etc., are interpreted as markers of ethnicity, adaptation to temperature and climate, nutritional history etc. Thus, understanding human diversity considering ecosystems is important in terms of human existence and survival.

Responding to these concerns Dr Bhagwan Roy (Chairman, IBRAD) wrote: “I will add just one point as a student of Anthropology that once the human has accepted the fact that depletion of biological diversity is due to the culturally conditioned human behaviour, why can't Anthropologists develop a methodology of "Action Research " to come forward and demonstrate the reversal of such Bio-Cultural practices that are detrimental and develop models of Biodiversity conservation for Sustainable Development. We know cultural practices are dynamic and they can be re-constructed”.

Responding to Prof. Joshi’s concerns and Prof. Roy’s remarks, Prof. K.N. Saraswathy (Professor, Department of Anthropology, Delhi University) reasoned: “Yes! Biological Diversity is infinite in nature. Surprisingly. the basic language which determines the diversity is of just 4 letters – A, T, G, C i.e., Adenine, Thiamine, Guanine and Cytosine, respectively. I always mention that this ‘Genetic language’ is at the back of this diversity. From a Single-cell organism Amoeba to Multi-cellular human beings like ‘Amitabh Bacchan’; we are all products of these 4 letters. Only the number and combinations vary. Further, when we talk of Human Diversity–imagine 3.2 billion bases, their combinations, and their interactions within themselves in terms of genes, gene-gene interactions, Gene-Non-Gene interactions and Gene-environment interactions. It is huge!

All biological scientists assume Nutrition, lifestyle, climate, pollution etc. to be the so-called environment. However, most of these environmental variables are continually a product of cultural attributes of communities, which in turn reflect upon physical and mental health.

Even after more than 20 years of the Human Genome Project, with so much technological development, effective Gene-based treatment and management of various complex diseases is not available. Genes behave differently in different environments. As Francis Collins said, "Genes load the Gun and the environment pushes the trigger".

Hence, the Anthropological approach is the need of the hour to not only conserve the Human Biological Diversity but also to document and understand its causes and consequences specifically referring to health issues. This would be part of the important strategies to combat and manage unexpected diseases like COVID-19. There is immense scope for Anthropological research. There is a real need for cooperation, coordination, and collaboration between Cultural and Biological Anthropologists. A Dream which needs to be fulfilled.

In the deliberations by Prof. Saraswathy, well-known anthropologist Prof. A. Paparao wrote: “Genetic diversity is the backbone of biological diversity”. Prof. Arup Bandyopadhyay added further that the Genetic diversity may not always express biological diversity, reasons such as Neutral alleles, Synonymous mutation/and or Single nucleotide polymorphism(s) SNP(s), Methylation etc. may impact its manifestation.

Responding to these comments Prof. Saraswathy added: “Well, I also do agree that just diversity at DNA level may not be the only reason for Human diversity but their interaction with the environment is more relevant. All SNPs, VNTRs, STRs etc may have some say in gene expression. However, the concept of Neutral alleles is a bit confusing in the context of current research... Are they neutral in all environments is a question to be answered? Coming to the epigenetic mechanisms - are highly influenced by the environment and the variations at the epigenetic level are all the effects of the environment. Except for those that are mandatory during foetal development”

Prof. Joshi highlighted that the relation between Gene and environment is unresolved debate since Ashley Montagu days. Only anthropologists with their holistic vision can find answers embedded in the biocultural approach.

Further, Prof. Saraswathy corroborated prof. Paparao’s comments arguing: “I also agree with Prof. Papara Rao’s statement. Genetic diversity is the backbone. There should be variation at the genetic level which can result in different phenotypes depending on the environment. As anthropologists, we need to look at things through the Biocultural lens rather than relying only on biological and medical scientists”.

Prof. Joshi then commented on some key observations in view of suicide rates. He wrote: “There are very important questions for us to answer. Why suicide rate in a particular State of Arunachal Pradesh society is very high. Why homicide rate in a particular Koraput society is very high. Why some societies are aggressive or passive?”

Prof. Bandyopadhyay shared a published research article by Yoonie et al., 2022 which suggests that even the so-called behavioural disorders such as suicide among preadolescent youth are also genetically governed.

Prof. Joshi further added to the ongoing deliberations “Anthropology generally works at population/ community level. But is there a possibility of taking it to the level of the individual, say equivalent to psychoanalysis, something like anthro-analysis to tell in the biocultural framework as to why a particular person has immense jealousy or hatred towards others or why a person is a success or a failure in life. India with unimaginable diversity can be the best laboratory for answering core questions concerning human beings”.

To this, Prof. Somnath added that the Paradigm shift in anthropology is the demand of the hour.

Prof. Kshatriya added that it is important to understand the enigmatic cultural/ biological diversity of India. It is unfathomable and therefore, the scope of unravelling is unending!!!

Prof. Bandyopadhyay added to the on-going discussion and wrote: “To understand share of genetic (biological) and cultural (lifestyle) perhaps most accepted methodological approach is twin genetics. Unfortunately, India has no twin study research centre and seldom gets priority for discussion. However, twins’ studies are found to be relevant to discern/ and or unravel the facts on biological and cultural aspects and can even focus on the epidemiology of the disease. Study reports on MZ twins’ birth, is similar geographically (ethnic groups), while DZ twins birth show considerable variation in terms of ethnicity, with sociodemographic factors such as age, familial accumulation, marriage patterns and so on”.

Prof. D.K. Behera (Vice-Chancellor, KISS,Odisha, and president UIAF) furthered the discussion by stating:

“While the link between suicide and mental disorders (in particular, depression and alcohol use disorders) is well-established in high-income countries, many suicides happen impulsively in moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-up or chronic pain and illness. In addition, experiencing conflict, disaster, violence, abuse, or loss and a sense of isolation are strongly associated with suicidal behaviour. Suicide rates are also high amongst vulnerable groups who experience discrimination, such as refugees and migrants; indigenous peoples; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and prisoners. By far the strongest risk factor for suicide is a previous suicide attempt. This has not been studied systematically. Therefore, I strongly feel that we need to have a greater number of scientific studies to establish specific trends both at the community and individual levels. Thanks to everyone who has been actively participating in this ongoing discussion”.

Prof. Saraswathy in response to Prof. Bandyopadhyay’s comments wrote: “There are so many such publications where genome wide associations were looked for various Physical and Mental health adversities. These studies lack a hypothesis. They also end up in intronic regions which have no established functional relevance. Understanding those regions would take years of research again. Though Twin studies are the best to understand genetic and environmental contributions... With the upcoming epigenetic awareness and technologies, our traditional methodologies must be revisited, and we need to look for better strategies.”.

She also questioned the relevance of high-cost research in view of the result replications in Developing countries like India? She pointed out that such expensive research outcomes do get published in good journals and undoubtedly are important for the preliminary identification of important regions. However, repeating the same study in a different community or country gives different results...She suggested that Hypothesis-driven research using candidate’s regions in the genome in different socio-cultural contexts would be of utmost importance in countries like India, where diversity is huge.

Prof. Joshi finally added that these deliberations may prove to be useful in the coming days for studies and researchers in anthropology. The issues around threatening biodiversity are the questions of the existence of natural systems, including the survival of the human species. We must continue to debate and raise questions about what and how these things happened and how these could be changed in the present contexts in the domain of biodiversity? But most important question is to know why biodiversity’s emerged and existed, and what role human beings as rational animals must do to prevent ongoing losses? In the era of the Anthropocene, the issues of bio-diversities and cultural diversities are inseparable. Losses in one domain will ultimately affects the other. Anthropology and its holistic approaches (biological and cultural) can contribute to the documentation, conservation, protection, promotion, and management of both biological and cultural diversities.

Responding to various points raised in the discussion, Prof. P.K. Misra later wrote:

The recent dialogue on Biodiversity and conservation on the platform of this Forum, has been, interesting, elevating, and enlightening and I thought I may as well chip in:

But before I do that let me make a relevant quote from Gandhi:

God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts. (Gandhi, 1928).


The idea of maintenance of biodiversity and conservation is noble, righteous, and rational that any thinking against it would be considered profane. But the more I think about human development and progress, the more convinced I am that the idea of conservation and sustainable development is a kind of smokescreen so that irreversible danger may be seen but hope that somehow it will pass.

The irony is that the people who have been practising sustainable living are being systematically and forcibly either displaced or changed in the name of development. That is the story of the indigenous people around the world. In India and in some other parts of the developing countries there are still some pockets where indigenous people have been eking out their traditional way of life, but it does not require much wisdom to say that soon that will be seen only in the museums. But before I proceed further briefly, I would like to tell a few stories which sound like fairy tales.

“I was working among the Jenu Kuruba, a classical group of foragers. Because of a mega project the government wanted to resettle them elsewhere. They were reluctant to leave. Since I was camping in one of their settlements, I was asked to assist the government to shift them to their new colony. I went to a thatched hut of an elderly Jenu Kurba and told him that if he would shift, he would be given a pakka (cemented) house with water and other facilities. He listened to me faithfully and said with tears in his eyes that he had grown with the trees in front of his hut. Let him die peacefully there and then the government can do whatever they liked.

In a village which had become very famous because it was studied by an anthropologist. I was showing that village to a group of anthropology students. I was showing them their traditional threshing ground as a good example of how wasteful rural technology was. The more immediate cause for me to illustrate it was that the previous day I had heard a lecture by a famous food technologist about the traditional wasteful rural technologies and he supported his findings with statistical inputs. Fully convinced, I was showing the students the traditional method of threshing grain and how wasteful it was as much grain was still left in the granary. One middle-aged lady was listening to our conversation and got its drift. Though the rural women are reticent to speak in public she said, “uncle don’t you think that the birds and squirrel too need to survive and need some food”.

Balasubramaniam the tireless voluntary social worker helped some foragers to grow some fruit trees so that their income could be supplemented. In course of time, the trees began to yield. But he found that the trees were still laden with fruits. On asking one of the growers as to why he had not taken all the fruits. His reply stunned him. He said that he had plucked whatever he wanted, the rest is for others”.

Obviously, these stories reflect the fading world in which all of us are involved in one way or the other. Not that the anthropologists will be able to change the history of humankind. We know that there is horrendous growing inequality. Climate change is no more a matter to be debated in the comfort of drawing rooms. Biodiversity is fast shrinking. Superefficient technology is entering every phase of life. Mineral resources are being swallowed by the industry like a mythical ghost (In Northern Karnataka where iron ore mining is going on for decades has resulted in flattened hills. A scene which will bring tears to any human soul). Mechanized deep shore fishing has not only seriously depleted the marine resources but has also taken away the livelihood of millions of traditional fishermen. Many more examples could be quoted to show that eminent disaster is staring in our face we want to look sideways.

Detailed case studies of the anthropologists could possibly sensitize the policymakers! What else?

Responding to observations made by our Veteran Professor P.K. Misra and the ongoing debate on biodiversity being largely a consequence of genetic factors and the environment Prof. Shalina Mehta communicated her concerns:

There is immense heft in Prof. Misra’s arguments that the displacement of Adivasi/tribal people from their native habitats is one of the most potent causes of the destruction of both biological and cultural diversity. These communities conditioned by their lifestyle processes are natural conservators of the environment and biodiversity. Narratives shared by Prof. Misra are a common occurrence in the field diary and notes, as also in the research and popular writings of many anthropologists. India has debated the relationship between local communities and protected areas since the 1800s. In 1878 Frederic Le Play challenged state monopoly over forest management and argued against the re-location of local communities (cf. Weeks & Mehta, 2004: 262)

Neo-colonial Interference in the planning processes often legitimised in the name of international conventions has adversely impacted Adivasi communities. International conventions and policies framed in conformance with western ecological perspectives are not always attuned to the local ecology and micro-economics of these regions. A classic example is IUCN’s dictate for shifting human populations out of the core zone of the National Parks reserved for protecting endangered tigers. It was based on the yellow stone Park Model borrowed from the US. It insisted on shifting people from classified national Parks and wilderness areas. This classification was devised in 1960 and was published in 1967. Natives of these classified regions were viewed as predators responsible for destroying the existing biodiversity using it as fuel, building material or food. By 1996, the mistake of delinking native habitat dwellers from their existential existence was realised and IUCN redefined suggesting:

A protected area “is an area of land and /or sea especially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biological diversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means” (for a detailed analysis refer to Weeks & Mehta 2004). Even this revised understanding, projects the need for preserving scientifically identified natural processes and talks about managing people by bringing in the agency of law to control their activities. Ambiguity in the IUCN statement has resulted in years of displacement of inhabitant Adivasi populations from these regions denying them their fundamental rights. In a report published in Down to Earth, ( WWW.Downtoearth.org.in resourced on 31st May 2022), it is reported that a total of 13,450 families were displaced from 26 protected areas under the Indian government’s ‘Protect and conserve model’. I firmly believe that this number is far higher and not adequately documented. This intervention came after the IUCN’s definition of protected areas was revised and people were regarded as integral to these landscapes. This displacement is against the human rights movement for equity and self-determination.

The reason for this brief note in this conversation is to caution against blind acceptance of international conventions and their normative control. Protecting the interests of local people, micro-economies and ecological values of the native inhabitants is the way to protect both biological and cultural diversity. As anthropologists, we are acutely aware of how in the name of global protocols documented with the help of statistical evidence, several models of development have destroyed local cultural ethos and inbuilt values for the protection of the eco-systems. It is important for young researchers from the discipline to critically examine these conventions and place empirical evidence before the planning agency to thwart any future disasters resulting in conflict between natural diversity and Anthropocene.


SOME IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT BIODIVERSITY IN INDIA


Sundaland (hotspot in Nicobar Island) has the unique distinction of being home to World’s largest flowers-the rafflesia measuring 1metre across)

Credit: The Hindu, May 31st, 2021.


  • India started systematic survey of flora and fauna; first of plant species with the establishment of the Botanical Survey of India in 1890. This was followed by the establishment of the Zoological Survey of India in 1916.

  • Since 1980s the Botanical Survey of India and Zoological Survey of India have brought out Red Books on endangered plants and animals following the IUCN guidelines.

  • It hosts FOUR Biodiversity hotspots: the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the Indo-Burma region and the Sundaland covering the Nicobar group of Islands.

  • India’s is identified as one of the 12 megadiversity Countries in the World. It is home to around 1,27000 species of microorganisms, plants, and animals.

  • It has only 2.4% of the World’s landmass and accounts for 45,000species of plants and 91,000 species of animals. It has a total of 870 protected areas.

  • As per the IUCN norms, there are 101 National Parks covering an area of 40,564,00. km2. It covers 1.23% of the geographical area of the country. (National Wildlife Database, December 2019. accessed on 30.05.2022). While another website of tourmyIndia.com/wildlife sanctuaries (accessed on 30th May 2022) claims that the country has 104 national parks, 551 wildlife sanctuaries, 88 Conservation Reserves and 127 community reserves covering a total of 1,65,088.57sq km.


REFERENCES:

  1. Bogin, B., & Rios, L. (2003). Rapid morphological change in living humans: implications for modern human origins. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Molecular & Integrative Physiology, 136(1), 71-84.

  2. Benefits of biodiversity to human available at https://web.mit.edu/12.000/www/m2015/2015/benefits_humans.html

  3. Aerts, R., Honnay, O., & Van Nieuwenhuyse, A. (2018). Biodiversity and human health: mechanisms and evidence of the positive health effects of diversity in nature and green spaces. British medical bulletin, 127(1), 5-22.

  4. Locey, Kenneth J.; Lennon, Jay T. 2016. Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113 (21): 5970-5975.

  5. Pretty, J., Adams, B., Berkes, F., De Athayde, S. F., Dudley, N., Hunn, E., ... & Pilgrim, S. (2009). The intersections of biological diversity and cultural diversity: towards integration. Conservation and Society, 7(2), 100-112.

  6. Weeks, Pris & Mehta, Shalina. 2004. “Managing People and Landscapes: IUCN’s protected area Categories”. Journal of Human Ecology: International interdisciplinary journal of Man-Environment Relations. Vol. 16 (4). Pp-253-263.


Editorial inputs from: Prof. K.N. Saraswathy, Department of Anthropology, University of Delhi, Email: knsaraswathy@yahoo.com


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