Celebrating traditional knowledge in the Himalayas during UN International Day for Biological Diversity

Located in the Northeastern part of India, the state of Uttarkhad shares its boundaries with China in the North and Nepal in the East. The source of both the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers are in this state. 

Natural disasters such as day-dust storms, hailstorms, and heavy rain have become common phenomena in the area, specifically the Uttarkashi district in the state, which is rich in biodiversity and has strong social, economic, cultural and spiritual links. The dense forest cover has protected animals and plants within for as long as time remembers. But over the last few years, the forest cover and with it the diversity of trees, plants and animals that inhabited the area has declined rapidly. Unregulated deforestation, road, tunnel and other infrastructure projects have cut deep into the landscapes. Traditional trees such as Deodar, Banj or Burans have been replaced by the common Pine which nowhere near provides similar ecological services as traditional trees. The decline in quantity and quality of forests has lead to decreasing water availability, slope instability, more water run-off and fires (pines are highly flammable).

On the International Day for Biological Diversity, launched by the United Nations to increase understanding and awareness of biodiversity issues, the Centre for Environment and Education (CEE)  Himalaya team showcased the importance and vital role of biodiversity in protecting the communities against these natural hazards. They combined this with promoting traditional knowledge on medicial and aromatic plants. 

This theme of the 2016 UN Biodiversity Day was ¨Mainstreaming biodiversity, sustaining people and their livelihoods¨. Different resource people from horticulture, health, disaster risk reduction, environment, ecology, and social sciences were invited. The event focussed on identifying the unique biodiversity of the region, exploring the contribution of this biodiversity in the sustainable livelihood of the people and the links of biodiversity with the traditional health care system. 

Due to the harsh climatic conditions the Himalayan folk have developed a unique health care system. The folks use rich medicinal and herbal biodiversity of the region to treat illness and disease. Medicines are easily available from the surroundings for little or at no cost and are considered effective as well as an acceptable method of treatment. People with the knowledge on how to collect and use these medicinal plants, are known as Vaidyas (traditional herbal healers).

Vaidyas have a high level of acceptance among the locals and have considerable influence on health beliefs and practices of each community. The practice of traditional healing remains undocumented and is passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Atra Devi is 70 years old. She treats minor ailments like spider bites, cuts, fevers, coughs, wounds, and food poisoning with the help of seeds, herbs and the plants she collects in and around the local forest. She does not know the name of most of them, but she can easily identify them. ¨This is my gift¨, she says ¨and I feel it is my duty to the people, so I don't even charge them for it.¨

Kamaleshwari Devi, 55 years, has been working as a midwife and herbal healer since she was 13 years old. Her mother taught her and so did her grandmother teach her mother. She treats diarrhea, high blood pressure, diabetes, a common cold, and viral fevers, among other. ¨I don't think everybody should learn this gift,¨ she whispers softly for fear of others hearing, ¨only my successors have the right to this knowledge. This should stay within a family.¨

Two major trends are unfolding, however, that may lead to the 'art' of traditional healing sinking into oblivion. Few of the next generation come forward to learn about traditional medicine, they see no use in it with little prospect for income. And with biodiversity in heavy decline due to massive deforestation and semi-urbanization, soon there will be few herbs left to chose from. Hence organizing these local events based on larger more known celebrations such as the International Day for Biological Diversity, is important to increase awareness in the local communities and municipalities.