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Co-creating knowledge collectively

Livestock rearing practices have changed enormously in the last 25 years. ANTHRA in Andhra Pradesh has taken initiatives to preserve the local knowledge on livestock rearing by documenting the practices and wisdom of the tribals, pastoralists and the women in the communities, with the hope that they could be used once again when the climate is more favourable.

A livestock healer confident of healing certain diseases
A livestock healer confident of healing certain diseases

Twenty five years ago in the early nineteen nineties, agriculture and livestock rearing sustained over 70% of India’s population. A large livestock population owned by several million small holders was widely dispersed across the sub continent. Formal veterinary care was limited and could not reach the large number of livestock owners – especially, in villages where there were no roads and could only be approached by boat  or by walking for several hours, in villages which had no electricity to maintain refrigerators for storing  essential  vaccines, in villages with no medical shop for several kilometers to purchase fresh supplies of medicines, in villages with chronic water shortages which made sterilizing equipment difficult.

Despite these limitations, we observed that animals did not die in large numbers as we expected. No doubt there were epidemics of rinderpest and pox to which a large number of animals succumbed, but on the whole, the animals in several villages were lively and healthy and contributed substantially to lives and livelihoods. Exploring further, we stumbled upon large caches of knowledge spread across several domains, both public and private – from the written and codified texts of ayurveda, unani and siddha to the specialized knowledge of healers and finally to the daily practices of the women of tribal and pastoral communities who tended to their animals with care and affection. The large body of knowledge on livestock care lay not only in thick text books housed in air conditioned libraries but more so in the every day practices of these livestock rearing communities.

There were practices on important livestock breeds and how the best animals could be selected. Experienced farmers and herdsmen could identify the best animals of different breeds. The knowledge on fodder varieties, grazing areas and grazing strategies was immense. There was a wealth of knowledge on animal health, both preventive and curative. Healers were aware of minute details of plant harvesting and processing. Animal housing practices varied vastly from region to region and across species. We observed ingenious and subtle ways in which different communities coped with challenges of ectoparasites and extreme weather conditions, heat waves and cyclones. The choice of material for roofs, walls and floor were made with careful consideration to the local conditions and problems. Livestock markets hummed with activity and were bursting with a variety of traditional produce.

It was in response to this disconnect between the knowledge of communities and the knowledge taught in universities that the project on Indigenous Knowledge on Animal Health (IKAH) was born.  The project ran for several years documenting, validating and disseminating knowledge on animal health care alongside other similar projects to document people’s knowledge and practices. This was also soon after the birth of the CBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) and many groups were eager to document the biological diversity in different regions.

Ground reality

As fresh veterinary graduates, we at ANTHRA, a resource centre offering support in the areas of livestock, biodiversity and people’s livelihoods, wanted to address this gap and began a project on training para professionals. We wanted to reach out to tribal groups and pastoralists, landless communities and dam oustees. Most importantly, we wanted to reach the women from these communities with our newly acquired knowledge and skills.

The team members soon experienced that the knowledge learned in the classrooms and laboratories of colleges and universities appear to have little relevance and application in the field.  And it is not unusual for a new practitioner, armed with a degree to feel quite disheartened within a few days of commencing work. That is exactly how many of us felt when we first began working with livestock rearing communities in rural India.

Coming from a modern knowledge system, in the beginning, traditional systems appeared to be superstitions and beliefs which had no validity. It is only when we carefully observed and made an attempt to understand these systems, we found out why they existed and what their relevance was.

Initially, 18 village youth, three each from six districts were recruited as animal health workers and were trained to document practices on different subjects. Each month they would be trained by ANTHRA on documentation techniques as well as on the practices to be asked. It was not always easy for them to document, however, frequent visits of other team members, and frequent healers’ meetings and group discussions helped.

Our team learnt to observe and document carefully in detail. They also unlearnt the positive bias they had to modern systems of knowledge and became more accepting of other systems.

Late one night, the buffalo of Nathu Walgude, one of the Animal Health workers, fell ill. It had bloat, a condition seen in ruminants. It was too late to summon a veterinarian and if the animal was not relieved of its distress it would not be possible to milk it in the morning. It was also too dark to venture out and gather herbs. Fortunately, Nathu was part of the team who were then testing dried herbal powders for several diseases. He decided to use the powder made from the dried leaves of black-honey shrub (Phyllanthus reticulatus), to treat his buffalo. He was delighted to see the animal recover very quickly. By morning, he could milk the animal. His father, an experienced farmer was very happy with the results as he had seen many buffalos in the past suffering for several hours.

Traditional healers are a repository of local knowledge
Traditional healers are a repository of local knowledge

Documenting indigenous knowledge

This knowledge which existed in practices and not in voluminous texts had to be realized and sustained. We organized healers meetings for the sharing and exchange of knowledge. Contrary to popular perception, healers were happy to share their knowledge at these forums as it also provided a platform for learning new ideas and approaches from others. They shared a common concern that their knowledge did not have the value and respect it had once enjoyed. They were worried that their knowledge would be lost forever when they passed away and were eager to share it with others.  Healers are also concerned that their knowledge must not be misused and expressed the need to share it with groups they could trust.  Therefore, at all stages we were careful to reassure the healers and others who shared knowledge with us that the knowledge was being recorded not for the personal gain of an individual or a set of individuals but rather for the benefit of a larger  group or community. Village youth  were encouraged to apprentice themselves to healers so that they could carefully observe their methods.

Livestock breeds were carefully documented and important traits recorded. Fodder varieties, their use and grazing strategies were documented. We documented over 500 varieties of medicinal plants for over a 100 conditions, affecting animals. The healers, who commanded a great place of respect within the communities, were extremely confident about curing certain diseases. However, they were also honest enough with our group to admit that they were not confident about a few of the diseases. They lacked knowledge and information on vaccinations and immunization schedules. But, they were happy to learn this from our team.

The most appropriate practices were carefully selected using a procedure approved by a multi disciplinary technical committee of veterinarians, botanists, practitioners of ayurveda, anthropologists and sociologists. These were then validated using a protocol specially designed for the study. Housing practices were carefully photo documented and analyzed. We visited livestock markets and documented the activities there.

Almost all of what we documented was knowledge which was not written or documented anywhere.  It was passed on from one generation to the other, with the younger generation carefully observing how their elders practiced and learning from them.

Even as we were documenting the knowledge, several valuable species were dwindling as landscapes rapidly changed in response to urbanization and industrialization.  We soon realized that with changes in the environment, in policy and in livestock rearing practices as well as the passing away of traditional healers many valuable pieces of knowledge would get lost. There was an urgency to create common pools of knowledge which could be placed on the public domain for easy and open access. Systems of knowledge which combined the best from traditional knowledge systems along with modern science to come with safe, affordable, easy to  access and easy to use practices. The team at ANTHRA which consisted of veterinarians, farmers, healers, botanists, scientists, sociologists, computer programmers and development professionals worked collectively to create these pools in a variety of subjects, animal health, feeding, nutrition, housing, management and breeding.

Yet, in a world dominated by skewed patent laws and extractive and exploitative agencies, one had to be careful that this knowledge would not be appropriated by a few dominant groups.  We have tried to address this by bringing out publications in local languages so that it is within easy access of rural communities. Training programmes have been held and continue to be held with community based organizations where this knowledge is regularly shared. We are also in the process of creating a digital portal where this knowledge will be uploaded.

Livestock rearing practices have changed enormously in the last 25 years. Industrialized systems of livestock rearing have entered and threaten to wipe out small farmers and back yard systems. Livestock production systems, the bio diversity associated with these systems, livestock products and by products, medicinal plants and fodder varieties have slowly and quietly disappeared.  Healers have passed on and with them, the knowledge they once held. Grazing lands and pastures have been replaced with super express highways and industries.

We hope the collective knowledge that we have created in the form of books, photographs, publications and training programmes will serve as a reminder of what once was and perhaps one day when the climate is more favorable, some of the systems which have not been irretrievably lost can once again be used for society and the environment.

References

Ghotge N.S., Ramdas S.R et al.,  “A Social Approach to the Validation of Traditional Veterinary Remedies –The Anthra Project”, 2002, Tropical Animal Health and Production 34 ( 2002), p. 121-143

ANTHRA, “Indigenous Knowledge Applications for livestock care”, 2004, Proceedings of a National Workshop, 14-17 Sep 2004.