India has a natural wealth of biodiversity, thanks to variations in its climates
and soil conditions and its geographical features, including rain forests, arid lands,
and mountains. Yet many of India’s most biologically rich regions are prone to
drought and floods or distant from the amenities of urban life. Many in these
regions live in poverty and relative isolation: their local products are unfamiliar in
most of the world, their public infrastructures are weak, and their skills are unrecognized. Subsistence in these regions is a constant challenge. Local individuals and
tribal communities have long met those challenges by drawing on their local environments, inventing effective agricultural techniques, and learning the medicinal
and nutritional value of nearby plants. Harsh conditions have done as much to
induce individual creativity and innovation as to limit them.
Such local knowledge, in India as elsewhere, is in danger of disappearing, not
just in high-risk environments but also in developed regions in rural and urban
areas. Traditionally strong links between grandparents and grandchildren are
weakening as mobility increases. Few mechanisms exist for documenting indigenous innovation. Those that do exist may be rightly viewed with suspicion: for
decades whenever outsiders have “discovered” local knowledge, they have often
commercialized or published it without attribution.1 Yet at the same time,
FORMING THE Bee NETWORK :
When Honey Bee printed its first newsletter in May 1990, it had 44 subscribers,
including scientists, public aid workers, financiers, farmers, and craftsmen. My colleagues and I had collected information on a handful of innovations through our
own previous work, plus letters and word of mouth; it took us another year to
gather enough information for a second newsletter. By May of 1991, the network
had become more tangible. We had produced our newsletters in English and Tamil
and had plans to do so in Gujarati and Hindi. An Oriya version was in the pipeline.
Most importantly, the work of those early years was emblematic of Honey Bee’s
core activities: scouting and documenting grassroots innovations and traditional
practices and sharing this learning with a wider audience.
As one means of scouting, we had organized several community workshops
and had surveyed the arid region of Saurashtra in Gujarat, in southwestern India.
Through this survey, Honey Bee members and participating students of Gandhian
rural institutions collected a hundred innovations and planned another survey the
following year to learn more. We did not verify the practices experimentally,
though we did try to collect plant and other material samples wherever possible.
We published these ideas along with their sources in the hope that each would
be worth pursuing or might provide new concepts or new ways of using known
materials. By communicating the innovations, we created a dialogue between
farmers, scientists, researchers and others with a wide range of other backgrounds.
Manuka Gandhi, the former Indian Minister of the Environment, was and is still a
regular reader. Army officers and highly paid professionals began to participate,
sometimes by assessing an idea or acting as mentors, and later, as the network
matured, by providing venture capital. More recently, the Honey Bee Network has
attracted the attention of government officials in Brazil, South Africa, and China
FINDING INVENTIONS Bee Network:
In March of 1998, Honey Bee members conceived of a novel way to gather local
innovations. A group of farmers interested in encouraging organic farming techniques gathered in their village in the Junagarh district and wondered how they tins, more knowledge is transferred from grandparents to grandchildren in a few
days than would normally occur in years. We have come across children who know
more than 500 plants and their uses. Yet most such children eventually drop out of
school only to become part of a pool of unskilled laborers.
More formally, during Shodh Yatras, we hold evening meetings with villagers,
which provide a forum for mutual sharing of creativity and innovations. We hold
recipe contests where women compete to cook the most nutritious meal from local
ingredients. We also reward prominent villagers—those who have helped publicize
the Shodh Yatra, those who have developed new methods, those involved in organic farming, and the oldest members of the community—by presenting them with
a variety of publications.
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