Traditional Knowledge and Conservation of Biodiversity for Sustainable Livelihoods by Tribal Communities in Southern India

T. Ravishankar[1]


The human race has been dependent on plants for both material and emotional needs for millions of years. This has enabled them to evolve a unique system of knowledge on the utilization and conservation of plant genetic resources. The majority of the human population depends on just 100 to 150 plant species for most of their requirements. In contrast, the tribal people living in southern India use 1†000 to 1†500 species of plants. Nearly ten species of food plants, which were hitherto unreported, came to light during ethnobotanical studies on six tribal communities in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. There is a lesson here that, by widening our dietary habits to include a greater diversity of plant products, our dependence on and extensive cultivation of a few species can be reduced.

Medicinal properties of plants have been recognized and utilized by tribal communities for thousands of years. The tribal elders possess a great deal of knowledge about medicinal plants and medicines for curing certain life-threatening diseases.

The farming practices of tribal people are truly sustainable in many ways. Their subsistence life style, local diet habits and dependence on rainfed irrigation have influenced them to cultivate and conserve the traditional cultivars or land races. The tribal communities practice a unique method of farming, known as the mixed cropping system in limited areas depending on monsoon rain. Seed material for sowing and the grains for consumption are preserved in traditional granaries in which the seeds remain viable until they are used next time.

Due to the practices described above, these people were able to conserve genetic strains for a long period of time. However, today, the genetic material conserved by the tribes is under threat. In order to prevent this genetic erosion, the traditional cultivars need to be conserved as they form basic raw material for further crop improvement.

Observations on the conservation and sustainable utilization practices of 15 tribal communities are discussed in the paper.


Biological diversity and cultural diversity

Biological diversity that is seen today is the result of millions of years of evolutionary process. Diversity is measured in terms of genetic diversity (diversity within the species), species diversity (diversity at species level), and ecosystem diversity. Conservation of Biological diversity is essential in order to sustain the life of human beings as well as other forms of life. Human race has been dependent on plants both for their material needs and emotional needs for millions of years. All over the world people have developed intimate relationship with the surrounding vegetation? Such a close interaction prevails among various tribal communities throughout the world even today. The interaction has enabled to evolve a unique system of knowledge on the utilization and conservation of plant genetic resources.

Cultural diversity in terms of ethnic groups gives us knowledge on the value of plant resources. The knowledge of ethnic groups on the cultural, spiritual, social and economic values of plants can be of immense use to the entire humankind. It can provide many valuable genes for developing the crop plants that are extensively cultivated today. It can equip the humankind with several new chemicals for combating many human ailments. We have examples from throughout the world where the ethnic knowledge has contributed for the betterment of the modern world. A modern drug has been developed and marketed for retention of memory from the semi aquatic herb Bacopa monnieri that has been traditionally used in India for enhancing the memory power. Similarly several new drugs have been developed from the plants used by the Amazon tribals (Schultes, 1991). All these examples clearly give a message that the cultural diversity is the prime source of the utilitarian aspects of plants. The very existence of cultural diversity is directly dependent on biological diversity. This traditional ecological knowledge of ethnic groups is not confined to mere sustenance only since the tribal communities depend upon biological resources for their spiritual, religious and cultural needs too. The tribal communities understand all these as life sustaining resources. There fore they not only utilise them but also conserve them. Erosion of either of this diversity would greatly affect the humankind. Hence, both the biological and cultural diversity should be considered as a unit for a meaningful conservation. In this paper, observations on the conservation and sustainable utilization practices of few southern Indian tribal communities namely Gonds, Kolams, Pardhans, Koyas, Naikpods, Konda Reddys and Lambadis of Andhra Pradesh and Irulas, Kadars, Malasar, Malaimalasar, Malayalis, Muthuvans, Paliyars and Pulayars of Tamilnadu are discussed. This documentation has made an impact on the tribal communities in the sense that the tribes particularly the younger generation could re-realize their knowledge potential on the plants and helped in starting joint ventures towards the conservation, sustainable utilization and equitable sharing of the plant genetic resources.

Materials and Methods

Tribal areas located deep inside the forest areas were selected to ensure less contact with the so called civilized society. Reconnaissance surveys were done to select tribal communities and hamlets in order to work with people who still practice forest depended lifestyles, living in rich forests. After selecting the tribal areas camp sites were established in the tribal huts or tribal schools and each stay was for 30 - 35 days for developing good rapport and also to collect data on socio-cultural aspects of tribal which are the during forces of biodiversity conservation. Field surveys were conducted to collect plant specimens in flowering and truthing to establish correct identification of the plant species and the local name. Herbarium was prepared as per Fosberg and Sachet and the voucher specimens are deposited in national herbarium and the identification was done with standard floras. Nomenclature is followed as per International Code of Botanical Nomenclature.

The Ethnobotanical and ethnogricultural data was crosschecked with different individuals in different areas across the study area in different seasons to establish greater validity of the data. The data was collected in local Telugu and Tamil languages using tape recorders to avoid the disturbing the knowledge sharers as it was also found easy in the field as we can simultaneously concentrate on floristics, vegetation and population study of the area.

The data thus collected was referred using available literature, which is resulted in the discovery of many unreported uses to the world.


Unique Aspects of Plant Utilization by Tribal Communities

In southern India certain interesting characteristics accompany the tribal utilization of plants. Often many plants are used for a single purpose although other parts of the plants may have potential utility values. For example Bridelia retusa, Canthium dicoccum, Ficus racemosa, Madhuca longifolia var. latifolia, Palaqium ellipticum, Phyllanthus emblica, Polyalthia cerasoides, Premna tomentosa, Scleichera oleosa, Terminalia bellerica and Xylia xylocarpa are used almost exclusively for their edible fruits and seeds. These plants are not used even for construction or making agricultural implements and similar uses.

Tribal use of plants is also characterized by diversity in choice. The majority of the human population depends on just 100 - 150 plant species for most of their requirements. In contrast, the tribals living in southern India use 1,000 - 1,500 species of plants. Thus a variety of plants are used as edible greens: Allmania nodiflora, Cansjeera rheedii, Colocasia esculenta, Lycianthes laevis, Mukia maderaspatana, Portulaca oleracea, Rhaphidphora pertusa, Talinum cuneifolium and Trichosanthes nervifolia. Similarly they eat fruits of many plant species to name a few, like Carissa carandas, Cordia obliqua and Memecylon edule.

This approach not only increases the choice of plants and hence the nutritional values but also prevents over exploitation of any single or a few species. Nearly 10 species of food plants, which were hitherto unreported, came into light during the Ethnobotanical studies on six tribal communities in the state of Andhra Pradesh in southern India. A knowledge that is totally unknown to the majority of people in the country. There is a lesson here for all human beings, namely, that by enlarging the dietary habits to include a greater diversity of plant products our dependence and extensive cultivation of a few species can be reduced. Tribes also use a plenty of non-timber forest produce for their day to day subsistence: For example oil from Madhuca longifolia var. latifolia, gum from Sterculia urens, fragrant resin from Boswellia serrata and edible fruits and fibre form Grewia teliaefolia.

Tribal communities show prudence and ecological wisdom in resource utilisation. “Kadars” of Tamil Nadu for example select only mature plants of the yam Dioscorea for harvesting the tubers. They first examine the vine and choose only those whose leaves are yellow which is an indication of maturity. Tubers of young green vines are never dug out. After harvesting the mature yams they cut off the upper portion of the tuber along with the vine and replant it in the pit. They cover the pit with loose soil for the tuber to grow again in the coming season for whoever may harvest it in the future. The community as a whole shares the harvest thus avoiding over exploitation. Part of the collection is stored for consumption during the off - season. This is a unique example of community co-operation in plant utilities and conservation of resources.

Traditional Knowledge of tribes on medicinal plants

Medicinal properties of plants have been recognized and practiced by tribal communities as a tradition for thousands of years. Knowledge on some common medicinal plants of their locality is available with all the members of the community. However, the elderly members possess a great deal of knowledge of medicinal plants as well as on medicines for curing certain life threatening diseases. Tribal people use plants solely or in combination. Same plant may be used for different disorders: for example Calotropis gigantea is used as vermicide and for chest pain, Centella asiatica used for gynaecological problems and for jaundice, Dodonaea viscosa used for headache, stomach pain and piles, Wrightia tinctoria for treating mumps and as lactagogue. In certain cases a combination of different plants are used in the treatment for e.g. Albizia lebbec together with Cassia fistula and Euphorbia hirta is used for urinary disorder. And Capparis zeylanica with Pongamia pinnata, Cissus quandrangularis and Toddalia asiatica is used for venereal disease. Each tribe has its own method of collecting the plants as well as the preparation of medicines. Dosage and duration of medication depends on the age of the patient and the intensity of disease. The tribes collect the plant part used for medicine at a particular time like, either before flowering or fruiting, or in a particular season.

Traditional agricultural practices of tribal communities

The knowledge of tribal people in traditional agriculture is invaluable. Their farming practices are truly sustainable in many ways. Tribal communities namely Irulas, Malayalis and Muthuvas inhabiting Tamil Nadu have been cultivating the traditional cultivars viz. paddy, millets, pulses and vegetable crops. Their subsistence life style, local diet habits and dependence on rain fed irrigation have influenced them to cultivate and conserve the traditional cultivars or land races. Many crops such as Panicum miliaceum, Echinocloa colona, Paspalum scrobiculatum and Setaria italica are now cultivated and conserved only by the tribal people in many parts of southern India. By selecting and conserving the seeds from one season to the next, they have been able to sustain and continue to be self-reliant. For

e.g. healthy cobs are left in the field so as to allow it to dry to the maximum days to make sure that no moisture is left in the seeds. The selection of large and healthy seeds and also the selection based on the color of the seeds (e.g. in case of Castor seeds) have also helped them select more viable seeds. The tribal communities prefer to continue the cultivation of traditional cultivars, as these are ecologically suitable and economically viable and valuable. The traditional cultivars and land races cultivated by tribes are also drought and pest tolerant and disease resistant. The tribes also have practical reason for cultivating these cultivars, which satisfy their high calorie requirements that are required for their hard life. Pesticides and fertilizers are not required.

The tribal communities practice a unique method of farming namely mixed cropping system (MCS). The MCS enables them to cultivate cereals, leafy vegetables, pulses and oil crops together in limited area depending on monsoon rain. The practice is such that the seeds of common millet, finger millet, grain and leaf amaranth, pulses and castor are mixed together and broadcasted. Initially the common millet is harvested followed by finger millet. Edible leaves of Amaranth and seeds and pods of pulses are used for daily consumption. Edible grains of amaranth are harvested and stored for future use. Castor seeds are harvested and used both for domestic consumption and for selling in the market.

The MCS not only helps in utilizing the seasonal rainfall but also in keeping the soil unexposed thereby preventing topsoil erosion. The combination of crops with legumes helps in nitrogen fixation, thus maintaining the soil fertility. This not alone helps them derive maximum benefits from their small land holdings but also takes care of their food and economic requirements throughout the year. Hence, this concept of MCS can be adopted and introduced in places where rain fed agriculture is in practice.

Community co-operation and participation prevailing particularly in Malayali tribal community has helped them in conserving the traditional land races. The practice is such that every family in the community will contribute a stipulated amount of their harvest to the community granary maintained and managed by the chieftain of the hamlet. During important occasions like marriages, social events and festivals and also as and when some one needs for regular consumption, grains can be borrowed on loan and paid back. This system has enabled the tribals to conserve the seed material even if the produce in a particular season is less or if the grains stored for domestic consumption are exhausted.

Traditional methods of storing seeds

Seed material for sowing and the grains for consumption, are preserved in traditional granaries. These granaries are made of bamboo and coated with red soil. The roof is conical which is thatched with local grass. There is a free flow of air in the granaries, which may be one of the reasons that the seeds could remain viable till it is used next time. Another method of storing is that the seeds are stored in earthen pots covered with a cotton cloth. This indigenous practice has saved many varieties of cereals, millets and legumes over many generations in Tamil Nadu. This practice has enabled them to maintain, preserve and conserve the genetic strains from extinction. Leaves of Neem (Azadirachta indica) and Vitex (Vitex negundo) are used in the granaries as insect and pest repellents.


Due to the practices described above, these people could conserve the genetic strains for a long period of time. However, at present, because of increasing population in tribal areas and contact with people dwelling in plains, who practice unsustainable life style, there is every threat for the genetic material conserved by the tribes till to-date. In order to prevent this genetic erosion, the traditional cultivars needs to be conserved through protection as they form basic raw material for further crop improvement using the genetic variability present in the traditional cultivars.

Policy decisions, which might affect the ecological balance of biodiversity, should be taken through prior consultation of tribal people inhabiting the areas, who may help us with practical suggestions. Otherwise, ultimately the ethnic people are the worst affected in any environmental crisis, as they exist at the bottom line of social strata. Loss of biodiversity results in the loss of cultural diversity, which is the cradle of knowledge on the values of plants. Ethiopia, a center for the origin of several plants such as coffee, is a standing example, which tells us that the loss of biodiversity would result in the worst form of environmental and social crisis. Ignoring the conservation of cultural diversity and the associated traditional ecological knowledge is detrimental for the cause of conservation of biodiversity on which the entire world depends for its survival.


The author wishes to thank Prof. M. S. Swaminathan, Chairman, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India for his encouragement and support and the tribal headmen, traditional doctors and herbalists of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu for sharing their knowledge and to the Department of Forests, Governments of Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala for the help and assistance. The author thanks Dr. A. N. Henry, formerly of Botanical Survey of India, Coimbatore, for his guidance in the work part undertaken in Andhra Pradesh and Dr. P. Dayanandan and Dr. D. Narasimhan of Madras Christian College Madras for their comments on the paper. The author acknowledges the help and suggestions of Mr. John Joseph and the Biodiversity team of M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. The financial support received from Department of Environment, Government of India, SIDA and IPGRI during the study is acknowledged.

Selected reference

Gamble, J. S. 1915 - 1938, Flora of the Presidency of Madras, Vol. 1 - 3. (Vol. 3 by C.E.C. Fisher). Adlard & Sons Ltd. London.

Ravishankar, T. 1990. Ethnobotanical studies in Adilabad and Karimnagar districts of Andhra Pradesh, India. Ph. D. Thesis. Bharathiar University, Coimbatore.

Ravishankar, T. and V. B. Hosagouda. (1995) Nallamalai hills-India. 2: 120 - 122, WWF and IUCN. Centres of plant Diversity, A guide and Strategy for their Conservation. IUCN Publications Unit, Cambridge, U. K.

Ravishankar, T. and A. N. Henry. (1992) “Ethnobotany of Adilabad district, Andhra Pradesh, India”. Ethnobotany. 4: 45 - 52.

Richard E. Schultes. 1991. The Reason for Ethnobotanical Conservation in Olayiwola Akerele, Vernon Heywood and Hugh Synge (ed) Conservation of Medicinal Plants 65 -75. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Ravishankar, T., L. Vedavalli, A. A. Nambi and V. Selvam, 1994, Role of tribal communities in the conservation of plant genetic resources. 1 - 49. M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Madras.

Ravishankar, T. (1998) Ethnobotanical diversity of Eastern Ghats: Konda Reddys of East Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh. p.p. 273-279. The Eastern Ghats - Proceedings of the National seminar on conservation of Eastern Ghats, EPTRI - ENVIS, Hyderabad

Ravishankar, T. (1996) Tribal people and their knowledge on Plant Genetic Resources, Journal of Non - Timber Forest Products 2: 100 -103.

Ravishankar, T. (1996) Role of tribal people in the conservation of plant genetic resources, pp. 310 - 314. Ethnobiology and Human Welfare - Proceedings of IV international congress of Ethnobiology

Ravishankar, T. (1996) Tribal and Rural Farmer conservers - Resource Centre for Farmer’s Rights. pp. 174 - 176. Agrobiodiversity and Farmers Rights. Proceedings of a Technical Consultation on an implementation Framework for Farmers Rights, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India,

Ravishankar, T. (1995) Strengthening the role of tribal communities in biodiversity conservation, pp. 65 -67. Proceedings of WWF National Conservation Congress, New Delhi, India

Ravishankar, T. (1995) Tribal community in India and plant genetic resources. pp. 106 - 111. Farmers’ rights and Plant genetic resources. Recognition and Reward: A dialogue. Macmillan India Limited. Chennai, India.

Ravishankar, T. (1994) Tribal women and their contributions for biodiversity conservation, pp. 10 - 18. Proceedings of the workshop on Women, Biodiversity and Seed industries, M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India.

Ravishankar, T. and V. Selvam. (1996) “Contributions of tribal communities in the conservation of traditional cultivars”. pp. 78 - 86. Using Diversity: Enhancing and maintaining genetic resources on-farm, International Development Research Centre, New Delhi, India.

R. Rengalakshmi, G. Alagukannan, N. Anil Kumar, V. Arivudai Nambi, V. Balakrishnan, K. Balasubramanian, Bibhu Prasad Mohanty, D. Dhanapal, M. Geetha Rani, G. Girigan, Hemal Kanvinde, Israel Oliver King, Prathiba Joy, T. Ravishankar, Saujanendra Swain, Sushanta Chaudhry, P. Thamizoli, Trilochan Ray and L. Vedavalli (2002). “Rural and Tribal Women in Agrobiodiversity Conservation - An Indian Case Study”. M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai, India, and Food and Agriculture Organization, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand. ISBN: 971-614-019-3, FAO 2002, RAP Publication 2002/08.

[1] M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, 3rd Cross Street, Taramani Institutional Area, Taramani, Chennai (Madras) - 600118, India. Email: [email protected]; [email protected]