The NTFP Exchange Programme, together with Keystone Foundation, gathered its network partners from six countries for a sharing on community-based conservation practices and non-timber forest products (NTFP) monitoring systems. For four days, 43 participants representing 24 organizations and communities coming exchanged views, experiences, and practices in their conservation work with indigenous communities, particularly in terms of NTFP monitoring.
The backdrop for the meeting was set in the mist-covered mountains of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, in the capital town of Udhagamandalam, popularly known as Ooty, in Tamil Nadu, India. At 2,300 meters above sea level, the area is a mix of shola forests and tea estates. Pratim Roy and guest speaker BJ Krishnan introduced the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve, its resources and threats, and the history and challenges of the Western Ghats Ecology Experts Panel.
One of the methods explained was Participatory Resource Monitoring, or PRM, by Mary Stockdale. She explained that monitoring simply means looking at change over time, and that in PRM, the community is involved with the monitoring, management and evaluation of data. Some methods of PRM include harvest records, market records, transect walks, patrols, interviews, FGDs, hunting/gathering records, and household consumption. Issues with PRM include data reliability in terms of consistency (same time of year, day, same methods, same observers, and forms), and data storage. What is important for working with communities is evaluation and feedback, and answering questions such as who does what, when, and what for. Kate Mana-Galido shared her PRM experience in the Philippines, and emphasized the importance of developing a common vision with the community when doing PRM. The process should be simple, inexpensive, and incorporated in their usual practices instead of creating an extra burden to the community.
Anita Verghese shared her ecological monitoring work in India, explaining that when you do resource monitoring, you end up monitoring the bigger ecosystem and eventually a community conservation programme results. Their interventions include nursery work, research, barefoot ecologists, village elders, botanists, mapping and documenting, establishing conservation villages and forming sustainable harvesters groups. They have also developed conservation ambassadors in the region, identified and worked on charismatic species to entice the public, build stories around conservation species, and established the Nilgiris Natural History Society, a membership based group for the larger population to get involved in conservation.
Another major topic discussed was traditional knowledge and culture in changing times. Madhu Ramnath explained how outside pressure from traders and buyers can change traditions, for example when mango harvesters cannot wait for the first fruit ceremony because of high prices. These situations create tension in the villages, and show us how sometimes our enterprise interventions are affecting not just environment but also culture. Several participants shared their own experiences about how markets are affecting their traditional beliefs.
Small group discussions were held, with guide questions that made participants look into their NTFPs and see the trends of abundance, causes, their proposed solutions, their monitoring practices or plans, and how they plan to evaluate the monitoring results to feed into future management. The groups then reported on their monitoring plans for honey, rattan, fish and small game, wild food and fruits, and resin. Then they discussed for a second round what their action plan was when they go back to their own communities and organizations, and which of these they would prioritize.
Among the activities was a trip to a nearby organic medicinal garden and shopping at the Greenshop, Keystone’s retail market featuring products from their communities. There was also a field day where participants learned more about Keystone’s inspirational work in the nearby villages. Separated into five groups, they witnessed various aspects of the organization’s conservation and culture preservation work, such as how the communities protect their sacred forests, gather NTFPs using established harvest protocols, and engage in enterprises and ecotourism. Some groups were also able to see how honey and other NTFPs are monitored. Despite the chilly evening, everyone enjoyed in the sharing of the day’s experiences and learnings over bonfire, with traditional music and dancing from the Kurumba tribe.
Learnings and insights from the meeting:
• While we work in different countries with different contexts, we face similar issues and similar politics so sharing and connecting as a region will make our local efforts stronger.
• Culture and belief systems of indigenous peoples are not static; they also change and evolve.
• From the onset, we should establish whom we are doing the monitoring for.
• The youth are losing their traditional knowledge and it is increasingly challenging for the elders to pass on their wisdom.
• While scientific knowledge plays a role in community conservation, integration of traditional knowledge is very important when we work with NTFPs.
• We should keep in mind that when we enter a community, we are affecting their culture.
• Participatory monitoring should be simple, practical, and inexpensive, keeping in mind the culture and daily routine of community members.
• How do we transfer/instill not only traditional knowledge, but also conservation value, from elders to youth, from communities to the wider public?
• How do we as NGOs support the strong belief systems of communities, which include valuing their forests and harvesting only what they need?
• How do we recognize and respect cultural values and apply it in our work?
• How can we minimize the impact of external pressure on community traditions?