Traditional knowledge key to conservation

Traditional knowledge key to conservation

Rahul
Goswami is an expert facilitator on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) with the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Culturedivision.
From 2011, he has trained government officials, researchers and academics,
traditional knowledge bearers and practitioners in Indonesia, East Timor,
Afghanistan, P R China, Republic of Korea, Pacific island states, Malaysia,
Kazakhstan, the Seychelles, Mongolia, Cambodia, Sri Lanka on methods to
identify, document and safeguard intangible cultural heritage (ICH).

He will be
speaking at the Center for Soft Power’s World Heritage Week event on November
24 at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru. In an interview with CSP
he speaks about India’s intangible heritage and the value of local culture,
customs and traditions in dealing with climate change.

Asked if after all these years of Independence India needs to evolve a single national language other than English or if he thinks English has served the country well in her internal as well as external communications, he replies emphatically, “India has a national language and that language is the oldest, most developed, most complete, and divine language in the world. That's why it is called devabhasha - Sanskrit. Consider that other than the word agni, which we use for the idea of fire, there are 33 synonyms in Sanskrit for agni, but the English concept of synonym doesn't do justice to what those other equivalent words provide. They denote particular connotations of and particular experiences with agni, and therefore distinct qualities.”

Today, English continues to hold sway because of its use in social
access and mobility. “English in India presents a difficult problem, but I
think much of the difficulty has to do with two factors: one that it is tied with a household's
social progress and upward mobility, two that because of the colonial British
occupation and its use of English as the language of administration our own
languages became subordinate and remained so. The use of English has served
India poorly, in certain ways even disastrously. Today, lakhs of youth are at
work, mostly in what is called the services sector, and use in their work a
modicum of English - as a work skill, not as a language. This very rudimentary
skill they transfer into their personal and family spheres, and because they
have an income with this skill, and usually an urban status with this skill, they
are considered successes and worthy of the praise of elders (non-English
speaking) and worthy of emulation by those of their generation who remained
behind in small towns and villages. This is what multiplies the subordination
of our 22 major languages and at least 1,600 mother tongues,” says Rahul.

Rahul Goswami, wrote in an article in The Pioneer last year, that India must take a critical view of international cultural conventions. In 2017, UNESCO added the Kumbh Mela under its list of Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), adopted in 2003, and Yoga was added in 2016.

The World Heritage Convention is seen as a heritage embodied in structures, natural landscapes and tended landscapes; the ICH Convention is seen as encouraging the recognition of knowledge — the ways in which it is coded, the manner in which it is transferred between generations, the meanings and values attached to such codes, forms of transmission and their enactments. One is for built or natural form; and the other is for an abstract concept, says Rahul Goswami.

Rahul believes that “the living practices that form our
intellectual and artistic heritage are not compartmentalised, as is done by the
UNESCO cultural Conventions (including also the 2005 Convention on Diversity of
Cultural Expressions). There is another fundamental difference and that is the
religious and spiritual core that breathes life into our intellectual and
artistic heritage. But this, in the 2003 Convention, is not a consideration.
That is why we find in the text of the yoga nomination file that there is not a
single mention of ‘yoga’ being one of the systems of Hindu philosophy and also
not that it is an ‘Upaveda’. Its description instead includes ‘Yoga is a time
honoured Indian holistic system of personal, physical, mental and spiritual
wellness’ and ‘Indian mythology traces the origin of yoga to the God Shiva’.”

In Asia, the other countries have dominated the ratings. Says Rahul, “The three East Asian countries - Japan, China and South Korea - are regarded as being in the Asian forefront of the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage
(ICH) Convention's work and coverage in this region. This is true to the extent
that ICH from these three countries dominates the 'Lists' of the Convention.
But there is little or no Asian conception of inheritance that they have
contributed to.”

Rahul Goswami’s special focus has been on culture and development,
and both in training and policy advice he brings a special focus on environment
and natural resources, education, livelihoods and disaster risk reduction. This
work has contributed to strengthening the role of culture in the UN Sustainable
Development Goals (SDG).  

He is Adviser, Centre for Environment Education Himalaya, a specialised agency supported by the Ministry of Environment, Government of India, which focuses on educational and capacity building responses to climate change in the Indian Himalaya region. The approaches include strengthening local administration support on watershed management, cultivation and animal husbandry, traditional knowledge and cultural practices, livelihood and markets, education, crafts, health and indigenous medicinal practices. Significant programmes he has been involved from 2005 are the strengthening of capacity building in urban and rural communities to face
the effects of climatic variation and environmental degradation in  Jammu
& Kashmir and Sikkim.

When CSP asked him which were the heritage elements that he has worked with in India, he says none are in the ICH inventories at national level (with the IGNCA and Sahitya Akademi) and none that are in the UNESCO ICH Conventions lists.

He has however served as a social sector consultant for the National Agriculture Innovation Project (Ministry of Agriculture) from 2009-13 to strengthen and broaden the agricultural extension network. The programme included knowledge modelling of crop cultivation and the provision of a consultation platform for both traditional crop knowledge and crop science, using information and communication technology (ICT) to reach the field. He continues to be a member of the consultative forum to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization Committee on Food Security.

Rahul has worked
for several years on the knowledge systems of south Nagaland between 2003-05,
particularly cultivation practices, the management of natural resources, local
medicinal practices. “This has turned out to be a success as our
efforts (a group that included Nagas from the Kohima and nearby region, an ethno
botanist, an anthropologist and I) led to a continuing programme that banned
hunting in an ecologically rich zone, took up limited eco-tourism that provided
employment and income, led to the documenting of folklore and customary
practices and contributed to the approach behind what is today the very
successful Hornbill Festival of Nagaland.”

“In Goa, which
has been my home state for 30 years, it has been a case of partial success.
Independent of any institution, I was closely involved with a relatively
lengthy civil society programme to spread awareness about land use and planning
at the village level. This was between 2008-11. While the domestic tourism boom
in Goa has led to round-the-year visitors today - which brushes aside any
environmental carrying capacity considerations - that programme did bring in
greater awareness and participation at the Panchayat level and has found local traction
in several ways: garbage and waste handling, renewed interest in organically
cultivated foods.”

More recently,
with the Centre for Environment Education Himalaya (an organisation he has been
an adviser to for well over a decade), “our contribution to the documentation
on the water knowledge in the south Sikkim district was part of the very
successful 'dhara vikas' (hill springshed revival) project led by the state
government. This convincingly showed the importance of traditional knowledge
and ICH concerning a vital resource like water.”

In an article for World Heritage N°77, a magazine brought by the UNESCO World Heritage Center, Rahul wrote, “In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of the wetlands, it is intangible cultural heritage practitioners and the communities they belong to who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with, besides possessing the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observations. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue and survival remains meaningful.”