GI tags protect Indian tradition amid impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss

GI tags protect Indian tradition amid impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss  Mongabay-India

GI tags protect Indian tradition amid impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss

GI tags protect Indian tradition amid impacts of climate change, biodiversity loss

Geographical Indication (GI) and its Importance in Sustainable Development

Geographical Indication or GI is a form of intellectual property protection for products with specific geographical origins and unique characteristics. Assigning a GI tag is believed to benefit local communities economically and prevent the misuse of traditional knowledge. Many GI-tagged products in India are threatened by climate change and environmental degradation, highlighting the need for sustainable practices and habitat conservation to ensure their long-term viability. Experts suggest that protecting traditional knowledge can benefit from integrating GI with special legislations for environmental and tribal rights protection.

The Significance of Geographical Indication Tags

What do Darjeeling tea, Kanchipuram silk, and Odisha pattachitra have in common? They all hold unique Geographical Indication or GI tags. Geographical Indication is a form of intellectual property (IP) protection granted to products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities that are inherent to that location.

Originally designed to safeguard indigenous communities that grow, create, or manufacture the product and hold the custodianship of its knowledge, the GI tag serves a dual purpose: By endorsing these products, the communities stand to gain economic advantages while mitigating the risk of misuse or misappropriation of their traditional knowledge.

For instance, Coorg Arabica Coffee that possesses a GI tag indicates that the source of this coffee is the Kodagu district (formerly known as Coorg) of Karnataka. The proof of origin of the coffee is verified, and its properties such as native way of cultivation, soil quality, shade, and uniqueness compared to other coffee types, resulting in a GI tag. No other region or a group of farmers beyond the Kodagu district can sell authentic Coorg Arabica Coffee. This exclusivity not only protects the local culture but also provides economic incentives to the farmers who grow the coffee.

According to government data, 167 products were awarded GI tags between April 2023 and March 2024, bringing the total number of GI-tagged products in India to 643. In recent times, there has also been a focus on handicrafts from the northeast Indian states, such as Meghalaya’s Garo textile, Tripura’s Pachra-Rignai, Assam’s Bihu dhol, and Arunachal Pradesh’s Tai Khamti textile. In addition, for the first time in the history of GI tagging, the Andaman and Nicobar administration has filed applications for seven indigenous products originating from the islands, including the Andaman karen Musley rice, Nicobari mat, and the Andaman tall coconut.

A Conservation-Centric Approach Needed

Among India’s GI handicrafts with a huge international demand is Assam’s muga silk. Made from muga silkworm (Antheraea assamensis) found exclusively in the northeastern region of India, muga silk is known for its durability and shimmer. The geographical isolation indicates the special geo-climatic conditions that prevail in this region that aid the growth of the silkworm.

Farmer and silk researcher Jitul Saikia says that it may not be possible to grow muga silkworms for commercial purposes in the future. Saikia found out through research that the productivity, quantity, and quality of muga silkworm in different parts of Assam are decreasing. “Fungal diseases in the host plants of these silkworms are on the rise due to climate change. Increasing temperatures and uneven rainfall patterns have an impact on these plants. The groundwater level is also decreasing gradually. Another challenge is the use of chemical fertilizers in the neighboring tea plantations. When this contaminated water flows down from these plantations, it affects the host plants and the silkworm,” Saikia informs Mongabay-India.

Since a large number of families are involved in muga silkworm farming and the industry, conservation of the host plants and the habitat is important for its sustenance. There are not enough studies done on the host plants and how the landscape is changing, he says. “Conservation and commercialization of a GI product must happen simultaneously, which is not the case here,” Saikia states.

Protecting Traditional Knowledge

Geographical Indication, however, is an excellent tool to protect traditional knowledge, argues Ajoy Jose, assistant professor at School of Law, Woxsen University. Jose, who specializes in traditional knowledge and traditional medicinal knowledge, shares that along with GI, legislations such as the Biodiversity Act (2002), Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act (2001), Patents Act (1970), and Forest Rights Act (2006) also protect traditional knowledge of various communities directly or indirectly.

Padmavati Manchikanti, a professor at Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law, IIT Kharagpur, is of the opinion that the complementarity of IP legislations to other special legislations under environmental protection such as the Forest Rights Act and Biodiversity Act needs to be looked into. For example, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, that aims to promote conservation, provides an additional safety blanket to an agricultural GI product. “So, if we have the GI tag and the plant variety protection, complementarity can be realized,” Manchikanti says. She informs that interlinking GI with the People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR) that documents the biological diversity in an area along with the associated traditional knowledge is another option. “India can look at interlinking traditional knowledge across different legislative frameworks to provide better protection to a product,” she adds.

Protection and promotion of traditional knowledge with GI tags, however, comes with its own challenges. For one, not all traditional knowledge is available in the public domain or in the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library, a database for traditional medicines, leaving a lot more to explore and record. Jose suggests that local biodiversity management committees (BMCs) can engage with tribal communities in their regions to document more indigenous practices and products. The BMCs can also help bridge the gap between researchers and tribal communities. However, access and benefit sharing (ABS) play a crucial role in preserving traditional knowledge. “If some communities choose to retain their traditional sacred knowledge and not monetize it, that decision should be respected,” Jose explains.

Harnessing Rich Culture

The commercialization of Arogyapacha (Trichopus zeylanicus), a medicinal plant with anti-fatigue properties used by the Kani tribal community in the southern Western Ghats, resulted in the restriction of the customary practice of collection and use of the plant by the community. However, it was later found that the plant exhibited those medicinal properties only when grown in the natural forest habitat in the shade of the forest canopy. As a result, the first manufacturer of an ayurvedic product using Arogyapacha withdrew from the project in 2008 after encountering problems in raw material procurement.

The case of Arogyapacha notwithstanding, a significant number of medicines available in the market are based on active ingredients that are isolated from plants and other resources, according to Manchikanti. “The traditional use of those plants and the information became the starting point for the development of those medicines. India has immense potential to gain out of the traditional knowledge we have because of the varied climatic zones and the rich culture we possess,” she says.

Regarding the improvement of traditional medicine records in India, Bose emphasizes the need for increased investment in the research and development of traditional medicines. “We need to check and validate the knowledge of traditional medicines. Some plants may have active ingredients that could be useful in manufacturing medicines. Clinical trials should be conducted for these ingredients,” she says.

Other Challenges to Resolve

In addition to a lack of proper documentation, biodiversity loss, and the impact of climate change on bio resources, GI products and the associated traditional knowledge face the risks of counterfeiting, dispute in claims, and dilution of access. Tribal communities in some states also report a decline in forest produce.

To reduce counterfeit products, Jose highlights the need to raise awareness about the qualities of authentic GI products. She emphasizes improving infrastructure, such as roads and storage units for GI-tagged goods and integrating these efforts with tourism. “Tourists must be made to understand the difference between authentic GI products and counterfeits,” she says.

There have been cases of two adjacent regions laying claims to the origin of a single product. For instance, in the past, both West Bengal and Odisha claimed the GI tag for the sweet, rasgulla, with both states bagging GI tags for variants of the same sweet. Jose says that there needs to be a mechanism to address such disputes.

What is also lacking is an understanding of the environmental, social, and financial impacts of the tags on different products and communities. Manchikanti suggests more studies to understand the effectiveness of GI tagging or post-GI studies, to gauge the situational reality to devise better protection mechanisms.

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