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[NEW DELHI] Scientists studying the indigenous knowledge of millet varieties within a tribal community in the Kolli Hills of Tamil Nadu state came away richer for 19 new classifications, some with medicinal properties and drought resistance.

The study published in the latest issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology sought to integrate tribal knowledge with scientific understanding of millets in southern India.

Involved in the study were researchers from the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics, University of Guelph, Canada, the SRM Arts and Science College, Tamil Nadu and the Centre for Biocultural Diversity (CBD), a non-governmental organisation based in Tamil Nadu.

The indigenous method of classification led the scientists to conclude that "biodiversity projects should consider the perspective of both traditional and scientific knowledge when assessing, managing and conserving biodiversity."

Appearance, agricultural use and food quality were found important for tribal classification. Examples are ‘thirikulasama’, a drought-tolerant millet, and ‘kottapattisama’, which has a desirable and distinctive taste and is made into a drink.  

In scientific classification, however, both fall under the Panicum sumatrense species.

The scientists interviewed 118 tribal people on 174 millet samples. They also grew the millets in greenhouse environment and extracted DNA for barcoding. The tribal people consistently identified 19 millet ethnotaxa (landraces or local varieties).

Variations in the same samples were analysed using 'morphometric' (measuring shape and size) and molecular (DNA barcoding) methods, but revealed fewer taxa (varieties).

Some of the specimens identified by the tribal people, including a potentially drought-tolerant millet strain, have considerable nutritional, medicinal, and ecological value, the paper said, suggesting that "the application to society is considerable if a minor millet ethnotaxa could be grown in drought-ridden areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa."

"The classification based on traditional knowledge would help us to overcome existing constraints related to the production, distribution, and consumption of small millets," Subramanyam Raghupati, one of the lead authors of the study, told SciDev.Net.

Some activists have, however, cautioned against bioprospecting. Shalini Bhutan, an independent lawyer and researcher in agriculture and biodiversity, said: "Today a thin line separates research and commercial utilisation as defined in India’s Biodiversity Act. If they (researchers) don’t follow protocol for access of information and undertake to share benefits, as required under the law, such research could end up as biopiracy".

Raghupathy, however, clarified that one of the co-authors of the study, Vadaman Chakkan Palanisamy, is a tribal person and that all rights resided within his community. 

"A local NGO (the CBD) and the Botanical Survey of India are the main researchers. The University of Guelph helped with the publication," he said.

Link to the abstract in the Journal of Ethnobiology:

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