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Traditional Knowledge and Management of Natural Resources

A. S. Mishra

Soil, water and vegetation are three basic natural resources. The survival of God’s creation depends upon them and nature has provided them as assets to human beings. The management of natural resources to meet people’s requirements has been practised since the pre-Vedic era. Farmers were ranked high in the social system and village management was in their hands. In order to manage land, water and vegetation, technical knowledge suitable to the specific conditions of a region was required. They gained this knowledge and developed skill through experience and learning by doing.

Over-exploitation of natural resources by growing population resulted in various severe problems. Destruction of vegetation has resulted in land degradation, denudation, soil erosion, landslides, floods, drought and unbalanced ecosystems. A balanced ecosystem is an urgent need.

The Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute, Dehradun, has activities in the rural areas of Garhwal for the management of resources with people’s participation. The present investigation was the outcome of experience gained in the villages of Outer Himalaya and the Doon Valley. The Institute began extending its technology in 1954 and has achieved grand success through watershed management and lab to land activities. In contact with the farmers, traditional wisdom was documented. A wealth of traditional knowledge could be harnessed through their cooperation. Their experiences are required to be shared and discussed to promote modern technology for development.


The investigation was carried out in villages of Dehradun district and Narendra Nagar (Tehri Garhwal). These villages were selected from the Doon Valley and the Outer Himalaya hill range with a view to obtaining comprehensive information on traditional knowledge of natural resource management in both foothills and mountainous regions. Eight villages from Sahaspur block of Doon Valley and eight from Narendra Nagar block in the hills were selected. Farmers were interviewed to obtain information on traditional knowledge. Individual contacts were made and questions were asked about traditional systems in the villages. Representation of women among the farmers was also ensured. By means of informal interviews and interaction with old and young farmers and farm women, responses were recorded for critical analysis. It was also observed how traditional knowledge is transmitted from one generation to another. In order to educate young farmers, elders communicate innovation through proverbs, short stories and examples.

Information was collected with respect to the social and historical perspective of the Garhwal region, zoning system, depletion of natural resources, methods of conservation, concept of watershed management, prediction and beliefs, and cultural education. A total of 200 farmers including women were interviewed.

Historical, Cultural and Social Perspectives

The Himalayan hill range of Uttar Pradesh is known as Uttarakhand. The region comprises two hill zones, Garhwal and Kumaon. The Garhwal Himalaya covers an area of 14,565 square miles and has 4,724 villages. After the British occupation the region was divided into British Garhwal and Tehri Garhwal. References to Garhwal are found in the Skanda Purana (Kedarkhanda) and the Vanaparva in the Mahabharata. The Skanda Purana defines the boundary of this holy land, Kedarkhand, 50 yojana long and 30 yojana wide. It extends from Haridwar in the south to perpetual snow (Himalaya) in the north. To its west is the river Tamsa (Tons) and in the east it is flanked by Baindhachal. Badhan is not only a paragana but a mountain range too, which demarcates Garhwal from Kumaon. In the Vanaparva, where Dhaumya is telling Yudhisthira about the tirthas of India, Gangadwar, i.e., Haridwar and Kankhal, have been referred to. The hill tract of Garhwal in those days was known as ‘Himvat’.

In the Garhwal region the Ganga, Yamuna, and many rivers and rivulets are seen in their blissful infancy. Garhwal is a constant source of spiritual attainment where people come to visit ancient holy places for realising their moksha. It is the expression of divinity, meditation, penance and attainment. Garhwal has a galaxy of peaks and glaciers, a vastness of meadows and valleys, and a wealth of colourful dales which have no parallel in the world. Mountain peaks are visible everywhere and because of altitude, complexities and physiographic features and geological structure, the region has several classifications. But the major divisions are Outer Himalaya, Middle Himalaya and Higher Himalaya.


The Doon Valley has its own significance in view of its culture and traditions. It has a historical background from the period of Dronacharya. Dehradun is formed from the name of Guru Drone (Dera + Drone). The valley occupies an area of 1,500 sq km (20 km by 76 km) between the Outer Himalaya, the Ganga, the Yamuna and the Shivalik hill range. The valley is known as Dronakshetra.

The Himalaya of northern India was divided into five zones: Nepal Khand, Kurmanchal, Jalandhar, Kedarkhand and Kashmir Khand.

In the Himalaya there were vast resources of forest, scenic beauty, agriculture, horticulture, minerals and, above all, hardy and painstaking people with their rich cultural heritage.

The Kole were the first historically recorded people of Garhwal, descended from the Munda ethnic group. Subsequently the Kirats, Khasas and the Shakas settled in the region. Many other lineages also came and intermixed with those who had already settled. In the ancient period and even in modern days powerful races or castes dominated politics and the economy. In present-day Garhwal three main castes are found: Brahmans, Rajputs and Shilpkars. Shilpkars are descendants of Koles and are supposed to be the autochthonous of Garhwal.

Depletion of Natural Resources

During the ancient period Garhwal was full of dense forest and lush green vegetation. The Himalaya is the perennial source of water for rivers, streams and reservoirs. Undoubtedly, nature takes care of its resources through natural process over a period of time and maintains them. But ever-increasing population, developmental activities and technological modernisation have over-exploited available resources without taking into consideration the damage and consequences for coming generations. Vegetation plays an important role in protecting land and water. These resources are being depleted at an alarming rate because of human intervention. Degradation and destruction of forest cover in the Himalaya is directly responsible for the denudation of watersheds. In the absence of vegetative ground cover, during the monsoon rainwater comes down to the plains unchecked. Sudden swelling of streams, flash floods in the hills and severe floods in the plains and drought in upstream areas are the consequences.

The downward rush of water has tremendous erosive force and moves millions of tonnes of fertile soil during the rainy season. It causes all types of erosion as well as devastating landslides in the Himalaya. Developmental activities, construction of roads, extraction of building material and mining, etc., are a constant threat.

Denuded hills and other wastelands pose serious problems which adversely affect agriculture and human life in the region. Landslides and landslips block hill roads and charge streams with heavy sediment loads. The soil erosion taking place crosses the permissible limit of 4.5 to 11.5 tonnes/ha many times (Narayana and Ram Babu 1983).

Management of Natural Resources

Broadly, farmers have indicated three ways to protect resources by means of traditional technology. They are mechanical, agricultural and vegetative.


The main occupation of the hill farmers is agriculture. They usually construct terraces for cultivation known as nala with risers known as pusata. These terraces are small but there are many of them. In one acre of landholding a farmer possesses 50 nalas. In these it is possible to manage to rainwater. Construction of terraces depends upon space and grades of land. The farmers, with their expertise, are able to prepare fields for crop production.

According to scientific recommendations cultivation is allowed to 33 per cent of land slope. But in the hills, farmers are able to make terraces from top to bottom of the mountain terrain without taking into account the land slope. With terraces they construct loose boulder retention walls (risers) by putting grass over them. These grasses keep both stones and the land intact.

Cement and sand are scarce materials in the hills. In making risers farmers simply arrange boulders of the proper size along the terrace wall. It retains the soil perfectly and gradually gets stabilised.

Farmers make the slopes of the terraces inwards to check soil erosion and enhance in situ moisture conservation. Soils are gravelly and have a high rate of percolation. Due to rainwater retention enough moisture becomes available to the crops.

On mild slopes farmers construct shoulder bunds to protect their lands from soil erosion and grow vegetation over the bunds, particularly grasses for binding the soil.

Farmers of the hill region used to make brushwood or longwood check dams across the drainage channels for controlling soil loss by means of local materials. They are economical. Gabion walls and stone check dams are by and large cost intensive and beyond not affordable to hill farmers.

Farmers in the Doon Valley in order to train torrents use Ipomea carnea and Arando donex plants sps. as vegetative spurs, and they are found to be very successful.


In order to achieve the objective of development in villages, people’s participation is essential. It is required to involve them actively in project activities by respecting their traditional knowledge and experimental ethics. Traditional knowledge has a sound base as it has been tested and practised over the years. It is appropriate technology in particular climatic conditions and in the living conditions of people.

Projects to develop ecology should start with traditional knowledge as they are proven technology for natural resources management. In a real sense, every culture of a social system, traditionally, is the result of people’s action to survive and their attempts to optimise the use of available resources, i.e., soil, water and vegetation.

The science of natural resource management is based on the ecologically sound traditional wisdom of farmers and its contribution in augmenting productivity. Traditional values which are sustainable in nature need to be compared with values of modern systems. It is obvious that traditional practices of agriculture may disappear unless their values are promoted.

The wisdom of farmers with respect to watershed development, agricultural management, and conservation of soil, water for sustained production are documented in the present investigation.


Farmers pointed out that watershed management had been introduced for the integrated management of a particular area that includes agriculture, natural resources, forest management, village development and above all the ecosystem. Virtually, a watershed was defined as a unit of development in which there is a highest point and a lowest point with common outlet. The Government of India has given special attention to watershed development to manage natural resources and schemes like NWDPRA, a watershed project with foreign collaboration, are being implemented.

During the ancient period, village boundaries were decided upon on a watershed basis by the expert farmers in the villages. Such boundaries were socially acceptable to all the members of the system. Such age-old village boundaries are fixed at the common point of the drainage system in between two villages. It is still in vogue and people do not go beyond the limits of their hydrological boundaries.


Farmers used to carry water to their fields through small irrigation channels known as gulas. These go from the source of water along the slopes to the fields. In order to avoid seepage losses farmers use pipes. By means of gravitational force they transport irrigation water from its source. In hills it is difficult to construct gulas for all the terraces, and pipes are convenient in transporting water to every field. In order to make judicious use of water, they use a sprinkler system through gravitational force and economical utilisation of water.

In the Garhwal Himalaya farmers use tree trunks as rainwater irrigation channels by taking care of undulating topography and checking seepage losses (Sharma and Sinha 1993).


The region of Garhwal comes in the high rainfall area and in the lack of proper management system most of the rainwater goes waste as runoff. Farmers of the hill region have their traditional technology for making small dug-out ponds to harvest rainwater. They construct such ponds at several places and use the water for survival or for supplemental irrigation. Improvement over the traditional practices are that at the bottom LDPE sheets are placed to check seepage losses. Lined tanks are cost-intensive and beyond the reach of the farmers.


Streams are the source of water in the Himalaya. Farmers pay regard to these water resources. They use the water for drinking and make efforts to keep streams clean and unpolluted. They maintain vegetation on the banks to have a clean flow without sediment for human consumption. They do not permit their cattle at the places from which they collect drinking water. They have their own traditional system for the management of drinking water. They do not allow anyone to throw garbage in its current to avoid pollution and infection.


In the hills flour mills are not available. Farmers have their indigenous technology to run flour mill by means of water fall. They use home-made wooden wheels as turbines to run the mills. These mills are locally known as gharat or panchaki. It is a local response to needs of the people without electric or any other complex machine systems.


For centuries, nature’s various products and women’s knowledge of their properties have provided the basis for making water safe for drinking in every home and village of India. The seeds of the nirmali tree are used to clear muddy water by rubbing them on the insides of vessels. The drumstick tree also produces seeds which are used for water purification.

Moringa seeds inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi. Tulasi is a water purifier with antibacterial an insecticidal properties. Copper or brass pots are what Indian women use to carry and store water; and unlike plastic, they do not breed bacteria. The technologies women have used for water purification are based on locally available natural products and locally and commonly available knowledge (Shiva 1988).

Practically each terraced field has a row of fodder trees along its edge. The household women manage these carefully for procuring maximum leaf fodder yields through lopping. They know when and how to lop without damaging the main tree (Sarin and Khanna 1991).

Older women train the younger ones in the art of lopping. When women lop trees they enhance the productivity of the oak forest under stable conditions. Groups of women and old people go together to lop fodder and develop expertise by learning by doing (Shiva 1988).

Farm women know the nutritional needs of their families. That is why women in Garhwal continue to cultivate mandua. They say that without their mandua and jhingora they could not labour as they do. These grains are their source of health and strength (Shiva 1988).

Women in the Garhwal hills are architects of the rural economy. They are devoted to agriculture, animal husbandry, dairying, child-rearing, cooking, fodder and fuel management, etc. They work harder from morning to evening than their male counterparts for the welfare of the family. Girl children share the work of their mothers and get training in home management.


Farmers’ traditional knowledge of agriculture includes tested technologies in the field.

  • They use a special type of traditional plough. Other types of ‘improved’ ploughs do not work in the hills as the soil is gravelly and not deep.

  • Under rainfed conditions farmers in hill regions plough their land several times before the onset of rain to conserve water and increase water retention capacity.

  • Farmers plough their land straight instead of in circles and open parallel furrows for rainwater harvesting and retaining moisture. However, there is a recommendation to plough the land across the slope to check erosion.

  • Farmers of hill regions prefer mixed cropping for minimising risks under rainfed conditions and creating ground cover for checking runoff and soil loss. They grow legumes with maize and ginger or turmeric with maize.

  • After sowing ginger, colocasia and turmeric, farmers use paddy straw, wheat straw or leaf litters as mulch to ensure proper germination.

  • Farmers do not practise weeding and interculturing in the maize crop because of soil conditions and the requirement of fodder in the rainy season.

  • Farmers of the Garhwal hills store seeds by selection for different plots with special identification and use them in those particular plot.

  • In the outer Himalaya farmers were reluctant to grow maize because of wild animals such as bears, wild boars and monkeys. In khadar (lowland) areas they grow paddy and irrigated wheat and in uplands they take rainfed rabi crops.

  • In the hills farmers grow mainly mandua, jhingora and guar. Because of recent developments they have been attracted towards off-season vegetables, e.g., peas, tomatoes, etc.


In view of the soil’s condition and texture the farmers of the Doon Valley and the hill region use farmyard manure in the fields before sowing. In lowland areas, for paddy they do green manuring also. Use of chemical fertilisers has increased but people retain their belief in traditional methods.

Farmers do not dig compost pits for the collection of cowdung, residues and garbage. Instead of pits they accumulate the matter in heaps in the open for decomposition. The reason behind it is that decomposition is slow due to low temperature and little sunshine. In pits compost would not get ready in time. In the open rapid decomposition takes place. This practice is traditional but has a scientific basis.


Hill farmers grow trees of economic value and suited to their requirements. In order to have conserve soil and water they grow grasses for ground cover such as Eulaliopsis binnata, Chrysopogun fulvus and agave sps. Shrubs like Ipomea icarnea, Arando donex, Dendrocalamus strictus, napier grass, Vitex negundu, Morus alba and bagrera are grown, and in wild form are available bhang, lantana, sweet neem, etc. Among trees they grow Grewia pitiva, Bauhinia sps., Albezia labek, Timla, Gainthietic, to meet fuel and fodder requirements.

For the development of horticulture in the Doon Valley the trees grown are citrus, mango, jackfruit, guava, pomegranate, pear, peach and plum. In the hills of Mussoorie and Narendranagar areas peach, pear, khumani and apple are grown at higher elevations. There is tremendous potential to develop horticulture in the hill ranges because of undulating topography and climatic conditions. Farmers are well aware of the potential of their lands, but due to poor economic conditions and infrastructure it is not possible for them to go ahead with alternative and more profitable land use.

Hill farmers are hard-working that even in adverse topographic conditions they are devoted to agriculture for grain production. Hill farmers do not like to work as labourers or beg in villages for their livelihood; instead, they prefer to go to cities to earn. Many hill farmers migrate for jobs to the cities or join army service. The women and children look after the village property, while the men send them money to run their homes.


Narayana, V.V and Rambabu, 1982, ‘Estimation of soil erosion in India’. Journal of irrigation and drainage engineering.

Sarin, Madhu and Renu Khanna, 1991, Wasteland development by a women’s group: a case study. New Delhi: ILO.

Sharma J.P. and B.P. Sinha, 1993, ‘Traditional wisdom of hill farmers of Uttarkashi’. National Seminar on Indigenous Technology for Sustainable Agriculture.

Shiva, Vandana, 1988, Women and environment: case studies from selected villages of Orissa. New Delhi: Council of Professional Social Workers.


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