Traditional Knowledge of Coastal Communities in Maharashtra


In August 2022, an indigenous tribe from the Amazon rainforest went extinct. The man, whose nickname came from the holes he regularly dug in the ground, was the last living member of an uncontacted Indigenous tribe, the rest of whom were killed by ranchers. His death marks the tragic extinction of people along with their language, culture, beliefs, survival techniques, and much more. One more thing that went extinct, which is perhaps the most important, is the rich and vast knowledge of that tribe. Knowledge about their forest, ecosystems, and survival, or Traditional Knowledge or Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), was an emblem of their hundred or perhaps thousand-year-old history. 

TEK held by communities is of profound significance in numerous ways. Firstly, it embodies the wisdom and accumulated understanding of indigenous and local communities about their environment, often spanning generations. This holistic knowledge encompasses the biological aspects of ecosystems and the cultural, spiritual, and social dimensions intertwined with them. TEK is a valuable repository of sustainable practices, helping communities adapt and thrive in their surroundings while conserving biodiversity. This also includes taboos and totems, customs and rituals, rules and regulations, metaphors and proverbs, traditional protected areas (social institutions), local knowledge of plants, animals and landscapes, and resource management systems.

Local communities and their role in conservation 

Local communities heavily depend on natural resources for their lives and livelihoods. These communities establish and adhere to traditional laws and regulations to prevent environmental harm. For instance, restrictions may be imposed on harvesting certain animals or plants during their breeding season, and there may be stringent guidelines on using only mature plants for medicinal purposes, excluding younger ones.

From the above examples, it is clear that local communities profoundly understand their surrounding ecosystems, encompassing flora, fauna, and natural resources. This knowledge, transmitted orally through traditions and practices, encompasses effective resource management, biodiversity conservation, and adaptation to environmental changes. Thus, involving local communities in conservation ensures active participation and stewardship from those who have coexisted with their environment for generations. This collaborative approach recognises that successful conservation necessitates a combination of scientific understanding and wisdom derived from traditional ecological knowledge. 

Usually, TEK is considered to be knowledge belonging to the tribes living in a forest. However, local communities living in the coastal area of Maharashtra have an equally rich heritage and knowledge, which is not only about marine life but also about rich forests around the area they inhabit or use for their sustenance. 

Coastal Maharashtra and Communities 

The western coast of India is a picturesque stretch of pristine beaches, lush greenery, and a treasure trove of traditional knowledge passed down through generations. The coastal region of Maharashtra, also known as the Konkan region, is a coastal strip of land on the western coast of India, stretching from the state of Maharashtra to the southern part of the state of Karnataka. This region is characterised by its scenic beauty, rich cultural heritage, and historical significance. It encompasses the coastal areas along the Arabian Sea, between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea. The major portion of the Konkan region is in the state of Maharashtra, extending from Mumbai to the state's southern border. It also includes smaller portions in the northern part of Goa and the southern part of Karnataka. Kokan region boasts a rich tapestry of coastal communities that have cultivated an intimate relationship with their natural surroundings. Maharashtra has various fishing communities, among which the Koli community is predominant and considered fishermen. 



Illustration of Rapan fishing (Credits Shubham Mandavgane)
Konkan region in Maharashtra, the traditional fishing practice known as Rapan, is a classic example of how traditional knowledge is used in daily activities. The term applies to this fishing method and the net itself. It is a laborious affair requiring the engagement of about 20-25 people at a time. The boats used for this type of fishing are made from Undal, Moy and Mango trees. Undal wood has a unique characteristic; the wood has natural plasticity, and on heating, it can be bent to make a boat. This boat is used without any engine. Rather, 20-25 people (Rapankar) use wooden slabs to push the boat into the water, and natural cashew oil is used to reduce the friction between the boat and the slabs. A large-sized net is then cast near the seashore manually and pulled back to the shore again manually with the help of wooden poles. 



Images showing Matoli 
Ganpati festival is the most beloved festival in Maharashtra. Matoli is an ethnobotanical representation of the seasonal biodiversity, which transmits the traditional knowledge of local flora. Matoli is used as decoration in the Ganpati festival in Konkan and Goa; it is a wooden frame that forms a canopy above the idol of Ganpati. More than 400 rare medicinal plants and fruits like Kaundal, Kangla, Ain fruit, Nagla, Harna, and Sharwada (scientific names to be added), to name a few, are used in the decoration which represents rich cultural and traditional knowledge of the Konkan region. 


Promoting participatory conservation in coastal Maharashtra  

TEK of coastal communities may be crucial for scientific research, offering insights and methods that complement and expand the understanding of ecosystems. Moreover, it is pivotal in fostering cultural identity and pride, connecting communities to their heritage and traditions. An excellent example is the sea turtle conservation efforts on the Maharashtra coast. In the early stages of these activities, knowledge and techniques for finding the exact spot of the nest were acquired with the help of local people in the area. These locals were originally hunters who consumed and sold sea turtle eggs. Conservationists used this knowledge, which was developed over the years, to empower conservation activities. Over a period of time, these hunters became involved in conservation activities through awareness. 

Traditional knowledge is also implemented in ex-situ conservation and livelihood activities. Providing alternate livelihood is useful for both communities and ecosystems in the area. Clams are a traditional staple food for the local population for their nutritional value and exceptionally high protein content. A large section of fishermen depend on the sale of Tisare. Harvesting of tisare is done by hand, feet, hand-operated scoop nets, or with the aid of a digging stick from the beds during low tide by local people. The local women would work long hours during low tide to collect them by hand. They have excellent knowledge of the availability of bivalve species and their habitats, their harvesting season, collection methods, equipment used, and their preservation. All of these are used in bivalve fisheries

Traditional knowledge of fishers engaged in bivalve fishery is a thriving knowledge system in Konkan, which is being used in contemporary resource management. Today, there is a growing appreciation of the value of traditional knowledge. This knowledge is valuable not only to those who depend on it daily but also to conservationists, modern industry and agriculture. The integration of traditional knowledge into conservation strategies not only enhances the effectiveness of initiatives but also ensures cultural relevance. This inclusive approach promotes a holistic perspective that acknowledges the interconnectedness of ecosystems and recognises the intrinsic value of preserving both biodiversity and the cultural heritage of communities. To conclude, recognising the value of TEK is not only a matter of respecting the rights of local communities but also of enhancing global efforts in conservation, ecological restoration, and sustainable resource management.  

Shubham Mandavgane