Friday, August 24, 2007

No Two Thoughts About Reading This Book

The dilemma, of course, is what to eat? A simple question it is not (certainly not anymore) as the author takes us on a fascinating journey following three food chains – the industrial, the pastoral organic and that of the cultivator-forager-hunter.

There is, however, a lot more than just food in the book – there is something for practically everyone to ruminate over. So there is plenty of ecology – and not only about animals but plants and fungi too. You can learn as much about grazing regimes, interdependence and evolution as you can about carbon and nitrogen cycles.

It is also about the absurdities of industrial food systems, its waste, its pollution and the cruelty to animals and the ill health it causes. Big organic (the likes of Whole Foods) comes under scrutiny and which it would seem shares many of the values if not necessarily all the inputs of industrial food. There is a discussion of animal rights, vegetarianism and much more.

So this is not really a review but a recommendation to read the book. The paperback has just been released which makes it far more affordable but as a book that will educate, amuse and make you think it is priceless.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Many Shades of Green

Forest Futures: Global Representations And Ground Realities In The Himalayas
Antje Linkenbach

The Chipko movement in what is now Uttarakhand is widely and justly celebrated as a pioneering environmental movement to save Himalayan forests. Sorry, what did you say - an environmental movement. I thought it was a peasant movement. Wait a second - wasn’t it a feminist movement?

Now, now - these are labels that “outside” experts and professionals have given Chipko. Have you asked people what do they think of it? Do they all think of it the same way? All the time? What about the ban on tree-felling? Did people approve of it? Don’t people ever want to cut down trees? Do they never encroach on forest land? Are they content to grow crops merely for subsistence or do they have other aspirations? What about growing cash crops like apples and using fertilizers and insecticides?

If you have had 101 questions that you were afraid to ask or didn’t know who to ask here is the book for you. It will disabuse you of many myths (romantic or otherwise) and notions that have been built around the Chipko movement.

So does the real Chipko stand up? Well, maybe there is none. Like in the movie Rashomon people see events differently and there are many perspectives, rich and varied, dependent on whom you ask and what you read.

And even though this may suggest that the book dwells quite a bit on differences, rivalries and conflicts (which it does because of the very nature of the study and in any case there is no dearth of laudatory accounts), as the author emphasises Chipko is a remarkable movement both in what it did in the region and the impact it had worldwide.

The one jarring note in the book is the chapter titled Ecology and Development. The author digresses into providing the backdrop and the context to her work. However, her discussion of development theory and the Indian development debates and experience is inadequate if not actually misleading. Even the “conventional development” discourse in India is far richer than what the author suggests. The discussion in the chapter also seems superfluous to the main theme of the book.

The sections on agricultural cycle, marriage relations, history, religion and rituals of the study village necessary as they are could easily have been shortened. The relevance of the lengthy discussion and the links to the subject matter of the book is neither shown nor is it self-evident. And while the author subjects Chipko and its history to critical analysis (that is what the book is about) she accepts rather uncritically certain other aspects (e.g. the struggle for the formation of and the expectations from Uttarakhand).

These small matters notwithstanding, on the whole the book is a very useful read and addition to the literature.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Conservation Outside Protected Areas

A notable feature of the debate on conserving India’s wild biodiversity is the focus on national parks and wildlife sanctuaries (commonly referred to as protected areas – PAs). Virtually all participants – whatever their ideological positions and opinions on policy matters - discuss issues in the context of PAs.

Even among PAs it is a few that dominate. Virtually all studies and references come from a list comprising Gir, Bharatpur, Sariska, Ranthambore, Rajaji, Great Himalayan National Park, Kanha, Nagarhole-Bandipur, and a few others. PAs attract researchers due to their glamour value but also due to the availability of information, baseline data and superior logistics.

This concentration is reflected in the published work (among books see, for example, 1, 2, and 3). Virtually all analysis, criticisms and prescriptions come from a few sites.

Why are PAs so important? To one set of wildlife protagonists they (potentially) provide inviolate spaces where human beings or their activities can be excluded. To another set there is no contradiction between conservation imperatives and human activities and in fact, many argue, that human activities may promote biodiversity. This is not the occasion to visit the debate but ask a different question. Is the exclusive focus on PAs healthy? Desirable? Are we missing something?

Collectively the PAs make up a little less than 5% (16 million hectares) of India’s geographical area. The total forest area in the country is about 77 million hectares or 24% of the total land area. So approximately 19% or a massive 60 million hectares are other forests (OFs) which are not PAs. This is reason enough to look at more than just protected areas.

There may be another reason too. As Vasant Saberwal states in a slightly different but related context

Human disturbances may increase floral and faunal diversity in a number of ways.(pg. 55).

Fire, grazing, logging and extraction of NTFPs are examples of such human disturbances. Now it is a reasonable assumption that most of the OFs have “considerably greater” human activities than PAs. To the extent disturbance (albeit, up to a certain degree) promotes diversity, OFs are huge reservoirs of floral and small-faunal diversity. Thus OFs are extremely important conservation areas not only for their sheer aggregate area but also for the fact that they may harbour significant biodiversity which may match or exceed those in PAs.

But do we need to study the OFs or can we carry our insights from PAs to them. The OFs’ very different legal status and consequent ecological and social history probably implies very different patterns of resource availability and extraction.

Hence biodiversity studies in OFs and their inclusion in debates about conservation ought to be of utmost importance.

Leading researchers had in an essay, rightly argued, among other things, for greater encouragement, opportunities and access for doing research in wildlife areas. But they limit their case to PAs. It may well be time to look beyond parks and sanctuaries.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Floods in India: 2007

Re. an earlier post discussing floods here are some pictures and some more.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Earlier Post as a Letter

An earlier post on Sariska now appears as a slightly edited letter in the EPW.