Bok review: Heady stuff

Conservation and Society by Kamaljit S Bawa

By Nitin Sethi
Published: Monday 15 September 2003

Conservation and Society Chief Editor: Kamaljit S Bawa Sage Publications, Delhi

The inaugural issue of Conservation and Society is heady stuff. It is packed with weighty names. It touches a core debate -- sustainable use versus preservation. Astute practitioners like M D Madhusudan launch the argument; dedicatedly, the partial giants of conservation then riposte. Mahesh Rangarajan is there. He writes of the substrata of Africa's wildlife conservation. If you are one of those who finds Rangarajan's analysis of colonial scientific deftness in fencing pastoralists from pastures a trifle too distant, flip to Michael Lewis writing on the Keoladeo National Park, Bharatpur, revisiting the cattle-wildlife debate. He convinces. There is little in the science of conservation that is not also the politics of class, land and economics. In his essay Lewis demystifies Salim Ali, the icon of conservation in India, underpinning the fact that the polity of the region regiments scientific progress -- the science led by an aristocracy may not be the science meant for a democracy.

The initial articles set a protracted scale of abstraction. It takes a contributed article by Marsha Pomeroy et al on stand changes in four plots in Western Ghats to link the argument and rein it in. ("stand" means the stock of wood in a forest plot.) Statistics and anecdotes -- such as how cattle follow transmission lines as a way into the forest -- jell well as they study forest stand structure and density, finding correlations between periods of activity and the ability of the forest to regenerate.

A new journal must be viewed beyond the first issue -- for the potential it offers and for the promises its editorial board makes.

The foremost article of faith the journal and its editors subscribe to is multidisciplinarity -- the promise to provide space for social scientists and ecologists to write together. As one of its editors, Ravi Chellam, explains, "This is different from two groups writing separately, but in the same journal." There have been cases of journals promising inter-disciplinary conversations, then changing tack midway when it was realised there was very little interdisciplinary work that merited being published. Conservation and Society might face the same problems. Of course there is little the journal might really be able to do -- the malaise lies in the split in the discourse and practice of conservation itself. Scholars shy from cross-curricular issues, from being labeled libertines of the discipline.

The journal's editors provide an interesting compensation. They promise to expand the ambit of what ecologists and sociologists call 'conservation'. This is redolent in the theme for the next issue: "property relations in the post-socialist era -- ethnographies of agrarian change in central and eastern Europe and East Asia." A subject usual to neither a friendly wildlifer nor the post-colonial sociologist. Will it be that the greatest strength and potential of the journal will come to be seen in such emphasis?

If the journal can pull in subscribers, even as it convinces them that conservation goes beyond diversity indices -- ecological history is more than a "reading" of it -- it will render yeoman service.

Meanwhile, the powerhouse that makes up the editorial board has to find its patrons, decide upon formats to experiment with -- besides hectoring text -- and synchronise the needs of an online edition with a print version. The journal promises to only add greater value against the paltry subscription it asks.

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