To live with the market

By Kaushik Das Gupta
Published: Tuesday 30 November 2004

-- Globalization and Indigenous Peoples in Asia, Changing the Local-Global Interface edited by Dev Nathan, Govind Kelkar and Pierre Walter Sage Publications New Delhi 2004 Rs 650

For a long time, forests as seen from the standpoint of states meant vast repositories of timber -- sometimes refuge for scarce wildlife as well. Since the last decade or so, they have also figured prominently in international environmental conventions. The concern that forests continue to provide various environmental services, such as absorption of greenhouse gases and regulation of hydrological flows, has meant much multilateral cacophony about them. Simultaneously, the globalisation of the world economy has implied that forests bear the stamp of market forces, like never before. What have these developments meant for indigenous people, the up keepers of forests for centuries? Much destitution, argue Dev Nathan, Govind Kelkar and Pierre Walter -- the editors of the book under review.

However, Globalization and Indigenous Peoples in Asia goes beyond the sorry story of marginalisation of indigenous people. It suggests how indigenous people can live with the market. The case studies are from China and India -- sometimes held up as the poster giants of globalisation. Also figuring in the book are indigenous people from neighbours Nepal and communities living in the Himalayan Hindukush region.

In the first section, contributors explore possibilities of devising democratic ways of bringing indigenous communities into the ambit of globalisation. Nathan begins the section with a strong argument against coercive laws, which compel forest dwellers to give up their centuries-old livelihood sources. These should be replaced by an incentive system, which allows forest communities to set a price for abjuring their traditional ways of drawing sustenance, he contends. As an example, Nathan cites how such communities in Costa Rica charge their mainland counterparts for services provided by forests. The essay also makes a strong case for vesting forest dwellers with property rights over areas they inhabit.

However, Nathan is no supporter of privatisation of forests. In another essay, he shows how market pressures have forced communities or clans in North-east India to devolve much of their rights to families or even individuals. Consequently, many in this area over-exploit the "unregulated commons" and there is also a concomitant attenuation of the environmental services of forests.

Nathan therefore is for collective action that will maintain forest equality and also counter internal class differentiation within communities.
But how? The market, however, inevitably creates economic disparities within communities. It also intensifies resource use beyond that brought about by local demand for self-consumption. How does the volume address such predicaments? Almost every author believes in restrictions on the market when it comes to critical natural resources. And the book offers one interesting example of how exactly such restrictions can be brought into effect. Nathan and Girija Shrestha's essay, "Crafting an alternative" shows how degraded forests in Nepal improved once lower caste communities such as Tamang and Praja were given leases to manage them and use their assets. In fact, the vegetative cover of these forests improved dramatically once women were empowered to use them bypassing male-mediated rules of access. Such equity and ecological benefits would not have ensued if the leases had been auctioned out to the highest bidders, argue Nathan and Shrestha.

However, beyond this, there is very little concrete in how to regulate the market to the advantage of indigenous people. The editors struggle when it come to addressing the issue of inequity within communities, which the market always brings in its wake. To their credit, they do not skirt the issue. But their solution lacks the rigour of the case studies in the volume. Collective institutions should establish and implement norms of access to, and use of forests, argue Nathan, Kelkar and Walter. They also contend that such institutions will have to differ from community institutions of the past. But can the collective ethos of the indigenes survive the market? Hopefully, this volume will start a fruitful debate.

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