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Fragile sustenance


Published: Friday 31 August 2001

-- the book is a compilation of eleven essays written by the author over a period of twenty five years. These essays have a common string that bead them together, namely the dynamics of society-human interactions in environmentally fragile areas where resources are scarce and how these interactions change in response to changing conditions.

A fragile resource is one which cannot survive the degree of disturbance that is produced by the intensity of use due to a specific activity. Fragile environments mostly include the natural resource base in dry arid and semi-arid regions, and mountain slopes. Contradictorily, these regions also have 'niche value', endowed as these are with unique environmental and resource characteristics, which have potential for products and services with comparative advantage to these areas. These include timber, hydro-power, off-season vegetables, herbs, minerals and eco-tourism amongst others.

Despite stark bio-physical differences, the mountains and arid regions do share several common elements such as fragility, invisibility of their problems as well as the potential of these lands and a general neglect by the policy makers. Mostly comprising the poor, survival in these environments is tough. Over centuries, communities residing here have innovated to deal with change. Their strategy have included the use of traditional technologies and institutional arrangements, now on the decline as the communities move towards increasingly unsustainable resource use.

The author has discussed subjects ranging from a farmer's strategy of dealing with drought to social dimensions of biodiversity conservation and the impact of globalisation in fragile environments. He has covered various themes which include famine, food security, agricultural sustainability, common resources, and traditional systems of natural resource management in environmentally fragile mountain regions and dry tropical areas.

The essays make interesting reading. For example, the essay Farmer's Strategy and its Relevance for Drought Management describes how dryland farmers have developed their coping strategy keeping with the environmental and resource base that is available. Given that dryland areas are subject to good and bad monsoon years, farmers try and adapt to both, which is reflected in their traditional agricultural practices. These practices include folk agronomy, ethno-engineering, indigenous agro-forestry, occupational diversity self-provisioning systems and collective sustenance. These practices are now under severe strain due to rapid demographic, technological and institutional changes. For better drought management there is a need to revitalise farmers' strategy. Farmers should be accepted as good drought managers and learn from them. Their knowledge should be adopted in the public policies that deal with drought.

Based on actual data collected from the field, these essays emphasise the urgent need for long-term sustainable management of agricultural, environmental and natural resource base, and examine the viability of community-based resource management initiatives. They cry out for natural resource management systems, which can meet the social needs of the people without being insensitive to protection and regeneration requirements of the community's natural resources. For example, a study by Jodha spread across 80 villages in 21 dry districts of India reveals that amongst the poor, the proportion of income based on common property resources ranges between 15-25 per cent. It indicates the incentives that these communities would have to sustainably manage these resources, given the enabling environment. The villagers of Sukhomajri, a ravine-infested land in Haryana have amply proved this point.

The essay Globalisation: Repercussions for Fragile Ecosystems and Society makes one sit back and wonder: is globalisation really all about choice? For whom? Driven by market forces, the process will - and already has - impacted the intensity of natural resource use in these regions. Exclusive cultivation of oilseeds and other high value crops in dry zones leading to groundwater mining and selective horticultural crops in the mountains are two glaring examples. In the process, the local populations have benefited little: the bulk of the benefits have gone to the mainstream economy outside these regions. Meanwhile environmental costs have been high and rarely compensated. In case of the mountains, this disparity is even higher. Added to this is the fact that niche products from these regions are now available from outside the country through cheap imports. Not being in a position to wish globalisation away, the only solution lies in developing strategies to minimise the impact.

Though spread over issues that were first highlighted twenty-five years ago, the book is relevant even today, given that scant changes have been made to make policies that take into account problems and management strategies of the poor who reside here. The audience of these essays are people or agencies dealing with the problems and specific issues covered by them. The book, on the whole, is a significant contribution to many ongoing scholarly debates in the field of human ecology and sustainability. Appropriately, the book has been dedicated to communities of dry tropical areas and mountains, whose wisdom and ways have helped them, adapt to fragile environments. And who continue to do so, not because of the government, but in spite of it.

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