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Interaction stressed among social disciplines

SOCIAL SCIENCE APPLICATIONS IN ASIAN AGROFORESTRY Edited by William R Burch Jr and J Kathy Parker . Publisher: Oxford & IBH Publishing Co Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, in collaboration with South Asian Books, USA . Price: Not stated

By Vishwapal Singh
Published: Wednesday 31 March 1993

-- THE TITLE of this book is somewhat misleading for what it does is to examine in depth the interaction of social disciplines with forestry in its entirety. Agro-forestry, as the term is used here, embraces all related disciplines, such as farm forestry, wasteland development, reclamation of degraded lands and management of community forests.

The book compiles the work of eight authors, two of whom discuss the relevance of such disciplines as political science, economics and anthropology to modern forestry. As a result, there is understandably a repetition of ideas, but overall it successfully conveys the message that if agro-forestry is to become an effective tool for change, it has to interact with the social sciences.

The book seeks "to rediscover and restore" the wisdom of the pre-colonial, holistic approach of Asian societies towards forestry, so that modern forestry practices can be channelised into a community-directed effort based on the local people's experiences, knowledge and needs.

Management of natural forests in Asia by administrative units is rapidly diminishing. This has highlighted the urgent need for community participation in the conservation and rational use of existing forest resources and, more importantly, the revival of the natural resource base.

Participatory forestry has recorded spectacular achievements in China. The book should have explained in greater detail how a totalitarian regime could motivate such diverse groups as students, soldiers, miners, rail and highway workers, into playing a role in the annual planting of nearly 870,000 ha each year. By comparison, even if we accept the exaggerated statistics of the National Wasteland Development Board and the state forest departments, India's performance pales into insignificance.

The discussions in the book on social ecology are too academic in content and style. Busy planners and policy makers have little time to decipher involved sentences such as "Social ecology asks how human space-time dimensions overlie or conflict with the physical dimensions of ecosystems."

Nevertheless, each of the authors has convincingly argued the inevitability of social science disciplines interacting with forestry so that it can meet the challenge of transiting from an expert-oriented to a people-oriented method of managing ecosystems.

Contemporary forest management is based on a system of command-and-control and assumes forest inhabitants know nothing consequential about their environment. The book deplores this and states, "Unfortunately, these administration structures, and assumptions are less appropriate in agro-forestry. To begin with, rigid hierarchies rarely exhibit flexibility and willingness to learn from mistakes. Second, the civilians involved are not forestry workers on a payroll who can be ordered about. And, finally, villagers have a great deal of technical knowledge about their local environment that outsiders should not ignore."

Though the application of economics to either forestry or agriculture is not new, the book focusses attention on two important aspects of forestry project-planning. The first relates to the efficiency objective -- evaluating agro-forestry inputs that provide optimum returns; the other relates to the more important distributive objective of farm projects that is aimed at giving to economic benefits to the less-privileged. The book alerts planners to take an overview of the projects in terms of environmental benefits, something that never concerns the direct beneficiary.

Vishwapal Singh is a retired civil servant who has taken up freelance writing.

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