Questions the modern world can't answer

WHO EILL SAVE THE FORESTS? KNOWLEDGE, POWER AND ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION Edited by: Tariq Banuri and Frederique Apffel Marglin Publisher: Zed Books, London and New Jersey & UNU/WIDE

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE TITLE of Frederique Apffel Marglin and Tariq Banuri's book, Who will Save the Forests?, sounds more like a rhetorical question or an impassioned plea than the launch of a sophisticated academic enquiry. One reason for this is perhaps that the forests of the world face such a bleak future that it appears unlikely that anything can save them. This sense of despair makes it all the more commendable that the book is so systematic and serious rather than alarmist. Banuri and Marglin respond to their question by analysing the relationship of knowledge and power in the process of modernisation.

The book argues mainly that forestry conflicts are as much clashes between modern and non-modern systems of knowledge, as they are crises of the environment. The process of modernisation, spread as it was by colonialism or neo-colonialism, radically transforms the use of the forest: where it was once intimate, integrated and sustainable, it is now instrumentalist and exploitative. Through their own analysis as well as the case studies contributed by various writers, Banuri and Marglin argue that modernisation alienates human beings from forests, ushering in new values of "disembeddedness, universalism, objectivity and instrumentalism" rather than "embeddedness, locality, community, a lack of separation between subject and object as well as a non-instrumental approach". This inevitably causes enormous devastation, since modernity (or this definition of it) is a rapacious process that sees forests as resources, for large-scale 'utilisation'.

Since the book's representation of modernity is an ideological or polemical description, to an extent it forces the book's argument on to the reader. The four case studies that illustrate the book's central theme balance this effect since they are methodical and specific rather than hypothetical. Each presents the interplay of knowledge and power in environmental problems, in societies at various stages of modernisation. Of special interest to Indian readers are the first two case-studies, one an ethnography of Abujhmarh in the Bastar district of Madhya Pradesh by Savyasaachi, and the other a study by Ramachandra Guha of the Chipko movement in its various forms -- as a peasant struggle with an anti-colonial history, as an environmental movement and as the battleground for 'competing visions of nature'.

While Guha's study is familiar since he has published his analyses previously, its new context lends it fresh meaning. Savyasaachi's ethnography is perhaps the most convincing and interesting section in the book, since it explores notions of forest and nature among the Hill Maria of Abujhmarh, and maps the ways in which modernity is changing these notions. The other two case studies are set in the Karelia forest of Finland and in the state of Maine in the US.

Together, the case studies make this volume a valuable and balanced contribution to the debates around environmental problems. It is ironic that the work uses modern notions of knowledge and analysis while critiquing them, and it is this paradox that more than anything written in the book suggests that the only way to 'save the forests' is to keep the conversations between modernity and non-modernity alive, rather than adhering to one or the other.

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