Terrain.org Essays.
View Terrain.org Blog.





How Can Four Trees Make a Jungle? by Pramod Parajuli

by Pramod Parajuli

One afternoon in March 1994, our neighbor Mr. Tularam Gahire came to visit Ajamvari Khetipati, our experimental farm in Saradanagar, Chitwan, Nepal. He told us that he had heard about a new "American" or "Japanese" farm being started there and wanted to see it for himself.1 We had established this farm as part of an action-research project on agro-ecological knowledge with a research grant from the MacArthur Foundation. The idea was to diversify a two-acre stretch of land in such a way that it would produce enough to meet all the food, fiber, fodder, firewood, and other household-related needs of an average Nepali peasant family. Tularam also owns about a two-acre piece of land nearby. He is a member of one of the families who migrated to Chitwan from the hills about three decades ago. I gave him a tour and told him about our plans to plant many varieties of trees and also put aside one-tenth of the land for pasture. Near the end of the tour, Tularam began to show his disapproval of the ways I was planting trees on my land. Let me share with you a slice of our conversation that we had over tea:

Tularam: I really like the idea of native species of trees that you have planted. After a few years, that section [pointing toward the southeastern part of the farm] might look like a Chitwan jungle I used to see when I migrated to Chitwan twenty-eight years ago.

Pramod: That is the idea. I want to make sure that we do not have to destroy the forest in order to farm. Farming and forestry can work together so that a peasant can derive all the wood and biomass from within his or her own farm.

Tularam: But I still don't understand why you are planting hundreds of trees on the farm. Maybe I am abujh [stupid]. But does it not make sense to plant just three or four kinds of trees such as baans [bamboo], pipal, bar, and swaami [all members of the ficus family found widely in rural Nepal]. Excuse me for being such an abujh.

Pramod: I would like to plant fewer trees too, if it would make a jungle.

Tularam: I think it would make good jungle in the long run.

Pramod: It would? How so? How can four trees make a jungle?

Tularam: People say that you are a learned man. You have become a professor. But I will have to tell you my chaar-paise buddhi [four-cents' wisdom]. I hope you do not think I am a Pakhe [a person from a remote hill].

Pramod: Please tell me. I am really curious.

Tularam: If you have those four trees in the four corners of your field, don't you think the birds would come? Then what would the birds do?

Pramod: I like to hear birds chirping in the morning. I am not against birds, you know. Even dhukur [doves] and titra [grouse] have begun to come to the farm. I feel so happy about it. Yes, I want hundreds of birds to live on this farm.

Tularam: This is where the trick is. When birds come, they also bring lots of seeds from the Chitwan jungle. When they bisti [defecate], they will drop it in your field. Then you will get as many kinds of trees as you want, all natural, and solid from bird droppings. These saplings are not weak like those you have brought from the forest department depot. That is how forests are grown.

Pramod: What an idea! I am just ashamed of myself for not thinking even that much. Looks like my buddhi has to be sharpened.

Tularam: Not sharpened, but deepened. I do not mean to discourage you. What you have done by using your personal farm as a demonstration is nevertheless a great idea. But why try too hard, when there are easier ways of doing things?

Tularam's sharp commentary on my "missionary zeal" or rather, as they say in Nepali, a vikase sapana (dream of developing) to reforest my farm brings up a host of questions. On the one hand, his native critique of planned forestry points to the perennial conflict between forest department or demonstration farms and the peasants' own view regarding the selection of species of trees. Throughout South Asia, we have heard about the conflicts between "government trees" and "people's trees." His remarks could be considered a challenge to the mainstream discourses of forest use and aforestation, nature conservation and protection. On the other, it motivates me to explore what might be a peasant discourse about the "wild" and "wilderness," "nature use" and "nature conservation."

The dominant discourses about national parks and sanctuaries echo an overwhelming fear of poaching and wanton destruction of nature by hungry peasants, forest dwellers, and ignorant villagers. Thus the top-heavy missions of nature conservation often have been carried out either by ejecting the peasant from the area or by subsuming his or her existence within the imperatives of biodiversity conservation. For those of us in the agrarian communities of rural South Asia, protecting nature from human use is not a workable option. The way I see it, the only option we have is to use and interact with nature in a healthy, balanced way. Based on what I learned while growing up in the mountains of central Nepal and what I have witnessed in the Jharkhand region of India, as well as in many other peasant societies around the world, I can not bifurcate "nature" from "culture" or the "domesticated" from the "wild." It seems to me that mainstream notions of "wild" and "wilderness" are primarily a product of the industrial economy and Cartesian rationality.

A nature that is "pure" no longer exists. For the peasants, what exists is a continuum of farm and forest, commons and pastures. Unlike the fantasies of the urbanites and city-bred environmentalists who do not directly depend on nature's economy, "civilization" and "the wild" are not considered as distinct entities in the peasant economy. Rather, the human and natural entities form parts of a whole that is bound by a variety of functions and relationships. Historically, farming has been perhaps the first step toward setting humans apart from nature, if we take nature in the primordial sense. But from the peasant point of view, I would venture to say that the clearing of land for cultivating crops is the first moment in "naturalizing culture" as well as "culturizing nature."

William Cronon's observation that "an environmental ethic should tell us more about using nature than about not using it" rings a true chord for the people I will be discussing in terms of "ecological ethnicity." Ecological ethnicity is a social category that refers to those people who have developed a respectful use of the natural resources and consequently a commitment to creating and preserving a technology that interacts with local ecosystems in a sustainable manner. It is a land-based ethnicity that in some cases might correspond with ethnicities based on blood, race, or language ties and identities, but these are not necessarily the primary source of identification. Within the rubric of ecological ethnicity I include peasants, indigenous peoples, rural inhabitants, fisherfolk, forest dwellers, nomadic shepherds and a host of people marginalized by development projects and the programs of environmental modernization. Ecological ethnicity is a politically charged concept in the sense that the survival of these specific ways of life calls for a degree of autonomous governance for devising appropriate ownership over the biotic wealth, the commons, and the communities. These ecological ethnicities are linked with, and have to be theorized within, the ecological field. Ecology is the matrix in which ethnicity is reproduced as well as altered.2

Ecological ethnicities have shown that an ecosystem can be conserved and restored while growing crops, earning incomes, and enjoying life. For example, in the U.S., the oyster growers of Willapa Bay in Washington have become active guardians of water quality. Wild mushroom growers and collectors have also become guardians of healthy, intact, diverse vegetation in forests. Some fish-processing communities produce a variety of products including organic fertilizer and fish meal, and in turn, the fertilizer is sold to cranberry growers. The notion of the "foodshed" could be considered as one of the threads that connect producers with the soil, human collectivity with nonhuman collectivity, and nature with culture. Like a wilderness preserve, a foodshed might be based on proximity, locality, and regionality. It can be defined flexibly as being built around boundaries set by plant communities, soil types, a watershed, a valley, or a mountain range. But unlike a preserve or a park, a foodshed includes the people—both producers and consumers—living within it. These people and their communities are not isolated entities but are connected to each other through regional markets and exchange networks. The boundaries of a foodshed are not there to prevent humans from entering it. Rather, they mark the distinct profile of the ecosystem so that the technologies of production and consumption can be refashioned accordingly.

Food is a key consideration in this new social arrangement, because what we eat, where the food comes from, and what kind of technology has been used to produce it can teach us about how we relate to the earth and how we relate to each other. A movement called Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) illustrates the ways consumers and producers could be linked by a commitment to an ecosystem. Participants of a CSA or a foodshed not only mutually ensure that the animals and plants they bring to their tables are treated well, they also educate themselves about their eating habits. It is a commitment to becoming attentive to the processes that transform soil and human labor into sources of energy for life. It is a way of ensuring that the farmers who work for them will not be forced to abandon farming because of competition from agribusiness giants or be forced to use toxic sprays in their fields, whose chemicals cause deadly diseases or infertility.

This vision is very different from the way the so-called "broiler belt" is organized in the U.S. today, or how the tomatoes and lettuces we eat in North America are grown in Mexican and Guatemalan farms that displace the indigenous ejido land system and milpa agriculture. Milpa agriculture is one of the most efficient ways of maintaining diversity in the fields. In Chiapas, a milpa might contain as many as seventy-nine different food and fiber crops.3

Mahatma Gandhi preached and practiced a "voluntary agrarian simplicity" as an alternative to the model of mass-production and mass consumption in India. In the United States, Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry articulated a "land ethic." Among others, Wendell Berry—a farmer-poet from Kentucky—argued that we cannot preserve wildness by making wilderness preserves. Informed by an agro-ecological ethic in which we consider agriculture as the art of producing food locally while at the same time being stewards of the fields and forests as one single unit of production, a more tenable and enduring way of preserving nature might be possible. The preservation of nature would be combined with farming methods that replenish the land, returning what is vital back to nature.

Among ecological ethnicities there is a constant fine-tuning of human needs according to the dynamics of an ecosystem and simultaneously an effort to alter nature according to new social dynamics. The key feature governing this delicate human-nature interaction is the acceptance that humans cannot survive at the expense of nature. At the same time, the so-called wilderness cannot survive without humans creating a balance between who uses it, how it is used, and for what purpose. In the absence of this delicate balance, we find the kind of dilemma the deep ecology movement has faced globally. In the U.S. Northwest, the loggers have lost their employment when nature-lovers have tried to save the spotted-owl; in the Amazon, the rubber tappers have lost their source of subsistence when their habitat has been fenced off as wildlife or biodiversity preserves.

Who Saves Whom?

Perhaps my views are informed by the ways I grew up in the rural landscape of mountainous Nepal. Having been born to a peasant family in a remote mountain village in mid-western Nepal, I grew up in the hilly country that straddles between terraced farm and forests, mountains and river valleys. The landscape that figured strongly in my childhood consciousness included the Himalayan range of the Macchapuchhare (the famous Fishtail mountain overlooking the Pokhara town) and Annapurna (the mountain supposed to be the abode of grain harvests) in the north. To my mind, and for other peasants of this region, the fields, crops, climate, and our own lives as peasants were inextricably linked. I often wondered if the Himalayas and other mountains belonged to me and that I had to protect them. Or was it the other way around? I had no doubt that I belonged to the the mountains and that they were protecting me. Similarly, the Mende rice cultivators in Sierra Leone live from the forest but do not see themselves as standing over it, either to exploit or to conserve it. For them the forest is not "out there" as an endangered piece of land. They do not see themselves as called upon to "save the forest," as the conservationists do. Instead, Paul Richards has found that in local eyes, the relationship is the other way around—the community is under the protection of the forest.4

But I am not merely trying to project a harmonious picture of a remote mountain village life. Many cracks in our so-called "Shangri-la" tranquility had surfaced by the early sixties when I was growing up. I vividly recall my mother telling me that we were approaching a yuga (a time period or historical episode), in which cows would no longer stand on four legs. There would be one-footed cows roaming the streets. She told me that during the Satya Yuga, cows had four legs, but they gradually lost another leg during each of the next two yugas, the Dwapar and Treta Yugas. My father, who is a Pundit, later suggested that in the Vedas (the most ancient texts for the Hindus), there is mention of the one-footed bull being alive in the Kali Yuga.

I often wonder what relevance my mother's metaphor of the one-legged cow could have for today. For her, the one-legged cow was a sure sign of the upcoming erosion of moral ecology. Her Kali Yuga epitomized a period when avarice and profit-motivated shortsightedness overrode the long-term sense of responsibility and care. However, in her interpretation of the cyclical cosmic wave of the world, the idea of "one-footed cow" was not a permanent feature but a passing phenomenon. She inculcated in me the sense that even this most horrible symptom could be altered.

As I understand it today, my mothers' alerting story might refer to how the "market economy" is overwhelming the "nature-based economy" or how a social capital of nurturing is being overshadowed by the market economy of profit. Today, in the age of what I call the "ecological phase of capital," the relationship between the market economy and wilderness or other sources of biotic wealth is a key area of concern. The perspectives of my childhood now offer me insight as I contemplate notions of the "wild" and "wilderness," "forest" and "farm," "civilization" and modern environment, and their rise and fall in the currents of global capital. Little did I know during my childhood that at some point in my life, farms, forests, and the wild would be devalued and contested—demanded for the circulation of capital as well as needed to provide the biomass for peasant life. This particular rupture in my own reality sets the context for my present thinking with respect to what I have called the "sociality of nature" and the "naturalness of the social."

As my colleague Frederique Apffel-Marglin has suggested, the nature-culture divide, embedded in Cartesian rationality, implies a severing of the emotions and sensibilities one feels in relation to one's immediate space. Although such a rationality might have been most instrumental to serve the industrial mode of production, it is incapable of enveloping the performative and rhetorical functions of magic and ritual in peasant life. It is built upon the dualism of efficacious, instrumental action versus rhetorical and/or performative action. In peasant cultures, humans are not the only agents for rationality; other beings are equally active in cognition and dialogue. There is no such strict division between the material and the ideational, the subject and the object, the literal and the symbolic. In other words, "there is no ontological cleft between the world and the mind."5

The separation between the "wild" and the "domestic" is at the core of industrial life. In contemporary suburban life, the overtly denaturalized mall offers the gadgets that are of the cultural realm, while the parks and sanctuaries are supposed to offer "raw" nature. But the park is not a break from urban life; it is the extension of it in a different form. As Shiva Visvanathan comments:

It is the economics of aesthetics that captures the two basic roles of the park today. There is first the relation of production to consumption and second of production to preservation. Here nature is preserved not only to be consumed by tourists but kept in reserve for later industrial use. Preservation thus combines both the function of maintenance for later production and consumption through leisure and recreation.6

This is the model to which environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club subscribe. For them, nature is "dead," and what remains is the environment. The struggle is to save a piece of environment for the future generations to come so that they can either enjoy it in their leisure time or use it to learn about the almost extinct biotic world.

In my own home district of Chitwan, Nepal, this "arcadia" and "laboratory" mode of nature conservation—in this case, the temptation to protect wildlife for profit from tourism—has caused many predicaments and much unintended human suffering.

Crocodiles Eat the Fish and Tourist Dollars Eat the Crocodile

Today, the pervasiveness of a particular idea of wilderness is rather daunting. Not only are the parks and sanctuaries, wilderness and biological reserves sprouting up all over North America, they have also begun to spread like locusts in the so-called developing economies as well. So far, 3.2 percent of earth's land surface has already been closed for natural parks and sanctuaries, and other reserves. According to one estimate, India has already created 66 national parks and 421 sanctuaries spread over 25 biotic provinces and covering 3.3 percent of its land. And there are future plans to increase this to 147 national parks and 633 sanctuaries, covering 5.6 percent of the country's land. India's dilemma is that within a mere two percent of the world's land area, it hosts 15 percent of the world's human population and 14 percent of the world's livestock population.

So far, Nepal has created fourteen protected areas, covering at least ten percent of the country's land mass, and there are plans to extend these protected areas. Part of Nepal's showcase of nature conservation is its first established park, the Royal Chitwan National Park (RCNP). Established in 1973, this park covers an area of 932 square kilometers within the Chitwan district. Among other restrictions it has imposed on residents who live adjacent to it, the park has banned fishing rights to traditional fisherfolk, such as the Mushars, Botes, Kumals, and Derais. These are the groups of indigenous peoples who opted to live in the river valleys and eke out their livelihoods from the bounties of the rivers and the nearby forests. Before bridges were built, these people worked as ferrymen and had developed extensive knowledge about the currents and contours of the rivers and the seasonal upstream and downstream movements of the fish. They used to fish abundantly for themselves as well as for other populations in exchange for grain. Now they have been denied fishing rights in the pretext that their fish harvesting would reduce the number of fish to such an extent that crocodiles would not have enough to eat and consequently would decline in number. Peasants of Chitwan have expressed their dilemma in the following commentary: "Crocodiles eat our fish and the tourist dollars eat the crocodile."

The RCNP has also imposed restrictions on the grazing rights of other peasant communities, creating fodder shortage for domestic animals. Again, most hard hit by these restrictions are the Kumhals, Botes, Tharus, and Darais, whose large number of cattle are the basis of their agrarian economy. Keeping hundreds of cattle and putting them in different parts of their land was the best way to fertilize the fields. And these cattle were nourished in the gauchars (the area for cattle grazing—"gau" meaning cow and "char" meaning where they graze). These pastures, usually located between the river and the forest, were considered common lands and were regulated according to the rules of the community. As these commons and forests were annexed into the RCNP, peasants were adversely caught up in the "high-input, low-output" spiral of modern agriculture. Buddhi Ram Darai, a landholder farmer from the Darai ethnic group, comments on this transformation:

As far as I can remember, we were not using chemicals in agricultural production. People used to have plenty of cattle, and therefore they had enough fertilizer for their land. My family had 400 to 500 cattle. We used to put the cattle out in the land for some days. That process is called molne [literally to fertilize the soil]. Even the wild animals were thought to make the land fertile. In this process, we keep the animals in some portion of the land for some time then shift them into another portion until the whole field gets fertilized.

Once we started to use chemical fertilizer, the yield was very good for the first few years. After that, the production started to decline. My father then thought that they should not use chemical fertilizer. We reverted back to the old system of putting the cattle out in the land. But after the government started its agricultural extension program, we again started to use the chemicals. Some extension workers from Gram Vikas [Village Development] came and stayed with us. They told us about the chemical fertilizer and why it is good for farming. They even gave us the fertilizer for free. Meanwhile, grazing lands were occupied and we couldn't keep enough cattle to produce enough manure.

A drastic reduction in the circulation of organic matter in the soil resulted from the enclosure of the commons. Darais, Tharus, and Kumhals told me that they had to reduce the number of cattle from an average of about 100 per household to merely 3-4 within a short period of time, between 1955 and 1960. With the closing off of the commons for the park and with settlers from the hills laying claim to parts of the land, their livelihood and community structure revolving around a mixture of herding, farming, fishing, hunting, and gathering has been seriously threatened.

Paradoxically, although Tharus are denied access to pastureland in the RCNP, they are called on to participate in the park in another capacity. One of the main features supplied by the RCNP is the much-publicized spectacle of watching the tiger come to hunt the timid buffalo. Yet the tigers of the Chitwan Valley can be elusive in the absence of propitiation by Tharu priests. Bikram Gurao (one of the surviving Tharu priests) told me in the summer of 1996:

About ten years ago, tigers stopped coming to the site where the buffalo were being kept for them. This disturbed the tourist industry because this ritualized scene was one of the main attractions of the Tiger Tops industry. The manager then called on me to ask if I could do something to make the tigers come. I propitiated the sites with the traditional Tharu ritual, and instantly a dozen of tigers began to roar. The Tiger Tops business continued as usual. I hope the Tiger Tops managers know that tigers do not come after tourists dollars; they still belong to Tharus.

Tharus believe that the tigers and other animals in the Chitwan Park are still linked to them in a magical symbiosis. Akin to my mother's sense of the changing and decaying of the yugas, Tharus are witnessing the "whirlwinding" of their world—their belief of the Rapti Valley (also known as Chitwan) as an area of abundance being turned upside down. Tharus told us about the many caves that had protected their settlements from floods. Tharu settlements are interspersed between the Rapti and Narayani river systems. When monsoon floods approached their settlements, they told us, drums were beaten inside the caves, and the people could hear it. The Churia hill range located south of the Rapti River was their grazing land, which today is enclosed within the Royal Chitwan National Park. As for my mother, the whole yuga has changed for them as well. Many have also forgotten the magic that helped them befriend this swampy and forested area of the Rapti Valley.

The Sacred and the Profane

Seen from the peasant perspective, Indian ecological historian Ramchandra Guha identifies two fundamental flaws in the modern model of nature conservation. First, it confuses the American frontier ethic—what one might call "cut and run" agriculture and grazing—with agriculture as a culture, a traditional mode of livelihood. Secondly, it is symptomatic of the sharp separation of the material and spiritual domains in wilderness thinking. It artificially separates what is considered as the "human realm" from what is a "natural realm." Not only is this model reductionist and thus unfit for the rest of the world, it has caused disastrous consequences as well.

For a majority of people who eke out their livelihoods from nature's economy, the widely held ideas that "nature can be preserved in wilderness" and that "wilderness is what is untouched by humans," are simply untenable. Historical examples clearly illustrate that this notion of nature is very much a cultural construct. As William Cronon has commented, "The removal of Indians to create an ‘uninhabited wilderness’ [in 19th century U.S.]—uninhabited as never before in the human history of the place—reminds us just how invented, just how constructed, the American wilderness really is."7 A parallel can be found in India's history, when the British colonial administration began to suggest the enclosing of forests using the rationale that Adivasis (tribals) and rural peasants had kept sarna groves. But the notion of sarna and that of a protected park or sanctuary are far from the same; they embody different intents, contents, and functions. With regard to the sacred grove of Harachandi in coastal Orissa, Frederique Apffel-Marglin and I have commented that it would be wrong to say that this so-called sacred grove is sacred because the trees are the goddess and cannot be cut for use. The trees are indeed the goddess, but so are the earth and the sea, and these are definitely used by farmers and fishermen. The earth and the sea can also be qualified by the word "sacred" since they are worshipped not only in the form of the goddess Harachandi in her temple, but also directly with offerings in the fields at various moments in the agricultural cycles or offerings to the sea.8

The sacredness of these groves cannot be taken as a proof of nonutilitarian attitudes or practices. Herein lies a profound difference between forest preserves, parks, wildlife sanctuaries, and other biodiversity preserves, on the one hand, and the sacred groves of the peasant economy, on the other. Although both the sacred grove and modern preserves are set aside and not used for human consumption, the sacred grove differs emphatically in its relation to those parts of the environment that are used for human ends. Sacred groves are in fact the sites where the community as a whole performs rituals and regenerates itself during every annual crop or tree cycle.

With all due respect to John Muir's and Edward Abbey's uncompromising visions in favor of nature conservation, their urge to protect a nature that is "untouched" is not affordable in rural South Asia. John Muir, in his love for pristine nature, wrote that "sheeps were locusts with hoofs" and that "Native Americans are nature pillagers." It is becoming very clear that we will not be able to "Keep the Yosemite as it was" without perpetuating the already tenuous logic of social justice. Ecological ethnicities seem to offer a different message: "No nature without social justice." Obviously, there is no hope of saving nature without a proper guarantee of social justice for those who produce directly from nature's economy.

Nurturing and Being Nurtured

How then do ecological ethnicities make sense of the nature-culture divide? What is for them the appropriate technology of nature use? Let me try to illustrate this by using the rubric of "relational" and "rational." In the relational mode, a preference is given to the ethic of care and the cultivation of a reciprocal relationship between humans' need to create a "culture out of nature" and perhaps nature's need to be nurtured by humans. I am borrowing the metaphor of "nurturing" from intellectuals in PRATEC (Andean Peasant Technologies Project), who have articulated a Peruvian peasant discourse in which Andean peasant technology is interpreted as a marker of civilization that is not attuned to the modernist ideas of the nature-culture divide, but to a relationship of nurturing.9 By a nurturing relationship, they mean that peasants can only function as midwives and nurturers in their chacras [cultivated fields] so as to be birthed and nurtured in return by Pachamama, the mother earth, as well as all the apus [sacred mountains] and other sacred beings. Life is a constant process of nurturing and letting oneself be nurtured among peoples and the many beings of the pacha [local world]—the sun, the moon, the constellations, the plants, the animals, clouds, the winds, the rainbows, and so on.

Such a view demonstrates the recognition of nature's subjectivity—as opposed to the Judeo-Christian and capitalist tradition in which nature is merely an object for human intervention and commodification. According to Eduardo Grillo, an Andean peasant community is not simply a human environment, rather, it is comprised of all who live together in proximity. Nor is a chacra merely the place where the soil, the water, the microclimate, and the plants are nurtured; it is also the ritual space where humans converse and reciprocate with the deities, the ancestors, and all the elements of the natural world.10

Such practices of care and renewal between humans and their "farm-forest-pasture continuum" offer new insights for the long-standing debates over nature and culture. The discussion then is not necessarily limited to whether nature determines culture or whether nature is simply a cultural construction. What becomes significant are the precise areas of intersection and interdependence between the two. While ecological anthropologists have emphasized that nature was shaping culture, cultural anthropologists have insisted that culture imposed its own meaning on nature. However, both are informed by the notion of a nature-culture divide that is at the heart of the modernist paradigm; both positions have become engaged in a dead-lock battle over semantics and corresponding interpretations, obfuscating any understanding of how nature and culture actually might intersect and interpenetrate.11

This notion of nurturing is not predicated upon accurate human predictions about the intricacies of natural phenomena; it is the conversation and mutual understanding between human collectivities and nonhuman collectivities. Situated as mutual nurturers, humans can not treat nature merely as "sublime" or "divine," either. Maybe what links them is the notion of a community where human collectivities and nonhuman collectivities dwell and nurture each other. Thus we might replace the notion of nature conservation with the notion of a community of nature users and preservers. This would shift the ground upon which the "nature talk" of the conservation discourse stands. For this sort of "nature talk" still points its finger at overpopulation, and identifies ecological ethnicities as "over-breeders" or practitioners of slash-and-burn agriculture.

The Art and the Aesthetic of Dwelling on the Land

Perhaps Wendell Berry's observations in Home Economics resonate much closer to the sentiments of ecological ethnicities when he wrote that we cannot live in nature without altering it: "The only thing we have to preserve nature with is culture; the only thing we have to preserve wildness with is domesticity." If people cannot live in nature without changing it, people cannot preserve wildness by making wilderness reserves, either. So, according to Berry, the only option we have is to use nature without abusing it—to use it and, through that mode of use, to enhance it. A wilderness ethic must be tied to what we produce, what we eat, and how we live in communities. Forest economies can thrive if value is added to the forest through small, local, nonpolluting industries. A community can enhance the diversity of its forest species while also finding ways to make furniture and tools using those diverse species of trees. In other words, wild and domestic culture can and must coexist.

Aldo Leopold's call for a "land ethic" and Mahatma Gandhi's plea for "voluntary agrarian simplicity," are also premised upon humans' enduring but careful interaction with nature. In other words, as Ramchandra Guha has aptly stated, an agro-ecological mode searches for "a golden mean of stewardship and sustainable use."12 Mahatma Gandhi's selective dismissal of the British romantic tradition might be instructive to highlight some key differences I am posing between the "relational" and the "rational." As David Arnold and Ramchandra Guha noted:

Gandhi's ashram at Sevagram could not have been further, in an intellectual as in a scenic sense, from Ruskin's lakeside home at Brantwood. Rather, Gandhi's environmentalism had its roots in a deep antipathy to urban civilization and a belief in self-sufficiency, in self-abnegation and denial rather than wasteful consumption. Gandhi was not going back to nature but to the village and to the peasantry as the heart and soul of India, to rural asceticism and harmony as against urban bustle and industrial life.13

In Chitwan in Nepal, Jharkhand in India, and the Peruvian Andes the "relational" is privileged over the "rational." Julio Valladolid of PRATEC has documented how the Andean peasants predict whether a certain agricultural cycle is going to get enough rain or not by looking at the flowering of the cactus. The role that Tularam Gahire attributes to wild birds in Nepal for regenerating a robust forest in the farm indicates a similar kind of modest participation of humans in the larger natural order. These examples suggest to me that human technologies can be fine-tuned to earth's technologies.

Such peasant practices and technologies try to balance the agro-ecosystem's with the larger ecosystem—an art of balancing the parts with the whole. For ecological historian Donald Worster, an ecosystem is a subset of the global economy of nature—a local or regional system of plants and animals working together to create the means of survival. An agro-ecosystem, as the name suggests, is an ecosystem reorganized for agricultural purposes. It is a domesticated ecosystem, which entails a restructuring of the trophic processes in nature, that is, the processes of food and energy flow in the economy of living organisms.14 Obviously, an agro-ecosystem has to alter an ecosystem. The productive energies in one ecosystem might be forced to serve more exclusively a set of conscious purposes often located outside it—namely, the feeding and prospering of a group of humans. However, in order to survive for very long, the agro-ecosystem must achieve a balance between what it draws out and what it returns to the larger ecosystem. Today, achieving this precise balance is the key struggle for ethno-ecological communities as they are pushed head-on to face the monetization of the very basis of their lives—land, soil, plants, earthworms, and seeds. The fact that over five million Adivasi and Dalit women in India eke out their very livelihoods by selling firewood and forest products in the market demonstrates the seriousness of the situation.

Ecological activists in South Asia are coming to realize that the ecological ethnicities are losing at both ends in the battle between environmentalists and developmentalists. Medha Patkar, the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, is confronting the dilemma in the Narmada Valley. She wonders whether conservationists who talk of wildlife protection on one hand, and use toilet paper, plastic, and air conditioning on the other, can be credible. Adivasi's concerns are entirely different, and are sometimes inconceivable to the city-bred activists. Medha Patkar states:

What the tribals are saying today is, don't kick us out of the national parks and sanctuaries because you are the ones who have already destroyed the forest. The little which remains today is because we are living here and non-consuming protectors, users but not ambitious users like you. The whole problem is basically one of lifestyle. There can be no solution unless the conflict between lifestyles, between immediate and future interests, are resolved. Because even when a certain section of the population says the wildlife and forest should be preserved, they have not changed their basic vision of life.

Restoration of the Ecosystem or the Renewal of Community?

In the way ecological ethnicities are positioned today vis-á-vis the global economy, the renewal of nature and of local culture have become inextricable. The duality of this enterprise has made the task extremely complex and perhaps an unachievable goal. As Shiva Visvanathan comments, the choice is between putting nature in the hands of the state and nature conservation bureaucracy for "restoration" or giving it back to the community for "renewal." If the former strategy reduces the park problem to a strictly managerial one, the latter strategy makes it a question of livelihood, dwelling, survival, and human rights. In the so-called free market spaces of the global body politic, the questions of who saves nature, who nurtures it, and who gets nurtured by it are becoming unavoidable. Even if we give it the fullest benefit of the doubt, the bureaucratic management strategy might "restore" the ecosystem, but it cannot "renew" it—in the sense of "renewal" as a process of keeping both natural and human labor intact in the local community. Shiva Visvanathan's distinction between restoration and renewal is analogous to the distinction I have made between the "rational" and the "relational":

You restore a painting or a church like a material artifact. But in general, culture—particularly nature—cannot be "restored" in this sense. They have to be renewed. Renewal is never totally cyclical. It seeks to recover what there was but is also open to novelty by combination.15

For ecological ethnicities, "nature" is the place where they work, live, and play, produce and reproduce; it is integral to their lives. Thus, as much as nature can be constructed through dominant discourses and priorities, a people's version of nature also can be reclaimed through environmental action and struggle. For example, if the fisherfolk of Chitwan regained access to the rivers for fishing and their economy was able to continue, the very idea of who owns the fish in the Narayani and Rapti rivers would eventually have to change. Then their new mode of nature use might also alter the tourist economy. In this new organization of fishing, the power of the tourist economy to determine the species composition of a region would be redefined.

Ultimately, it seems, the challenge is in integrating the "wild," "wilderness," and the "land" in our bodies as well as our minds. Having "land in our mind" is not as easy as it sounds, especially in overproducing and overconsuming societies. According to Scott Sanders, a bioregional consciousness means bearing your place in mind, keeping track of its conditions and needs, committing yourself to its care.

It is indeed ironic that humankind has once again tried to solve the so-called crisis of nature without really recognizing how much of "us" are involved in that nature. It is perhaps the separation of "us" from nature that bewilders our approach to nature. In 1970, radical environmentalists Theodore Rozack and Paul Shepard hoped that ecology would be a subversive science, for it was supposed to be sensible, holistic, receptive, trustful, and deeply grounded in aesthetic intuition. It was considered to be a radical deviation from traditional sciences. In 1998—twenty-six years after the first Earth Day and more than half a decade after the Earth Summit—it is obvious that ecology has not turned out to be such a subversive science. Perhaps ecology failed in this regard because it could not transcend the very nature-culture divide embedded in the scientific tradition and instead became yet another science in which humans are set apart from nature. In the uphill struggle to achieve legitimacy for ecological concerns, perhaps we accepted that what environmentalists defend is the environment but not nature.

Raymond Williams had aptly noted that the decisive form of human struggle is the resistance to capitalism. However, the discussions above indicate that those acts of resistance, including the desire to "save nature" or "preserve wilderness," are futile because they are not informed or equipped with an alternative vision that does not subscribe to a rationality in which culture and nature, human needs and nature's processes, are seen as separate concerns.

Isn't it ironic, asks Neil Everenden, that we consider the California condor saved when it is in captivity? He goes on to argue that the California condor can be considered saved in captivity only if we define a California condor as a feather-crusted bundle of meat. But if our concept of the condor includes its context, then it has not been saved at all because we have accepted the destruction of the creature's habitat, the creature's place. And once that place is gone, the animal too, in its contextual sense, is gone. It is akin to saying that some aspect of the culture of the Adivasi in India or the fisherfolk in the Chitwan Valley might be useful or fashionable to display in a museum or in the tourist industry, but that the survival and continuation of their culture as a living and thriving way of life does not warrant protection or acknowledgment is to follow the same line of thinking. And indeed, the Tharus and Botes are invited to Tiger Tops in Chitwan to perform "authentic" Tharu dances for tourists, the Tharu guraons [priests] are invited to bring the tigers back, but Tharus as such have been excluded from the park. As the saying goes in Mexico, the dominant mindset might appreciate "the Indian dress to look at but not the Indian who wears it." That is why every effort is being made to "Mexicanize the Indians" rather than to "Indianize the Mexicans." By the same logic, the plans for creating wilderness preserves designed to save the tiger or the rhino will simply be cosmetic dressing and museum displays unless these projects also save the fisherfolk, forest dwellers, and peasants with whom they have shared these habitats for centuries.


Pramod Parajuli is the co-founder and executive director of Portland State University's Portland International Initiative for Leadership in Ecology, Culture, and Learning (PIIECL, www.piiecl.pdx.edu). He is also an Associate Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University. He is currently working on a book manuscript—Learning Sustainability: Ecological and Cultural Foundations. Visit the Research and Publications section of www.piiecl.pdx.edu for his sample publications. He is actively involved in various ethno-ecological movements in his home country Nepal and in India.
Print   :   Blog   :   Next   


End Notes.

1. Although we started this farm to create a model of a sustainable Nepali peasant-farm, people still considered it an "American" or "Japanese" experiment. This popular conception might have evolved because I had just returned to Chitwan after having spent a long period of time in the U.S., or because people associated our work with two other earlier permaculture experiments in adjacent villages.

2. See Pramod Parajuli, "Ecological Ethnicity in the Making: Developmentalist Hegemonies and Emergent Identities in India." Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 3/1–2 (1996), pp. 15–59.

3. George Collier and Elizabeth Quaratiello, Basta! Land and Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Oakland, CA: Food First, 1994), p. 44.

4. Paul Richards, "Saving the Rainforest? Contested Futures in Conservation." In Contemporary Futures: Perspectives from Social Anthropology, edited by Sandra Wallman (London: Routledge, 1992), pp. 139–52.

5. Frederique Apffel-Marglin, "Introduction: Rationality and the World." In Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue, edited by Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Steve Marglin (New York: Clarendon Press, 1996), p. 9.

6. Shiv Visvanathan, "Footnotes to Vavilov: An Essay on Gene Diversity." In In Decolonizing Knowledge: From Development to Dialogue, edited by Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Steve Marglin (New York: Clarendon Press, 1996), pp. 335–36.

7. William Cronon, ed., "The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature." In Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), p. 79.

8. See Frederique Apffel-Marglin and Pramod Parajuli, "Sacred Grove and Ecology: Ritual and Science." In Hinduism and Ecology, edited by Arvinda Sharma and Christopher Chapple (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000).

9. See The Spirit of Regeneration: Andean Culture and the West, edited by Frederique Apffel-Marglin with PRATEC (London: Zed Books, 1998).

10. Ibid., pp. 124–145.

11. See P. Parajuli, "Discourse on Knowledge, Dialogue and Diversity: Peasant Worldviews and the Science of Conservation." Worldviews: An International Journal of Environment, Culture and Meaning 1/3 (1997), pp. 189–210.

12. Ramchandra Guha, "Toward a Cross-Cultural Environmental Ethic." Alternatives XV, 1990, p. 434.

13. David Arnold and Ramchandra Guha, eds., "Introduction: Themes and Issues in the Environmental History of South Asia." In Nature, Culture and Imperialism: Essays on the Environmental History of South Asia (Place: Publisher, 1995), p.19.

14. Donald Worster, The Wealth of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 52.

15. Shiv Visvanathan, "From Dudhwa with Love." Seminar 1995, p. 18.


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.