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OP-ED: Are we moving in the right direction?

  • Published at 09:04 pm July 16th, 2021

We preach the need for a broader approach, but keep falling back into simplistic models of development

The Anthropocene refers to the most recent epoch of the Earth’s history. The beginning of the period is sometimes dated back to the agricultural revolution, commencing around 12,000-15,000 years ago. Since then, humans have become the most dominant species on Earth. However, increased human activity has caused dramatic changes to the environment and the planet’s eco-systems, leading to global warming. 

Facing enormous ecological crises, we have also realized that our environment is entangled with society, politics, religion, economies, and so on. Unfortunately, however, recent global reports such as the Brundtland Report of 1987 and the more recent ones offer extraordinarily little guidance on how policy-makers could imagine and build on such realizations. Therefore, the deterioration of the environment is not halted, instead it gains pace despite many global initiatives. 

One reason for this tendency is the enormous emphasis on economic growth above the broader understanding of the environment and human societies. Thus, despite the talks on “different” values and practices, universal models for sustainability and development are still being sought within economics and technology only. So the challenge remains: How can we survive the Anthropocene?

One may argue in favour of going back to the small scale. For example, in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, the indigenous communities (like many other places of the world) used to lead a sustainable life in the hills with their shifting cultivation practices. It enabled forest regrowth; their hunting and fishing did not deplete the wild animals of the forests and fish in the rivers. Contrarily, others may point out that this life form is possible only with three main conditions: Small population, enough land availability, and simple technology.

As the people in the CHT became subject to planned changes, the declaration of reserved forests, commercial lease of land, promotion of commercial agriculture, etc, have reduced the sustainability of the age-old practices. Many families encouraged by the authorities have settled in the plainland, engaged in more settled agriculture, and a cash economy. 

Common ownership of land is disappearing, and a notion of private land has appeared. People moved from cultivating food items for consumption to cash crops for the markets. Overall, environmental crises in the CHT have become acute over the years. 

Generally, conservation is considered the flip-side of development. But the dual purpose cannot easily be achieved. The goal of some global level initiatives, such as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD), is to save and protect forests. It also aims to benefit the forest-dependent populations through alternative livelihoods that are expected to help preserve biodiversity. However, this has rarely been the case. REDD-related practices’ main paradox is that while people are rhetorically central to it, they are peripheral in practice. 

Many researchers have claimed that globally “outsiders” -- program officials -- generally remain reluctant to spend time in selected REDD communities. Instead, much time is spent in seminars locally, nationally, and internationally to formulate general guidelines expected to be replicated globally. Unfortunately, policy-makers produce solutions having Euro-American concerns instead of the local ones.

We find repression of knowledge primarily because of the nature of the development discourse. Looking for outcomes within the time constraint imposed by the donors and the desire for universally applicable models make policy-makers ignore critical life dimensions. 

Moreover, policy-makers find it hard to accept that local perceptions and values are embodied knowledge. Nevertheless, how people act in the world can be elicited only by examining ontology and epistemology in specific cases. Thus, sustainable forest conservation or poverty alleviation is unlikely if local understanding is ignored.

One of the challenges that many projects seek an answer to, for example, is how to “mainstream women into solving impending environmental crises.” This question can only be answered by carefully listening to the local people and understanding their ontologies. While conservation and development projects analyze the environment and gender inequality from a Western perspective, these become irrelevant in many societies. 

Many communities do not distinguish between nature and culture or men and women; instead, both carry other’s elements.

Ontology, knowledge, and socio-moral values are not superficial aspects but fundamental to people’s sense of themselves and how they orient their mundane lives in a particular environment. But this is still on the margin for policy-makers to take note of. Thus, while policy-makers preach the need for a broader and better integrated approach, they still hope for a “simple” model to integrate all.

Nonetheless, a possible application of a local ontology in developing plans for biodiversity conservation elsewhere is far from unproblematic. Though this has hardly been successfully achieved, it does not mean that it is impossible. But it will require genuine and collaborative interest, sensitivity, and a willingness to understand the complexity.

Indeed, it is likely that small-scale communities are sustainable precisely because they are small-scale. But as we have not achieved much success with the global models, the enormous variability of human solutions to existential and environmental challenges developed by the indigenous communities may show a viable path. 

Anthropologists like Viveiros de Castro, Arturo Escobar, Signe Howell, and others have claimed human practices are ontologically constituted. It is still questionable if ontological knowledge would be helpful in the establishment of an environmental project on a global scale. 

But it will be self-defeating not to try it. For a start, we should ask, have the projects aiming to change people’s relations with the environment, ensuring the requirements for their future generations achieved the goals as stated, for instance in the Brundtland Commission report? It is tricky to answer as it questions our assumptions, but if not, we should strive to change. 

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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