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Ecology, economics and ethics: some key issues relevant to natural resource management in developing countries.


The rate at which natural resources are used up for the growth of world economy outstrips the rapid growth of population. While developed countries of the world use up a large chunk of the world's natural resources for supporting a much smaller population, population pressure is the bane of the developing world, albeit the highly restricted per capita demand on resources in the developing regions of the world. It is important to recognize that generally larger family size in developing countries is to ensure risk coverage arising out of extreme poverty. Therefore, a holistic approach, encompassing sustainable livelihood/development, education and empowerment and family planning measures, is crucial to finding a solution. Coping with the twin problems of population and resource depletion has to be viewed in this context.

In any case, increases in world population are projected to continue to occur overwhelmingly in the developing world. About three-quarters of the 3.2 billion increase in world population through 2025 is expected to be in the developing world. About half of the population growth during this period is expected to be in Asia, with two of the most populous countries being China and India. Therefore, though I use India as a case study; what is discussed here is largely also true for whole of the Asian tropics

The population problem in India

As in other developing countries, the twin problems for India centre around rapid population growth and urbanization (Kayastha, 1989). India's present population of more than 850 million people is projected to reach 1,043 million by the year 2000. The urban population of India in 1981 was 156.18 million, with an increase of about 49 million during the decade 1971-81. With Calcutta, Bombay and Delhi having more than 10 million each in 2001, the total population of million-plus cities would cross the 100 million mark by the turn of the century The intense pressure on civic amenities has already contributed to the development of urban slums, with a fifth of India's urban population living in slums.

Impact of population pressure on biological resources

Numbers versus depletion

The impact of humans on natural resources has often been discussed as a direct relationship between increased numbers depleting the resource base. This argument arises from the biological concept of the carrying capacity of resources such as soil, water and air. However, the concept of carrying capacity cannot be applied in a simplistic way to humans since a variety of other factors such as trade, technology and consumption patterns alter the carrying capacity in drastic ways.

While finer patterns of adaptations at a local level may mitigate stress on the resource base (e.g. circular migration of people we will discuss later or a drastic change in dependency on the resource by a section of the community), one could see the obvious implications of the differences in consumption levels between the developing and the developed world. With a consumption level, over an individual life span, which is at least 20 times more in the developed world than in the developing countries, today's de facto population of Europe in terms of resource dependency is not 400 million, but 8,000 million (Suryakumaran, 1992). Compare this with the 800 million in India. In our anxiety to curb population growth, we seem to conveniently set aside this uncomfortable reality. Population control in the developing world is critical, but is only a partial remedy and not a total remedy to conserving our natural resource base, because of the strong connections between the twin issues of poverty and population. This will come up in our subsequent discussions too.

Food security

Agriculture is an important economic activity for a large population of the developing world. In India, the "green revolution" is largely confined to a small section of our rural society and has had positive repercussions in terms of general self-sufficiency in food production. But this has had its negative impacts too. First, this energy intensive activity is still confined to a small sector of our predominantly agricultural society. Vast sections of our rural communities are left out, leading to wide disparities in access to resources and income generation arising out of effective use of natural resources using affordable appropriate technology. More and more farmers have been marginalized in spite of overall self-sufficiency in food production. This is apart from the difficulties faced at a national level by many developing countries including India to have access to non-renewable resources like petro-based chemical fertilizers and pesticides to sustain the "green revolution" itself in the face of increasing population pressure and to cope with the larger problems of environmental degradation caused by excessive and uncontrolled use of water and chemical subsidies.

A special mention on gender and poverty would be appropriate at this stage. Traditionally, women have always played a key role in agricultural activities, in some form or the other. Even through agriculture employs 70 per cent of the total working population, it employs 84 percent of all economically active women. The green revolution has had an adverse impact on this vulnerable section of our society (Shiva, 1988; Venkateswaran, 1992). From a position of being a key player in the food production system, she has been marginalized more and more; from a cultivator to a labourer is the extreme in this marginalization process.

Within a given household, there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that women as a group are more vulnerable than men to extremes of poverty and its consequences (World Bank, 1991).


A close relationship between population growth and agricultural land extension with the latter tied directly to deforestation has been suggested through a number of cross-country and country studies, not withstanding fuel wood extraction and logging operations (Billsborrow, 1992). While reducing population growth could reduce local pressures on the forest and other natural resources, this relationship is by no means a simple and straightforward one. In any case, we in India are now left with a little over 10 percent of the total land area under closed forest cover. Our forests now are largely confined to upland areas only. The most vulnerable ecosystems which are still under heavy stress are those in the upland areas - the Himalayas in the North and the North-Eastern hills, the Aravallis in the west, the Vindhya and Satpura ranges in Central India and the Eastern and Western Ghats in the South. Increased stresses in these upland ecosystems have serious consequences not only for forest cover and biodiversity concerns, but also for the people in the region and indeed in the sub-continent as a whole. We are very dependent on the health of our mountain ecosystem network for survival in the lowland plains. At a local level, the worst affected are the more vulnerable sections of the society, including women who have to work harder to collect their basic needs of fodder and fuelwood. This is apart from the oft-quoted global consequences of climate change arising out of deforestation.

Social disruptions

The migratory patterns discussed earlier, rural to urban, rural to rural and circulatory, may have serious social consequences, depending on a given situation. The concentration of population in urban centres has already choked the natural ability of urban environments to absorb the wastes and emissions from human activities. This in turn has led to a variety of environmental health hazards. Rural to rural circulatory migration, when it is from resource depleted regions to richer areas, can accelerate the process of environmental degradation. A classic example of this is the pressure on the rich forest resources in the north-eastern part of the country. Shifting agriculture which at one time in the recent past was sustainable because of a longer cycle of 20 years or more has drastically come down to less than five years, partly because of large-scale exploitation of forest resources by the industrial humans and the consequent land degradation caused by it (Case 1). Increase in population pressure from within is only one of the factors contributing to the break-down of the shifting agriculture system caused by the rapid shortening of the cycle. Indeed, large areas in this high rainfall region have been desertified largely because of pressure originating from outside the region. In the tribal areas of the North-East, the adverse consequences are both ecological, social and economic (Ramakrishnan, 1992b).

Biodiversity and natural resource related issues in the Asian context

The planet Earth is the home for biodiversity - a rich and diverse array of organisms. This biodiversity provides a variety of goods and services essential for a range of human needs - sustainable livelihood on one extreme to a high quality life on the other. Indeed, this biodiversity forms a strong basis for human adaptation and survival under changing environmental situations and changing human needs. The ethical, aesthetic, cultural and religious dimensions of biodiversity are an integral component of this complex equation.

A substantial component of the world's biodiversity is confined to the tropical world. The developing countries in this part of the world, as discussed, are saddled with an ever-expanding population pressure. Traditionally, poverty in the region had often been considered to be an impediment to conservation. However, the rich social and cultural heritage of the people in the Asian region have almost always emphasized the conservation of natural resources through efficient recycling (Ramakrishnan, 1995b). This is evident in the manner in which many traditional rural ecosystems function, the values placed on certain keystone species and ecosystem types that are considered to be sacred by the local communities and a variety of strategies adopted in recycling natural resources - all with the prime objective of sustainable management of natural resources.

Yet, the currently accepted pathway for "development" has assumed that the natural resources are for exploitation. Therefore, it is not surprising to come across explicit statements in the literature to the effect that humans have been involved only with depletion of biodiversity. It is in this overall context that one needs to consider biodiversity and the broader issues of ecosystem and landscape management, rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems and indeed the whole issue of sustainable development.

"Hot spots" of biodiversity linked with traditional societies

The distribution pattern of the "hot spots" for biodiversity in the South and South-East Asian context are invariably linked with the distribution pattern of traditional societies including tribals or Aborigines. These traditional societies are often closely linked with and dependent on the rich biodiversity that surround them, for their livelihood (Ramakrishnan, 1995a). No wonder then that they have always played a major role in conserving and indeed enhancing biodiversity. Yet, they have always been a neglected section of the human society. The first and the foremost beneficiary of biodiversity conservation and its utilization by the industrialized humans should be these traditional societies. It is in this context, the whole issue of biodiversity conservation and sustainable development in the region are discussed here.

Biodiversity and ecosystem function: the North-East Indian case study

Humans integrated within ecosystem boundaries

Ecologists generally tend to view an ecosystem strictly in a biological sense, keeping the humans outside its structural/functional attributes. In this view of things, humans sitting outside the biological ecosystem boundary bring about ecosystem alterations through perturbations. The impact of human activities on the ecosystem and the effect of altered ecosystem properties on the humans are not viewed as an integrated whole, in the context of biodiversity influencing ecosystem function. However, contrary to the traditional ecologist's view point, if we take a view that humans form an integral component of the ecosystem function and that this integrative view point is even more obvious at a landscape level, then the role of biodiversity in ecosystem function would become very obvious (Ramakrishnan, 1995a). Indeed, this is the way in which many traditional/tribal societies perceive the immediate environment around them. The concept of village as an ecosystem, with all its ramifications involving agriculture, animal husbandry and the domestic sector enmeshed with the forest and forest-related activities such as hunting and gathering of food, fodder, fuelwood and medicine and forest farming as done under shifting agriculture, is an example of integrating humans within the ecosystem boundaries and for evaluating the role of biodiversity in ecosystem/societal functions in a broader context (Ramakrishnan, 1992a, b).

It is not only the mere presence of biodiversity and the functional role it has for the tribal humans that is significant here. The manner in which the tribals manipulate this biodiversity for ecosystem functional integrity and through that for their own function within the landscape is interesting. Under a 60-year shifting agriculture cycle, the number of crop species are over 40. Here the emphasis is on cereals, which are largely placed towards the base of the slope as they are less nutrient-use efficient, while the more nutrient use-efficient tuber crops are placed towards the top of the slope where soil fertility levels are low. Under shorter ten- or five-year cycles, the cropping pattern shifts with emphasis on tuber crops (Ramakrishnan, 1992b). This indeed is an elegant example of adaptation towards optimization of resource use and risk coverage, through manipulation of biodiversity, by the humans within the ecosystem.

Through mixed cropping involving a large number of species and traditional weed management strategies, the shifting agricultural farmer of North-East India ensures effective checks on nutrient loss during the cropping phase. The traditional weed management practice where about 20 percent of the weed biomass is left undisturbed in the plot by the shifting agriculture farmer (Ramakrishnan, 1988) is also a practice common to the Mayan agriculture in Mexico (Chacon and Gliessman, 1982).

Within a given landscape, the tribal farmer of North-East India also has a variety of land use systems contributing towards biodiversity at all levels ranging from the sub-specific, through the species, population and the ecosystem (Ramakrishnan, 1992b). Thus, apart from the diversity in cropping patterns within the shifting agriculture systems that he maintains, he may have fallow systems, sedentary systems on hill slopes, wet rice cultivation on valley lands involving a variety of rice cultivars and a whole variety of tightly packed home gardens resembling a forest, where the farmer grows perennial trees and shrubs of economic value along with herbs and vines. These mosaics of ecosystem types of the landscape perform a variety of functions towards the integrity of the system as a whole, while having a variety of service functions for the humans. The valley lands capture water and nutrients washed out from the hill slopes useful for rice production. The home garden imitating a natural forest is self-sustaining through tight recycling of nutrients within and is of value to the humans as a source of food supplement, medicines, fodder, fuelwood, fibre, spices and condiments, for their use and for cash income (Gliessman, 1990; Ramakrishnan, 1992b). These and the secondary successional vegetation on the hill slopes effectively capture the nutrients which could otherwise be lost through hydrology (Ramakrishnan, 1992b). Indeed, evidence now suggests that the diversity and adaptability of indigenous farming practices have much to offer in explaining why some are successful at conserving resources and others are not (Brookfield and Padoch, 1994; Ramakrishnan, 1992b, 1994, 1995a).

Keystone species, biodiversity and ecosystem function

The role of keystone species in conserving and enhancing biodiversity and indeed in manipulating ecosystem functions is a critical area which has not been adequately explored. Keystone species play a crucial role in biodiversity conservation, through key functions that they perform in an ecosystem. Therefore, they could be used for not only managing pristine ecosystems (Ramakrishnan, 1992a, b), but also for building up biodiversity in both natural and managed ecosystems, through appropriately conceived rehabilitation strategies (Ramakrishnan, et al., 1994a).

In the successional forests of north-eastern hills of India, a variety of species could be categorized as keystone species. Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis) or earthworms conserve nitrogen in the system through nitrogen fixation (Bhadauria and Ramakrishnan, 1996; Ramakrishnan, 1992b). Many species of bamboo (Dendrocalamus hamiltoni, Bambusa tulda and B. khasiana) have been shown to play a key role in conservation of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the jhum fallows (Rao and Ramakrishnan, 1989). These keystone species not only determine ecosystem function in that particular serial stage of succession where it appears, but even determine the very process of succession itself owing to their impact on nutrient cycling. Indeed, they modulate ecosystem function, both in space and time. Such species could be of value in rehabilitating ecosystems, following a successional pathway.

While working in the sacred grove forests of Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, we came across four dominant tree species, namely, Englehardtia spicata, Echinocarpus dasycarpus, Sysygium cuminii and Drimycarpus racemosus, that contain a high level of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium in the leaf tissue, in spite of the fact that these species grow in highly infertile soils (Khiewtam and Ramakrishnan, 1993). These are keystone species in an ecological sense that perform key functions of nutrient conservation in this protected ecosystem. Through their role in ecosystem function, they contribute towards supporting biodiversity in these relict forests, often protected by local people for religious and cultural reasons. However, many groves in the region have been degraded because of human impacts, resulting from a gradual decline in the traditional value system that occurred over the last few decades. Therefore, manipulating these keystone species is a simpler way of managing a whole variety of biodiversity in the ecosystem.

Linkages between ecological and social processes

Linking ecological and social processes is crucial for appreciating the relationship between biodiversity and ecosystem function and to utilize this relationship for human welfare through sustainable management of resources. The linkages could be at two levels: at the process level or at the ecosystem/landscape level.

The whole variety of patterns of crop organization as adopted by the shifting agriculture farmer of North East India in response to soil fertility gradient on the hill slope or in response to shortening of the shifting agricultural cycle illustrate synchrony of nutrient availability with nutrient use by crop species, both in space and time (Ramakrishnan, 1994). Further, sequential harvesting of crops in the multi-species cropping system is an elegant way in which the shifting agriculture farmer achieves synchrony between nutrient release and uptake at different phases of the cropping season. Depending on differences in litter quality and micro-environmental conditions prevailing at the time, nutrient release gets regulated.

While working in North-East India, we soon realized that species which are ecologically valuable keystone species performing key functions in the ecosystem and thereby contributing to support/enhance biodiversity are also species that are socially valued by the local community, for cultural or religious reasons. Thus the Nepalese alder coming up in the jhum plots are protected from slashing and burning during jhum operations. based on intuitive experience, the shifting agriculture farmer realizes that this species does good to their cropping system; indeed our studies suggest that this species may conserve up to about 120kg of nitrogen per hectare per year through nitrogen fixation (Ramakrishnan, 1992b). Similarly, the bamboo species, mentioned above and which conserve nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium in the system, are also highly valued by all communities; they are often grown along the margin of agricultural plots and as part of the home garden system, or used for a variety of traditional activities, such as house construction, making household utensils, tubing for water transportation, thatching material, etc. These and other ecologically important keystone species are also socially selected keystone species. A broader survey done by this author in the Indian context also suggests such a close parallelism existing between ecological and social processes. The implication is that linking up ecological and social processes is significant for enhancing biodiversity in the ecosystem, building up of biodiversity based on ecological integrity of the system (because keystone species identified from a given ecosystem type would promote biodiversity that is compatible within that system) and indeed for ensuring rural peoples' participation as an integral part of the ecosystem function, rather than being a manipulator from outside (Ramakrishnan, 1995a). This last point is extremely important for rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems and for rural development (Ramakrishnan et al., 1994a). Being able to identify themselves with a value system that they cherish through the socially selected keystone species, the local communities would be able to participate in the rehabilitation programme.

At the ecosystem/landscape level, the linkages between ecological and social dimensions could be highly complicated. While working on sustainable development for the tribals of North-Eastern India, operating under an untenable shifting agricultural cycle of five years or less, we soon realized that building on traditional knowledge base and technology provides an opportunity for involving community participation. In doing so, a holistic approach was found to be appropriate in order to appreciate process level linkages within the ecosystem/landscape.

Conserving the sacred: Demojong in West Sikkim district - a unique example of a landscape (Ramakrishnan, 1996)

Sikkim has a long tradition of Buddhist religion. Buddhism is practised by about 25 percent of the local population and the majority religion is Hinduism (70 percent). Because of the rule by the Chogyal dynasty, since the time the first Chogyal (king) of Sikkim was crowned in 1642 in Norbugang in Yuksom, Buddhist traditions are deeply ingrained into the psyche of the Sikkimese people. This is evident in all walks of life - a rich tapestry woven with Buddhist symbolisms, legends, myths, rituals and festivals, the typical Sikkimese building architecture and the large number of monasteries and "Stupas" doting the landscape through out the State. It is important to note that these traditions are shared by all the three communities; the unique culture so developed is a blend of the Buddhism of the "Lepchas" and the "Bhutias" and the Hinduism of the majority "Nepalis".

Of the four Buddhist sects, the Nyngmepa, Kagupa, Gelugpa and Sakyapa, represented in the State, the Nyngmepa sect initiated by the Buddha incarnate, Maha Guru Padmasambhava is most significant. While Sikkim as a whole is considered to be sacred by the Sikkimese Buddhists, according to the sacred text Nay Sol, the area below Mount Khangchendzonga in west Sikkim, referred to as "Demojong" is the most sacred of all, being the abode of Sikkim's deities. Interestingly the air, soil, water and the biota are all sacred to the people, because of the interconnections that they perceive to exist. Any human-induced perturbation is considered by the Sikkimese Buddhists to spell disaster to Sikkim as a whole, because of the disturbance caused to the ruling deities and the treasures (ters) placed in the landscape (Case 2). Interestingly, it is believed that there is no way of knowing where the ters are hidden, as they will be revealed only to the right person when the right time comes.

This region has a number of glacial lakes in the higher reaches. These are sacred lakes. The Rathong Chu, itself a sacred river, is said to have its source in nine holy lakes of the higher elevation, closer to the mountain peaks. Besides, the river in the Yoksum region itself is considered to have 109 hidden lakes. These visible and the less obvious notional lakes identified by the religious visionaries are said to have presiding deities, representing both the good and the evil. Propitiating these deities through various religious ceremonies is considered important for the welfare of the Sikkimese people. Indeed, conserving this rich tradition is considered to be significant for peace, harmony and welfare of not only this area but also for the region as a whole.

It is no wonder that Rathong Chu is the focus of religious rituals. During the "Bum Chu" ritual, considered holiest of all festivals, held annually at Tashiding, Rathong Chu is said to turn white and start singing and this is the water to be collected at the point where Rathong Chu meets Ringnya Chu. Attracting thousands of devotees from the State and the neighbouring region, the "Bom Chu" ritual is predictive in nature, in that it is suggested to be indicative of coming events - possible calamities and prosperity for the people of Sikkim. The water kept in vases, if it overflows, is indicative of prosperity. Decline in water level is indicative of bad events such as drought, diseases, etc. Turbid water is indicative of unrest and conflicts.

More generalized rituals, such as the one done throughout Sikkim by the Buddhists during "Pang-Lhabsol" to propitiate the various ruling deities of the mountain peak of the Khangchendzonga, the midlands represented by the Yoksum region and the lowlands down below, is indicative of the widespread respect with which this sacred landscape region is worshipped by the people.

Of the total catchment area of 32,800 hectares of Rathang Khola, 28,510 hectares is under snow cover. The vegetation is varied ranging from alpine scrub vegetation at higher reaches to sub-tropical moist evergreen forests down below. Afforestation is essential over an area of 4,290 hectares, catchment area of the Rothang Chu. This task is crucial for conservation of the sacred landscape as a whole and for its ecological integrity. Implementing the above mentioned activity is crucial for controlling erosion and flash floods. According to the data collated by the Himalayan Nature & Adventure Foundation, Siliguri, the Ouglthang and Rathong glaciers are retreating rapidly, with size reduction. Retreating glaciers create several moraine dams, containing sizeable quantities of water. Increased snow melt and exceptionally high rainfall in a given year could result in dam bursts and flash floods in the lower regions. The 1988 dam burst is an example that could recur, if adequate catchment treatment measures are not initiated immediately.

Sikkim Himalaya is richly endowed with biological resources spread over a variety of ecosystem types over a range of altitude, from the alpine rhododendron dominated scrub forest through conifer forests with Abies densa and Tsuga demosa getting down to mixed evergreen forests dominated by species such as Castanopsis spp., Quercus lamellosa, Lithocarpus spicatus, Elaeocarpus lanceaefolius, Michilus edulis, Michelia spp., etc. The region under consideration here has all these types over a very short transect running down from the alpine to the sub-tropical zone. Orchids are abundant. With rich wildlife represented by Himalayan black bear, musk deer, fishing cat, leopard cat, black capped langur and a rich bird life, this unique landscape unit should be protected.

The region is rich in medicinal plants of value to traditional Tibetan pharmacopoeia, nurtured in Sikkim by the Buddhist monasteries. Conserving these plants and their cultivation would ensure the survival of one of the oldest systems of medicine stretching back, more than 2,500 years. With recent attempts to revive traditional medicine, possibilities of providing sustainable livelihood to local communities through cultivation of medicinal plants are immense.

Yoksum is an area which Sikkimese perceive as the very basis for the present Sikkimese culture. The entire region right from the Kangchendzonga to the Yoksum lowlands (the sacred region of Demojong) is most appropriate to be declared a "National Heritage site", with all its people, ecological and cultural heritage - the land and the land use systems (the traditional terraced agricultural system included), all the water bodies (the obvious and notional lakes), the Yoksum Chu, the monasteries, the historical sites and the rich biodiversity - for conservation in a truly holistic spirit.

Conserving "sacred landscape" is highly complex because of the interconnected ecosystem types wherein the humans are integrated. We need to have a sustainable development strategy, highly complex by its very definition and involving enormous cost. The Sikkimese sacred landscape, for example, is a unique case where ecological considerations cannot be separated from historical, social, cultural and religious dimensions of the problem. Here is a sacred landscape where the people living in the region are truly integrated within the landscape unit itself, in a socio-economic sense. Therefore, one has to consider sustainable development of the region as an integrated issue with vernacular conservation. Declaring the sacred landscapes as "National Heritage sites" and their eventual recognition as "World Heritage sites" of UNESCO, would be a step in the right direction not only for conservation but also for evolving and implementing a meaningful sustainable development action plan, with peoples' participation.

Rehabilitation/sustainable development of rural landscape and biodiversity management

Agriculture, forestry and fisheries are traditional activities in the rural environment of the Asian tropics. Forest conversion has been accelerated by activities associated with rapid industrialization, such as mining and energy generation through large hydroelectric projects. Nevertheless, much conversion is still due to the extraction of timber for industrial uses and to meet the needs of the rural poor in terms of food, fodder and firewood. In the Asian tropics, we are essentially considering degraded systems to the extent of over 1/3 of the irrigated agricultural land, about half of the rain-fed agricultural land and almost 3/4 of the pasture land. It is in this context of reconciling the needs of the vast majority of the human population with sustainable utilization of natural resources that the rehabilitation of degraded ecosystems must be viewed.

Agroecosystem redevelopment

Biodiversity concerns in agriculture and sustainable agroecosystem development are linked with each other in a variety of ways. Yet, talking of agriculture, one often visualizes a monotonous monocropping system totally devoid of biodiversity. This perception is largely due to energy-intensive modern agriculture that we often see all around us. However, there exist in the tropics a wide range of complex agroecosystem types with biodiversity comparable to that of the natural ecosystems and indeed occasionally exceeding it. This biodiversity contributes in a variety of ways towards ecosystem function such as production, decomposition, nutrient cycling dynamics and thus towards stability and resilience. Specific examples of these agroecosystem types (Ramakrishnan, 1992b) with varied levels of management ranging from the casual to high intensity, eventually leading to modern monocropping systems, are as indicated in Figure 1 (Swift et al., 1994). The traditional agroecosystem type available in north-east India has most of the agroecosystem types ranging from casually managed through low intensity management to middle intensity management systems. The shifting agriculture, home garden, valley land wet rice cultivation, rotational fallow and the traditional horticulture and cash crop farming systems, with all the variant types to be found in each one of them contribute to rich crop biodiversity where a variety of species and cultivars are handled and conserved by over 100 different tribes of the region.

It is generally acknowledged that biodiversity decreases as habitats change from forest to traditional agriculture and then on to modern agriculture. While a variety of models for loss in biodiversity under varied intensities of management regimes for agriculture are proposed [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED], it seems obvious that biodiversity decline is sharp somewhere in the area close to the middle intensity of management (Curve IV). If that be so, it is crucial to have a level of management that is closer to this critical area for sustaining biodiversity in agriculture (Swift et al., 1994). The sustainable development of agriculture suggested for North-East India being in the middle intensity management range harmonizes biodiversity concerns.

There could be three different pathways for sustainable agriculture:

(1) evolution by incremental change;

(2) restoration through the contour pathway; and

(3) development through the auto-route (Case 3) (Swift et al., 1994).

Realizing that biodiversity does contribute in a variety of ways to ecosystem functions (Gliessman, 1990; Ramakrishnan, 1992b) and that agroecosystems do harbour a great deal of biodiversity valuable for human welfare, it is reasonable that we go in for a mosaic of natural ecosystems coexisting with a wide variety of agroecosystem models derived through all the three pathways. Such a highly diversified landscape unit is likely to have a wide range of ecological niches conducive to enhancing biodiversity and at the same time ensuring sustainability of the managed landscape.

Arising out of this discussion and relating this to the North-east Indian context (Ramakrishnan, 1992b), it seems that for the tribes in the region, following an incremental pathway seems to be the most obvious choice, at least as a short-term strategy for sustainable development. While the auto-route seems to be out of question in view of the fragile mountain soil conditions in this humid tropical region, the contour pathway offers possibilities for sustainable agriculture, at least as a long-term strategy, provided peoples' participation is ensured right through the planning phase.

A holistic approach for rehabilitation/sustainable development of rural systems

Ecosystem rehabilitation and sustainable development, more specifically, sustainable management of natural resources are closely interlinked with each other, one leading to the other. The interplay of ecology, sociology, economics, anthropology and culture is to be tied together to constitute a meaningful rehabilitation strategy, with obvious trade-offs. This implies that we have to make a series of compromises in such a way that we do not lose track of the ultimate objective, namely, rehabilitation and management of natural resources in a manner that satisfies current needs, at the same time allowing for a variety of options for the future. Though an ecosystem type (man-made ecosystems such as agriculture or a fish pond in a village or village itself visualized as an ecosystem; natural ecosystems such as grazing land, forest or river) may be the appropriate unit for convenient handling of rehabilitation, a cluster of interacting ecosystem types (a "landscape") may be the most effective. A watershed is one such landscape unit. While one may bear in mind a long-term ideal objective to be achieved, ecological, socio-economic or cultural constraints may necessitate designing short-term strategies for rehabilitation. To quote one example, while forest-based economic activities and plantation programmes (Ramakrishnan, 1992a) may be the most appropriate as a long-term alternative to shifting agriculture in North-East India, there is no option except to have a redeveloped agroecosystem package for the region using traditional knowledge and technology as the starting point (Ramakrishnan, 1992a,b). A holistic approach for sustainable development that would link up agriculture, animal husbandry and domestic sub-systems of the village ecosystem in the overall context of forest ecosystem function and management was identified (Case 4). The whole approach was to consider landscape as the unit for rehabilitation and build on traditional technology and knowledge base through modern scientific inputs, based on a value system with which the people can identify themselves and therefore participate effectively in the developmental process.

Linkage between ecological and social dimensions in evaluating a landscape system may often lead to identifying one or two critical driving factors that would trigger the developmental process with peoples' participation. In the Himalayan region, the present author, in collaboration with the scientists from the G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, identified water as the key limiting resource for land use development in the rural areas and, indeed, even to meet drinking water needs, particularly during the drier eight-nine months outside the monsoon season. Right across the Himalayas, over a transact of over 2,000km the local communities consistently identified water as the key resource in short supply. By harvesting surface run-off water and by diverting sub-surface seepage water through cheap rainwater harvesting tanks (Kothyari et al., 1991) we were able to link it with a variety of ecosystem rehabilitation work - mixed plantation forestry, agroecosystem redevelopment, ringal bamboo regeneration and whole watershed redevelopment - in different parts of the Himalayan region. Indeed, successful redevelopment of shifting agriculture in Nagaland based on traditional Nepalese alder technology is one of the outcomes from this programme that is relevant to our discussion here.

Indicators of rehabilitation/sustainable development are also varied; therefore, here again, compromises are called for. Monitoring and evaluation has to be done using a number of diverse currencies that may be:

* ecological (land use changes, biomass quality and quantity, water quality and quantity, soil fertility and energy efficiency);

* economic (monetary output/input analysis, capital savings or asset accumulation and dependency ratio), social (quality of life with more easily measurable indicators such as health and hygiene, nutrition, food security, morbidity symptoms; the difficult to quantify measures such as societal empowerment and the less tangible ones in the area of social and cultural values).

An important indicator of rehabilitation/sustainable development is related with development of local level institutional framework (Ramakrishnan, 1992b, 1995; Ramakrishnan et al., 1994b), considering the following aspects:

* identification and strengthening of local level institutions that are already available such as those existing in the north-eastern region;

* the representative nature of these bodies and the extent to which individual family interests are taken care of;

* their role in decision making right from the project formulation stage through different levels of implementation;

* flexibility in function so as to take care of the interests of all sections of the society;

* education and human resource development that these institutions have been able to trigger, particularly for weaker and vulnerable sections of the society;

* ability of these institutions to stand on their own through empowerment in terms of capability building.

Rehabilitation/sustainable development with peoples' participation demand closer interaction between ecologists and social scientists who have traditionally worked in isolation, using different paradigms for development. This message came through effectively during an analysis of case studies from the Asian tropics (Samad et al., 1995). It also calls for interaction between developmental planners and the local communities that could trigger peoples' participation. In order to achieve this, developmental strategies have to be based on a value system that people can understand and appreciate and therefore participate in the developmental process itself.

In the ultimate analysis, through a variety of approaches, traditional knowledge, wisdom and technology, based on empirical knowledge accumulated over a long period of human evolution, these and other traditional societies have learnt to conserve and enhance biodiversity. They have done it in the agroecosystem types and in the natural ecosystems, indeed, in the landscape as a whole, of which they have always been an integral part. The forest dwellers of the south and south-east Asian uplands have done it, the Mayans of Mexico have done it, the natives of Amazonia have done it. Indeed, they have managed biodiversity reasonably well, until the advent of the "modern civilization". Having distorted their lifestyle through over-exploitation of their natural resources from outside, having tried, often unsuccessfully, to impose a value system that we consider is important for them, it is high time that we share the benefits of biodiversity that we the industrialized humans are exploiting now. Biodiversity and rehabilitation of disturbed landscapes represent two sides of the same coin. The general hypotheses developed by us (Case 5) and more specific hypotheses arising out of it are based on this appreciation (Ramakrishnan et al, 1994a) It is in this context and the context of the concerns of the developing world as a whole, I consider linking biodiversity concerns with rehabilitation/sustainable livelihood issues of traditional societies in the region becomes crucial. The task ahead is difficult and complex, but can be handled through a bottom-up approach and involving local communities right through conceptualization, planning and implementation of a location-specific strategy.

Case 1. Shifting agriculture (jhum) in North-Eastern India and social disruption (from Ramakrishnan, 1992b)

North-Eastern India has over 100 different tribes, linguistically and culturally distinct from one another; the tribes often change over very short distances, a few kilometers in some cases. Shifting agriculture, or jham as the tribals call it, is the major economic activity. This highly organized agroecosystem was based on empirical knowledge accumulated through centuries and was in harmony with the environment as long as the jhum cycle (the fallow length intervening between two successive croppings) was long enough to allow the forest and the soil fertility lost during the cropping phase to recover.

Supplementing the jhum system is the valley system of wet rice cultivation and home gardens. The valley system is sustainable on a regular basis year after year because the wash-out from the hill slopes provides the needed soil fertility for rice cropping without any external inputs. Home gardens extensively found in the region have economically valuable trees. shrubs, herbs and vines and form a compact multi-storied system of fruit crops, vegetables, medicinal plants and many cash crops; the system in its structure and function imitates a natural forest ecosystem. The number of species in a small area of less than a hectare may be 30 or 40; it therefore represents a highly intensive system of farming in harmony with the environment.

Linked on this land-use are the animal husbandry systems centred traditionally around pigs and poultry. The advantage here is primarily that they are detritus-based or based on the recycling of food from the agroecosystem unfit for human consumption.

Increased human population pressure and decline in land area resulting from extensive deforestation for timber for use for industrial man and jhum has brought down the jhum cycle to four to five years or less. Where population densities are high, as around urban centres, burning of slash is dispensed with, leading to rotational/sedentary systems of agriculture. These are often below subsistence level, though the attempt is to maximize output under rapidly depleting soil fertility. Inappropriate animal husbandry practices introduced into the area, such as goat or cattle husbandry, could lead to rapid site deterioration through indiscriminate grazing/browsing and fodder removal, as has happened elsewhere in the Himalayas. The serious social disruption caused demands an integrated approach to managing the forest-human interface.

Case 2. "Demojong", the land of the hidden treasures!

Padmasambhava, who is highly revered and worshipped by the Sikkimese Buddhists, is considered to have blessed Yoksum and the surrounding landscape represented by "Demojong" in West Sikkim District of Sikkim, having placed a large number of hidden treasures (ter). Many of these sacred treasures were hidden by Lhabstsun Namkha Jigme in the Yoksum region. It is believed that these treasures are being discovered slowly and will be revealed only to enlightened Lamas, at appropriate times. Conserving these treasures, protecting them from polluting influences is considered important for human welfare.

The area below Mount Khangchendzonga in West Sikkim, referred to as "Demojong" is the core of the sacred land of Sikkim. Yoksum is considered to be a "Lhakhang" (altar) and "Mandala" where the protective deities are made offerings to. No meaningful performance of Buddhist rituals are possible if this land and water is desecrated. Any large-scale human-induced perturbation in the land of the holy Yoksum region would destroy the hidden treasures, the tots, in such a manner that the chances of recovering them sometimes in the future by a visionary will diminish (it is said that the last such discovery was made by Terton Padma Lingpa, when he lived 540 years ago). Any major perturbation to the river system would disturb the ruling deities of the 109 hidden lakes of the river, thus leading to serious calamities (here they quote the example of the lake "Khecho-Palri" that is suggested to have moved away from the river during a period of bloodshed, sometime in the past).

Indeed, the very cultural fabric of the Sikkimese society is obviously dependent on the conservation of the whole sacred landscape of interacting ecosystems, as was evident during discussions this author had with respected religious leaders and a cross section of the Sikkimese society, cutting across religious, cultural and professional backgrounds of the people. The issue here is not merely a question of protecting a few physical structures or ruins. The uniqueness of this heritage site is that the value system here is interpreted in a more holistic sense - the soil, the water, the biota, the visible water bodies, the river and the less obvious notional lakes on the river bed, are all to be taken together with the physical monuments.

Case 3. Pathways of agricultural development (after Swift et al., 1994)

The "auto-route" to maximal productivity

Modern agriculture as a production system is based on heavy external energy subsidies and in that sense is different from natural ecosystems that are regulated by internal controls. An appropriate metaphor would be the engineer who plans an autoroute by drawing a straight line from place to place on a map and proceeds to build a straight and level road regardless of the physical impediments. Such an agroecosystem type would stand apart as an artificial entity from the rest of the landscape - an attempt to convert the natural ecosystem into one that contains only those biological and chemical elements that the planner desires, almost irrespective of the background ecological conditions, e.g. the "Green Revolution" model.

Restoration: the "contour pathway" to sustainability

The "contour pathway" seeks to acknowledge and work with the ecological forces that provide the base on which the system must be built, while acknowledging the social, economic and cultural requirements of the farming communities. Working with nature, rather than dominating it, this approach would involve active planning with the nature of the background ecosystem fully in mind, e.g. the sloping agricultural land technology (SALT) developed in Philippines is one such system that approaches closer to this approach, though the initial reaction to the extension of SALT has not been very encouraging for reasons related to:

* land tenure difficulties; and

* heavy labour investment.

Many agroecosystem types in the "low" and "middle" intensity management categories [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] will come under this pathway.

Evolution by "incremental change"

Many traditional agricultural systems need to be redeveloped through incremental, rather than quantum change; anything drastic may not find acceptance by the local communities. In this incremental change towards sustainable development. one may have to consider a short-term strategy that may be constrained because of ecological, economic, social or cultural reasons, apart from a more ideal and perhaps desirable long-term strategy. The possible ways in which a forest farmer practising shifting agriculture and other land uses such as valley wet rice cultivation or home gardens could pick up an appropriate variant from the local types that may be available or incremental change that could be brought about by strengthening the agroforestry component are the distorted shifting agriculture under a short cycle of 5 years or less through introduction of the Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis are illustrative of this pathway for sustainable development.

Landscape mosaic

Compared with a landscape model that is often seen now, where pristine unmanaged ecosystems are set in a sea of intensive large-scale agroecosystems, it may be desirable to have a mosaic of agroecosystem types derived through all the three pathways coexisting with natural ecosystem types, managed or unmanaged. Maintenance of the overall sustainability of the system requires the patchwork mosaic that would, albeit inadvertently, be the best plan for biodiversity conservation in general.

Case 4. Shifting agriculture (jhum) and sustainable development for North-Eastern India (from Ramakrishnan, 1992b).

For improving the system of land use and resource management in North-Eastern India, the following strategies suggested by Ramakrishnan and his co-workers are based on a multidisciplinary analysis. Many of these proposals have already been put into practice.

* With wide variations in cropping and yield patterns under jhum practised by over 100 tribes under diverse ecological situations, where transfer of technology from one tribe/area to another alone could improve the jhum, valley land and home garden ecosystems. Thus, for example, emphasis on potato at higher elevations compared to rice at lower elevations has led to a manifold increase in economic yield despite low fertility of the more acid soils at higher elevations.

* Maintain a jhum cycle of minimum ten years, (this cycle length was found critical for sustainability when jhum was evaluated using money, energy, soil fertility biomass productivity, biodiversity and water quality, as currencies) by greater emphasis on other land use systems such as the traditional valley cultivation or home gardens.

* Where jhum cycle length cannot be increased beyond the five-year period that is prevalent in the region, redesign and strengthen this agroforestry system incorporating ecological insights on tree architecture (e.g. the canopy form of tree should be compatible with crop species at ground level so as to permit sufficient light penetration and provide fast recycling of nutrients through fast leaf turnover rates).

* Improve the nitrogen economy of jhum at the cropping and fallow phases by introduction of nitrogen-fixing legumes and non-legumes. A species such as the Nepalese alder (Alnus nepalensis) is readily taken in because it is based on the principle of adaptation of traditional knowledge to meet modern needs. Another such example is the lesser known food crop legume Flemingia vestita.

* Some of the important bamboo species, highly valued by the tribes, can concentrate and conserve important nutrient elements such as N, P and K. They could also be used as windbreaks to check wind-blow loss of ash and nutrient losses in water.

* Speed up fallow regeneration after jhum by introducing fast growing native shrubs and trees.

* Condense the time-span of forest succession and accelerate restoration of degraded lands based on an understanding of tree growth strategies and architecture, by adjusting the species mix in time and space.

* Improve animal husbandry through improved breeds of swine and poultry.

* Redevelop village ecosystems through the introduction of appropriate technology to relieve drudgery and improve energy efficiency (cooking stoves, agricultural implements, biogas generation, small hydroelectric projects, etc.). Promote crafts such as smithying and products based on leather, bamboo and other woods.

* Strengthen conservation measures based on the traditional knowledge and value system with which the tribal communities could identify, e.g. the revival of the sacred grove concept based on cultural tradition which enabled each village to have a protected forest once on a time, although few are now left.

Case 5. Rehabilitation of degraded rural ecosystems in the Asian tropics (from Ramakrishnan et al., 1994a)

G.1. Rehabilitation and management would only succeed if short-term economic benefits are assured to local communities, apart from long-term benefits envisaged.

G.2. If rehabilitation and management strategies are to be effective and successful, womens' participation is necessary.

G.3. Without a broad understanding of the complexities of the system (through rapid appraisal methodology), rehabilitation strategies may not succeed.

G.4. Unless ecosystem rehabilitation and management leads to a general improvement and maintenance of soil fertility and water quality, it is not sustainable.

G.5. Ecosystem rehabilitation will be sustainable only if: internal control of processes (e.g., resource recycling) within the ecosystem are strengthened; dependence on external subsidies (e.g. fertilizers) are minimized; and self-regenerating capacities enhanced, to the extent feasible.

G.6. In order to succeed, ecosystem rehabilitation should have strong community participation in planning, management, implementation and continuous monitoring of all these parameters.

G.7. Unless rights and responsibilities of ownership are clearly defined and understood by all the participants, ecosystem rehabilitation is not likely to succeed.

G.8. If community participation is to be effective, community/user group institutions will have to be built into the rehabilitation strategy.

G.9. Unless land capability analysis and classification, taking into consideration scientific/traditional knowledge is integrated, rehabilitation work will not be effective and sustainable.

G.10. Empowerment (training, institutional, access to facilities and resources) of local communities in general and vulnerable sections (landless and women) in particular is crucial for the success of any rehabilitation programme.

G.11. In order that rehabilitation work is sustainable, surface and ground water resources and its exploitation is monitored and appropriately regulated through institutional mechanism.


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Author:Ramakrishnan, P.S.
Publication:International Journal of Social Economics
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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