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close this bookGreening at the Grassroots: People's Participation in Sustainable Development (UNRISD; 1991; 25 pages)
View the documentUNRISD
View the documentPREFACE
View the documentACKNOLEDGEMENT
View the documentINTRODUCTION
View the document1. PARTICIPATION AND CONSERVATION PROJECTS: SOME PROMISING APPROACHES
View the document2. SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
View the document3. TRADITIONAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT SYSTEMS
View the document4. THE DYNAMICS OF THE COMMONS
View the document5. THE SUSTAINABILITY OF TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS IN DEVELOPING SOCIETIES
View the document6. TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS AND POPULAR INITIATIVES
View the document7. THE SIGNIFICANCE AND POTENTIAL OF LOCALLY BASED ENVIRONMENTAL INITIATIVES
View the document8. CONCLUSION: POVERTY, EMPOWERMENT AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT
View the documentBIBLIOGRAPHY
 

6. TRADITIONAL SYSTEMS AND POPULAR INITIATIVES

In the face of the internationalization of even very local economies, increasing commercialization, and direct pressure and hostility from development agents, it cannot be assumed that traditional resource management systems can continue as before without the active support and struggle of their participants. Such struggles, based on the efforts of local people to maintain or improve their levels of living by halting resource degradation which threatens their traditional livelihoods without providing new benefits to them, are occurring in many parts of the Third World. Perhaps the best-known are the Chipko movement - which originated with localized efforts to prevent the destruction of Indian forests by loggers, and has developed into a regional movement with wide-ranging environmental concerns - and the rubber tappers’ association - which was organized to protect the Brazilian forest dwellers’ rights to extract forest products in a sustainable way, and has resulted in the establishment of extractivist reserves, which are protected from logging (Bandyopadhyay and Shiva, 1988; Schwartzman, 1989). These two movements have become subjects of much discussion, but their frequent citation should not obscure the fact that such struggles are in fact quite widespread.

Reaction against infrastructure projects, such as dams or roads, which threaten a transformation or an outright destruction of the environment is perhaps the most common form of what may be termed environmental resistance movements. Again, it is the large projects - the Narmada dam in India or the Balbina in Brazil - which have attracted the most attention, but these are far from being the only examples of such activities. The Jonglei canal project in southern Sudan, which has been planned since the 1940s as a way to by-pass the swamps of the region, is as yet incomplete in part because local resistance (influenced by the civil war) resulted in serious environmental flaws in the design being recognized. In Nigeria, resistance to the Bakolori reservoir project in the late 1980s was violently repressed (Adams, 1990), but the movement ultimately had repercussions elsewhere in western Africa, as later dam projects made more deliberate efforts to address the concerns of local communities.

Environmental activism does not only occur when complete environmental destruction is threatened, but can also result from attempts to convert resources from one form to another in a way which renders traditional ways of life untenable, without providing alternative economic opportunities to the communities affected. Lane’s (1990) work with the Barabaig pastoralists in Tanzania gives one example of the form which such activism can take. The conversion of part of their traditional grazing lands to wheat farms forced the Barabaig to concentrate their herds on the inferior lands remaining to them. As a consequence, both this land and the area converted to wheat monocropping have suffered soil erosion. Economic hardship for the Barabaig has been the result, while the wheat farms have failed to yield the benefits - to the farmers or to the country - which were predicted. The Barabaig have reacted by challenging in court the process which resulted in the appropriation of the land, and asserting their claim that their customary use of the land should grant them to legal title to it. The case has not yet been decided, but it has attracted worldwide attention, not least from the Canadian funders of the wheat farm project. Even if the Barabaig lose their case, their activity will have resulted in closer examination by at least some donors of schemes which transform rangelands to farms.

Similarly, the conversion of Brazilian wetlands, traditionally managed by fishing and farming communities, to irrigated sugar cane and rice plantations has resulted in collective action. In his study of varzea (floodplain) fishing communities in Brazil, Diegues (1990) found that without this social mobilization, neither the livelihood of traditional communities nor the environment can be conserved, because the plantations not only displace the traditional inhabitants of the area, but also cause significant environmental degradation, disturbing the finely tuned ecosystem which maintains marine life. As in the Tanzanian case, the conversion to farming of parts of former communal land affects surrounding areas as well. Not only have certain species of fish and trees disappeared altogether, but the remaining fishing areas must be exploited more intensively than before. Protests against the plantation schemes began in 1986, and enlisted the assistance of national and international support groups. The ecological and cultural importance of the varzea was documented in a series of technical surveys, and by 1988 the area was declared under environmental protection.

Environmental activism in the Third World involves not only struggle against the expropriation of resources, but also resistance to resource overexploitation by outsiders. The communities of the rainforests of Sarawak, in Malaysia, whose economy and way of life are based on the forest, have protested against government-supported logging activities whose benefits are channelled to élites outside of the region. In 1987 the Penan, a hunting and gathering society, appealed to the Government to stop the logging:

“Stop destroying the forest or we will be forced to protect it. We have lived here before any of you outsiders came. We fished in clean rivers and hunted in the jungle.... Our life was not easy, but we lived it in content. Now, the logging companies turn rivers into muddy streams and the jungle into devastation. The fish cannot survive in dirty rivers and wild animals will not live in devastated forest.... We want our ancestral land, the land we live off, back. We can use it in a wiser way”. (cited in Colchester, 1989: 42)


The logging did not stop, and the Penan people acted, blockading logging roads. The action was soon taken up by other communities of the rainforest, and logging activity was brought to a standstill. In addition, the activists were able to link into environmental networks to publicize their cause, and to launch an international campaign to influence other countries to stop importing Malaysian timber. Although some concessions have been won, the campaign has not been an unqualified success: “crusading” western environmentalists were accused of exploiting the Penan and hindering development, while at the same time Penan leaders were jailed under an anti-terrorist law (Lim, 1989; Utusan Konsumer, 1989).

The Malaysian experience has been repeated in many areas of the world where forest communities have been threatened by logging, including India, Thailand, the Philippines and Brazil. Activism in response to overexploitation of common resources by outsiders is not limited to indigenous forest communities, however. Kurien’s (1991) study of the responses of the fishworkers of the Kerala coast to overfishing of common waters by commercial fishing companies is a case in point. As it became clear that trawler fishing was depleting fish stocks to an unsustainable degree, a campaign to ban the large boats from the coastal waters during the crucial spawning season was begun. It took almost ten years of organization, agitation, hunger strikes and political manoeuvring, but by 1988 such a ban was enacted.

Again, it cannot be said that success was complete: the struggle had to be continued in order for the fishing ban to be imposed the following year. At the same time, the years of competition with the commercial fleets had caused many of the traditional fishermen to turn to outboard motors and miniature versions of the destructive ring seines used by the large boats in order to increase their own catches; now the traditional fishing community is in danger of abandoning its previous sustainable practices. However, this trend is offset by another one. In the course of activating the collective action against the commercial boats, many of the organizers have gained a more precise understanding of the limits of marine resources, and they are now beginning to act to stop the newly formed destructive habits of their own community.

 

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