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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 documentBIBLIOGRAPHY


As was discussed above, the term “sustainable development” is used here to imply maintained improvements in living levels, of which increased consumption is only one aspect. The question of traditional resource management, therefore, should not be examined only in terms of its efficiency in market economics: in many cases, traditional ways of interacting with the environment provide a fundamental basis to a community’s well-being, and the abolition or support of traditional lifestyles thus becomes a human rights issue. When cultural and social identity is inextricably bound up in traditional forms of resource use, and when such communities desire to maintain this identity4, resource management policy decisions should not be made solely on the basis of which system will provide a maximum economic yield. Thus the plight of extractivist forest dwellers in the Amazon should not be dismissed because the marketing of their products must be subsidized, and the disappearance of the pastoralist way of life should not be considered an indispensable sacrifice to progress.

4 These of course are immensely complex issues, which, not being central to the argument of this paper, will not be further discussed here.

It is also important, however, not to idealize all indigenous practices or communal societies. Many traditional societies are clearly repressive, while even seemingly highly participatory traditional resource management systems can be inegalitarian, and common property can in reality exclude large numbers of people from enjoying the full benefits of its holdings. The exclusion of women from the decision-making and/or the benefits of such systems is perhaps the most readily observable example of inequality, although similar exclusions based on class, caste, and race are also very common (Watson, 1989).

To many in the development community, however, the question of the relative merits of different traditional systems is seen as moot: the common perception is that the sustainability of traditional ways of life is being threatened not only by exogenous pressures and policy decisions, but also by stresses coming from within the community, including increased integration into the market economy, increased contact with Western cultures, and population pressures. All of these factors do inevitably bring changes to lifestyles, but no tradition has ever been static, and change can occur without tradition being lost. The way in which current trends affect the sustainability of resource use in traditional societies, and thus the viability of such societies, remains a more open question, however. There are many examples of communities which lose their incentives to preserve the resources on which they no longer depend as capitalist development takes place, and they thus abandon their traditional management practices and eventually lose their knowledge of them. This process is not inevitable, however. Rainforest Indians establish market relations with North American ice-cream chains without abandoning their relationship with the forest; African pastoralists initiate political and economic contact with towns without losing their sense of reliance on the land; and many communities throughout the Third World have even opted to market their own “indigenousness” to tourists, while never giving up their own sense of the value of their way of life.

The relationship between population growth and resource degradation deserves special consideration because of the substantial attention it has received in recent years. The approach to this question has changed little since Malthus, and it is presently widely accepted that population growth will force resource extraction to exceed the capacity of the environment to renew itself, and environmental degradation will be the unavoidable result. Even among those who recognize that population pressure is not the only or ultimate cause of environmental problems (Shaw, 1990), it is common to argue that reducing population growth is nevertheless the most effective means of arresting environmental decline.

In fact, however, evidence is mounting that the population growth approach is an oversimplistic means of portraying the environmental problems of the Third World. It is true, on the one hand, that in an ultimate sense the resources of the Earth will be limited, and more specifically, that population pressures can contribute directly to overexploitation of resources in situations where people do not have available to them options which would allow them to adapt their behaviour in a sustainable way5. However, concentrating on slowing demographic growth rates in order to relieve particular environmental problems in the Third World is at best ineffective and at worst misguided, diverting attention from more fundamental causes and more productive solutions. As Somanathan (1991) demonstrates in a study of forest management in the Himalaya, deforestation in the region has historically been associated with government policy rather than changes in population size. When traditional forest management systems were disturbed in the 1920s, deforestation occurred in widening circles around villages in the span of a few years - clearly too short a time for a population explosion. The same study reveals that dense population does not necessarily imply deforestation: the crowded valley below the Chandag Reserve, which has retained its forestry control system, maintains well-protected panchayat forests, while the reserve itself, under government control, has been degraded. Similarly, deforestation in Brazil has been clearly demonstrated to have been influenced by a complex set of factors including policy decisions (Mahar, 1989; Hecht and Cockburn, 1990), although this does not prevent the continuing deforestation being ascribed to population pressure.

5 The importance that the power of adaptation has for the outcome of population growth is demonstrated by the fact that, as the Brundtland report points out, “a child born in a country where levels of material and energy use are high places a greater burden on the Earth’s resources than a child born in a poorer country” (WCED, 1987: par. 4.48). The emphasis of population programmes remains on the South, however, while many Northern countries are undertaking concerted efforts to increase their own birth-rates.

In addition, there is some evidence to show that the practice of overexploiting resources can be, under some circumstances, connected with an actual decline in population. A study undertaken in the Jebel Marra highlands of Sudan, for instance, describes a situation in which carefully managed agroforestry systems have been a part of the traditional environmental management practices of the region, and have helped to support a densely settled population for centuries (Miehe, 1989). In recent years, however, the population has declined substantially (due in large part to the pull of newly accessible cities), and the resource management of the area has become less rigourous, with the result that tree cover has actually declined. The only mature tree plantations were planted over 60 years ago, and the knowledge that provided the basis for sound plantation management has now largely been lost.

The need to refrain from overgeneralizing about the effects of population dynamics on traditionally sustainable resource management systems is well demonstrated by two studies of the traditional milpa agriculture of Mexico, a complex and highly developed form of resource management involving forest extraction, active fallow management and cultivation of maize and other crops. Barrera Bassols, Ortíz Espejel and Medellin (1991) report on an indigenous community in northern Veracruz, detailing the traditional agricultural practices which have remained productive for generations in the context of a strong tradition of community identity, shared labour, and a conscious effort to ensure the integrity of the environment. Recently, however, population growth seems to have reached the point at which the traditional low-input, shifting cultivation techniques will no longer be feasible: in 1989 chemical fertilizers were used for the first time. García-Barrios and García-Barrios (1991) report on changes taking place within the milpa of a community in the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca. In this case, dramatic declines in population due to outmigration have resulted in a situation similar to the Jebel Marra case: the residents are beginning to lose the ecological knowledge which formed the basis of the milpa system, and new techniques are not being developed to replace it.

Although the outcome of these two Mexican cases is in some ways similar, in that the traditional milpa agriculture has come under pressure from endogenous forces, the indications are that the eventual outcome will be quite different for the two communities. In the Oaxaca case, agricultural production is declining faster than are the needs of the community, which are being reduced through outmigration, while in the Veracruz case, the growing community has maintained not only food self-sufficiency, but also substantial agricultural surpluses. The eventual outcome of the changes taking place in the Veracruz community remains to be seen, but it is quite possible that a new form of “traditional” resource management will be developed which will continue to enable this community to fulfil its needs. From these two examples, it is clear that population growth (and indeed population decline) is only linked to unsustainable resource use to the extent that the population in question does not have the means to adapt its resource management practices to the changing needs of the community.

In summary, the evidence shows that making generalized judgements about the future of traditional resource management systems in the context of development is inappropriate. It cannot be said that it is either possible or desirable to maintain all such systems, and at the same time it is a mistake to dismiss them as obsolete or unable to remain adaptable in the face of endogenous pressures. What is clear, however, is that the presence of traditionally sustainable environmental practices can provide opportunities for achieving sustainable development which should not be overlooked. In some cases existing systems can arguably be maintained, at least for the medium-term future, in the absence of interference (Polunin, 1985; Lane, 1990; Cummings, 1990). In other cases, traditional resource management techniques show potential for use in informing successful new resource management initiatives (Draz, 1985; Bromley and Cernea, 1989; Yabes, 1991)6. A third possibility is that traditions of community management of resources will form the basis of community action which specifically addresses environmental issues. Diegues (1990) argues that the presence of traditional communities can be considered insurance that the environment will be conserved, provided that their management schemes remain viable, because such communities will not allow environmental degradation if it is in their power to arrest it. It is this potential of traditional systems to provide the foundation of popular initiatives that is the subject of the following section.

6 These two possibilities will be taken up further in future UNRISD work.


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