Community way to conserve
Dinoo Anna Mathew

Traditional Wisdom in Natural Resource Management: The Only Way to Conserve
By Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra, Dehra Dun. Pages 229. Rs 395.

Itís not a new concept that to preserve and sustain life in its fullness, man has to honour his relationship with the natural world. Living under environmentally fragile conditions, the indigenous societies in our country have over the centuries, through trial and error, struck a delicate balance with the environment. This is exemplified by the significant position they have accorded to the environment and their values that are central to the environment.

Over the years, the forces of state and market have increasingly interfered in this balance in the name of preserving and conserving natural resources without having to consider the needs of the indigenous communities and their traditional practices at conserving nature. The result has been diminishing forest cover and biodiversity, besides a diminishing sense of responsibility which local communities traditionally held towards environment and so forth. The introduction of the Scheduled Tribes (Recognition of Forest Rights) Bill, 2005, is a step towards acknowledging the traditional rights of the forest dwellers through community access and control.

The book testifies the significance of community-managed resources. As stated, while people-centric traditional practices are based on the principle of use and not abuse, state laws concerning forests emphasise conservation of natural resources without paying adequate attention to the needs of the community.

The book draws data from the study, Self-imposed rules and traditional practices of natural resource management among tribal/hill communities in Uttaranchal, conducted by RLEK and the Centre for Environment Education Research and Advocacy (CEERA). Of particular interest are the chapters that deal with forest, water and land management, respectively. These challenge popular perceptions of community management of the natural world.

The study identifies factors like monetary fines, religious values and fear of the divine, social ostracisation in a few cases, and community responsibility, that are employed frequently to ensure that the community complies with the self-imposed rules.

Traditional mechanisms of protection like community-managed forests, significance accorded to sacred groves and sacred trees, innovative forms of forest management and protection like the Chipko Movement, Maiti rituals and Badrivan Restoration Programme and the relatively recent mechanism of van panchayats captures the readersí admiration of the concern of local communities towards protecting and maintaining forests.

When water scarcity became common in most villages in Uttaranchal, the local community evolved various customs and practices for managing water resources.

The authors express concern over the lack of viability of national schemes in Uttaranchal and highlight the negative effect of handing over the control of water resources to the state through the Kumaon and Garhwal Water (Collection and Distribution) Act 1975. As a result, many traditional irrigation systems fell into disrepair and the number of disputes between individuals and communities sharing irrigations systems increased.

In the chapter on land management, the authors argue that in contrast to the modern practices, which are not always conducive to the geo-physical and socio-economic conditions of Uttaranchal, traditional practices have enabled the community to survive the environmental exigencies. The people of the Central Himalayas, a seismically and tectonically sensitive zone, have devised unique ways of natural resource management. Their drainage system, also called "jungle guhls", in landslide-prone and high-altitude villages, ensures that the rainwater flows into the rivers as directly as possible.

Yet another example is the traditional architecture and settlement patterns in the high-altitude villages that are prone to earthquakes and landslides.

The authors have drawn out the positive impact of high levels of community participation and solidarity on the sustainable yield from natural resource base, high levels of awareness among the people about local resources in their routine activities etc.

The practical difficulties in the practice of traditional customs in the changed world come up in the last chapter. These are loss of individual and community rights over natural resources, increasing politicisation of religion, increasing population and ceaseless demands on scarce resources.

The notion of romanticising the traditional customs and practices has been dispelled. The authors have raised more questions on how to integrate traditional practices into the present policy of conserving nature so that it benefits both. Based on thorough research and enriched by case studies, the book will attract scholars, students and policy-makers alike.