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Global Economy

First nation tragedies
Globalization and Indigenous Peoples in Asia, by Pierre Walter, Dev Nathan and Govind Kelkar (ed)

Reviewed by Chanakya Sen

Professor Wangari Maathai's awarding of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize is recognition of the worldwide struggle of indigenous people to own the forests that they manage and conserve for the rest of humanity. The volume under review reveals the processes whereby first nations in China, India and Nepal are subjected to steady "resource exclusion". It proposes changes in the terms on which they interact with lowland people and global markets.

First nation peoples are pivotal suppliers of environmental (ecosystem) services like climate control, biodiversity, soil nutrition and clean water. Yet they are uncompensated for producing these regional and global public goods. Their cultural products and knowledge are extracted free of charge by bio-pirates. International environmental conventions and state policies are restricting them from accessing their livelihood opportunities and displacing them from land ownership. Globalization "increases further marginalization, disempowerment and desperation" (p 16) among hill-forest dwellers.

Seventy percent of the world's aboriginals live in Asia. They are characterized by high poverty, low literacy, high malnutrition, low life expectancy, high morbidity and low human-rights. "Policies for the indigenous peoples have so far been framed with a view to the benefits that can be extracted for the outside economies". (p 20) Victimized and socially isolated, bereft of tenure and ownership rights over forests, first nations suffer daily coercion.

Rapacious timber extraction and logging by states and private companies are based on the misplaced notion of forests as terra nullius, land devoid of people. Land degeneration, soil erosion, fertility depletion, landslides and disappearance of non-timber forest products are the results of clear-felling policies of external actors. They have caused income falls, urban migration and other uncompensated losses to hill economies.

Dev Nathan's opening essay calls for an acknowledgement of indigenous ownership of forests, exercised as a combination of communal and individual tenure. State command and control approaches have to give way to an incentive system involving pricing of environmental services. Upland people should be able to sell these services to the lowlands as is being done in Costa Rica, Switzerland and New York City. Lowlands should not be allowed to benefit from upland services free of cost, exacerbating the iniquities in living standards between plains and mountain areas.

Sanjay Kumar's piece on indigenous know-how of tribals in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand argues that their knowledge is not only technical but also cultural and sociological. Villagers know forests are crucial for clean air and make conscious efforts to protect tree species that are pollution controllers. The role of forests in hydrology (precipitation, rainfall and water purification) is well understood and enhanced. Trees useful as growth promoters of aquatic food are carefully grown. Awareness of moisture and nutrient flows from forests for farmlands is passed down to new generations. Forests are meticulously harnessed for storm and pest protection functions too. The "cosmovision" of indigenous people, manifested in elaborate cultural events and beliefs, is tied to trees and forests. Kumar calls for collating this mine of local knowledge with dominant Western-imported forestry management concepts.

Wang Qinghua's case study of the Hani in China's Yunnan province illustrates the important role of forests in terraced agriculture. Locals appreciate forests as natural green dams and disallow logging through special regulations, watchmen and punishments. Inorganic fertilizer use is minimal. Hani women are experts in usage, taste and properties of wild plants. A socialized and "sacralized" relationship with nature has allowed regeneration of forests for centuries. Hani traditional practices were dubbed superstitious and eliminated during the Great Leap Forward (1958) and Learn from Dazhai Movement (1972). New policies after 1982 have allowed reversion to low-impact uses of the forest by the indigenous people.

Yu Xiaogang's article on the Yi and Naxi people in Lijiang, Yunnan, portrays how government projects seriously hurt first nations. Benefits of so-called development and environmental measures have flown to external stakeholders, ie urban and downstream agrarian areas. "Local people are getting marginalized, since every decision that affects them is made by outside centers". (p 135) Intensive logging by the state has left a destructive trail of soil erosion, lake sedimentation, droughts and floods. Uncontrolled private household logging is another problem that the Yi and Naxi are unable to check. Yu recommends embedding decision-making in local hands as a component of economic democracy.

Tiplut Nongbri discusses the disastrous effects of the 1996 ban on tree felling and all wood-based activities in northeast India. It suddenly terminated livelihood sources for the Khasi and Garo tribes of Meghalaya. To escape starvation, they are now "descaling" trees (removing and selling bark), migrating to urban slums etc. The rural economy has taken a steep downward slide, thanks to the blanket proscription on access to forests. The ban is an extension of draconian state power and a demonstration of the erroneous assumption that the state is the best guardian of forests. A similar ban in China in 1998 choked local accumulation, put the brakes on local development and deprived indigenous people of the right to use their own resources.

Dev Nathan's account of the large-scale privatization of forests in northeast India is a classic discourse on the pros and cons of market-induced transformation of indigenous economies. In the bid to maximize short-term income, some indigenous people are over-harvesting the "unregulated commons" and under-providing environmental services. Moneymaking by hook or crook has gained respectability and there is a concomitant attenuation of social obligations to the needy. Collective action to maintain forest quality and counter internal class differentiation is much required.

Pierre Walter recounts the response of Hani people to the explosive growth of tourism in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan. In 1991, Hani of Manmo village built a locally-managed eco-tourism reserve, only for it to be appropriated for "ethno-pilfering" by Han Chinese entrepreneurs. The reserve is being employed to propagate cultural images that satisfy Han majority stereotypes and a "colonial ranking of ethnicities". (p 216) Eco-tourism has also deteriorated the gender division of labor to the detriment of women.

Govind Kelkar's observations in Lijiang corroborate the negativities for indigenous women from tourism. Men, privileged with external contacts and mobility, garner the lion's portion of tourist income. Growth of tourism is expanding male superiority even among historically matrifocal communities. Tourism-driven patriarchy can only be neutralized if women are admitted to external knowledge and resource management.

Girija Shrestha profiles the interesting experiment in 10 districts of Nepal of leaseholds to the poor as an incentive for investment in currently degraded forests. Leasing or auctioning of badly denuded forests to the highest bidders do not address equity concerns of women and the poor among first nations. Nepalese Tamang, Praja and other lowest castes have splendidly taken care of the leases. The vegetative cover has improved along with the productive base of the impoverished. Women have the freedom to bypass male-mediated access to forests. Asset transfer, rather than the typical economist prescription of income transfer, has been more just.

N S Jodha explains why forest products are facing export market problems. Presently, costs of management of forests are not reflected in pricing. Only the costs of gathering are reflected. Food-insecure first-nation producers are involved in an unequal exchange with the rest of the world. Monopsony in the buyer's market compounds the under-pricing. Indigenous producers have to form organizations to strengthen their bargaining position and attain countervailing market power. Capacity-building in organic agriculture and other niche products can enhance comparative advantage. Information technology can bridge distances between producers and markets and realize fairer prices. "Knowledge-based workers" are emerging among first nations in northern Thailand and Kalimantan.

Integration of aboriginals into the global economy has triggered civilizational changes. The new organizing principles of society are accumulation and wealth creation. Markets benefit first nations by allowing higher levels of income, consumption by choice and efficiency in resource use. The flip side of the coin is masculine domination and inequalities in access to resources. Every author in this book believes in restrictions on property rights and non-market access when it comes to critical natural resources. Public intervention in privatization alone can mitigate elite exploitation of the indigenes.

Globalization and Indigenous Peoples in Asia, by Pierre Walter, Dev Nathan and Govind Kelkar (ed). Sage Publications, New Delhi, August 2004. ISBN: 0-7619-3253-4. Price: US$15, 339 pages.

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Oct 23, 2004
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