Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘traditional knowledge

A pre-Rio pentagram from the IIED

leave a comment »

Energy equity, adaptation planning for food and farming, paying for watershed services, Costa Rica’s environment success and food system governance by citizens – these are the subjects of five new briefing papers prepared and released by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). These topics will feature – more or less prominently, we never know, given the politicisation that occurs at every inter-governmental meeting concerning environment and responsibility – in next month’s Rio+20 summit.

Here are the synopses and links:

1. Energy equity: will the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative make a difference?
Establishing inclusive governance of food systems — where farmers and other citizens play an active role in designing and implementing food and agricultural policies — is not just a matter of equity or social justice. Evidence shows that it can also lead to more sustainable livelihoods and environments. And yet, across the world, food system governance is marked by exclusionary processes that favour the values and interests of more powerful corporations, investors, big farmers and large research institutes. How can we tip the balance and amplify the voice and influence of marginalised citizens in setting the food and agricultural policies that affect them? Research points to six tried and tested ways that, when combined, can empower citizens in the governance of food systems.

2. Planning adaptation for food and farming: lessons from 40 years’ research
Local farmers and pastoralists in poor countries have long coped with droughts, floods and variable rainfall patterns. This first-hand experience is invaluable for those working on climate change adaptation policies, but how do we access it? IIED has 40 years’ experience working alongside vulnerable communities to help inform regional, national and global policies. Our research has shown that measures to increase climate change resilience must view food, energy, water and waste management systems as interconnected and mutually dependent. This holistic approach must also be applied to economic analysis on adaptation planning. Similarly, it is vital to use traditional knowledge and management skills, which can further support adaptation planning. Taking these lessons into account, we can then address the emerging policy challenges that we face.

3. Paying for watershed services: an effective tool in the developing world?
Payments for watershed services (PWS) are an increasingly popular conservation and water management tool in developing countries. Some schemes are thriving, and are pro-poor. Others are stalling or have only mixed success. Most rely on public or donor finance; and other sources of funding are unlikely to play a significant role any time soon. In part, financing PWS schemes remains a challenge because the actual evidence for their effectiveness is still scanty — it is hard to prove that they actually work to benefit both livelihoods and environments. Getting more direct and concrete data on costs and benefits will be crucial to securing the long-term future of PWS schemes.

4. Payments for environmental services in Costa Rica: from Rio to Rio and beyond
Costa Rica has shown how a small developing country can grab the bull of environmental degradation by the horns, and reverse one of the highest deforestation rates in Latin America to become the poster child of environment success. Key to its achievement has been the country’s payments for environmental services (PES) programme, which began in 1997 and which many countries are now looking to learn from, especially as water markets and schemes to reward forest conservation and reduced deforestation (REDD+) grow. Within Costa Rica too, there is a need to first reflect on how the contexts for, and challenges facing, PES have changed; and continue building a robust programme that can ensure the coming decade is as successful as the past one.

5. Putting citizens at the heart of food system governance
Establishing inclusive governance of food systems — where farmers and other citizens play an active role in designing and implementing food and agricultural policies — is not just a matter of equity or social justice. Evidence shows that it can also lead to more sustainable livelihoods and environments. And yet, across the world, food system governance is marked by exclusionary processes that favour the values and interests of more powerful corporations, investors, big farmers and large research institutes. How can we tip the balance and amplify the voice and influence of marginalised citizens in setting the food and agricultural policies that affect them? Research points to six tried and tested ways that, when combined, can empower citizens in the governance of food systems.

The intangible cultural heritage of agriculture and food, via Unesco – rice ritual in Japan

leave a comment »

Ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. When most of the ploughing is completed, girls called Saotome begin to prepare for the transplantation. They wear colourful dresses, and hats called Suge-gasa. Photo: UNESCO / ©2009 by Kitahiroshima-cho

UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – has a deep and wide view of traditional knowledge and practices of sustainability. Not readily apparent inside the labyrinthine UN system, Unesco’s Culture sector has within it the section on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which helps preserve, conserve and revitalise these practices.

The term “cultural heritage” has changed content considerably in recent decades, with much of that change having come about thanks to the conventions developed by Unesco. Although “cultural heritage” is usually seen as monuments, buildings of antiquity and sites of historical importance or natural significance, it also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

In this framework, the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage brings together such knowledge – sometimes well documented and living, sometimes in grave danger of being extinguished. These are organised under what are called the Lists of the Convention. In this series, I will pick out those practices and expressions of knowledge that have to do with cultivation systems, agricultural ecologies and the community cultures surrounding food.

The first in this series is ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’, the ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. This was inscribed in 2011 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace. Photo: UNESCO / ©2009 by Kitahiroshima-cho

‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is an agricultural ritual in which people worship the deity of rice fields, and pray for a good growth and abundant harvest of the rice crops for the year through ploughing fields, and transplanting rice seedlings. The Mibu community, located in a mountainous area of Western Japan, has developed and transmitted “Mibu no Hana Taue.” Both the Mibu and neighbouring Kawahigashi communities have been areas of rice cropping for a long time.

‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is carried out on the first Sunday of June every year after actual transplantations in the community are completed. Villagers gather at a large rice field, specially kept in reserve for the ritual. The deity of rice fields is welcomed, and a series of agricultural works such as ploughing, preparation for the transplantation and the actual transplantation are demonstrated in the presence of the deity. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace.

Traditional knowledge and climate change

with 2 comments

The Enawene Nawe people live in the basin of the Juruena River in the southern Amazon rainforest. They perform the Yaokwa ritual every year during the drought period to honour the Yakairiti spirits, thereby ensuring cosmic and social order for the different clans. The ritual links local biodiversity to a complex, symbolic cosmology that connects the different but inseparable domains of society, culture and nature. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

The connection between traditional knowledge and climate change is one that inter-governmental agencies really ought to pay a great deal more attention to. Several UN agencies, amongst them UNESCO and FAO, have done some sustained work on the subject. Their work, together with that of researchers and community leaders amongst indigenous peoples, has deserved a closer look for many years. Now, when ‘tipping points’ have been reached in several agro-ecological zones, it does seem gratuitous to look for ‘solutions’ (as they like to call it nowadays) from those who don’t see the world in terms of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’.

The traditional knowlege of tribal peoples, indigenous peoples, ‘adivasi’ (an Indian/South Asian term which means original inhabitant), or first peoples as they are called in parts of the northern hemisphere is now being seen as being a repository for all sorts of ‘solutions’ for problems caused by global warming, but also by the reckless growth of countries fixated on economic development. On the United Nations University (UNU) website, an article about ‘Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change’ by Gleb Raygorodetsky does a very good job of explaining the links and how they may, respectfully, be consulted.

I replied and commented on several of the points raised by Raygorodetsky. These appear below, and follow significant passages or statements in his article (in italics):

“Although indigenous peoples’ ‘low-carbon’ traditional ways of life have contributed little to climate change, indigenous peoples are the most adversely affected by it. This is largely a result of their historic dependence on local biological diversity, ecosystem services and cultural landscapes as a source of sustenance and well-being.”

The Limbe is a side-blown flute of hardwood or bamboo, traditionally used to perform Mongolian folk long songs. Through the use of circular breathing, Limbe performers are able to produce the continuous, wide-ranging melodies characteristic of the long song. Players breathe in through the nose while simultaneously blowing out through the mouth, using air stored in their cheeks to play the flute without interruption. Single stanzas of folk long song last approximately four to five minutes. A single song consists of three to five or more stanzas, which requires performance of the flute to continue uninterrupted for twelve to twenty-five minutes. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Ts.Tsevegsuren

It’s a good thing you’ve enclosed ‘low carbon’ in quotations here. Within these societies – indigenous, first peoples, tribal – this label has little meaning – as unhelpful as calling certain communities ‘low-hydrological’ (if the ecosystem they inhabit is a semi-arid zone) or ‘low-pelagic’ (where a coastal community practices only artisanal fishing).

“The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation…”

As urbanisation has proceeded these margins have become clearer. The homogenous economic choices made by many state governments in the last 60-70 years has encouraged urbanisation and the consequent marginalisation of the indigenous – a Hobson’s choice for many of these communities: ‘assimilate’ (and thereby run the risk of losing your identity) or be marginalised.

“…they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85 per cent of the world’s protected areas. Indigenous lands also contain hundreds of gigatons of carbon — a recognition that is gradually dawning on industrialized countries that seek to secure significant carbon stocks in an effort to mitigate climate change.”

Yaokwa, the Enawene Nawe people’s ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order, is integrated into their everyday activities over the course of seven months during which the clans alternate responsibilities: one group embarks on fishing expeditions throughout the area while another prepares offerings of rock salt, fish and ritual food for the spirits, and performs music and dance. The ritual combines knowledge of agriculture, food processing, handicrafts (costumes, tools and musical instruments) and the construction of houses and fishing dams. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

They are therefore the earth’s primary stewards, and what we today call ‘earth science’ would have had no baselines to build upon had it not been for their culturally-rooted practices of conservation and thriftiness. However, I don’t know that an altruistic recognition is dawning. It has dawned on those of us who work in related areas, who read and write about TK and exchange notes, but the industrialised countries and the ‘emerging economies’ alike today tend to see carbon stocks as market commodities – their preservation, and through such preservation the protection of tribal homelands, becomes a by-product, not a constitutional guarantee.

“The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data…”

The other way round!

“While unmitigated climate change poses a growing threat to the survival of indigenous peoples, more often than not they continue to be excluded from the global processes of decision and policymaking, such as official UN climate negotiations, that are defining their future.”

This is sadly, clearly, starkly true. They are excluded not only from climate discussion and negotiations, but also from many other policy fora. This is how tribal communities, indigenous peoples are treated both by international treaties and within states. Within countries and nations, the degree of exclusion is often greater in fact, and they have negligible or no political voice and weight, are economically impoverished and turned into dependants on welfare formulae that are constantly under threat. It is a precarious existence within states.

“The consequences of such marginalization are that many globally sanctioned programmes aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change — such as mega-dam projects constructed under the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) framework — further exacerbate the direct impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, undermining their livelihoods even more.”

Well said. The CDM has brought havoc to tribal folk and rural communities alike and ought to be wound up as soon as possible – and not replaced by another ‘market mechanism’ invented by global finance. As you point out in the following paragraph, the mutations of REDD are hardly better.

“One significant manifestation of the marginalization of indigenous peoples from the climate change policy and decision-making is the paucity of references in the global climate change discourse to the existing traditional knowledge on climate change.”

Visible here is the tendency of ‘science’ – a formalised system based on a ‘method’ that is seen today as an internationalised standard which evolved from 20th century Western civilisation – to disregard any other form of knowledge repository as equally valid and therefore worth learning from.

“The last IPCC Assessment (AR4, published in 2007) noted that indigenous knowledge is ‘an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change’.”

Naqqa-li is the oldest form of dramatic performance in the Islamic Republic of Iran and has long played an important role in society, from the courts to the villages. The performer – the Naqqa-l – recounts stories in verse or prose accompanied by gestures and movements, and sometimes instrumental music and painted scrolls. Naqqa-li was formerly performed in coffeehouses, tents of nomads, houses, and historical venues such as ancient caravanserais. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Department of Traditional Arts at the Research Center of ICHHTO

Then we must from the ‘outside’ take forward the UNU Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-TKI) and the IPCC partnership to impress upon the IPCC AR5 authors, more than 800 of them, that TK must move from being a peripheral acknowledgement to a cornerstone of the IPCC’s work. Here is their calendar.

To the four points you have listed I would add a fifth, that of pursuing these four strenuously at the national and sub-national levels, for it is there that such recognition is most needed, and it is from there that reporting to the IPCC (and to the UNFCCC) is done.

The five points you have mentioned as being covered in more detail by the technical report currently being finalized for the IPCC are excellent summaries. When turned into guidelines they will go a long way towards educating ‘the scientific method’ about cosmologies that currently exist among indigenous societies, in which expressions of culture, transmission of values and inter-dependence are intrinsic elements. These are the subject of a UNESCO Convention, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and their importance to what we currently call ‘sustainable development’ cannot be over-emphasised.

“It is unfortunate, however, that many government policies limit options and reduce choices, thereby constraining, restricting and undermining indigenous peoples’ efforts to adapt. This is reflected in counterproductive policies, including those leading to increased sedentarization, restricted access to traditional territories, substitution of traditional livelihoods, impoverished crop or herd diversity, reduced harvesting opportunities, and erosion of the transmission of indigenous knowledge, values, attitudes and worldviews.”

That is a cogent, if depressing, summary of the many limits that government policy binds itself with. If we are urban, we are economically discriminated against if our consumption is less than a current optimal mean; if we are rural, we are gradually forced into producing goods and relinquishing our scarce natural resources in order that this consumption mean be satisfied; if we are indigenous and tribal, we are utterly ignored and our customary rights and traditional livelihoods are trampled upon.

Can the UNU(TKI)-IPCC cooperation remove this blind spot and right some of the wrongs committed in the name of ‘development’? I should hope so. It sounds like a careful and considered beginning, and yet we can’t see more time spent on ultimately inconclusive negotiations on climate, as happened recently in Durban. M K Gandhi had once said it well: “Make haste slowly.”

A forest poem to the Amazon

with one comment

A new book from FAO (the UN Food and Agriculture Organization) with CIFOR (Center for International Forestry Research) and People and Plants International, features the uncommon quality of bringing together original scientific knowledge on fruits and useful plants of the Amazon forest and the sensibility to detect the deep interaction between life, traditional knowledge of our forests and folk culture. With its simple language making its contents accessible and practical, this book discusses aspects fundamental to the future of the Amazon and presents a development model that is economically and socially fair, and which respects the environment.

The first aspect is related to collective health, by strengthening the use of plants capable of substantially improving the nutritional value of our diet and, consequently, preventing the so called “illnesses of the poor”. The studies developed by the authors correlated the seasonal availability of fruits in the forest with the incidence of diseases, showing that during periods of scarcity the number of cases of some diseases is highest.

The second aspect is related to a powerful characteristic of the Amazon, still underexplored and poorly documented: the role of women in the knowledge and use of the non-timber forest patrimony. The advancement of sustainable experiences in the Amazon has witnessed a strong contribution of women – especially in the reinforcement of community actions and creativity to guarantee the social and material survival of the family. Women may be the strategic leverage to provide both the cement and scale needed to create a new paradigm in the region.

The third aspect is the ability to associate forests and development – which instead of “throwing us into the vortex of limitless competitiveness and selfishness, leads us to community, to solidarity, and to human and spiritual values as mediators of each one’s goals”, said Marina Silva, former Minister of the Environment of Brazil, who wrote the preface.

The reader will also find studies on the Articulated Movement of the Amazon Women (MAMA) from Acre, community management (Center of Amazonian Workers, CTA, project, Acre), environmental education (Health and Happiness Project, Santarém – Pará State; and SOS Amazon, Acre) and other tracks that lead to integral sustainability, in which it makes sense to take care of the environment since this is the way to take care of life itself, of children and our future. Marina Silva has called the book “An extraordinary poem to Amazonia”.

Written in easy-to-grasp, accessible language, the book seeks to take science out of the ivory tower and put it to work on the ground, in the hands of people. The release of ‘Fruit Trees and Useful Plants in Amazonian Life’ marked the close of the International Year of Forests.

Some 80% of people living in the developing world rely on non-wood forest products such as fruits and medicinal plants for their nutritional and health needs. This book provides information on Amazon fruits and plants, and is an example of how to make our knowledge accessible for poor people to help them maximize the benefits from forest products and services and improve their livelihoods. The layout of the book aims at allowing readers lacking in formal education to extract knowledge using pictures and numbers. Twenty five percent of people in developing countries are functionally illiterate — in rural areas this figure can reach close to 40%.

“Some 90 Brazilian and international researchers who were willing to present their research to rural villagers in alternative formats — including jokes, recipes and pictures — collaborated in the production of this book,” said Tina Etherington, who managed the publication project for FAO’s Forestry Department. “And a number of farmers, midwives, hunters and musicians contributed valuable insights and experience as well. The book is of interest to a worldwide audience because of its truly innovative way of presenting science and how those techniques can be transferred to other areas in the world.”

Patricia Shanley, Senior Research Associate at CIFOR and lead editor of the publication, said: “This is an unusual book. Written by and for semi-literate rural villagers, it weaves together a tapestry of voices about the myriad values forests contain. The book enables nutritional data and ecology to coexist alongside music and folklore making the forest and its inhabitants come alive.”

The Amazon is the largest contiguous tropical forest remaining in the world, with 25 million people living in the Brazilian Amazon alone. However, deforestation, fire and climate change could destabilize the region and result in the forest shrinking to one third of its size in 65 years, according to today’s publication. In addition to the environmental services they provide, forests like the Amazon are also a rich nutritional storehouse.

Fruits provide essential nutrients, minerals and anti-oxidants that keep the body strong and resistant to disease. Buriti palm fruit, for example, contains the highest known levels of vitamin A of any plant in the world. And açaí fruit is being hailed as a “superfood” for its high antioxidant and omega fatty acid content. Brazil nuts are rich in a complete protein similar to the protein content of cow’s milk, which is why they are known as the “meat” of the plant kingdom, said the publication.

The Law of Mother Earth, by Bolivia

with 15 comments

Bolivian indigenous people celebrate sunrise during a winter solstice ceremony in Tiwanaku, about 70 kilometers from the capital of La Paz, on Monday. The winter solstice coincides with the start of the New Year for South America's Aymara Indians. Photo: National Geographic/ David Mercado, Reuters

A consensus translation of the Law of Mother Earth has appeared on a number of websites and blogs now, no doubt a result of much collaboration between Spanish and other language speakers. Here it is, with thanks to Mother Pelican, A Journal of Sustainable Human Development and to No Unsacred Place.

Legislative Assembly of the Multi-National State of Bolivia

DECREE

Law of Rights of Mother Earth

Chapter 1 – Objective and Principles

Article 1. (Objective). The present Law has as its objective the recognition of the rights of Mother Earth, as well as the obligations and duties of the Multi-national State and of its Society, to guarantee respect of these rights.

Article 2. (First Principles). The First Principles which govern the current law, and with which compliance is an obligation, are:

1. Harmony. Human activities, in the framework of plurality and diversity, should achieve dynamic balance with the cycles and processes inherent to Mother Earth.

2. Collective Good. Societal interests, in the framework of the rights of Mother Earth, prevail in all human activity and over any other acquired rights.

3. Guarantee of Regeneration of Mother Earth. The State, at its varying levels, and society, in harmony with the common interest, should guarantee the conditions necessary for the diverse living systems of Mother Earth to absorb damages, adapt to disturbances, and regenerate itself without significant alteration to its structure and functionality, realizing that living systems have limits in their abilities to regenerate themselves, and that humanity has limits in its ability to reverse its effects.

4. Respect and Defense of the Rights of Mother Earth. The State and any other individual or collective persons shall respect, protect and guarantee the rights of Mother Earth for the well-being of existing and future generations.

5. No Commercialization. That life systems cannot be commercialized, nor the processes that sustain them, nor form part of the private inheritance of anyone.

6. Multi-cultural. The exercise of the rights of Mother Earth requires the understanding, recovery, respect, protection and dialogue of the diversity of sensitivities, values, knowledge, understandings, practices, abilities, transcendences, sciences, technologies and standards, of all the world cultures that seek harmonious coexistence with the natural world.

Chapter II – Mother Earth, Definition and Characterization

Article 3. (Mother Earth) Mother Earth is the living dynamic system comprised of the inter-related, interdependent and complementary indivisible community of all life systems and living beings that share a common destiny.

Mother Earth is considered to be sacred, as per the cosmologies of the nations of rural indigenous peoples.

Article 4. (Life Systems) They are complex and dynamic communities of plants, animals, micro-organisms and other beings in their entirety, in which human communities and the rest of nature interact as a functional unit, under the influence of climatic, physiographic and geologic factors, as well as the productive practices and cultural diversity of Bolivians of both genders, and the cosmologies of the nations of rural indigenous peoples, the intercultural communities and the Afro-Bolivians.

Article 5. (Legal Character of Mother Earth) In order to be protected and for the teaching of her rights, Mother Earth adopts the characteristics of collective rights of public interest. Mother Earth and all its components, including human communities, are owners of the rights inherently understood in this Law. The application of Mother Earth’s rights shall take into account the specificities and particularities of its diverse components. Those rights established in this Law do not limit the existence of other rights of Mother Earth.

Article 6. (Exercise of the Rights of Mother Earth) All Bolivians of either gender, as part of the community of beings which comprise Mother Earth, exercise the rights established in this Law, in a manner that is compatible with individual and collective rights.

The exercise of individual rights is limited by the exercise of collective rights of the living systems of Mother Earth, any conflict among these shall be resolved in a manner that does not irreversibly affect the functionality of those living systems.

Chillies on sale at a market in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Photo: Smithsonian Magazine

Chapter III – Rights of Mother Earth

Article 7. (Rights of Mother Earth)

I. Mother Earth has the following rights:

1. To Life: It is the right to the maintenance of the integrity of living systems and natural processes which sustain them, as well as the capacities and conditions for their renewal.

2. To the diversity of life: It is the right to the preservation of the differentiation and variety of the beings that comprise Mother Earth, without being genetically altered, nor artificially modified in their structure, in such a manner that threatens their existence, functioning and future potential.

3. To Water: It is the right of the functionality of the water cycles, of its existence and quantity, and the quality necessary to sustain living systems, and their protection with regards to contamination, for renewal of the life of Mother Earth and all its components.

4. To Clean Air: It is the right of the preservation of the quality and composition of air to sustain living systems and their protection with regards to contamination, for renewal of the life of Mother Earth and all its components.

5. To Balance: It is the right to maintenance or restoration of the inter-relation, interdependence, ability to complement and functionality of the components of Mother Earth, in a balanced manner for the continuation of its cycles and the renewal of its vital processes.

6. To Restoration: It is the right to the effective and opportune restoration of its living systems affected by direct or indirect human activities.

7. To live Free of Contamination: It is the right for preservation of Mother Earth and any of its components with regards to toxic and radioactive wastes generated by human activities.

Chapter IV – Obligations of the State and Social Duties

Article 8. (Obligations of the Multi-national State) The Multi-national State, at all its levels and all its territories, and across all its institutions and authorities, has the following obligations:

1. Develop public policies and systematic preventive actions, early alert, protection and prevention, to avoid human activities that lead to extinction of populations, the alteration of cycles and processes that guarantee life, or the destruction of living systems, including the cultural systems that are part of Mother Earth.

2. Develop balanced forms of production and patterns of consumption for the well-being of the Bolivian peoples, safeguarding the regenerative capacities and integrity of the processes and vital balances of Mother Earth.

Pachamama on Condoriri. Scratchboard drawing by Janet Morgan. Evocation of Bolivian indigenous people's Earth Mother Goddess.

3. Develop policies to defend Mother Earth, in the environment of multi-national and international over-exploitation of components, against the commercialization of living systems or the processes that sustain them, and of the structural causes of Global Climate Change and its effects.

4. Develop policies to ensure the sustainability of power generation in the long run by means of saving, increases in efficiency and the gradual incorporation of clean and renewable alternative sources of power.

5. Demand in the international arena the understanding of the environmental debt by means of financing and technology transfer of clean technologies that are clean, effective and compatible with the rights of Mother Earth, as well as other mechanisms.

6. Promote peace and the elimination of all nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.

7. Promote the understanding and defense of the rights of Mother Earth in arena of multilateral, regional and bilateral international relationships.

Article 9. (Duties of the Persons) It is the duty of public or private natural and juridical persons:

1. To defend and respect the rights of Mother Earth.

2. To promote harmony on Mother Earth and in all its relationships with the rest of the human communities and natural living systems.

3. To participate in an active form, personally or collectively, in the generation of proposals aimed at the respect for and defense of the rights of Mother Earth.

4. To take up production and consumption practices in harmony with the rights of Mother Earth.

5. To ensure sustainable use and exploitation of Mother Earth’s components.

6. To denounce all acts against the rights of Mother Earth, its living systems and/or its components.

7. To attend meetings of competent authorities or civil society oriented at conservation and/or protection of the rights of Mother Earth.

Article 10. (Ombudsman of Mother Earth). The position of Ombudsman of Mother Earth is created, whose mission is to watch over the applicability to, promotion and diffusion of, and compliance with the rights of Mother Earth established in this Law. A special law will establish its structure, function and attributes.

Remitted to the Executive Agency, for constitutional ends.

Given in the Sessions Chamber of the Multi-National Legislative Assembly, on the seventh day of the month of December, 2010.

Written by makanaka

June 6, 2011 at 23:15

The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya, and chemodiversity

leave a comment »

The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

In a short and insightful commentary in the latest issue of the Unesco Courier, Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani has discussed ‘chemodiversity’ as being “one component of biodiversity”. It’s a truth we often miss or overlook. The latest issue of the Unesco Courier, 2001 January-March, celebrates 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry.

Since the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992), da Silva Bolzani has written, the exploitation of natural resources and the socio-economic benefits of bioprospecting have become increasingly poignant issues. One of the principal goals of the Convention on biological diversity, which was adopted at the Summit, is “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.” But bioprospecting, which consists of making an inventory of the components of biodiversity with a view to ensuring their conservation and sustainable use, has, on the contrary, not ceased to be misused to further the interests of industry, which often patents the substances as they are found.

The tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention, held in Nagoya (Japan) in October this year, will change the picture, though, as it reached a legally binding agreement on the fair and equitable use of genetic resources. As from 2012, this Protocol will regulate commercial and scientific relations between countries which possess not only most of the organic substances, but also the knowledge – often non-scientific – surrounding these resources, and those countries wishing to use them for industrial purposes. A new page has turned in the history of the exploitation of the extraordinary chemodiversity of so-called ‘megadiverse’ countries.

Chemodiversity is one component of biodiversity. Secondary metabolites – alkaloids, lignans, terpenes, phenylpropanoids, tanins, latex, resins and the thousands of other substances identified so far – which have a whole host of functions in the life of plants, are also playing a crucial role in the development of new drugs. And, although we are living in the era of combinatory chemistry, with high-speed screening and molecular engineering, we still continue to turn to nature for the raw materials behind many medically and economically successful new treatments. Nature has provided over half of the chemical substances that have been approved by regulatory bodies across the world over the past 40 years.

[Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani is Professor of Chemistry at the Institute of Chemistry-UNESP, (Araraquara, Sao Paulo, Brazil) and Past President of the Brazilian Chemical Society (2008 - 2010)]

Knowledge and change, the intangible and development

leave a comment »

The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo

The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo: This cultural landscape extends into neighbouring Benin, is home to the Batammariba whose remarkable mud tower-houses (Takienta) have come to be seen as a symbol of Togo. In this landscape, nature is strongly associated with the rituals and beliefs of society. The 50,000-ha cultural landscape is remarkable due to the architecture of its tower-houses which are a reflection of social structure; its farmland and forest; and the associations between people and landscape. Picture: UNESCO

Energy Bulletin, the website which discusses transition, peak oil and ideas of adaptation, has carried an article I have written about intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development.

Before sustainable development came to assume an academic formality (the new ‘earth systems’ science is built around the concept), it drew heavily from intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as expressed through the customs and practices used to transmit traditional knowledge.

That is why there has been a multiplicity of terms used in the field of sustainable development to designate this concept: indigenous technical knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge, rural

Whatever the preference, this is a body of knowledge that has been nurtured and built upon by groups of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It is usually specific to the local environment, and therefore highly adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. At the same time it is creative and experimental, constantly incorporating influences from outside and innovating from within to meet new conditions. UNESCO’s 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage states this explicitly in Article 2:

“This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil: the Samba de Roda, which involves music, dance and poetry, is a popular festive event that developed in the State of Bahia, in the region of Recôncavo during the seventeenth century. The Samba de Roda was eventually taken by migrants to Rio de Janeiro, where it influenced the evolution of the urban samba that became a symbol of Brazilian national identity in the twentieth century. Picture: UNESCO

These three examples [these are available in the Energy Bulletin article] illustrate the value of intangible cultural heritage to the evolving crises of our times: food, energy and climate change. In the communal rice-growing, locally irrigated societies of Sri Lanka are to be found the lessons of the local self-reliance which has today become a community movement in many countries.

The ‘transition’ movements in North America and Western Europe, which are contributing greatly to a wider and participatory understanding of sustainable societies, now embody ideas and practices that have been at work for centuries in the rice-growing communities of Sri Lanka (as also elsewhere in South and South-East Asia). The water tribunals of Valencia and Murcia (which is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) serve as an inspiring testament to the strength and validity of an ancient system of adjudicating rights and resources.

In an increasingly water-scarce and water-stressed world, it is community-based systems such as this one that promise equity with an authority that is easily accepted because of its cultural roots. Here too, the implication of the Water Tribunals’ inclusion on the Representative List is that generic legal systems may provide protection in law and relief in statute, but it is local authority that rest on knowledge-based tradition that provides the most relevant solution.

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt: this oral poem, also known as the Hilali epic, recounts the saga of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the tenth century. As one of the major epic poems that developed within the Arabic folk tradition, the Hilali is the only epic still performed in its integral musical form. Picture: UNESCO

Climate change has altered weather patterns and crop seasons, and in regions where land is suitable neither for dryland agriculture nor irrigation, it is the thoughtful management of rangelands that is the only long-term conservation technique. The extraordinary flexibility of the Qashqai derives equally from their dense store of botanical and livestock knowledge, and serves as an example of the durability of a society in a difficult landscape.

One of the strengths of the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage is that it widens the scope of recognition to traditional knowledge by revealing its cultural roots, which is respected and transmitted through customary systems and expression. How is traditional or indigenous knowledge an invaluable aspect of intangible cultural heritage? Just as ICH is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals, unique to a particular culture and society, traditional knowledge is the basis for decision-making in that culture or society concerning matters of agriculture, health, natural resource management and community organisation.

A great deal of it is tacit knowledge and may not readily be coded. Indigenous knowledge provides the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the monetarily poor and those communities outside formal (usually urban-denominated) systems of labour and production. This aspect of ICH represents a critically important component of global knowledge on development issues, yet it is an underutilised resource in the development process.

Industrial farming versus the peasantry

leave a comment »

Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

The October-November 2010 issue of Himal Southasian is out and includes a contribution from me. The issue is themed on agriculture and ruralscapes in Southasia (that’s how Himal spells it, one word). Here’s an extract from my article:

India’s government and its agricultural research establishment are forging new compacts with the private sector food industry. Their reasons for doing so are the breakdown of agricultural extension and the need for food infrastructure. Yet low-input organic farming yields sufficient produce in tune with local conditions, and is well suited to smallholder rural farming households. This benefit is opposite to the ‘agritech’ demands of food industry powers in India, and at risk is the farm livelihood of the country’s massive majority of farmers.

In July, India’s agriculture minister, Sharad Pawar, talked about the role of the private sector in agricultural research and human-resource development in the country’s food industry. His audience was made up of participants of an ‘industry meet’ put up by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), assembled to discuss four issues: seed and planting material; diagnostics, vaccines and biotechnological products; farm implements and machinery; and post-harvest engineering and ‘value addition’.

Vegetable vendor, district bazaar, Maharashtra

Pawar explained the conventional approach of public-sector agricultural research and development, which has been to take responsibility for setting priorities, mobilising resources, research, development and dissemination. He then explained that agricultural extension – the education of farmers in new techniques and technologies, which has been neglected for several years – is ‘no longer appropriate’. Instead, he urged the adoption of public-private partnerships, through which public-sector institutes (such as those in the ICAR network) can ‘leverage valuable private resources, expertise or marketing networks that they [the farmers] otherwise lack’.

The so-called area, production and yield (APY) model of measuring agriculture in India has long been the dominant one, focusing on growth in irrigated area, crop production in tons and yield per hectare. In following this model, central and state planners, leveraging the reach and influence of the national agricultural research system, have automatically tended towards technology as an enabling factor and the economics of the organised food industry. This strong bias exists as a legacy of the successful years of the Green Revolution, when the massive laboratory-led creation of high-yield varieties proceeded in step with massive irrigation programmes and farm mechanisations schemes. In the process, they have turned the needs of small and marginal cultivating households into programmes and schemes, so that these small-scale farmers become ‘consumers of technology’ rather than being recognised as holders of traditional agricultural knowledge.

How the price of tomatoes is determined

These sustainable agricultural systems contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as clean water, carbon sequestration, flood protection, groundwater recharge and soil conservation. But since they cannot help to achieve short-term profit-oriented goals, both the commercial effort of the National Agriculture Research System and the private sector ignore them. Finally, the cost-benefit of conservation of resources can be determined by the scarcity value of those resources. For instance, will urban food consumers be willing to pay for watershed protection in a district from which they import food?

The only way to get a positive answer from this question is by investing in public education, and by building it into public policy at an institutional level – where it immediately runs into political and business interests. The development of community-supported organic agriculture in India can provide an alternative, which will depend more on the ability of associations of organic farmers to organise, rather than on state support.

India’s organic farming systems. These grow a variety of cereals, tubers, leafy vegetables, fruits and tree crops without chemical fertiliser and pesticide and largely depend on saved seed. There are well-established biological and energy benefits of organic and agro-ecological farming that, under the growing shadow of climate change and energy scarcity, become even more compelling for farming communities.

There’s more in the full article which can be found here.

The people and forests of the Niyam Raja

leave a comment »

Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

Timi Vadakka, a Dongria Kondh woman in Khambesi village, district Rayagada

This is a further extract taken from the document, ‘Report of the four member committee for investigation into the proposal submitted by the Orissa Mining Company for bauxite mining in Niyamgiri’, dated August 16, 2010, by Dr N C Saxena, Dr S Parasuraman, Dr Promode Kant, Dr Amita Baviskar. Submitted to the Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India. The pictures accompanying this post are also taken from the same report.

“Kutia Kondh and Dongria Kondh – The two communities believe that that the hills are sacred and that their survival is dependent on the integrity of this ecosystem. The proposed mining lease site is among the highest points in the hills and is considered especially important as a sacred site. The proposed mining lease (PML) area is used by both Dongria and Kutia Kondh for their livelihoods as well as religious practices. Their customary use of the area, including for grazing and the collection of forest produce, is well documented.

[Other posts on the Dongria Kondh and their struggle: Who the Dongria Kondh are, what Niyamgiri is to them, A victory for the Dongria Kondh, India’s unseen Niyamgiris, Images of Niyamgiri, The last stand of the Dongria Kondh]

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women at the market in Muniguda, district Rayagada

Mining operations will have significant adverse impacts on the livelihoods of these communities. Mining will destroy significant tracts of forest. According to the assessment of the Wildlife Institute of India in its 2006 study, as many as 121,337 trees will have to be cut if the mining lease is granted. Of these, 40% will be in the PML area and the remaining 60% would have to be removed to make the access road and other planned activities. Since the Kutia and Dongria Kondh are heavily dependent on forest produce for their livelihood, this forest cover loss will cause a significant decline in their economic well-being. It must be noted that the Vedanta proposal assumes that no displacement will be caused by the mining project whereas there is overwhelming evidence that mining will not only result in widespread resource displacement but may well permanently undermine the survival of the Dongria Kondh.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

While both Kutia and Dongria Kondh communities will be adversely affected by mining in the area, the likely negative impacts on the Dongria Kondh are a particular cause of concern. The Niyamgiri hills are the sole and unique habitat of this tiny community. Any major disruption of their relationship with their environment is not only a serious violation of their rights under the Indian Constitution and forest laws, but also a grievous threat to their cultural integrity and their ability to survive as a distinct social group. The Committee found convincing evidence that mining will destroy Dongria Kondh livelihoods and culture.

Data collated from the DKDA (Dongria Kondh Development Agency, a government body) and the Forest Department shows that, of the total Dongria population of the 7,952, at least 1,453 Dongria Kondh live in villages in and around the Forest Blocks of the proposed mining lease area. Their cultivated lands lie in close proximity to the PML area. Mining-related activities such as tree-felling, blasting, removal of soil, road building, and the movement of heavy machinery will deny them access to lands that they have used for generations.

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh prayerhouse showing the triangular motif signifying the Niyamgiri hills, in Kurli village, district Rayagada

Further, these activities will also adversely affect the surrounding slopes and streams that are crucial for their agriculture. Given the almost total dependence of these villages on the eco-systems of the Niyamgiri hills, mining operations will severely threaten the livelihoods and basic survival of the Dongria Kondh. In addition, the influx of migrant workers and the demands that their presence will make on the landscape will entail major disruptions in the economic and social well-being of these small and self-contained groups.

If permitted, mining will directly affect a substantial section — almost 20% — of the Dongria community. An impact on such a significant fraction of the population of the community will have repercussions for the overall viability of the group and its biological and social reproduction. All the 104 Dongria Kondh villages are linked by marriage, since the member of a clan must seek a spouse from another clan. The circulation of women and bride-price between villages is essential for maintaining the social and economic integrity of the community as a whole. It is clearly indicated that if the economic and social life of one-fifth of Dongria Kondh population is directly affected by the mining, it will threaten the survival of the entire community. All the Dongria Kondh that the Committee spoke to stressed that mining would destroy their economic, social and cultural life: “Niyam Raja has given us everything. If they take the dongar away, we will die.”

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh women with mushrooms collected from the forest, near Parsali, district Rayagada

Anthropologists who have conducted research among the Dongria Kondh are of the view that they are unique community whose distinctive identity is evident in their language, kinship relations, expertise in agro-forestry, and customary practices. For example, Dongria Kondh speak two languages, called Kuyi and Kuvi, with a proto-Dravidian structure and vocabulary which is unrelated to Oriya, the state’s official language. Their religious practices anchor them in the landscape of the Niyamgiri hills and any severance or disruption of that relationship will be a grievous blow to the community’s self-identity as well as material well-being. As a Primitive Tribal Group the welfare of the Dongria Kondh is mandated for special protection by the government. It is clear that the government is responsible for protecting their rights and that mining in this region would seriously undermine the fulfilment of this responsibility.”

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cereals grown on forest fields by Kutia Kondh in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Prasanna Kumar Nayak of the Utkal University, Orissa, has written on tribal development in Orissa for the newsletter of the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS). This is a postdoctoral research centre based in Leiden and Amsterdam. His account provides a contrast to the effort made, around 30 years ago, towards providing the tribals of Orissa health and education infrastructure without disturbing their identity. Nayak’s article is titled ‘The rise and fall of tribal development in Orissa’.

“Already in the early 1970s, at a time when tribal development received new impulse from the Indian government’s Fourth Five Year Plan, many development activities in the field of horticulture, animal husbandry, agriculture, health and education, as well as the construction of roads, buildings and dug-wells were undertaken in rapid succession in the tribal areas of Orissa. Political will for making tribal development a priority continued with the Fifth Plan, from 1974 onwards, with activities reaching a peak in the early nineties, the end of the Seventh Plan.

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Sikoka Lodo, Sikoka Budhga and other Dongria Kondh men from Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

At that time, I was making frequent trips to different tribal areas in the north, south and west of Orissa. What impressed me most during my extensive field visits was the host of activities pursued by the field officers and staff of development agencies and the schoolteachers in residential tribal schools, and their concern for and commitment to the tribal people. Added to that, the frequent supervision and monitoring of the activities and assessment of progress by government officials was really quite noteworthy. Despite lapses and many shortcomings in the execution of the development schemes it remained satisfying to observe that there was discipline in the government machinery of development administration.

Among the tribal development success stories in Orissa from that period are the orange, lemon, ginger and banana plantations, as well as the high yielding rice cultivation in Ramgiri-Udaygiri areas, home to a large population of Lanjia Saora. The orange, ginger, banana and pineapple plantations in the Niyamgiri areas where mostly members of the Dongria Kondh tribe live were also very successful development schemes. The same can be said of the cultivation of vegetables in the hills which gave people the opportunity to earn cash in addition to pursuing their traditional subsistence agriculture on the hill slopes.

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Kutia Kondh women in Kendubardi village, district Kalahandi

Cash crops and vegetables were also encouraged among the tribal villager’s adept at plough cultivation on the plateaus, plains and terraced fields. They were also trained to raise bovine animals. Orissa’s tribal schools were well managed, and provided a congenial environment for their pupils. Teachers worked hard at teaching and shaping these children with a spirit of dedication.

The children responded with good performances and examination results were satisfactory. Although there were severe public health issues in most of the tribal areas, primary health centres (PHCs) were established and free medical services were available for tribal people. At the same time, road networks were developed at a rapid pace, facilitating the communication and transportation of development input to many villages.

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dongria Kondh girls, Lakpadar village, district Rayagada

Dug- and tube wells were installed in most of the villages and many families availed themselves of the benefits of irrigating their land. It can certainly be argued that the quantum of infrastructure work and economic development activities undertaken during the seventies and spilling over into the early eighties resulted in significant progress and lasting development in the tribal areas of Orissa.

Initially, the pursuance of economic development programmes and the modus operandi of the development agencies were in no way disruptive to the socio-cultural and community life of the tribal people. Instead, development personnel were enthusiastic about their development goals and engaged with local people when problems arose. Politically, these tribal areas were relatively quiet. The development policy plan, the project personnel, people and politics seemed to be in harmony with each other! The result of the development activities undertaken in tribal areas was a slow and steady progress with tangible results and lasting effects.”

Urban food pistoleros

leave a comment »

A boy plays with mud pistols in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

A boy plays with mud pistols in Mathare slum of Nairobi, Kenya ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Alexander Müller, Assistant Director General, Natural Resources Management and Environment Department (FAO) and Paul Munro-Faure, Chairperson, Food for the Cities Multidisciplinary Initiative (FAO) have put out a call for “ideas, contributions and inputs that could be used for a conclusive statement related to food, agriculture and cities to be finalised during the World Urban Forum V“. This will take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from 22 to 26 March and the theme is: ‘The Right to the City, Bridging the Urban Divide’. As the call went out on the Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum), I sent in my response, as below:

Dear Alexander, Paul,

My contribution to your call on FSN for a statement on food, agriculture and cities follows. I work in India, with a Ministry of Agriculture programme called National Agricultural Innovation Project. One of its sub-projects is a knowledge-sharing effort that links crop science and farm practice through ICT. Within that framework I study rural livelihoods and the urban demand on a rural space that faces greater constraints with every passing year.

We are told frequently by central governments that growth is good (i.e. rising GDP) and that increasing per capita income is a national mission. This assertion has much to do with the boom-and-bust cycles we have witnessed in the last decade: in any number of stock markets, in the banking and finance system, in savings and pensions systems, in commodities, in credit and derivatives, and of course in basic food grains. That these cycles have occurred more frequently has as much to do with growing urbanisation in the South, and the mechanics of globalised capital and market risk.

The result is that cities in the South are, to put it crudely, laboratories for risk-taking experiments. The Gini coefficients of cities in Asia show why this is so. (Generally, cities and countries with a Gini coefficient of between 0.2 and 0.39 have relatively equitable distribution of resources. A Gini coefficient of 0.4 denotes moderately unequal distributions of income or consumption. This is the threshold at which cities and countries should tackle inequality urgently.)

Here are the composite urban Gini coefficients (from ‘State of the World’s Cities 2008/2009: Harmonious Cities’; United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT), 2008). Over a given period (separate for each country), the urban Gini rose most for Nepal (0.26 to 0.43 from 1985 to 1996), China (0.23 to 0.32 from 1988 to 2002), Viet Nam (0.35 to 0.41 from 1993 to 2002), Bangladesh (0.31 to 0.37 from 1991 to 2000), Sri Lanka (0.37 to 0.42 from 1990 to 2002) and Pakistan (0.32 to 0.34 from 2000 to 2004) and it dropped marginally for India (0.35 to 0.34 from 1994 to 2000) and Cambodia (0.47 to 0.41 from 1994 to 2004). Note that the UN-Habitat calculations are only until 2004 for the latest city, and that the impacts of the triple crisis of climate change, financial volatility and food system distortions became widespread only thereafter. It’s very likely then that in cities in Asia, Africa and South America, the Gini coefficient has risen faster in the last five years than in the decade until 2004.

Gini coefficients for populations in Asian cities

Gini coefficients for populations in Asian cities

There’s another aspect that the urban Gini indicates, which several country studies have dealt with in the last few years, and that is the rural-urban divide, in terms of income inequality, consumption inequality, inequality in access to basic services and inequality of representation. Yet those at the deprived end of this quotient are also those who grow the food, absorb the agricultural risks, manage the natural resources and steward the crop biodiversity for a country. If we subscribe to the view of a dominant policy theocracy that ‘economic efficiency’ is good, then for such gross inequalities to be allowed to continue is not good, yet they do. For one thing, education and healthcare outcomes are directly impacted by such inequalities, let alone industrially-oriented ratios such as cost of redistribution, investment allocation and ‘growth’. Yet these continue, and are seen in every single country of the South quite conspicuously in the higher bands of food inflation in rural areas as compared with urban areas.

If inequality seems inescapable at outcome level however, the rural and urban ‘poor’ are certainly not sitting around waiting to be pushed even further into penury. They are using their stores of traditional knowledge (which have travelled with them just as they have migrated to the world’s peri-urbs) to innovate, adapt and survive. If we look at waste recycling in developing countries, most of it (as tonnage and as material value) relies largely on the informal recovery of waste of every description by scavengers or waste pickers. A raft of studies done on this sector in the Asia-Pacific region provide estimates of at least 2% and as much as 4% of the urban population is occupied in waste recovery (its reprocessing and re-use occupies another set of the population).

Is there a similar ‘waste picker’ model of urban agriculture that is being followed, almost invisibly, in Asian cities and towns? Likely yes. It flies under the radar of statistics because it is, per household unit, so small and well integrated with astonishingly tough living conditions. It is seen on tiny patches of marginal lands that are unsettled, usually only because of a city municipality’s hostility to rural migrants. These tiny linear patches run alongside railway tracks, drainage canals, water pipelines, expressways, marshes and swamps, residual watercourses, and between industrial zones. These vestigial connections to the immeasurably healthier lives led in their rural origins by migrants are the only in situ ‘urban farms’ in most Asian cities and towns. Existing municipal planning and zoning in Asia of the South either ignores them or subtracts them from its calculations.

A street in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

A street in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh ©Manoocher Deghati/IRIN

Yet such spaces will be vital for our urban settlements. They are currently farmed in squalid conditions, often cheek-by-jowl with small-scale industries and their toxic effluents, and have no option but to use dangerously polluted water sources. Were they to be encouraged, planned for, incentivised and built into ward or neighbourhood food markets, they would lessen the massive burden the city places upon rural food cultivators. In ‘developing’ Asian cities that today are exemplars of more-GDP-is-good economics, there is often an utter disconnection between purchase of food and a recognition of its sources. The size, power and reach of the food processing industry plays a dominant role in enforcing this disconnection, for what it calls its economies of scale would not exist without it.

Where lie the answers? Linking rural food production – not with urban consumers but with urban wards and neighbourhoods – can help bridge the Gini gaps between urban and rural, between urban salaried and urban marginal. Just as in the ‘transition towns’ movement, in which agriculture is being increasingly promoted in urban areas, so too rural non-agricultural livelihoods development is starting to be promoted. Work-in-progress examples include the strategy adopted for the promotion of Town and Village Enterprises (TVEs) in China. These expanded rapidly in China in the post-reform period and as a result of their promotion between 1978 and 2000, the number of workers in China’s rural non-farm and farm labour sector grew, which stemmed the tide toward the hungry cities.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 376 other followers