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Centres on the Periphery

Centres on the Periphery: Coping with Climatic and Institutional Change
by Anil Gupta

In connection with the recently held conference on climate change in Delhi, Anil Gupta has written a very perceptive essay. It brings out the relevance of Traditional Knowledge Systems in the context of the environmental problems that we are facing today. It is quoted in full below. – D.P. Agrawal

When the attention of the world is focused on the outcome of the next global conference on climate change, scheduled to be held in India in end October, it might be useful to recall some issues that we know will never be discussed at the conference. It is to these unheard and unasked questions that we will have to turn, especially with the environment becoming increasingly turbulent.

All these years’ formal knowledge networks have ignored the need to support and strengthen informal knowledge networks. Perhaps they considered the marginalisation of knowledge-rich, economically-poor communities and individuals as inevitable. Perhaps the mega-project of progress considered the articulation of these voices as roadblocks. Sometimes these roadblocks were ruthlessly levelled by quelling their space and social identities. At other times, the traffic of progress simply bypassed them. But things are changing.

There is a tremendous global interest in the knowledge of local communities, particularly those in marginal environments. The ethics of this interest and exploration continue to be exploitative and asymmetrical. At the same time, civil society in many developing countries is evolving its own answers to the question of learning from the margins.

Why, in times to come, would learning from the margins be vital to the survival of humanity ? Consider current ecological or climatic disturbances, the immense social discomfort they cause, and the increasing inability of mainstream people to cope with environmental turbulence due to the cushions of their everyday life. This turbulence will increase, either due to global warming (and consequent floods) or due to drought (and a decline in the ground water table). How will societies cope? My answer is that the skills, knowledge and institutions evolved by people on the margins, who have already been coping with these stresses for the last several millennia, will become a major source of survival. Is this the reason why global institutions are suddenly finding so much merit in local knowledge?

The trend of modern institutions, whether of the state or the market, imposing common, universal solutions has run its course. It is true that young educated people around the world watch the same films, use similar metaphors and articulate their identity through similar motifs. But for every such wave of universalisation, the reactions from the margin are becoming manifest. Some of these reactions are ugly, unfortunate and perhaps not in the interest of human survival. But such extremism is to be expected, no matter how and how much we may despise it.

A polycentric vision of future social formations requires many more centres to emerge on the periphery. The family as an institution, on the other hand, might become peripheral if children are either not allowed to ask fundamental questions or if these are answered in too pat a manner. We have to learn afresh the art of leaving certain questions unanswered, such that the capacity of a young mind to explore and enquire increases. For if they are not allowed to take wing, our children will wither in their nests. In contrast, children of pastoralists and migrants do not suffer from these constraints. They learn to cope with stress perhaps a little too early and too well. Both extremes, those who receive a privileged education and thus become handicapped, and those who are social dropouts and depend very little on formal institutions for survival, deserve attention.

Let us look at some sites of marginal knowledge. Bamboo houses built by poor people in flood-prone regions allow water to move under houses resting on stilts. Once rivers start changing their course (in many cases they have already done so), such structures might come into greater prominence. Food crops like foxtail millet, grown by poor people in drought-prone regions, are neglected despite their quality attributes. Given our dependence on only a few crops and their few select varieties, climate change will necessitate a much greater recourse to agricultural biodiversity. As of now, it is only the laggards of the ‘green revolution’ who conserve agricultural biodiversity. In situ conservation has not yet become a policy goal. Many policy makers believe that by engineering mainstream crops with more vitamins and minerals, they will meet people’s future nutritional and food security needs. But marginal crops will be crucial in times of crises, for no other reason than because they can survive stress better. The lessons of traditional institutions in managing common property resources will also become vital when private rights to resources will no more be feasible and viable.

Climate change will require the ability to cope creatively and collectively. Where would we find such creativity and collectivity except in stress-prone regions? But even here coping strategies are becoming weaker, seeds do not last, streams are no more steered collectively, rain water is not harnessed and local varieties are not preferred as food, thanks to the artificially created taste for the so-called superior’ crops like wheat and rice.

Centres on the periphery will have to emerge. We may avoid discussing them, but the questions do not go away. Many knowledge experts will pass away, though and so would the survival knowledge they carry with them. Who or what will fill these vacant spaces?

Please do write in to tell us what you think should be done to protect the rights of squirrels before they vanish. Many snakes, birds and other animals have already vanished due to the pressures created by us, in the name of our families and children. Have we asked our children if they would like to live in a world devoid of birds and squirrels, let alone ask squirrels what their children were going through?

With permission from:
Honey Bee 13 (3):1, 2002

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