Tribal Resource Conservation Ethics and Development: Myth and Reality

by Maguni Charan Behera

(Professor of Tribal Studies, Formerly Dean, School of Cultural Studies; Former Director Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies; Former Director, Center for Distance Education)

Recognition to the merit of tribal resource conservation ethics and its relevance in arresting environmental crisis and climate change is a much-eulogised topic in recent development discourse, particularly from the 1980s. But a few queries come in place. Does the topic bear any practical significance? Or is it mere academic speculation or political panegyric? Does it reflect our changing attitude toward the tribes and their lifeways?
With the post-modern approach to knowledge, there is a growing consciousness of appreciating diversity. The tribes which were considered savage, uncivilised, uncouth, etc. through the lens of western civilisation and a sense of superiority by neighbours have been recognised for their contribution to human values, harmonious holistic living and as holders of principles of sustainable existence. Their knowledge system is recognised not as a competitor, but a complement to ‘modern knowledge’. The recognition gives centrality to their resource conservation ethics; for the earth is stripped of natural resources in regions inhabited by ‘civilised’ people. Against it a FAO’s report records 80% of planet’s biodiversity preserved in 22% the world’s land surface inhabited by indigenous and tribal people comprising around 5 % of the world population. Undoubtedly, the recognition has empirical truth which cannot be ignored.
Resource abundance in tribal inhabited areas does not suggest awareness-driven conservation practices. Tribal conservation ethics is not something an isolated practice; it is embodied in tribal worldview and institutionalised in all aspects of life. Nyishi (a tribe in Arunachal Pradesh) ethics demands that a hornbill while flying alone should not be killed; lest it would invoke supernatural punishment. Usually, a single flying hornbill is a male bird out in search of food for the female hornbill during hatching time. Killing it would amount to killing the family. But a traditional Nyishi did not kill it not because he knew the reason, but because it was not a normal sight and anything abnormal was a bad omen. No doubt traditional belief and practice saved propagation of the hornbill.
Examples are many. The crucial point is that resources have been preserved. The other practice leading to preservation relates to their worldview of subsistence economy based on limited spatial mobility of resources, undiversified limited wants and a combination of foraging and production activities. Tribes have their beliefs justifying subsistence nature of the economy. Still, given the technology and socio-cultural dynamics (in the field of preservation, community sphere of labour appropriation, size of production, etc.) large scale production for the market was not a viable proposition. So, it was (is) a belief in many tribes that evil spirits possessed the person hunting more animals or catching large amount of fish. Clearing of more forest land meant to invite the anger of forest god and supernatural punishment. Among the Khamptis after felling a tree, a branch was placed on the stump with the belief that the forest god would not notice the loss of the tree. Such beliefs which were once considered superstitious were, in fact, tribal worldview of conservation ethics, the rationality which the ‘science’ impugns. But they have been useful in conserving nature, where ‘modern’ development model has failed miserably and proves to be a Frankenstein’s monoester.
Let us understand conservation practices related to livelihood pursuits. Tribes used a few resources on a small scale to meet a few undiversified wants. They did not overuse the resources of a place when its naturally recuperating carrying capacity diminished. So they used to migrate. The economy of the tribes was subsistence in nature despite resource abundance.
In contrast, the present economy is based on the development model which is market-driven, believes in accumulation and principle of maximisation; and therefore engages in large scale production of varieties of goods and services by using massive amount of resources. Natural objects- land, forest, etc.- are viewed as “commodity” which can be bought or sold in impersonal markets, unlike tribal perspective of an embodied substance that forms part of their social and spiritual universe and defines their existence and identity.
Moreover, people do not move from place to place when the carrying capacity of a resource base declined; it is instead a resource that moves across the globe. Ironically, the nature of resource consumption does not allow regeneration period or replenishment, thereby precipitating the crisis of environmental degradation and climate change. The characteristic of the present development model is high growth rate commensurate with the level of resource consumption; development and resource consumption are proportionately related. It is a high level of resource consumption that is responsible for the environmental crisis and climate change.
Application of tribal conservation ethics to arrest environmental crisis and climate change would amount to a reduction of the level of resource use and corresponding level of development, leading to a subsistence level of the economy. Conservation ethics cannot be applied to the problem of climate change alone, as it is integral to the level of development. Present development discourse and tribal ethics of resource conservation stand opposite to each other in principle and practice.
The notorious truth is that tribal conservation ethics happens to be ineffective in conserving resources, which they have been preserving for centuries, within the present development model. Roads, dams, mining industries and other development projects aggressively denude natural resources despite constitutional safeguards and tribal friendly PESA and FRA provisions. Moreover, tribes are now aware of conservation needs and resource rights.
Tribal conservation ethics, however, incites to think of a compatible alternative development model. Such an alternative already exists based on the Gandhian principle of minimisation of wants, which, however, was never put into practice. But such a model would not only address the crisis of environmental degradation and climate change but also several other problems like social conflict, political tension, insurgency, identity assertion, issue of marginalisation, etc. resulting from inherent inequality in our present development model. The alternative model, however, may not assure a hundred per cent equality; but it would reduce the yawning gap of inequality, for inequality and small scale economy are inversely related. Consequently, emerging problems would be minimised with minimization of wants; and sustainability would not be a problem either.
Do we really for it? It is perhaps a difficult option to make given our lifestyle, political dynamics, interconnectedness, and commitment to international development discourse. The merit of tribal conservation ethics to arrest climate change and environmental crisis has no meaning in theory without putting it practice. However, there are vast possibilities of incorporating it in our present Atmanirbhar model of development.


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