Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cold Science, Warm Fuzziness

This is something I have only seen in the development sector. If someone found a cure for a disease you would not reject it on the grounds that a shaman will not be able to understand the process and so the cure will alienate him, would you? Then why are good processes for environmental conservation set aside because they are not inclusive enough?

Every process is only as good the product it delivers. If the ritual more important than the reason, well, you have just founded a cult. I am totally in favour of inclusive decision making, in favour of sharing, and yes, in favour of using techniques and material that make sure every stakeholder understands what is going on and can express his/her/its concerns. For me, it is important that every stakeholder has a voice.

That is why including the socio-cultural aspect in studies is important- because that is the language used by those who cannot speak developmental jargon. And the people who cannot speak the jargon, who speak in terms of culture and spiritual values, are some of the most important stakeholders- they are the forest dwellers, the subsistence farmers. So to underline the point, for me, this is a language I use to make myself understood, and to understand. As I converse in English with my colleagues, in Marathi with villagers, I also listen in Culture.

But what about those stakeholders who cannot even make themselves heard through rituals? Are these not the most marginalized, and should efforts not be made to listen to their needs? I speak of the ecosystem. The only way for the rivers and the forests to express their needs, and the only way for us to understand what they say, is through the language of science. How can a river ecosystem tell us of its non-negotiable instream requirements, other than by past flow measurements? In these days when villagers are dissociated with their environment, they cannot be the spokespersons for the hills. The ecosystem must speak for itself, in whatever language it chooses to.

Monitoring ground water levels, tracking migratory fish populations, measuring biomass, counting mayfly larvae in a stream- these may not mean much to the human dwellers of an ecosystem and will not translate into immediate benefits for them. And so these studies are considered a downright waste of time. A study that results in data that is not important or useful to the villagers, or may not be easily understood by them is considered elitist. To me, it is possible to look at it in the exact other way. Just as development workers take pride in the fact that they take the effort to go to the dalit vastis to facilitate meetings- despite the fact that it means less than nothing to the Rajputs/ Brahmins who make up the majority of the population, we also need to take pride in trying to converse with the non-anthropoid and even the non-sentient members of an ecosystem. Every stakeholder already has a voice and is shouting out to us, we need to listen.

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