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Situating Agroecology in the Environment–Development Matrix

Nandan Nawn (corresponding co-editor: nnletter@gmail.com) teaches at TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi. Sudha Vasan (sudha.vasan@gmail.com) teaches at the University of Delhi. Ashish Kothari (chikikothari@gmail.com) is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam.

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Agriculture is a pre-eminent illustration of the inter-weaving of nature and culture, a part of the complex that underlies the metabolic, metaphysical, and other relations between humans and nature. Yet, with valuable exceptions, environmental research in academic circles has often developed in parallel with agrarian studies, and vice versa. This is remarkable, given that agrarian ecologies have been central to several social movements across the global South and some even in the global North (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring [1962], recognised widely as an inspiration for the environmental movement in the North, made primary connections between the disappearance of songbirds and growing use of pesticides in agriculture). However, as Robert M Netting commented about anthropology in 1974, agriculture has often been treated as infra dig within environmental literature. The move away from the agrarian has often engendered an environmentalism that dissociates labour and livelihoods and peoples’ knowledge from ecology. Recent academic work seeks to breach the dichotomy between agrarian and environmental studies (Altieri 1987; Shiva 1991; Vandermeer 1995; Agrawal and Sivaramakrishnan 2000; Moore 2008; Borrass et al 2010). Focusing on agrarian ecologies has also meant contending with other analytical separations, such as rural from urban, peasant from worker, and agriculture from forestry, pastoralism, fisheries, etc, and most of all, eschewing the environment–development dichotomy. Agrarian ecology, therefore, is central to the premise of this review of environment and development.

Food production, so fundamental to human survival, so influential in relating to and transforming soil, water, air, forests, organisms, etc, has also become intensely entrenched in state regimes and global commodity markets. It forces us to ask how the most fundamental questions of survival, health and nutrition of the individual are linked to community cultures and worldviews, national agrarian regimes, globalisation of economy and culture, and climate change. Issues of scale are, therefore, central to an understanding of agrarian ecologies, linked by the ecological, social, cultural, economic and political flows.

Agrarian ecology may take on many potential meanings in the context of integrative and disruptive processes such as urbanisation, globalisation and climate change; we seek to interrogate these multiple meanings in this review. This includes issues of food security and food sovereignty, sustainability, biological diversity, agrarian structures, and practices across cultivation, forestry, pastoralism, and fisheries. The organisation of these practices includes, most obviously, state law, policy, administration, and the market. However, these forms of organisation and control are also contested by alternative and parallel movements such as agrarian collectivities, cooperatives, and networks at the local, regional, and global levels. The production, circulation, and use of knowledges and their relationship to and reflection of power structures has also been a central concern of research on agrarian ecology and is reflected in this review. The complex interface between social inequalities and agroecological conditions and practices is a theme that animates much of this research. As the interface between agriculture and the environment becomes increasingly problematic with the spread of currently dominant forms of food and commodity production located within capitalist and/or state-dominated regimes—both also linked to gender, caste, and other iniquitous structures—such research is an essential component of the search for alternative, sustainable and equitable pathways.

Insights into the Agriculture–Environment Relationship

The papers in this collection traverse Andhra Pradesh, Telangana (Sagari R Ramdas), Tamil Nadu (C Saratchand), Karnataka (Sheetal Patil et al), Haryana (Raj Gupta et al), and Arunachal Pradesh (Deepak K Mishra). Spatial scales vary from villages (Ramdas and Mishra) to urban fringes (Patil et al), to a district (Gupta et al), and to the coasts (Madhuri Ramesh, Naveen Namboothri). Authors use a wide variety of lenses. In some papers, sociopolitical inequities gain more prominence (Mishra; Ramdas; Saratchand). Some examine mainstreamed practices for their agroecological sensitivities (Ramesh and Namboothri; Gupta et al; Patil et al). A few of the papers examine the possibilities of economic instruments (Saratchand) and planning (Gupta et al) in facilitating ecologically benign agrarian practices, while some find solutions in collectivised actions (Ramdas; Michel P Pimbert).

Pimbert (p 52) offers a brief historical overview of agroecology, navigating both theoretical underpinnings and ground-level experiments and practices. The potential of participatory, people-centred research based on farmers’ knowledge to develop agroecologically sound solutions in competing with “conventional” farming practices in terms of yield and production is explored in the paper. It points to efforts by the state and international organisations to promote a set of practices as agroecological, which are strictly at odds with farmers’ practices at the ground level. The paper argues that claims for any viable agroecological transformation will have to satisfy multiple requirements, ranging from ensuring democracy and gender justice to nurturing sustainability and cultural diversity.

Ramesh and Namboothri (p 58) problematise the notion of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY), a principle that has been historically and widely used across spaces in the management of naturally renewable resources, such as tropical forests and marine fisheries. The paper argues that MSY is a reductionist, if not incorrect, understanding of an ecosystem that has been projected as scientific and objective to legitimise the control and command of resources by the powerful. The supposed capture of “rationality” and “efficiency” of this principle helped it become the guiding one for forest management in British colonies, including India and the United States, since late 19th century. Institutional frameworks developed in this period reflected this principle, and continued since, despite not delivering positive outcomes for either the environment or society, the paper concludes.

Mishra (p 64) reveals the complexity of local and global interactions in Arunachal Pradesh, located at the crux of rapid economic changes. Through a village survey, changing patterns of labour and the privatisation of land and forests by a powerful few, using their membership of historically developed local community institutions that govern these resources, are highlighted. This has helped the process of accumulation-by-dispossession brought in by big capital flowing in from the outside, clearly facilitated by the state, the paper argues.

Patil et al (p 71) report on the agroecological impacts of urbanisation in the periphery of Bengaluru. They highlight the diversity of impacts along different transects around the metropolis by using indices for agricultural production, ecological parameters, and sociocultural practices. The authors make a case that different forms of urbanisation may have differential impacts on the agroecological processes in the periphery, and there may be forms of urbanisation that are less harmful to the agroecological balance.

Saratchand (p 78) argues that adoption of agroecological practices or cultivation of more ecologically benign crops can be socially sustainable only if accompanied by land reform measures that promote agricultural cooperation. The theoretical exposition is supported with an empirical illustration of Tamil Nadu, presently faced with severe water scarcity. Its conclusion emphasises the necessity of coordinated public intervention across all aspects of farming, for an effective agroecological transition.

Gupta et al (p 84) identify a number of interconnected principles from speeches of Prime Ministers to sustain the multifunctional agriculture in India. They critically assess the past engagements in agricultural research by state institutions against these principles and conclude that there is a lack of system perspectives in general. They propose the adoption of resource-management domains that identify relatively homogeneous land units against biophysical, social, and economic parameters for the purpose of planning and management. The authors report the results of applying this concept to Karnal district in Haryana.

Ramdas (p 92) explores the organisation of ecological, climatic and economic resilience across a diverse set of agrarian practices in selected villages in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The paper argues that, both, production and exchange aspects of the bovine economy provide the common thread in such actions. Through an ethnographic account, it shows how the farmers in specific villages could collectively thwart the massive external pressures that, over the last few decades, drove other villages towards agroecologically damaging practices and agrarian crisis.

Together, these papers by no means cover the entire gamut of issues that are significant in the agriculture–environment relationship. But, they do offer insights and empirical glimpses into some of the most crucial elements and, in so doing, hopefully shed further and deeper light on one of the most crucial challenges facing India (and the world) today, that of harmonising the production of food and other commodities from the land and seas in ways that respect ecological limits and resilience.

References

Agrawal, Arun and K Sivaramakrishnan (eds) (2000): Agrarian Environments: Resources, Representations and Rule In India, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Altieri, Miguel A (1987): Agroecology: The Scientific Basis of Alternative Agriculture, Boulder: Westview Press.

Borras Jr, Saturnino, Philip McMichael and Ian Scoones (2010). “The Politics of Biofuels, Land and Agrarian Change: Editors’ Introduction,” Journal of Peasant Studies, Vol 37, No 4, pp 575–92.

Carson, Rachel (1962): Silent Spring, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Moore, Jason (2008): “Ecological Crises and the Agrarian Question in World-Historical Perspective,” Monthly Review, Vol 60, No 6, pp 54–63.

Netting, Robert M (1974): “Agrarian Ecology,” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol 3, pp 21–56.

Shiva, Vandana (1991): The Violence of the Green Revolution: Third World Agriculture, Ecology and Politics, London: Zed Books. 

Vandermeer, John (1995): “The Ecological Basis of Alternative Agriculture,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics, Vol 26, pp 201–24.

Updated On : 16th Oct, 2018

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