Beyond the Myth of Eco-Crisis: Local Response to Pressure on :A Study of Kakani in the Middle Hills

Bookworm Issue 70 Jul, 2010

Back in the 1800s, Kakani, in the hills north of Balaju, was the only place outside Kathmandu Valley that the British Residents were allowed to visit. They went there for picnics and spectacular views of Ganesh Himal. Today, the whole country is open to travel and research, but Kakani remains special.
Since 1979, Kakani has hosted studies on the cause and effects of land degradation (soil erosion, landslides, mass wasting) in the hills. The focus has been on an ecological collapse considered so severe that some foreign experts call it an “eco-crisis”. Nepal, they say, is a land suffering immense “despoliation” and “tragedy” and the rural poor are “the primary agents of destruction” acting “out of desperation, ignorance, shortsightedness or greed”. This prognosis is grave and the charges serious, all the more so coming from ‘experts’ associated with big international aid agencies and research institutes. Sumitra Gurung names them, quotes them, then challenges them head on. Not so, she says, and her book tells us why.

Sumitra M. Gurung is a geographer, development consultant and social activist, with credentials and experience enough to make some very bold but well-founded pronouncements. Her PhD in geography is from the University of Hawaii, on top of studies at the Asian Institute of Technology, University of Colorado and Tribhuvan University. Her Kakani research spans many years, resulting in this tour de force of the issues and arguments about local land use, with relevance throughout the hills.

For the scholar, Sumitra summarizes decades of findings, pro and con, about The Myth of Eco-Crisis, Land and Livelihood, Land Hazards and Environment Perception, and Responses and Adaptation to Land Pressure. She also outlines her study methods, then introduces us to the Kakani farmers (Tamangs, Brahmin/Chhetris, and Balami Newars) and tells how they perceive their environment and treat the land.

To the non-scholar, her book is a trove of knowledge and insight about farming the Nepalese hills, including an overview of Kakani geography, anthropology and history. It is also a cautionary tale about “indigenous knowledge” vs. “foreign expertise”.

Her objectives are to understand subsistence agriculture in relation to farmers, and the scale of crop loss due to landslides and erosion; to comprehend interactions between people and the natural environment, specifically how local decisions are made; and to identify constraints and opportunities for improving land management.

She convincingly discusses how local people deal with such hazards as soil erosion and landslides, and how, based on their own experience and intimate knowledge of the land, they have devised appropriate solutions. She identifies three sets of “adaptive strategies” (how farmers cope), including physical adjustments to increase crop yield on both wet and dry farm terraces, social changes dealing with the organization of labor, and spiritual responses that address supernatural causes and ways to pacify the deities Nag/Nayambu (the snake god), Bandevi (the forest deity), Lord Ganesh, and Mahalaxmi.

At the end Sumitra brings her understanding of the land and people of Kakani, their problems and answers, into focus. She presses home her conviction that the people are not the problem, but should be brought into land use planning as important players with appropriate solutions. She rejects outright the notion of an “eco-crisis” caused by the people, population growth, and loss of forest. That view, she says, is wrongly based on a failure to understand the complexities of local land management systems. She is not alone in her conclusions, and cites a number of studies supporting them.

Beyond the Myth of Eco-Crisis is a very readable book packed with a wealth of information about people/land interrelationships, local knowledge and practice, and both local and foreign solutions. It includes useful tables, illustrations and figures, a list of weights, measures and conversion factors, lists of crops and fruits grown in Kakani, glossary, bibliography, and index.
After reading the book, pack a picnic lunch and go to Kakani to see for yourself “ the land, the people, and the mountains.