One lesson I took from the 7th biennial conference of the U.S. Society for Ecological Economics was the role of individual stories from communities around the world and the value in sharing these stories. These stories are little snippets of food for thought that might help disseminate a new narrative or ethic not only in the so-called field of ‘sustainability’ but also amongst our friends, family and colleagues or as anecdotes in the communication we as academics offer in our manuscripts or public presentations. I will share three short stories from a conversation I had with Baruani Mshale, a Doctoral student from the University of Michigan, who is analyzing factors of deforestation and forest degradation within local communities in Tanzania. His approach has been to spend significant periods of time in the field in order to understand actors’ behaviours in relation to the causes and motivations for engaging in avoided deforestation. His approach is to examine the nuances between political systems change and management of ecological systems by local communities. Understanding factors for collaboration between different actors and the development of ‘common understandings’ over forest governance will be particularly useful given the context of local and global neoliberal conservation policy tools that seek to redress global climate change through incentives. These include Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) and Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).
Baruani has taken an ethnographic approach within communities of the Kilwa District, located south of Tanzania’s largest metropolis, Dar es Salaam. After the second day of the conference…tired but in need to process all the knowledge and insights we had acquired during the day, we shared stories of our experiences in the field and discussed perspectives of gender equality, ‘development projects’, and the paradox of utilitarian efficiency logic imposed on complex and locally constructed socio-ecological systems. The three stories reveal the diversity of value systems that underpin human behaviour. They also highlight the futile attempt to reduce these values to objective truths or simplified assumptions of perceptions towards human rights, social relations, or relationships with nature.
1. Gender Equality
There was a man in a particular village who was involved in a domestic dispute. Fellow villagers overheard the arguments and attempted to confront the man by knocking on the door of the house. The man was not willing to listen or cooperate with the villagers who were becoming concerned of the situation unfolding. The neighbours contacted the local village authorities to persuade the man to calm down. Instead, the man came out brandishing a machete and threatened to use it on anyone who tried to approach him. The villagers were out of ideas- until someone decided to contact his mother. His mother was located and she went into the house with her son and throughout the night and early in the morning they stayed inside. After quite some time, the pacified man and his mother emerged from the house, leaving the machete behind.
It is perhaps useful to recognize that western concepts of gender equality may not reflect what women in communities across the world perceive themselves. I guess, what is not considered an obstacle for achieving full potential of an individual should not necessarily be imposed by outsiders with idealized notions of justice or equality. Any attempt to promote gender equity might be better placed to recognize those empowerment roles for women that reflect local culture- as this example of a mother’s empathy illustrates. In the hill communities comprised of largely Tamang communities surrounding the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, a similar story emerged. Women frequently responded to questions regarding their perceptions of having ‘equal opportunities as a man’ as being something incongruent with their perspective of a role as a woman. In particular, they felt the roles they played in the household and community were not to be compared to the opportunity sets of men in the village, who played different roles. For example, they did not express a demand for greater equality in managing land clearing operations on their agricultural plots. These activities have traditionally been carried out by men. However, they also took pride in being involved and in running local savings and credit loan operations in the community as well as influencing important financial decisions at the household level- both of which were important roles empowering women in these villages.
2. ‘Development’ Interestingly, this story is not the first of its kind…nor has it been specific to a particular place. It is the story of the attempts of 'development NGOs' to improve water accessibility by reducing the time spent that people (particularly women) have to spend in walking to a water source, collecting water and carrying it back to the village often over long distances in harsh climates. In one village of the Kilwa district, a water tap was installed which substantially reduced the time women would have to walk to fetch water. However, the area where the tap was located was very close to the social gathering location of men in the village. In this way, men in the village could easily see when their wife was leaving the house, obtaining the water, and adding an impression by women that they were being watched and could not longer socially interact with others. In response, the women of the village secretly hired individuals from the village to destroy the water tap so that they could resume their walks to fetch water and the opportunity for socialization that the daily activity provided.
3. ‘Efficient Agriculture’ (i.e. increasing yield per hectare)- In this story, Baruani spoke of an attempt by foreign agricultural extension agents to improve the yield per hectare of farmers’ plots of sorghum. Farmers in the village often planted sorghum in random, fairly haphazard patterns across their fields. Foreign extension agents argued that planting the crops in a straight line would be far more efficient in improving the productive yield of the sorghum crop while utilizing less seeds, which the farmers could save for future harvests. Some farmers in the village adopted the new techniques, but those that did not had very interesting rationales for not doing so. One household argued that planting crops in a straight row would very quickly decimate the whole crop given populations of guinea fowl and rodents who would otherwise tend to get confused by the haphazard planting of sorghum. Several other households found the very idea of planting crops to maximize yield to contradict other aspects of quality of life. Typically, men go out in the morning to till the fields before moving on to their other activities of the day. Women then replace the men to dig holes, with the children coming in last to drop the seeds. All of these activities occur at different times and allow family members to engage in their own activities creating the unique social dynamic of culture and custom that exists in the village. Planting to maximize yield per hectare was not perceived as ‘worth it’ even though the farmers knew the cost-savings that would result as well as the surplus that such planting would support (highly beneficial given conditions of drought in the region). Such ‘efficient’ planting would require all the family members to be present at the same time to engage in a more labour-intensive process. This was considered inconceivable by these particular farmers of the village who felt such a practice would disrupt the roles of the family and leave less time to engage in other activities that each age group had reasons to value.
I finish by reflecting on a different, but broader concern that I took away from the conference. As we know, transitioning to a new institutional and economic paradigm that values humanity’s long-term collective interest in survival will require a significant shift in the psyche of the human individual towards their fellow human and the natural world. This change will require that we as individuals put our own personal interests as secondary to those of our family…and our family below that of our community, and our community below that of the regional or global. But flipping from a society based on self-interest and hedonism to one of cooperation is marred by a dualism, which itself infuses many assumptions that a cooperative society will all of a sudden relieve our problems. A similar dualism lies in comparing the end of the world with the end of unrestrained free-market capitalism. I do not believe it is healthy for society to be trapped within a complacence versus apocalyptic outlook which in both cases does not result in actualizing change. There are shades of gray that can take us forward. The daunting task ahead lies first in re-assessing our own psyches, being cognizent of when the ‘ego speaks’, and in general appreciating patience, uncertainty and adaptivity to uncontrollable circumstances. These are virtues that our children so desperately require but which sadly fall away in this world of technological optimism and immediate ‘over-the-counter’ culture. If we cannot exhibit that we are capable of making personal re-assessments, there will be little hope for making the kind of transformative changes that are needed in the near future.