What’s the problem?

Buffaloes are bad for birds.

Shifting cultivation is bad for forests.

Everyone agrees these are ‘problems’ that need to be solved.  Cultivators and pastoralists are told to leave the forests, grasslands and wetlands alone.  Everyone waits eagerly for the ‘solutions’ to work.  The birds vanish; so do the forests.

What is it that went wrong? Answer: The problem.

Of Geese and Grass, a chapter in Madhav Gadgil’s book, Ecological Journeys, is a fascinating, but somewhat alarming story of the Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary in Rajasthan.  The famous manmade wetland spanning 29 sq km, which used to be the hunting grounds of the Maharajahs of Bharatpur, is home to hundreds of waterfowl.  In the 1980s, about a decade after it was declared a bird sanctuary, the area was closed to pastoralists who had been using the region as grazing grounds for their cattle for centuries.  ‘Buffaloes are bad for birds’, said the scientists and the politicians.  With the grazers gone, grasses took over the wetlands; this was really bad for the birds.  Now, people are paid to do the job of the buffaloes – to cut the grass and keep them low, so that the birds don’t desert the wetland, while the buffaloes probably have nothing to eat.

In north-east India, shifting cultivation, or jhum, has been the mainstay of people for centuries.  But in school (in the city of Bangalore, where few really know what ‘forest’ or ‘farming’ is), they had taught us that shifting cultivation is ‘bad’; ‘They burn forests’, my teachers told me.  But bad for whom, bad for what? Not for the forests, I later learnt*, not for the birds or the bamboo, not also for the people…  Secondary forests that take over old jhum lands are home to a diversity of birds and bamboo; the people get not just the produce of their crop, but much more from their jhum lands, like raw material to build their houses.  But the people of the North-East are told ‘Shifting cultivation is bad for forests’; instead, the government actively encourages them to cultivate plantations of oil palm and rubber, permanently replacing forests with green deserts.

Accurate identification of the problem is essential for long-term preservation of our rich natural heritage.  For, ‘The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly’**.

* Largely from conversations and talks, and essays (like this, this and this) by T R Shankar Raman on his research in the jhum landscape of Mizoram.

** Richard Hamming, in his talk ‘You and Your Research’, 1986, Bell Labs, USA.

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