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'Environmental Subjects' in Kumaon Forests


‘Environmental Subjects’in Kumaon Forests

Environmentality: Technologies of Government and the Making of Subjects

by Arun Agrawal; Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006; pp xiv + 325, Rs 650.


ommon property in land (pastures, forests), fisheries and water resources, was and continues to be attacked by liberals in the name of economic efficiency, while it was despised by Marxists as a relic of the past. Marxists believed in the clash between capital and wage labour as the fundamental driving force of history, although Marx himself had listened carefully to the Russian pro-peasant populists who believed in common property institutions as harbingers of socialism. Common property did not disappear in the 20th century. For instance, the revolutions or land reforms in Mexico and Andean America (Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador) gave considerable amounts of land back to indigenous and peasant communities. In the 1970s there was a new turn in the debates on the commons. Garrett Hardin’s article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (in Science, 1968) asserted that common property resources led to faulty environmental management. “Picture a pasture open to all”, he wrote, where anybody had the incentive to put in an extra sheep or cow, because the marginal revenue (as milk, wool, meat) would accrue to the owner of the animal, while the social cost in the form of overgrazing and soil erosion, would fall on the collective. It was soon pointed out by many authors that Hardin really meant “open access” instead of “commons” (as with fishing in the high seas or the use of the atmosphere to dump carbon dioxide without any regulation). Indeed, a commons is not open to all, but only to the members. But the words “the tragedy of the commons” were sweet to the ears of economic liberals, and they have stuck.

A small band of anthropologists, political scientists, ecologists and economists left aside the ideological debate and started, in the 1970s and 1980s in different parts of the world, to study in depth the systems of management of common property resources. Indian authors N S Jodha and Madhav Gadgil made major contributions. The provision of fuelwood, pastures and water by the commons to the meagre livelihoods of poor people in India was calculated. The “participatory exclusions” (Bina Agarwal’s term) because of caste and gender have been studied. India’s “sacred groves” became well known, inspiring anthropologists working elsewhere to look for similar institutions. The collective logic of rotations in swidden agriculture (similar in a way to the logic of rotations in open-field systems) was explained. Systems of regulation of irrigation water were analysed. The growth of joint forest management in the 1980s and 1990s gave strength to the field. The concrete conditions under which common property led to acceptable environmental results were explored. There were some neoclassical economists who, true to their calling, showed the formal equivalence, given appropriate assumptions, between private property and commons property (something one may disprove by plausibly assuming longer time horizons and lower social discount rates for commons property managers than for private owners).

Arun Agrawal was still a student when much of this intellectual ferment arose. He has been raised in the international school of the study of common property resources (particularly with Elinor Ostrom) to which this book makes an outstanding contribution. He provides an excellent detailed analysis of forest councils in the villages of Kumaon from the 1930s onwards, with an emphasis on the 1990s. As early as 1931, forest council rules were enacted to regulate the relations between the colonial state and communities. This is certainly an early date. After decades of conflict, the British administration realised that the cooperation of local inhabitants was necessary to manage the forests. The number of forest councils in Kumaon has increased since then. In 1976 (shortly after Chipko, one should notice) the forest council rules were rewritten to make them more favourable to villagers. Many villagers of Kumaon now explicitly speak in favour of conserving the forests because of the benefits they provide for livelihood. Therefore, according to Agrawal, they have become “environmental subjects” through state intervention (hence the words “technologies of government” in the subtitle) and through their own experience and knowledge. Agrawal explains that the efficacy of local regulatory institutions depends on a number of variables. The conditions for the enforcement of rules, the statistics on infractions and sanctions, the importance of the size of council, the costs of surveillance, the caste and gender divisions, are all taken into account. The research is based on long periods of field work, archival and library research, and sociological surveys.

Before the 1930s, and the state’s gradual return of appropriated land to the communities, there had been a period of great conflicts. The colonial state, as it is well known, had slowly imposed a logic of forest rights and management adopted from German forest engineering and economics, suited, if at all, to Prussian-like tree plantations, but not to the social and biological diversity of India. Agrawal insists that the British administration started to overlie the forest with botanical names in Latin and with a torrent of statistics. He is vaguely aware of the link to today’s eco-efficiency and “wise use” movement, but in my view, he does not really understand the forest engineering and economics imposed on India. He is not strong in economics, although this is an unfair critique against an author so knowledgeable in anthropology, political science and sociology.

Nowadays, one can see forest economics as a long trajectory from Faustmann’s rule of 1849 to PES, i e, payment for environmental services. Faustmann explained that a private forest owner (or a

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006 state agency owning a plantation forest, and bent on maximising profits), would compare the rate of growth of the trees (which declines with time) with the rate of interest paid by the bank. The “trees” are here understood as timber multiplied by price, less harvest costs. The comparison would yield the optimal moment for cutting the trees, before the next planting. So an owner should not cut everything in sight as soon as possible. A concept of sustainability was already involved here. Faustmann added another factor to be taken into account. The land denuded of trees could earn some rent, for grazing or agriculture – this would shorten the optimal period for cutting the trees. Nowadays, by including non-timber products (for trade or for local livelihood according to local knowledge and use), services of water retention and prevention of soil erosion, the value of a home for biodiversity, and carbon dioxide uptake, and then monetarising these real or fictitious commodities into the bottom line, one may reach the conclusion that the optimal moment of cutting the trees will be much later or will never arrive. Moreover, if one mistrusts, as it is reasonable, the monetary values given to non-market services, then one may move outside of economics into a logic of multi-criteria evaluation of forests (as Kanchan Chopra and other authors have done). This is precisely the logic of the van panchayats and the logic of the international movement “plantations are not forests” (

Conflict with Indigenous Populations

Before 1931, in Kumaon, disputes between the revenue department and the forest department of the colonial administration paled in importance compared to the conflict with the indigenous populations when forests were increasingly brought into state property and management. In Kumaon, the population responded to colonial exploitation and “German” forest economics by burning the forests in 1916, again in 1921. However, the notion of peasant environmental resistance (as in Ramachandra Guha’s classic account of the Chipko movement, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, 1989) is strongly dismissed by Agrawal. He argues that, when there was confrontation, before the 1930s, there was no environmental awareness (hence, the forest fires). Now, jumping to the 1980s and 1990s, there is close cooperation between the state and the newly constituted “environmental subjects” who are villagers defending the forest and speaking for the environment. When there was confrontation, there was no environmentalism. When there is cooperation, there is environmentalism, expressed by the new “environmental subjects” in their forest councils. This interpretation deserves a commentary.

Agrawal rightly states that his is not a “purist’s version of the environment… (as) something necessarily separate from and independent of concerns about material interests and everyday practices”. So, Agrawal’s “environmental subjects” are not American environmentalists engaging in “deep ecology” and the cult of wilderness, they are villagers practically concerned with the environment. How could it be otherwise? But then, the struggles over Kumaon forests from 1815 to the 1920s described in Chapter 3, against colonial simplification and rationalisation of forestry, were also carried out (in my view) by “environmental subjects”, even when resorting to fire, even when not using the word “environment” at all. Guha’s point was that an ecological component (an unspoken “environmentalism of the poor”) was included in peasant resistance movements against state-regulated forestry and commercial exploitation much before the contemporary environmental movement arrived in India in the 1970s. Peasant motivations and environmental motivations cannot always be easily separated. Chipko was both peasant and environmental. Tanaka Shozo’s movement in Japan around 1900 against pollution from copper mining was both peasant and environmental (although the word itself was not used). There are many other historical examples of spontaneous “environmental subjects”, born outside schemes for decentralised government.

We all live in the environment, we are all objectively using materials and energy, we all (women and men) are close to nature; we are not disembodied dematerialised angelical beings. In case of conflict, subjectivity arises, and uses a variety of idioms. For instance, in other regions of India, the language of adivasi or indigenous territorial rights is often used in ecological conflicts on mining or dams. It does not matter whether the adivasis themselves explicitly express concern for nature or the “environment”. (On Foucaldian reflection, one could always say that in some sense the “adivasis” themselves would not exist

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

without the Indian Constitution – have they been there for some hundreds or thousands of years patiently waiting for their subjectivity to be constructed through technologies of government?) Another instance, Chico Mendes in Acre, Brazil in the early 1980s, defending the rubber tappers and “their” forests against cattle ranching, used the language of labour unionism, and also the language of solidarity of the poor taken from Catholic liberation theology, to which he added shortly before dying the explicit language of environmentalism. He was all along an “environmental subject”, although not in Agrawal’s sense that requires government intervention and construction. Government approval of sustainable reserved forests for the rubber tappers came only after his death.

Such wide considerations are besides the main point of the book, which is explicitly unconcerned with large trends in economic growth, resource extraction, carbon dioxide production, population growth, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss. Thus, although there are some demographic data in the book, population growth is glibly discounted (as so often in India) by resorting to the “bad” word neo-Malthusianism. The demand for timber in the colonial period is well described but there is no awareness that demand is still increasing around the world. Wood has been substituted by other materials for some uses (and let us hope that fuelwood, which is so much part of Agrawal’s story, may be increasingly substituted by LPG as the Indian economy keeps growing), but there are new demands for other uses. Hence, there is resistance in so many places in the world against deforestation for export, and against tree plantations. This is the type of conflict studied by political ecology, a field dismissed by Agrawal but whose focus is the technical study of institutions for the management of common property resources, in which he is such an accomplished master.



Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

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