Saturday, 20 September 2014

Book Review: Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World

I just finished reading Ancient Futures: Lessons from Ladakh for a Globalizing World by Helena Norberg-Hodge. It is strange that it is only now that I finally read this masterpiece; six years since I first went to Ladakh and began my journey of academic inquiry and personal growth. Ladakh was the place I discovered my love for ethnographic study and found the inspiration to undertake a PhD. Ladakh was the place I stood up to a corrupt Goba (village head) to support a women's Self Help Group I had closely worked with. Ladakh was the place I began understanding that the journey is the destination. But even if Ladakh was not such an integral part of my growth, I would still have been very sorry to miss Ancient Futures.

Drawing on decades of ethnographic work starting in the 1970s, when Ladakh was first 'opened' to tourists, Norberg-Hodge starts by painting an evocative picture of the social contentment and ecological harmony in traditional Ladakhi communities. It is so palpable that at first, she suspected that the smiling faces and cheerful communal work was a well-orchestrated lie. Acutely conscious of her perceptions coloured by a mechanistic worldview, Norberg-Hodge takes time to immerses herself in the Ladakhi life and as a result, skilfully discusses how religion, social norms, communal bonds, and environmental dependence made Ladakhis a content and sustainable community.

In the second half of the book, she turns witness to the recent inroads 'development' has made in Ladakh - from stories of shrinking families and severed social ties to shifts towards commercial (and unsustainable) agriculture, from incidences of previously unheard diseases like depression and obesity to increasing communal conflict in this largely peaceful land. Most importantly, she captures something I have witnessed across rural India - the alarming crisis around erosion of identity and shame over one's traditions as inferior when compared to the West. She holds that 'modernisation' (as defined and perpetuated by movies, advertisements and media) is often coveted without a clear understanding of the side-effects such a developmental model has spawned in the West.

Reeling from this dismal picture, the third section of the book offers a ray of hope. Here, Norberg-Hodge talks about various initiatives in Ladakh that are providing alternatives to the current top-down, infrastructure-heavy modes of progress. She elaborates on 'counter-development' a paradigm through which she envisions informing communities about the implications of the Western development model and working towards ecologically-sound, culturally attuned and autonomous development.

Religious sanction, communal norms, and ancient traditions collude to make life in Ladakh's resource constrained land inherently sustainable.
Long before 'bottom-up development' and 'climate-smart agriculture' became a fad, Ladakh's rural communities were practicing ecologically
sustainable agriculture and locally governed and managed their lives.     
Whether or not you know (or want to know) Ladakh, Ancient Futures is a book to read. Whether or not you are studying development and its discourses, Ancient Futures is an incredible read. If you have ever questioned the ease with which the allure of the West subsumes your own culture and identity, wondered about ecological sustainability and whether is is even possible in this day and age, toyed with metaphysical issues around contentment and happiness, Ancient Futures is a stimulating read.

For those interested, you can watch a documentary based on the book here and a TEDx talk by Helena Norberg-Hodge here

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Link Pack: Sustainable intensification in agriculture

Blog: Ian Scoones writes about the latest buzzword in agriculture 'sustainable intensification' (SI) and whether it can help address global food security. 

Paper: In a recent paper, Loos et al. (2014) critique the current definition of SI and highlight the need to look at issues of equity (who gains what?) and individual empowerment (to secure food). They conclude that in it's current framing, SI is a 'a vaguely defined global vision' that needs 'revisiting earlier, regionally grounded, bottom-up approaches'. Importantly, the paper also highlights the need for maintaining the multi-functionality of agro-ecosystems if SI has to be sustainable. All in all, a crucial reading for those interested in agricultural intensification and farming systems research. 


Thursday, 12 June 2014

Researcher’s social capital: Liaising with local actors for effective ethnographic research

Having a good relationship with a local NGO helped me participate in several
events not strictly related to my research. Seen above, women dancing on
Women's Day to kill time before the formal event began. They sang local songs,
spun in giddy circles and all in all entertained everyone around!
The doing of research is something that is very close to my heart and a subject I have not adequately touched upon in this blog. In an interdisciplinary field like mine that draws upon rural development, natural resource management, and climate change science, I have experimented with and relied upon several methods for collecting data. During my PhD fieldwork, I drew on my experience working with an NGO, to gain access to and acceptance in the community I was conducting my research in. And I realised that just as in any other endeavour, building networks, investing in relationships beyond the strict confines dictated by professional boundaries, and collecting data like 'branches to build my nest' (in the words of my supervisor) helped tremendously.

In a post at LSE's Field Research Blog, I elaborate on some of these points and discuss how liaising with local actors can help build a researcher's social capital and thus facilitate effective ethnographic research

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Link Pack: ICTs for climate change adaptation (among other things)

Paper:  Linking ICTs and Climate Change Adaptation: A Conceptual Framework for e-­Resilience and e-­Adaptation by Ospina and Heeks (2010) is a fascinating read. The authors put forth a framework to explore how ICTs can enhance individual adaptive capacities and contribute to the overall adaptation process. The paper also introduced me to 'ICT4CCA' which stands for Information and Communication Technologies for Climate Change Adaptation. Quite a mouthful but wildly interesting nevertheless! 

Book: I've just started reading Professor Sumit Guha's latest book 'Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present' as a way to educate myself with the multiple histories that shape caste in India. From the blurb I quote "'caste' should be understood as a politically inflected and complex form of ethnic stratification that persisted across religious affiliations". A review will be out soon!

Video: Lifelines is a beautiful video made by researchers at Oxford's School of Geography and the Environment which captures the intricacies of how rural-urban migration, unemployment, livelihoods and development mesh together to mould personal aspirations and fortunes in Uttarakhand, India. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

Shifting the discourse from adaptation to transformational adaptation

Shallow wells provide protective irrigation during in-season dry spells.
But these coping strategies may not work in an agricultural system that
is intensifying towards water-intensive cash crops. 
There is growing concern that climate change adaptation may have 'somehow lost its edge...lost its spunk and it became just another term for development'. My own research from Pratapgarh, a tribal-dominated rainfed region in Rajasthan, western India, showed that farmers mainly use short-term coping  that help them 'get by' rather than longer-term adaptive strategies that help build resilience to present and future risks. 

There is also a growing call for the need to move from 'mere' adaptation to transformational adaptation. Transformational adaptation places an emphasis on moving beyond coping to long-term sustainable change (on a temporal scale) and shifting from individual or local coping and adaptive strategies to making change across societies and economies (something researchers have said earlier too).

One of the key findings of my research on smallholder farmer vulnerability to water scarcity and climate change pointed to this precisely: there is only so much a farming family can do with individual coping strategies. Agricultural adaptation encompasses a wide range of options from various actors operating at, and embedded in, different scales. Thus, for farmers to 'successfully' adapt to increasing climate variability and future climatic change, they have to move beyond household coping. Such a transformation can only take place if farmers are able to utilise their ecological, social and institutional landscapes effectively and if these landscapes have characteristics conducive to transformational adaptation.



Further reading: 
  • Conceptualizing Transformational Adaptation by Pérez-Català, A. (2014) gives a basic introduction to key papers in a very readable post.   
  • In Informing adaptation responses to climate change through theories of transformationPark et al. (2012) give a comprehensive review of literature on transitions and transformation. 
  • Rickards and Howden (2012) present the debates around transformational adaptation nicely in their (open access!!) paper 'Transformational adaptation: agriculture and climate change'. The authors use case studies from Australian agriculture to explain the potential risks and gains posed by transformational adaptation and point towards the need for a systems-oriented thinking. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Link Pack: Rural landscapes, M&E for climate change adaptation

Video: Stumbled upon an interesting repository of images from the British Empire at Colonial Film. Each video is accompanied by an analysis which is quite useful. Watching one 1943 video In Rural Maharashtra, I was struck by how effectively the role of women in an agricultural household was portrayed. Another interesting insight was corn being called the main crop, which has certainly changed with the cotton boom in Maharashtra. It would be interesting to see a similar film being made now and comparing the two to document how rural landscapes and intra-household labour division have changed.

Reading resource: SEA Change and UKCIP recently held a webinar on monitoring and evaluation (M&E) methods in climate change adaptation. Here's a link to the interesting discussion, M&E guidance notes and recommended resources on the latest developments and toolkits in adaptation M&E. Highly recommended.

Blog: Patrick Dunleavy, author of 'Authoring a PhD' gives advice on writing good abstracts. He suggests rationing your words in these boxes:
Other people’s work and the focus of previous research literature? [50 words]
What is distinctive to your own theory position or intellectual approach?[40 words]
Your methods or data sources/datasets? [40-120 words, depending on how methodologically innovative your work is.]
Your bottom-line findings i.e. what ‘new facts’ have you found? Or what key conclusions you draw? [Assign as many words as possible within your limit. Be substantive. Don’t be vague, obscure, formal or conventional. Tell us clearly what you found out, not just what topic box you were studying in.]
The value-added or originality of your work within this field? [30 words - Make a moderate claim, motivate readers to learn more.]
          Call: SAGE Magazine has opened its call for contributors, especially focussing on unpublished writers. And LSE Review of Books has opened its Spring 2014 call for book reviewers. A great opportunity to read, be read, and (l)earn a book

          Saturday, 29 March 2014

          Book Review: Water Resource Management in a Vulnerable World

          Access to water is poised to be the issue future wars will be fought over, especially in the context of global climate change and its current and projected impacts. In Water Resource Management in a Vulnerable World: the hydro-hazardscapes of climate change, Daanish Mustafa, a Reader in Human Geography at King’s College, London, argues that the most pressing challenge facing us today is addressing water sufficiency while managing our increasing vulnerability to climate change. He deconstructs this crisis by examining what he terms the “hydro-hazardscapes of climate change”.


          Under this ‘hydro-hazardscape’ discourse, the main argument Mustafa puts forth is that apart from looking at structural solutions such as building dams, canals, tube wells and flood banks, water managers must look at the social, economic, cultural and political pressures that impact societies. For more about the book and the variety of case studies Mustafa uses to illustrate his thesis, read a book review I did for New Asia Books.
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