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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 23, May 29, 2010

Contribution to Reduction of GHG Emissions by Grassroots Struggles

Tuesday 1 June 2010, by Bharat Dogra

In India (and elsewhere) we have several people’s struggles which are protesting against displacement and trying to protect their sustainable life-styles and livelihoods based on farmlands, pastures and forests, rivers and coastal areas. These struggles involve farmers, forest-produce gatherers (tribals particularly), pastoral people, fisherfolk and others with related livelihoods. These traditional livelihoods have been passed on from generation to generation, but are now increasingly threatened on a scale never seen before because in the times of globalisation the pressure to start new mines, cut more trees, set up more industries, luxury townships and tourist resorts is greater than ever before.

While the struggles of these people to protect their livelihoods and life-patterns have always been well-justified in terms of the needs of sustainable development, environment protection, justice and ethics, it was nevertheless frequently argued by government officials and the corporate sector that these struggles obstructed the country’s development. These interests saw development only in terms of the high cash transactions involved in the context of the setting up of new mines and industries and the related MOUs. Frequently it was the narrow viewpoint of these interests that got the widest coverage in the media, while the grassroots struggles were criticised for keeping people in backwardness.

Of course, the struggles and their sympathisers have been giving well-argued replies to this misrepresentation in the past. But such has been the influence of the corporate sector and the so-called ‘modern’ sector that most of these people’s struggles were generally presented as anti-development movements which are obstacles in the spread of new opportunities of development.

Now this can change with the increasing worldwide realisation of the great urgency of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The people of remote villages may not have heard much about the debate on reducing GHG emissions, but the reality is that any struggle which will protect forests and help to preserve the green cover will also help in the reduction of GHG emissions. In addition, the life patterns based on rural life, farms and forestry based livelihood and living in closer harmony with nature are inherently capable of much reduced GHG emissions compared to the model based on big mining and industrial projects or luxury resorts. The need is to strengthen the self-reliance of village communities so that in terms of meeting the basic needs excessive reliance on unnecessary transport (wasteful energy use) can be avoided.

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There is another category of struggles related to protecting the livelihood of artisans. This involves protecting the livelihoods of those weavers, spinners, craftspersons, food-processors who have traditional skills for providing a broad range of quality products without using fossil fuels or by keeping this use as low as possible. The most obvious example is that of handloom weavers. Their capability to produce good quality cloth and a broad range of textiles at a reasonable price is well established, but they are subjected to unfair competition and injustice at various levels, and in the context of India, the benefits promised to them and fully agreed to by the authorities are frequently denied to them. There are several struggles in India to give a fair deal to handloom weavers. Now with the increasing emphasis on reducing GHG emissions, the case for protecting handlooms and hand-spinning becomes stronger as to protect precious human skills which do not involve the use of any commercial energy, fossil fuel use or the related GHG emissions has acquired a new strength, it can get more support than before. A fairtrade clothing company People Tree (Dhaka, Bangladesh) says in its promotional campaign that the handloom saves one tonne of CO2 from being emitted each year and creates nine times as many jobs as the powerloom.

At a time when the need to reduce GHG emissions is so pronounced, technologies which do not involve any GHG emissions to create products of great value and utility should obviously be helped and protected, particularly in a country like India where despite mounting threats to handloom weavers and other artisans they have still survived in significant numbers and hence can provide the base for a wider revival of these skills and technologies. A similar case can be made in the case of the traditional skills and technologies of several other traditional artisans, fisherfolk, cycle rickshaw-pullers and others. Particularly in the context of urban transport, the struggles to protect the livelihoods of cycle-rickshaw pullers and hand-cart pullers can benefit much from the new emphasis on reducing GHG emissions.

Traditional wisdom of farmers and pastoral groups also need to be protected and revived as these show the way of how adequate healthy food can be produced while avoiding heavy GHG emissions in farming and related sectors.

People and organisations who have been sympathetic and helpful to the people’s struggles to save their land, resource-base and sustainable livelihoods should also take note of the new opportunities that are arising and these can give additional strength to those struggles as struggles which, apart from protecting livelihoods, can also help to reduce GHG emissions.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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