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Environmental changes and emerging indicators of unsustainability

Before discussing the environmental changes in mountain areas, a word on some conceptual issues is required. The environment is a joint product generated by the composition and interactions of different biophysical variables in a given ecological context. Socioeconomic factors play their own role in influencing interactive patterns of biophysical variables. Depending on the tangible, as against the abstract, nature of the "product," environmental change can be quantified or measured. More important, the biophysical factors generating "environment as a joint product" are not only contributors to but products of the environment. Environmental change, then, can be seen in terms of: (1) changes in its parameters (i.e. status and interaction of biophysical variables such as land, water, plants, etc.), and (2) changes in the tangible (as against abstract or difficult to measure) impacts of (1) above.

Furthermore, some of the changes mentioned above may manifest themselves as "impacts" or "consequences," whereas others form a part of certain ongoing processes. Another important aspect of these changes is that they may differ in terms of their degree of visibility (Jodha 1990). Although some (e.g. the extent of soil erosion) are directly visible, others may be concealed by human responses to the change (e.g. replacement of cattle by small ruminants following the decline in carrying capacity of mountain pastures). Similarly, depending on whether change takes the form of an impact or a component of a process, the nature of its visibility will differ (e.g. the reduced extent of irrigation following the reduction in natural water flow is immediately visible; the impact of the reduced diversity of mountain agriculture as a process may become visible after a time-lag). Methodological approaches to assess the change will also differ according to the choice of indicators of change.

Using this framework, I assess a number of observed or documented negative changes in the middle mountains of Nepal. These persistent negative changes are described as indicators of the unsustainability of mountain agriculture and associated patterns of resource use. Table 4.2 summarizes these changes. Various studies (APROSC 1990; Banskota 1989; Banskota and Jodha 1992a; ICIMOD 1990; and Yadav 1992) record and (in some cases) quantify some of these changes. In the context of the overall framework of this chapter, this table includes changes that may represent awareness, responses to environmental change, and impacts of adjustments.

Village-level evidence

Focused enquiries at the village level can capture most of the indicators of change listed in table 4.2. The existing statistical system, based on too much standardization of data-gathering procedures and listing of variables, often fails to record such changes. Nevertheless, some proxies for the above changes (i.e. changes in land-use pattern, cropping pattern, occupational structure, etc.) at macro levels can be identified from the formal statistical records at two points in time. A few such changes can be inferred from table 4.1, which presents statistical profiles of the study areas. Micro-level details from selected villages supplement these data.

Table 4.2 Classification of negative changes as indicators of the unsustainability of mountain agriculture

  Changes related to:a
Visibility of change Resource base Production flows Resource-use/management practices
Directly visible Increased landslides and other forms of land degradation; abandoned terraces; per capita reduced availability and fragmentation of land; changed botanical composition of forest/ pasture. Prolonged negative trend in yields of crops, livestock, etc.; increased input need per unit production; increased time and distance involved in food, fodder, fuel gathering; reduced capacity and period of unbalanced and operated on water flow; lower per capita availability of agricultural products. Reduced extent of: fallowing, crop rotation, intercropping, diversified resource-management practices; ex tension of plough to submarginal lands; replacement of social sanctions for resource use by legal measures; high intensity of input use.
Reduced water flows for irrigation, domestic uses, and grinding mills    
Changes concealed by responses to changes Substitution of: cattle by sheep/ goats; deep-rooted crops by shallow-rooted ones; shift to non-local inputs. Increased seasonal migration; introduction of externally supported public distribution systems(food, inputs);b intensive cash-cropping on limited areas.b Shifts in cropping pattern and com position of live stock; reduced diversity, increased specialization in monocropping; promotion of policies/programmes with successful record outside, without evaluation.b
Substitution of water flow by fossil fuel for grinding mills; of manure by chemical fertilizers.b    
Potentially negative changesc (processes) due to development initiatives New systems without linkages to other diversified activities; generating excessive dependence on outside resource(fertilizer/ pestcide-based technologies) ignoring traditional adaptation experiences (e.g. new irrigation structure). Agricultural measures directed to short-term quick results; primarily product-(as against resource-) centred approaches to agricultural development. Indifference of programme policies to mountain specificities; focus on short-term gains; high centralization; excessive, crucial dependence on external advice, ignoring wisdom; technology, trade geared to overextraction.

Source: Adapted from Jodha (1990; 1992, 66).
a. Most of the changes are interrelated and could fit into more than one block.
b. Since a number of changes might occur for reasons other than unsustainability, a fuller understanding of the underlying circumstances of a change will be necessary.
c. Changes under this category differ from those in the above two categories in the sense that they are yet to take place, and their potential emergence could be understood by examining the involved resource-use practices in relation to specific mountain characteristics.

Quick but focused enquiries verified the changes indicated in table 4.2 for six villages from different parts of the Bagmati zone. These enquiries used the Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) methods developed and used in different contexts (Conway, McCracken, and Pretty 1987). Besides field observations, research examined people's perceptions and oral histories. For the latter, the benchmark period chosen was the early 1950s, when major institutional and political changes took place in Nepal. Reference to these changes helped to activate people's memories about the status of their environment and resource situation at that time. In the study villages, most of the changes summarized in table 4.2 were verified. For understandable reasons, however, a quantification of changes was not possible for all variables. Table 4.3 presents some broad quantified estimates based on discussions with village elders, physical verification of changes, and discussions with members of households affected by these changes.

The table presents information at two points in time (prior to or around 1950-1952 and 1988-1990) and shows considerable negative changes in different variables grouped under four environmental parameters: (1) land/topsoil fertility; (2) vegetation/carrying capacity, (3) water flows and seasonal stresses, and (4) regenerative processes. The first section of table 4.3 covers variables (e.g. loss topsoil) that directly or indirectly suggest declines in resource productivity and their impacts on food deficits and people's inability to sustain their livelihood. Replacement of deep-rooted crops like maize by shallow-rooted minor millets is also an indicator of the loss of topsoil.

"Vegetation-related changes" covers the impact of declines in vegetative resources. The increased time and distance involved in collecting the same quantity of fodder and fuel from non-cropped lands and the greater emphasis on small ruminants owing to the reduced carrying capacity of grazing lands are visible impacts of vegetative degradation. Villagers and researchers observed first-hand a decline in the vegetative composition of pastures and village forests, but it was difficult to quantify. Faced with a shortage of fuelwood, villagers started using inferior plants such as banmara (Eupatorium sp.), a product traditionally seldom used as fuel.

Changes in waterflow are difficult to measure unless one uses an experimental mode of investigation. In the present case, however, indicators of decline or instability of water flows were recorded in terms of the status of waterflow-based activities (e.g. grinding mills). A number of them, unlike in the past, do not operate at full capacity during part of the year. The reduced water supplies are reflected in community irrigation systems and drinking water points. The increased frequency of flash floods on the one hand and moisture stress for crops on the other hand indicate the increased instability of the moisture situation.

The last section of table 4.3 covers some of the practices that are crucial components of the processes that help resource regeneration and that interlink diversified systems of land uses. The changes reported in the table adversely affect these processes. In fact, people reported many more changes, but only those that could be easily quantified are reported in the table.

Table 4.3 Extent of change in selected variables in the study villages Bagmati zone, middle mountains of Nepal

  Situation during
Items of change 1950-52 1988-90
A. Land-related changes    
Land/mud slide (no.) 1 4
Land area affected (ha) <1 5.0
Abandoned terraces (ha) nil 4.3
Pasture/forest land put to crops (ha) nil 6.7
Minor millets replacing maize (ha) nil 3.8
Maize yield (mt/ha) 1.8 1.3
Households with food deficit, period exceeding 1 month per year (%) 2 26
Households permanently out-migrated (no.) nil 7
B. Vegetation-related changes    
Time required for one head-load of:    
Fuel (fur) 4 7
Fodder (fur) 1.5 3
Distance covered for one head-load of:    
Fuel (km) <1 6
Fodder (km) < 1 4
Proportion in animal holding:    
Cattle (%) 47 36
Sheep/goats (%) 31 38
C. Waterflow-related changes    
Number of water points (kuwa) with full flow/ supply during dry season 13 8
Water mills running full time (no.) 18 10
Flash floods (no./5 yrs) nil 2
Moisture stress for crops (no./5 yrs) nil 3
Undependability of full supply in community irrigation channel (no./5 yrs) nil 2
D. Regenerative process-related changes    
Land area put to intercropping (%) 80 36
High-value cash crops (%) 2 21
Manure use (mt/ha) 6 3.5
Duration of land fallowing in crop/ fallow rotations (yrs) 7/4 3/1
Area of common property lands (%) 38 21

Source: Based on village-level investigations using Rapid Rural Appraisal methods in six villages; total number of households 148, total area of landholdings 135 hectares. Some of these changes were also recorded by detailed field studies sponsored by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in the selected hill areas of China, India, and Pakistan (Sharma and Jodha 1992).

More important, the impacts of different changes on each other and, consequently, their further accentuation formed the major part of people's assessments of regenerative processes. They were not easy to quantify. By using some weighted opinion assessment of different aspects, however, some idea of the severity of the changes was obtained. However, one should be fully aware of the possible degree of subjectivity associated with such exercises.

Criticality or severity of emerging scenarios

Despite the widespread emergence of indicators of environmental degradation (tables 4.2 and 4.3), and their greatly felt impacts, it is difficult to identify precisely the degree of severity or criticality of the situation. Yardsticks are needed by which to gauge the degree of severity.

One such yardstick is the number of negative changes that are taking place simultaneously at a given location. The greater the number of such changes at a location, the nearer it should be to a critical level. In several areas of the Bagmati zone, most of the change indicators listed in the above tables are clearly visible. The relevant information for the study villages is summarized in table 4.4. This shows that 10-15 of the changes listed in table 4.2 are simultaneously visible in all six villages. But, since a single change need not extend to every household or every land parcel in the same village, the degree of seriousness of the change in terms of its coverage of people and land area needs to be examined- 10-15 changes are simultaneously visible in the case of 51 per cent of farm households and 63 per cent of the farm area in the study villages. There are only 10 per cent of households and 5 per cent of the land area where fewer than five of the change indicators are simultaneously visible. Thus, according to table 4.4, the situation in the six villages is fairly critical. But this approach to measuring criticality does not distinguish among the different types of changes in terms of their relative importance and potential role in accentuating other negative changes. Hence, a better approach could be to judge the situation in terms of direct or indirect impacts of individual negative changes on the environmental parameters. The yardsticks to facilitate this are described below.

Table 4.4 Extent of simultaneous occurrence of indicators of environmental change as listed in table 4.2

  Occurrences of negative changesa (%)
  10-15 5-10 < 5
Villages affected 100 - -
Farm households affected 51 39 10
Farm area affected 63 32 5

Source: Data based on investigations in six villages in the Bagmati zone, middle mountains of Nepal. Total number of households 148; area of landholdings 135 ha.
a. See table 4.2 for details of negative changes.

The criticality-assessment yardsticks fall into four categories. The first relates to the current status of a specific negative change (e.g. elimination of vegetative cover on hill slopes), in terms of its severity, spread, and irreversibility. The remaining categories relate to the potential or actual adverse effects of a negative change on: (1) the biophysical resource base or environmental parameters and their interaction patterns (e.g. decline of natural vegetation affecting regenerative processes, nutrient and moisture cycles, and the whole hydrology of a region); (2) societal conditions, including the availability of productive resources, production flows from resources, and the resilience of the economy and society (e.g. reduced diversity of agriculture influencing resilience of farming system); (3) the usage patterns of a resource base, which tend to accentuate further the vicious circle of "resource degradation-overextraction. " For instance, any negative change (e.g. reduced resource productivity, slackened regenerative process) that further compels people towards greater resource extraction and use of desperate measures (e.g. unseasonal and frequent lopping of trees, cropping on steeper slopes) will be an important symptom of the criticality of the situation.

Using this framework to identify the severity of changes, however, is constrained by the lack of relevant data. Nevertheless, based on the general assessment of cause-and-effect relations and patterns of interactions among different variables (as inferred from circumstantial evidence, oral history, and the present status of farming systems and people surviving in degraded environments), some assessment of the emerging critical situation in the middle mountain areas of Nepal is possible.

Our focus is on people's perceptions in terms of the relative severity, spread, and impacts of the specific negative changes covered by table 4.3. The impacts, both current and potential, again relate to the biophysical resource base (or environmental parameters), societal conditions, and the acceleration of forces causing environmental degradation. People's perceptions are not just their opinions but views that emerged after discussions of physically observed situations in the study villages. The procedures used in the Rapid Rural Appraisal approach involved physical observation of specific changes, followed by discussions with knowledgeable groups of village elders or others directly contributing to or affected by the change.

This approach reduced the coverage of investigations in terms of the number of villages but contributed to the depth of the information collected. One feature of the information gathered is the identification of just one dominant view per village for each of the aspects covered by RRA. This became possible because physical verifications helped in reducing the scope for a multiplicity of views on the same issue in the same village. The perceptions based on physical observation and discussion were pooled for all the villages using weighting systems. Accordingly, individual villages rated each change on a scale of 1 to 4 (the greater the significance of the change, the higher the score it received). In pooling these scores, the overall value given to specific variables involved the summation of the score multiplied by the number of villages giving the same scores. For instance, if three villages considered reduced water flows as the most severe problem (thus getting a score of 4), the weighted rank value would be 4 x 3 = 12. If only two villages subscribed to the above view, the final value would be 4 x 2 = 8.

The values elicited in this way for each of the aspects covered by table 4.5 were pooled to reflect people's perceptions of the changes and their impacts and severity. The values presented in table 4.5 can again be divided by 6 (i.e. the total number of villages) to conform to the usual weighting procedures, but that will not alter the structure of opinions on the degree of environmental change.

According to table 4.5, any score with values of 20 and higher should be considered as a dominant situation as regards the villagers who have seen and are living with the environmental changes. Thus, in terms of both severity and spread, the decline in measures and practices contributing to regenerative processes in the mountains is the most important change approaching a critical situation. The degradation of vegetation, with all its consequences, is also widespread.

The changes in individual environmental parameters have a second-level influence on each other (i.e. on biophysical resource variables and processes), on socio-economic conditions, and on the very process of change already initiated. Viewing the degree of criticality of environmental change in terms of such impacts and interactions, a value of 20 + in table 4.5 suggests that the decline of regenerative processes and decline of the land resource base are two major indicators of the severity of the situation. These indicators greatly contribute to further deterioration in societal conditions in terms of productive resource availability, production flows, and the traditional resilience of mountain communities. More importantly, these changes further accelerate the processes of resource degradation based on the vicious cycle of resource degradation/resource extraction. In other words, people are pushed to accept inferior options, resort to more desperate measures, and increasingly adopt resource-extractive strategies to maintain their survival. All environmental changes, except those related to water flows, accentuate the severity of negative changes. Yet, villagers viewed changes in water flow as the most critical facet of environmental change in the villages.

Table 4.5 Assessment of the degree of severity of environmental change through people's perceptions in middle mountains of Nepal

  Degree of seventy indicated by people's perception
Current status of change indicator Impacts on current position of:
Parameters of environmental change Severe Wide- spread Biophysical parametersa Societal conditionb Severity trendsc
Land-resource decline (landslide, topsoil erosion) 12 10 16 20 22
Degradation of vegetation (composition/ carrying capacity) 16 22 15 18 20
Reduced water flows (seasonal scarcity) 10 5 15 12 10
Shrinking regenerative processes (interlinked, self sustained activities) 22 23 18 20 22

Source: Based on village-level investigations in six villages in the Bagmati zone, middle mountains of Nepal, using Rapid Rural Appraisal methods. The procedure used for calculating the values reported involved weighted opinion assessments. Accordingly, each change was judged in terms of its severity, spread, and impacts on a scale of 1 to 4. The higher the rank, the higher the value (from 1 to 4). The ranking of each variable was weighted by the number of villages (i.e. collective opinion of village elders, etc.) giving specific rank. For instance, if three villages considered reduced water flows as the most severe problem (getting rank 4), the weighted rank would be 4 x 3 = 12. If only two villages subscribed to the above rank, the weighted rank value would be 4 x 2 = 8. The pooled value of such weighted ranks is presented in the table to give some idea of the severity of the situation indicated by each change as perceived by the villagers. To conform to the usual procedure of a weighting system, one could divide each of the values in the table by 6, but that would not change the structure of opinions revealed by the table.
a. Topsoil, vegetation, water flows, microclimate, seasonality.
b. Productive resource availability, production flows, resilience.
c. Push for inferior options, desperation in resource use, accentuation of resource-extractive tendencies.

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