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Socio-economic vulnerabilities and impacts

The foregoing discussion of the indicators of environmental change and human driving forces has already alluded to some socioeconomic impacts of environmental changes. In fact, some of the second- or third-order changes in the status of environmental resources are manifestations of impacts of people's adjustment to environmental changes. For such reasons, at times it is difficult to separate precisely the impacts of environmental changes as causes of socio-economic disruptions from the environmental changes as consequences of socioeconomic adjustment. Similarly, at times it is difficult to separate the socio-economic impacts resulting from environmental changes and those resulting from the forces underlying environmental change.

Such dilemmas prevail because socio-economic impacts are products of overall transformation processes, which involve simultaneously both the environmental variables and the factors affecting them. Hence, we may talk more comfortably about the socioeconomic impacts of change (i.e. transformation process) with a special focus on the environmental components of this transformation.

Accordingly, in the first place, the transformation processes have disrupted the overall production base and interlinkages of land-based activities, which evolved through adaptations to specific conditions of mountain habitats (tables 4.7-4.10). Ineffectiveness or infeasibility of several traditional production and resource-management practices due to the above changes may be treated as manifestations of socioeconomic vulnerabilities. The changed status and productivity of environmental resources are important factors behind such vulnerabilities.

As a consequence of the marginalization of age-old and well-tested components of traditional farming systems, the mountain communities (most of which depend on agriculture) are under serious pressures. Mountain farmers must: (a) produce more, owing to the increased number of people, increased market demands, and increased inducements by the state; (b) produce more from a qualitatively degraded and quantitatively (per capita) reduced resource base; (c) perform the above tasks without any viable technologies, since their traditional resource-extensive technologies are incompatible with required resource-intensive production systems and new substitute technologies are either not available or not accessible to the bulk of the farmers.

The second impact of transformation processes via environmental changes relates to the diversity of mountain habitats and mountain communities. Accordingly, the impacts (and related socio-economic vulnerabilities) vary according to the resource endowments of different areas and people within a given area. Some sort of duality created in the process can be indicated through (a) progressive and rapidly commercializing areas, and (b) stagnant areas still dominated by subsistence agriculture. The former include the physically and economically better-endowed areas that benefit from the development interventions and that do better despite the marginalization of their traditional farming systems. Relatively better, accessible areas with market linkages covered by special projects focused on mountain niches (e.g. horticulture) fall into this category.

The second category, accounting for the bulk of the areas, represents a decaying situation, in which the overall range and efficacy of options are reduced. Table 4.12 reflects the vulnerability of such areas and groups to environmental degradation. The breakdown and infeasibility of traditional diversified, resource-regenerative practices and the degradation of the resource base have reduced the range, flexibility, dependability, and payoffs of production or resource-use options. The slackening or disruption of collective risk-sharing arrangements and resource-management systems (such as for common property resources) and the introduction of formal, legalistic arrangements to regulate the relationship of people to their natural resources also reflect a deteriorating environmental situation.

In the case of progressively commercializing areas, the scenario is quite different: they are economically better off; environmental degradation does not influence their high payoff options (at least in the short term); they are in a much better position to absorb investment and other facilities offered by public intervention. At the same time, their potential vulnerability is associated with their market linkages. First, market-induced narrow specialization and overextraction may expose them to serious problems in the future. Second, despite their comparative advantage in certain products (e.g. fruits, vegetables), in the mainstream markets (in the plains) they interact with the other party as unequals. This makes them vulnerable to unequal terms of exchange.

The above phenomenon can be seen at the macro level with reference to other mountain products, such as timber and hydroelectricity. These resources are extracted extensively, but their trade often proceeds on highly unequal terms of exchange. The socio-economic impacts or vulnerabilities at a macro level can be understood in terms of a growing food deficit in most of the hill districts of the country, increased seasonal migration, the absence of visible success of several development interventions to satisfy people's basic needs, and the state's inability to balance priorities between food self-sufficiency and environmental stability (Banskota and Jodha 1992a,b; HMG 1981; ICIMOD 1990; Shrestha 1988).

Table 4.12 Environmental change and socio-economic impact/vulnerabilities in mountain areas

  Socio-economic impactsa
Environmental changes and underlying processes of transformation Infeasibility of traditional production systems, regeneration Reduced range of options, inferior options Increased dependency on external resources, unequal exchange, subsidy Reduced collective sharing systems, resilience
Physical degradation of land resources x x    
Reduced variability, flexibility of production factors x x xb  
Increased "ecological" subsidization through chemical, physical, biological inputs     xb xb
Vicious cycle of resource degradation - over extraction - degradation x x x  
Niche, technology, market induced overextraction, reduced resource avail ability/access   x xb xb

a. For vulnerabilities at the macro level see the text.
b. The details presented in the table largely relate to agriculture dominated by stagnant production systems, but these items apply to progressive agricultural areas as well.

Environmental change, emerging awareness, and responses

The environmental awareness of and responses to negative changes differ greatly between the micro (farm/village community) and macro (policy, planning) levels. These differences are a product of the variations in perception, time-horizon, capabilities, and mechanisms of information collection and communication. An important factor that differentiates farmers and policy makers is the degree of closeness to the phenomenon of change and their stakes in its consequences. Accordingly, a farmer whose survival strategy is closely linked with the environmental resource would exhibit perspectives markedly different from those of the chief of the environment department in any government, whose professional concerns for the environment may not converge with personal priorities. In keeping with such differences, the type of response and the time-lag between awareness and response would also differ. The discussion to follow takes up awareness and response issues separately for the two groups (i.e. farmers and policy makers). Table 4.13 summarizes the major issues in terms of identification of environmental concern, expression of awareness and concern, signals of environmental change, and responses.

Awareness/response of farmers and the village community

Mountain people become aware of environmental degradation the hard way, when they are faced with the fast disappearance of production options that sustained them in the past. Accordingly, environmental change emerges as a felt reality reflected through changes in the resource base and production performance as well as changes in the quality and quantity of inputs and products harnessed from noncrop lands. Villagers rarely articulate awareness unless induced to do so through some focused investigations or NGO activities or tempted by the possibility of government relief or development projects linked to the environmental situation.

An easier way to understand people's awareness of environmental change is to monitor their responses to such change as reflected through alterations in their resource-use practices, which are attempts to adjust to environmental changes. The time-lag between environmental awareness and response at the farm level is often too short or too imperceptible for meaningful simultaneous examination. Tables 4.2 and 4.3 have already listed a number of changes in resource-management practices and choices of activities that illustrate the point. These details could also be rearranged according to the categories (e.g. signals of environmental change, responses, impacts) as indicated by table 4.13. At the village level, however, one can easily notice differences between rich and poor farmers with reference to most of the above variables. Whereas the rich may adopt high-payoff options to withstand environmental change, the poor have to live with the marginalization of traditional mechanisms and attempt through overextraction of environmental resources to manage survival.

Table 4.13 Environmental change: Emerging and responses

Awareness/ response impacts Group responding
Mountain people at village levela National/international macro-level policy makers, researchers, donors, development agenciesb
Identification of environmental concerns Felt production constraints; scarcity of resources, products; infeasibility of traditional practices A recent phenomenon; different from village communities; aggregated view on deforestation, etc.
Expression of awareness and concern In terms of changed resource use, farming practices (as responses to change); expression rarely articulated unless induced by factors like possibility of grand relief or NGO activities Media coverage, official circulars, evaluation reports; concern expressed following severe events, e.g. floods; international(donors') reports
Signals of environmental change Decline of resource-centred options, traditional survival strategies; reduced(number and type of) product, input availabilities Changes in land-use pattern, deforestation, floods; changes revealed by sophisticated means, e.g. remote sensing; failure of development interventions
Responses (adjustment to change) Overextraction of resources; focus on alternative options (high-payoff, market-oriented options); rich- poor differences in adjustment (responses); community living with the degradation; slow revival of traditional group action(community forestry, etc.) Research and evaluation studies, resource conservation projects, seminars, publicity; donor-induced initiatives (conservation strategy, conservation parks); grass-roots-level programmes
Impacts Push for survival under scarcity situation; alternative options limited to some areas/groups; slow revival of community action Focus on supply side of is sues; demand pressures(driving forces) ignored

a. For details see tables 4.2 and 4.3, APROSC (1990), Yadav (1992).
b. For some details see Bass (1983), ERL (1988), World Bank (1984).

At the community level in several districts of the middle mountains, community forestry and user-group initiatives reflect the "awareness/ response" situation. Supported by NGOs and multilateral and bilateral aid programmes, such initiatives also cover watershed development and private planting. Most are initiated as development activities but have strong environmental contents (Fisher 1991).

Awareness/response at the policy-making level

First, some features of awareness and response to environmental changes in the mountains (not confined to the middle mountains alone) may be noted. Policy makers' environmental concern or awareness is a relatively recent phenomenon in Nepal. Second, although routine discourses on environmental issues continue internationally, policy makers become seriously aware of them during periodic crises (e.g. the Bangladesh floods a few years ago activated the international debate/attention to deforestation in the Himalayas). Third, for the reasons stated above, awareness of environmental change and responses to it at macro levels are quite different from those at the village level.

The environmental concerns can be identified in terms of policy pronouncements and other political discourses focusing on deforestation, soil erosion, and other changes at the macro level. Media attention, concerns expressed by international agencies and donors, and research reports offer different channels through which environmental awareness is generated and expressed. More focused work, using both manual methods and more sophisticated means (e.g. remote sensing), presents environmental changes in more concrete terms. The responses include projects to acquire more information or analysis to treat specific environmental resources (often through sectoral focus), to mobilize resources, and to induce villages to practice resource conservation. This applies to macro-level situations in practically all mountain areas in the Himalayas. The specific issues relating to environmental awareness/response in the case of Nepal may be briefly summarized.

First, owing to Nepal's very liberal approach and easy access by researchers and other international experts, one finds more documentation and discussion of various aspects of environmental change in Nepal than in any other parts of the Himalayas. This awareness induces considerable internationally supported initiatives for further research as well as action. Hence activities ranging from strategies for nature conservation to community forestry programmes are in progress in different parts of the Nepal hills (Bass 1983; Fisher 1991).

Second, for want of a substantial hinterland to produce surplus food to meet the increasing demands of the hill population, Nepal, despite an awareness of environmental degradation, has to emphasize current production. This involves both intensification of resource use and acceleration of resource extraction, with environmental degradation as a side-effect. In Nepal, agricultural development policies have oscillated between food self-sufficiency and environmental protection (Banskota and Jodha 1992a; HMG 1981; Shrestha 1988).

Third, owing to its small size, land-locked situation, and generally stagnant and underdeveloped economy, the country has to focus on the activities that can help generate maximum current revenue. Consequently, activities range from overexploitation of timber to promotion of tourism and other ventures (e.g. Iarge-scale irrigation systems) that may have adverse environmental effects. Thus, despite the awareness of environmental change, in practice it is difficult to formulate appropriate responses. The country simply does not have enough financial resources. Hence the greater proportion of donor-driven environmental projects in the country.

Fourth, most of the environmental protection and conservation initiatives (including the ones supported by donors) are not only sectoral, but confined to a few selected environmental resources. Watershed development and conservation parks are no exception. Most of the initiatives neglect the totality of the situation, including balancing conservation and production needs. This results in the poor response of village communities to such programmes (Fisher 1991).

Lastly, as does the rest of the world, Nepal attempts to handle environmental issues largely from the supply side of the problem, without effectively controlling the demand-side variables. This is particularly true of the basic driving forces that put increasingly higher pressure on mountain resources and that cause environmental degradation.

Is the situation critical?

The discussion above portrays a rather discouraging picture of the middle mountains in Nepal. But is the situation critical or alarming enough to require immediate attention and changes? A valid response to this question can be made only on the basis of selected indicators that relate not only to the environment and physical resource base of the area but also to the socio-economic conditions and quality of life of mountain people. For this purpose, table 4.14 lists different variables under the categories of (a) environmental degradation, (b) wealth, (c) well-being, (d) economic and technological possibilities (substitutability), (e) spatial and market linkages, and (f) capacity to respond to environmental changes (and new opportunities). These are consistent with the general approach of this volume and the definitions of criticality set forth in chapter 1. The trends in different variables and their desirability are indicated in the table, which permits a series of inferences:

• all the variables characterizing environmental degradation (quantity/ quality of water, soil fertility, biomass productivity, etc.) show declines and this is an undesirable trend.

• the variables under wealth show a mixed picture in which overall GNP is increasing but per capita GNP is declining. Indebtedness is on the increase but savings and investment in progressive pockets are on the rise. This has equity implications, too.

• Largely owing to the "health revolution" and improved accessibility, human well-being, as judged by longevity, a reduced mortality rate, food availability, and education, is improving. Economic and technological possibilities are limited but in some pockets they have succeeded. Technologies conducive to regeneration and environmental stability are lacking.

• Spatial and market linkages are increasing, and access to mainstream markets has helped some activities. But unequal terms of trade for mountains leads to the accentuation of resource extraction.

• The capacity to respond to changes or to generate and use new opportunities is lacking. The development of human skills is limited and the institutional frameworks to strengthen these skills are scarce. This is also responsible for the limited substitutability of technology.

Table 4.14 Details indicating the criticality of the situation in the middle mountain areas of Nepal

Variables/categories Status of the variable and its spread Desirability Remark: primary reasons; long-term prospects/implications
Environmental degradation
Quantity/quality of water Decline (W) (-) Overextraction disregarding resource limitations, and interlinked activities; indicator of long term unsustainability
Soil fertility Decline (W) (-)  
Biomass productivity/ availability Decline (W) (-)  
Regenerative processes, material, energy flows Decline (W) (-)  
Gross national product Increase (W) (+) Increased high-value activities, external link ages caused all (+)entries; population growth and institutional problems caused all (-) entries
Per capita Decline (W) (-)  
Saving/investment Increase (P) (+)  
Indebtedness Increase (W) (-)  
Wealth/income inequality Increase   (-)  
Longevity Increase (W) (+) Improved accessibility, linkages, infrastructure; public distribution system, health services, schooling, etc.
Mortality/infant mortality Decline (W) (+)  
Nutrition level Stagnant (increased in pockets) (W) (+)  
Environment-induced disease Decline (W) (+) Externally supported, need internal self sustaining capacity
Access to natural resources Decline (W) (-)  
Food availability Improved (W) (+)  
Dependence on inferior options/opportunities Increase in poor areas(W) (-)  
Education, health care Increase (P) (+)  
Economic-technological substitutability (availability of options)
High-intensity/extraction options Increase (P) (-) New technology, economic extraction orientation, limited regeneration options with high-extraction, limited regeneration
High-payoff cash crop, monoculture, external input Increase (P) (+)  
Rapid regeneration, diversification Decline (W) (-)  
New skills, human resource      
development Stagnant (W) (-)  
Spatial/market linkages      
Accessibility, market integration Increase (P) (+) Market linkage, trade usually on unfavour able terms of exchange; external aid promoting excess dependency and insensitivity to mountain specificities
Regional/interregional trade flows Increase (P) (+)  
International concern, aid, indebtedness Increase (W) (+)  
Commercial capital flows Stagnant (W) (-)  
Capacity to respond to environmental degradation and negative side-effects of new options, market links, external assistance, etc.
Folk knowledge Present but not harnessed(W)   Human capital formation is the weakest component of development strategies
Scientific expertise/skills Limited (W)    
Institutional infrastructure Limited (W)    
Physical information Limited (W)    
Political/economy capacity Limited (W)    

W = widespread and general situation; P = in limited pockets or groups of population

Overall, one may say that human well-being is increasing but largely because of external subsidization in cash or kind. Both the unfavourable terms of trade and the limited capacity to respond to change render mountain areas in Nepal unable to use market and technology for their betterment. Finally, the biophysical resource base, which is degrading rapidly, tends to discount all the positive things, including the rapid transformation of limited pockets. Viewed this way, the situation in the middle mountains tends to be critical. Possible approaches to respond to the situation require:

1. a greater focus on controlling or regulating human driving forces, and
2. designing and implementing interventions with greater sensitivity to mountain specificities (Banskota and Jodha 1992a,b; Jodha 1992).


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