|South-East Asia's Environmental Future: The Search for Sustainability (UNU, 1993, 422 pages)|
|Part IV - Selected issues: places and people|
|Threatened places: A regional view|
Fox's paper has considered traditional versus government management of common properties. It is hypothesized that local traditional management is superior to a centralized government management. Although this is true in many instances, Fox warns society 'not to romanticize the role of community control or indigenous management systems'. In addition to the fact that not all indigenous systems are benign to the environment. he correctly asserts that the social and economic changes which are occurring in this region are also affecting many communities. Studies in East Kalimantan have shown that, even in remote areas, communities have been influenced by the market economy. As a result, they grow food and other commodities not only for their subsistence but also to sell them in the market. This requires a surplus, such as rice, which in turn makes it necessary to clear more forest for shifting cultivation. It also shortens the slash-and-burn cycle which makes it more difficult for the forest to regenerate.
It has also been suggested that to make the harvest of forests sustainable, non-wood products (for example, rattan) and different kinds of latex, fruits and bamboo should be substituted for wood. This will only be successful if the harvest of these non-wood products remains at a low and subsistence level, as mentioned by Fox in the case of a village which refrained from exploiting rattan for commercial purposes. If the alternative product satisfies the demands of national and international markets. traders will lure local people to supply them with the desired quantity of the commodities and over-exploitation would soon occur, with disastrous effects on the environment. This excessive harvest would not be sustainable. Few local people, including their leaders, would be able to resist the temptation to enjoy such amenities as radios. tape recorders, televisions, cameras and other modern gadgets.
Population growth is another important factor which may threaten the sustainability of traditional management. It is widely known that in many places, it forces people to shorten the slash-and-burn cycle, to the extent that the forest is replaced by shrubs or even a/ang-ulang grass (Imperata cylindrica). Although the alang-alang is not always useless or noxious, it poses fire hazards, and in many places, it is not desired. Given time, communities could presumably adapt management methods to the changing situation. An example is the shifting cultivators in a/ang-alang regions in North Sumatra.
Another interesting example is the talun-kebun method in West Java. This is essentially shifting cultivation in a talun. which can be a monoculture of bamboo (talun bambu) or a mixed culture of perennials with some annuals. In the case of a talun bambu) a patch of about 1 000 square metres is cleared by harvesting the bamboo. In a mixed culture, trees to be harvested (for example, Albizzia falcataria are selectively cut and the branches of those left standing are pruned and used for firewood. Small twigs and leaves are sun dried and burned. Annuals, such as tobacco, onions, lablab beans (Dolichos lablab), and cassava are planted in the clearings created by treefelling. Fertilizers and compost from the village are applied. Bamboo, logs of the harvested trees and products from annual crops, are sold in local markets and nearby cities. After the harvest of annual crops, the bamboo and perennials have resprouted and regrown. Another patch is harvested and the process repeated. In the region studied, the slash-and-burn cycle was eight years. In this modified shifting-cultivation system. the natural forest has been replaced by the talun and the crops have been selected to suit the market economy. The system is capable of supporting higher population densities than can be sustained by a traditional shifting-cultivation method.
In West Java, fish ponds are traditionally used to recycle wastes, including human excrete, by building overhangs to serve as latrines. However, the people do not use the water from the polluted pond for their daily needs: instead, they pipe it from upstream sources by using bamboo. When population density was low, the interval between use and reuse, both in terms of space and time, was great. The water had sufficient time to undergo a natural repurification process and the system worked well. However, with the growth of population, the interval between use and reuse became smaller and smaller, until finally the water did not have sufficient time for repurification. Outbreaks of diarrhoea have now become common. These outbreaks have undoubtedly been factors in the high infant mortality rate in West Java.
The above examples show that, in some instances, the indigenous people do indeed have the wisdom to develop alternative methods which show every indication of being sustainable. In others. however, modifications to the traditional systems had proved unsustainable. There are also cases in which methods remain constant and, although basically they are ecologically sound, they are maladapted to the changing environment and may even become hazardous. Adaptation is possible if people perceive the changes, and these changes are slow and not too radical. Even when the changes are slow, but if they are not perceived by the people, then failure is the result. This is reflected in the fish ponds of West Java. Therefore, successful adaptation and adjustment may be the exception rather than the rule, particularly when environmental changes are rapid and occur on a large scale.
Consequently, the general assumption that traditional wisdom can deal with the problems if only the people are left alone cannot be made. In many cases, intervention will be needed, but it is not easy to devise a management system in a changing world. Another major challenge is how to do it wisely, that is, not to impose a top-down process but to co-operate with the people. To achieve this goal, government officials and scientists must recognize that villagers, even in remote areas, do have ecological knowledge and wisdom which can be tapped and productively used in the process of devising an adaptive management system.