|In Place of the Forest: Environmental and Socio-economic Transformation in Borneo and the Eastern Malay Peninsula (UNU, 1990, 310 pages)|
|Appendix : A discussion of environmental and PROCEZ criticality|
A more restricted approach
Although we have differed only in degree from the design proposed by the PROCEZ core-group in presenting our material, our view is that the usefulness of the concepts of "environmental criticality" and the stages leading toward it may suffer if they are not also defined more precisely in strictly environmental terms. We write principally of "criticality" in order to avoid confusion. We agree that a state called "environmental criticality" can arise only in the presence of people, for it is, like resource degradation, a concept that can have meaning only in relation to resident human occupation of a part of the biosphere. However, environmental criticality (and likewise "impoverishment" and "endangerment") should be reserved to mean criticality of the biophysical environment, and not simply that of the people who live in it. A less specific condition of criticality can be said to exist if the health, livelihood, and welfare of the occupiers are at risk, but this is environmental criticality only if a hazard arises from causes that are either embedded within the natural environment or arise from changes that have taken place in that environment. This wider meaning can shade too readily into endangerments of another kind, those that arise from the lifestyle, activities, or poverty of people, from malfunction of the economy, or - at another level - from proximity to wastedisposal outlets or defective industrial plants; the criticality facing the people who died and suffered at Bhopal and around Chernobyl is an example of the latter category. Although these hazards exist in a broadly defined natural "environment," they cannot properly be regarded as environmental. Those resulting from purely human cause may make environmental criticality worse, but they are not themselves necessarily part of that criticality. Problems arise immediately if we fail to make this distinction.
Identifying environmental impoverishment, endangerment, and criticality
Even with this restriction, these terms are not easy to define and, except in extreme cases, nor are the conditions easy to recognize in practice. "Criticality" does not properly describe an environment in a short-lived state of crisis brought about by some unusual or recurrent event, such as a hurricane or earthquake. An environment that is merely badly managed is not necessarily in a critical or even impoverished condition. Nor should these terms be used to describe generally degraded but still productive landscapes, of which there are a great many in the world. It is important to decide whether an environment that is particularly vulnerable to damage is necessarily likely to become "critical." If it is being adequately managed, so that the risk of damage is minimized, it may become severely degraded only under exceptional natural conditions.
A related group of concepts
Such terms as "sensitivity," "resilience" or "ability to recover," and "vulnerability" or "fragility" are additionally in need of sharper definition, and this is necessary if "criticality" itself is to be properly defined. These terms are older in scientific use than "criticality" and, moreover, they generally refer specifically to the physical environment. A discussion of the meanings and the interrelationships will pave the way for progress.
In writing of the problems of land degradation some years ago, Blaikie and Brookfield (1987:10) proposed that "sensitivity" should mean "the degree to which a given land system undergoes changes due to natural forces, following human interference."2 This was not wholly adequate, especially in the wider sense introduced by PROCEZ. Human activity does more than just release or accelerate natural forces; it also introduces new elements and, in modern times, chemical elements to which the land may vary significantly in sensitivity. Moreover, what we seek to describe is sensitivity only to adverse environmental change; deposition by "warping" of riverine or estuarine silt within managed embanked basins is a change immediately brought about by the natural causes of flood and tide, but we would not use the term "sensitivity" in this context.
Sensitivity and fragility
The distinction between "sensitivity," a general term, and the more specific term "fragility" is important. Jodha (1990: 2) has usefully defined a "fragile" resource as one "which cannot tolerate the degree of disturbance implied by the intensity of use associated with specific usage." Jodha refers specifically to unstable mountain slopes in the Himalayas and to rain-fed, semi-arid regions in northern India. His apparent meaning, in more precise terms, is that these environments have, under human use, very high sensitivity, respectively, to the erosivity of heavy rain and to drought. What makes them "fragile" is a combination of this high sensitivity with the intensive use to which they are subjected. The net effect is to make present forms of usage unsustainable.
Within the South-East Asian region, the area that most readily comes to mind in such a context is the uplands of Java, where a large literature alleges high rates of anthropogenic erosion, implying an environment that is "fragile" in Jodha's specific context (e.g. Donner, 1987; Seckler, 1987; Palte, 1989; Hardjono, 1991). Nibbering (1991a, 1991b), however, shows that even massive erosion can be brought partly under control by management, as it is to a great degree similarly controlled by agricultural terracing in the Nepal Himalayas (Ives and Messerli, 1989). Moreover, high erosion rates reflect an abundance of weathered material available to be eroded, and, once this is reduced, the rate will in any case diminish. If the land becomes agriculturally unusable, then it was indeed "fragile," but in Java this does not seem to be the case except over small areas. We have seen that severe erosion has also taken place in parts of our region. However, use of the term "fragility" may have been too strong; the quality of what remains is also important, and so is the ability of the land, and its plant cover, to be restored.
Resilience, or ability to recover
Following Holling(1978: 11), "resilience" is the "property that allows a system to absorb and utilize (or even benefit from) change." Blaikie and Brookfield (1987) use it rather differently, meaning essentially the ability of a land system to recover spontaneously after interference, and especially after damaging interference. Ives and Messerli (1989: 241) describe resilience as "the generalized ability of a system to cope with the unexpected," but they are referring to people-environment systems, and thus classify the rapid repair of landslide damage in the middle hills of Nepal as an example of "resilience." This seems, once more, to confuse two rather different issues, although the Ives and Messerli definition can remain useful in its application to natural systems alone.
A distinction should be drawn between the response to interference or shocks of different sorts: physical, chemical, and biological. For example, landforms built from very competent rock may have low sensitivity to physical damage, and recover well from such damage as does take place, yet some soils may readily become impoverished, and biodiversity may recover only very slowly and poorly after interference. In this sense these land systems, taken as a whole, are not resilient. Landforms very prone to slope failure, on the other hand, clearly exhibit high sensitivity to this form of damage, yet in smaller landslips the soils might even be improved by the pedoturbation (turning over of the soil), and a good vegetation cover might quickly become established (Humphreys and Brookfield, 1991). Such sites are "resilient" even in Holling's rather specific sense, yet remain at high risk of new physical failure, sensitive to any severe rainfall event. Clearly, a useful approach might be to draw up matrices of sensitivity to different forms of damage and of resilience or ability to recover following shocks of different types.
Taken together, however, sensitivity and ability to recover can be used to define the natural conditions that might, more or less readily, lead to something like "criticality" under interference or shock. All forests are equally sensitive to interference by chain-saw, but their soils differ widely in sensitivity to exposure, and the forests themselves differ in their ability to recover. Where soils are particularly sensitive to erosion and impoverishment, so that forest cannot recover after clearance, the outcome of even a single natural or humangenerated shock might be a degraded and almost useless landscape, very vulnerable to further damage by erosion and fire. In other forest environments, however, only massive and repeated interference would yield such a result. As we have seen, this may be the case in at least large parts of the region discussed in this book.
Buffering capacity, and a redefinition of "fragility"
Natural differences in sensitivity and ability to recover are fundamental and interrelated. They depend on climate, geology and topography, and available energy, as well as on the existing stock of biota. Together, these determine the "buffering capacity" of the biosphere and its inequalities from place to place and, to a lesser degree, also through time. When we speak of a "fragile environment" we should mean, essentially, one in which the collective buffering capacity in face of all or most forms of interference is limited. Contrary to Jodha's (1990) definition, this does not mean that such an environment can sustain only light use, for such light use might itself cause severe damage. Some of the most "fragile" environments demand intensive use of conservation practices in their management, which are difficult to sustain except under high productivity or with large expenditure of resources. Their condition may become "critical" if these inputs are reduced or withdrawn. By contrast, environments in which the buffering capacity is high can sustain more casual systems of management under a wide range of intensities, at least under normal conditions, and for a long time. To use degrees of "fragility" scaled in relation to the total buffering capacity of a system would follow logically. Moreover, such an approach would acknowledge the role of good management of resources in intensive use.
Environmental criticality defined in terms of imminent breakdown
It should follow from this discussion that "endangerment" or "criticality" ought to mean that there is a condition of, respectively, threatened or imminent crisis/breakdown in the natural or humanassisted buffering capacity of a fragile system. Such a crisis could be demonstrated in several ways. One is by catastrophic failure to meet production goals that were earlier attained, coupled with severe degradation of soil and water, as in the Amu Darya and Aral Sea case in central Asia (Kotlyakov, 1991), which Kasperson, Kasperson, and Turner (1995) conclude to be a region truly in a state of
"criticality. " Another is by a major increase in erosion, salinization, or acidity, coupled with rapid pauperization of the biota, as in a forest region that quickly becomes transformed into established lowdiversity grassland after clearance and burning, open to further degradation by exposure and erosion. There are such conditions in our region. The essence of "environmental criticality" therefore lies in environmental changes that threaten greatly to reduce the lifesupport capacity of a sizeable region on a long-term basis. Properly, such a loaded term as "criticality" should be reserved for situations in which problems of an unusual order of severity are currently or imminently encountered.
This differs from the PROCEZ core-group definition in its emphasis on the state of the environment itself, irrespective of the degree of human pressure on, and transformation of, that environment. Moreover, as Kasperson, Kasperson, and Turner (1995) note, in all but the Amu Darya-Aral Sea case studied by PROCEZ, there has generally been an improvement in aggregate human welfare. But this does not mean that there is no critical situation in the biophysical environment. There are elements of the biophysical environment of Borneo and the Peninsula that are indeed in a critical condition, especially from a greatly increased hazard of fire. Defining criticality in terms of the biophysical environment is to expose the fact that the need for remedial action is urgent, whatever the state of human welfare at the present time.
One could perhaps also write of a "post-critical" system in which no remedial action that is within even possible bounds of cost is feasible: a region of "badlands" or a totally decertified area would be examples. Whether or not the destruction of a large part of the oldgrowth rain forests of Malesia constitutes a condition of "postcriticality" has been discussed in this book. More commonly, some form of repair, or at least adaptation of usage, is possible in most environmentally critical regions. In a seemingly totally decertified region, exclusion of all grazing fauna would lead to some restoration of vegetation. Even in the Amu Darya and Aral Sea case, an obvious example of true environmental criticality, a set of quite simple remedial actions could undo some of the damage, although total repair would require major change in the use of land and water, at a cost clearly prohibitive under present economic and political conditions in the region. Repair of criticality, however, demands a proper understanding of causation, and this requires a major intellectual wrench abandoning the common assumption that a self-evident proximate cause is also the whole cause of the problem (Brookfield, in press).
Causation of environmental criticality
We have argued that environmental criticality is a property of the biophysical environment under use, but of the natural environment none the less. Its impacts on people and livelihood are symptomatic, not central. Given the enormous scale of modern human interference, the causes of environmental criticality might well lie squarely in that interference, but this is by placing the buffering capacity under excessive stress, by breaking all the unwritten and often unknown rules for the management of fragility. Beyond the proximate cause in most, if not almost all, cases is a set of underlying causes or conditions. The burden of the present argument is that these conditions vary through space and time, and that it is either exposure of, or pressure on, the most sensitive and least resilient systems that triggers environmental criticality and its approach.
There are some cases in which the biophysical share in the causation of criticality is greater than in others, and we have already discussed one such in the Himalayas. Another is the sustained decline of rainfall in the Sahel region from the 1960s to at least the 1980s. It might be true that the explanation of the 1973 famine was to be found in the "economic and social situation prevailing in the 1960s, before the drought" (Garcia, 1981: 191). The subsequent chronic criticality of the Sahel region cannot, however, be so unicausally explained. There was a long-term secular or cyclic decline (by as much as a quarter) in the rainfall of the most sensitive areas, as well as social and political failures that made its impact far worse and made efforts at management almost impossible.
The underlying biophysical causes of criticality should not be overemphasized, but they cannot safely be ignored. Criticality is brought about by human pressures of a level inappropriate to the conditions, and by unwise management in conjunction with natural sensitivity and low resilience. Sometimes, the natural conditions themselves are of major significance. Moreover, this consideration gains force from the modern context in which environmental criticality is most often discussed, that of the unknowns of global climatic change. For, as Parry (1990) has warned, those parts of the agricultural world where production is marginal or that currently exhibit environmental crit icality are those that are most likely to experience much greater problems of adaptation in a warmer world.