Increasing public sensitivity to the global ramifications of environmental change in Latin America and other “Third World” regions has led many social scientists to study the causes of environmental degradation in poor countries and to formulate strategies for encouraging “sustainable development.” Despite good intentions, however, these efforts have commonly failed, as methods of natural resource management derived from the social and climatic conditions of the North have proven to be poorly suited to the natural conditions and cultural norms of the regions into which they are introduced. Partly in response to this experience, researchers are beginning to explore the potential of locally generated approaches to environmental management, including programs that deploy “indigenous technical knowledge,” to advancing the goals of sustainable development.1See Paul Richards, Indigenous Agricultural Revolution: Ecology and Food Production in West Africa (London: Hutchinson, 1985); Victor Toledo, “The Ecological Rationality of Peasant Production,” in Agroecology and Small Farm Development, eds., M. Altieri and S. Hecht (Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 1989); and Lori Ann Thrupp, “Legitimizing Local Knowledge: From Displacement to Empowerment for Third World People,” Agriculture and Human Values 6, no. 3 (1989): 13-24.
At the same time, highly publicized cases of ecological activism across much of the Third World, from the rubber tappers in Brazil to the Chipko movement in India, in which women have bound themselves to trees to protect the forest from destruction by government and commercial agencies, have further stimulated interest in alternative approaches to environmental issues. Until recently, “green politics” was commonly understood as characteristic of the political landscape in the wealthy societies of North America and Western Europe, where an absence of economic hardship was said to have enabled quality of life issues to displace purely economic conflicts as the chief factor motivating collective political action.2Ronald Inglehart, The Silent Revolution (Princeton University Press, 1977). Nevertheless, the increasing prominence of environmental activism in “developing regions” has motivated scholars to focus greater attention on the ways in which poor peoples’ movements may articulate grievances of an ecological nature.3Examples include Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989; and Delhi: Oxford University Press, also 1989); and Joan Martínez-Alier, “Ecology and the Poor: A Neglected Dimension of Latin American History,” Journal of Latin American Studies 23, no. 3 (October 1991): 621-639. Indeed, whereas protest by subordinate groups has been analyzed conventionally in terms of discrepancies rooted in social class, gender, property ownership, or ethnicity, a growing literature is attempting to conceptualize such activity as involving conflicts over access to natural resources and patterns of natural resource exploitation.“At the root of the environmental debate is a third kind of socioeconomic tension—over nature and natural resources.”
This emerging area of research takes on the challenge of synthesizing the insights of social historians and those of environmental historians.4For particularly influential examples of the writings of environmental historians, see Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe (Cambridge University Press, 1986); Donald Worster, The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 1989); and William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983). A useful survey of the field is Worster, “Transformation of the Earth: Toward an Agroecological Perspective in History,” Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (1990): 1087-1106. Social historians have expended a great deal of theoretical and empirical energy studying the origins, articulations, ideologies, and forms of resolution of two generic kinds of socioeconomic conflicts—those over cultivated land and its produce (peasants vs. the state, landlords vs. peasants and agricultural laborers), and those within the factory (workers vs. capitalists, capitalists vs. the state). At the root of the environmental debate is a third kind of socioeconomic tension—over nature and natural resources. Although we know much about the first two kinds of conflict, that is not yet the case with the third kind. And while conflicts over land and labor raise questions of economic efficiency and social justice, environmental conflict highlights the (potentially prior) dimension of the sustainability of different technologies, ideologies, and institutions, as well as the question of social justice.
Exploring avenues for comparative research
In an effort to increase understanding of the ecological components of popular social movements in the Third World, and to assess their potential impact on the environment, the Joint Committee on Latin American Studies (JCLAS) convened a workshop at Nuffield College, Oxford, in March 1991, on the topic of “The Environmentalism of the Poor.” Participants at the meeting, which was supported by a seed grant from the President’s Fund for Comparative and Transnational Research, included scholars with regional expertise on Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.5In addition to members of the research group mentioned earlier, participants included William Beinart, University of Bristol; Richard Grove, Churchill College (Cambridge); Andrew Hurrell, Nuffield College (Oxford); Ravi Rajan, Wolfson College (Oxford); Mahesh Rangarajan, Nuffield College; Ka Keng Tan, Churchill College; Meg Vaughan, Nuffield College; Laurence Whitehead, Nuffield College, and member of the JCLAS; and Donald Worster, University of Kansas.
In focusing on the interactions between popular social movements, ecological perception, and environmental change, the meeting at Nuffield sought to accomplish several goals. First, the JCLAS wanted to explore whether an interdisciplinary group of social and natural scientists could arrive at some general propositions about the “environmentalism of the poor.” Secondly, the committee hoped to determine whether research in this area could contribute significantly to our understanding of popular social movements and of the potential for such movements to advance alternatives to practices that cause environmental degradation. Finally, a third aim of the meeting was to explore the possibility of establishing a working group that would analyze ecological movements in comparative and historical perspectives and propose theoretical categories with which to understand the interaction between popular social movements and the environment.
An informal working group was established soon after the workshop, and with support of a seed grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Collaborative Research Program, a team of eight scholars, cochaired by Joan Martínez-Alier and Ramachandra Guha and working closely with both the JCLAS and Council staff, has begun to elaborate an agenda for research on “Environmentalism and the Poor.” The remainder of this article outlines some of the central ideas that have emerged from the group’s ongoing discussions. We conclude by suggesting some of the most promising areas for future research.
Popular social movements, the environment, and “the poor”“Ecologically based popular movements can arise in response to a wide range of concerns.”
An initial challenge for the group has been to elaborate a framework for identifying the ecological components of popular mobilizations which social historian have often defined in terms of more conventional forms of social conflict. Clearly, ecologically based popular movements can arise in response to a wide range of concerns. They may emphasize the defense of traditional methods of resource exploitation (and the diverse cultural practices and knowledge associated with them) in the face of challenges from “modernizing” forces; the preservation of local control over the allocation of natural resources; or the threat to traditional means of subsistence posed by the spread of ecologically unsound technologies and patterns of resource use. They may simply protest the deterioration in living conditions brought about by environmental contamination—e.g., air pollution.
Yet the forms these movements take are molded not only by specific grievances but by historical and social context. While in some cases outright collective action may occur, in others the expressions of resistance are more “everyday” and implicit in the actions of the poor.6See James Scott, Weapons of the Weak (Yale University Press, 1986); and Guha, op. cit. Thus, the African smallholder who resists the introduction of Green Revolution technologies is operating within a model of ecological sustainability at odds with that of the modernized extension agent or agrochemical salesman. The farmer’s resistance, rather than being “unscientific” or “conservative,” may instead be based on indigenous technical knowledge better suited to a specific social and ecological niche.7Example of works which look seriously at the contribution of local or indigenous knowledge include Richards, Thropp, and Toledo, op. cit.
A second major task has been to conceptualize the poorly understood relationship of poverty to environmental degradation and sustainability. The Bruntland Report (1987) identified poverty as a major cause of environmental degradation, and advocated economic growth as a remedy to poverty, and thus to environmental degradation. Obviously, poverty does constitute a hazard to the environment, as when peasants are forced to eat the seed of next year’s crop, thereby turning a renewable resource into an exhaustible one, or when poor people use the last remaining trees for cooking fuel.8Bina Agarwal, Cold Hearths and Barren Slopes (London: Zed Press, 1986). A similar situation obtains in the case of ecological damage wrought by urban dwellers whose insufficient supply of water prevents them from developing adequate sewage systems.
These circumstances suggest, however, that the causes of environmental degradation lie not in poverty per se but in the deeply rooted socioeconomic and political inequities which poverty reflects. Thus, popular movements that seek to overturn relations of political domination and economic extraction, which are perceived to cause poverty, may also be understood to be struggles for sound environmental management. Ecological movements, such as the Chipko tree-huggers in India, the rubber tappers of Brazil, or mobilizations against large dams by potentially displaced peoples, may be a survival imperative for the poor, whose existence is not being assured by the market economy or by the welfare state. Recent work in ecological economics suggests that such movements may even force capital (or the state) to “internalize” some economic externalities (e.g., oil erosion, deforestation, water pollution), bringing monetary costs closer to social costs.9For an elaboration of these ideas, see Martínez-Alier, op. cit. In so doing, they may contribute to ecological sustainability in ways that have been largely overlooked to date.
Thus, a central hypothesis of the working group is that many past and present popular movements can be seen through ecological eyeglasses, whatever the idiom in which claims to the ecological requirements of life (energy, water, living space, health) were or are expressed. Moreover, to the extent that the generalized market and/or state control over resources implies a logic of short time horizons and externalization of environmental costs, the poor, by demanding access to resources from large-scale entrepreneurs and/or the state, may simultaneously contribute to the conservation of resources. Thus, the ecology of survival can lead the poor towards environmental conservation, often in self-conscious ways which are expressed not in the language of scientific ecology but in local idioms—e.g., through appeals to religious beliefs. This interpretation calls into question much of the conventional environmental wisdom based on the notion of “tragedy of the commons,” which conflates open access and communal control, and which sees in privatization and market bargaining over externalities a route towards improved resource management.“The ‘poor’ are not university trained, and because their own knowledge is derided as nonscientific, they seldom exercise influence over the technological application of science.”
To the extent that alternative modes of ecological perception are advanced explicitly or implicitly by the poor, it is imperative to specify precisely what is actually meant by “the poor.” Above all, “poor” people are those who have been affected adversely by the expansion of the global capitalist economy over the last centuries, or those who lack sufficient resources or the entitlement which would allow them to satisfy their needs in the generalized market system. Yet the “poor” are also those who are deprived of political power inside the state structures which have expanded as a consequence of processes of modernization. Finally, being “poor” entails an absence of access to institutionalized scientific knowledge. The “poor” are not university trained, and because their own knowledge is derided as nonscientific, they seldom exercise influence over the technological application of science.
Of course, “the poor” should not be considered as a homogeneous category. Precarious economic circumstances and the pressures of the global political economy often lead the poor to exploit their natural surroundings, and each other, in ways that undermine sustainability and diminish prospects for solidaristic collective action. This point is illustrated by the ways in which gender is associated with the division of labor at the household level and access to natural resources at the community level. Differences in the material conditions of men and women, variations in opportunities for different ethnic groups, and a myriad of other factors will inevitably shape perceptions of the environment and the character of responses to ecological issues.
An agenda for comparative research
Growing sensitivity to the global ramifications of ecological issues, to the environmental components of social movements in a variety of historical and regional settings, and to the potential contribution of popular environmental knowledge for strategies of sustainable development, has so far failed to generate a common theoretical framework for understanding the environmentalism of the poor. Nor have we developed a conceptual approach through which to understand the impact of such movements on the natural environment itself. Comparative and interdisciplinary research is necessary to establish common theoretical understandings that will permit generalizations, across spatial and historical boundaries, about the complex relationships between ecological consciousness, popular movements, and environmental change.
By studying social conflict over nature and natural resources in several regions of India, Latin America, and Africa, and by analyzing perceptions of the environment in diverse parts of the world during different historical periods, participants in the working group hope to contribute to the debate about alternative approaches to ecological issues. The following paragraphs illustrate some of the themes and case studies that the group plans to explore comparatively during the coming years:
• Environmental Ideologies. Ramachandra Guha and Paul Richards will study the emergence of distinctive approaches to natural resource management, particularly concerning forest conservation, in South Asia and West Africa, respectively. While local responses to deforestation and other forms of resource depletion are commonly seen as defensive reactions by the poor, these inquiries will emphasize the ways in which locally rooted environmental ideologies may offer useful insight for efforts to forge more sustainable development strategies. The research is especially concerned with identifying ways in which indigenous understandings of natural resource management may interact with practices introduced by colonial authorities and international actors to forge alternative, synthetic approaches to resource conservation.
• Agrarian Transformation and Ecological Conflict. Related considerations influence the research of Lori Ann Thrupp, on the use of pesticides in several countries of Central and South America, and of Victor Toledo, on agro-ecology movements in contemporary Mexico. This work focuses on societies in which the transition to export-oriented agriculture has proceeded without adequate consideration of its environmental sustainability, and in which rural social movements articulate ecological grievances with increasing frequency. The concerns of these noteworthy but understudied movements range from the health consequences for agrarian workers of extensive pesticide use, to the impact of commercialized cultivation on natural resource diversity. Thrupp and Toledo will explore the origins, scope, and characteristics of these movements, as well as the factors that explain their differing degrees of success.“Environmental degradation often elicits little or no apparent resistance from affected populations.”
• Socio-ecological Histories. Environmental degradation often elicits little or no apparent resistance from affected populations. To better understand why this is so, Peter Brimblecombe will study changing attitudes toward air pollution in colonial and contemporary India. This work, which will build on Brimblecombe’s previous histories of air pollution in major European cities, concentrates on how people become aware of environmental degradation and how the distribution of its effects conditions public responses to contamination. Similarly, Joan Martínez-Alier’s socio-ecological history of the Peruvian Andes seeks not only to identify cases of popular resistance to environmental degradation, but also to explain why ecological movements apparently did not emerge to protest the depletion of essential renewable resources because of overexploitation (e.g., the case of guano for export).
• Ethnicity, Gender, and Responses to Environmental Change. Drawing upon a series of contemporary and historical case studies from several regions of the Amazon basin, Stefano Varese will explore the connections between ethnic conflict and struggles over ecological issues. While this research aims to discover ecological dimensions of social movements that are often interpreted in terms of ethnic divisions, it is also expected to highlight a critical factor that may impede the poor from responding collectively to environmental threats. Similarly, Bina Agarwal will analyze the ways in which the impact on the poor of particular types of ecological degradation, and thus the range of potential responses to environmental change, varies according to gender. By focusing on the distinctive positions of women and men in the division of labor within poor households, and the resulting differences in environmental perceptions, this research will examine another fundamental source of tension among the poor themselves.
This article synthesizes the preliminary work of an SSRC research group whose members include, in addition to Mr. Martínez-Alier, Bina Agarwal, Institute of Economic Growth, University Enclave (New Delhi); Peter Brimblecombe, School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia; Ramachandra Guha, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (New Delhi); Paul Richards, Department of Anthropology, University College (London); Lori Ann Thrupp, World Resources Institute (Washington, D.C.); Victor Toledo, Centro de Ecología, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; and Stefano Varese, Native American Studies, University of California, Davis. Enrique Mayer, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, a member of the JCLAS, is an advisor to the group.
Joan Martínez-Alier is emeritus professor of economics and economic history at the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona. Eric Hershberg is professor of government and director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. He serves as a member of the Council’s working group on Cuba. Before, Hershberg served as program director of Joint Committee on Latin American Studies (JCLAS) from 1990–2005 and continued contributing as senior advisor of the same from 2005–07. He is coeditor, with William M. LeoGrande, of A New Chapter in US-Cuba Relations: Social, Political, and Economic Implications (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).
This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 46, No. 1 in March of 1992. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.