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Thoughts on Building Community Resilience

Over the last month or two I’ve had a various conversations with people about community resilience. These are focused on ideas of resilience being tied into either economic or psychological states, the expert knowledge of various groups – including community practitioners and bureaucrats – and the importance of getting ‘community’ on side.

While there’s quite a lot to unpack here, for this post I’ll just focus on how 4 points sum up how I see it.

As a professional working in the community resilience space, I don’t own knowledge and experience. I have different assumptions, ideas and experiences that I bring to the table, along with others. Therefore, a foundational part of this thinking is that I have things to contribute, and with others I can contribute and collaborate in the search for community resilience. Disagreement or different perspectives are important parts of the mix.

What this means hopefully is that we move away from that professional model that assumes professional, technical knowledge which we use to ‘create’ resilient communities.

My own ideas are influenced by the following:

  1. Most importantly, all communities have range of attributes  that support or enhance resilience. A significant part of my professional practice is identifying what they are and how these community ‘assets’ can be harnessed. Note that this doesn’t assume communities are straightforward things – they are problematic, meanings are contested between groups and there are some who are on the margins for a range of reasons.
  1. Communities are in constant change, which can be a positive or a negative thing. For me, this stems back to my social science training and explanatory frameworks which emphasise that things change and are changeable, and this is a ‘constant’. What this means is that I look at stability as an outcome of change. The stability we might find in a community might be because of its economic base – let’s say a large employer in the town means there’s little unemployment. But this stability is the outcome of a very changeable economic system, one which might impact on the employer in that town. Hence the things that are driving this stable employment are by definition, changeable. The loss of the employer would have a significant impact on the resilience of the town. It also emphasises that many processes impacting on community resilience are found well outside the community.
  1. As a community resilience practitioner, part of my role is to look at the relationship between these community characteristics (for example, little unemployment) and the forces of potential change which are beyond the reach of community influence (for example, the dynamics of the economic system). This is where I use my knowledge of the social sciences and different definitions of community resilience.
  1. Another part of my role is to, with communities, assess potential challenges and bring community groups together to see what can be done. This is where ‘building community resilience’ comes into it.

When I started to understand

Rural sustainability, landscape sustainability and community rights are the core of what I do. I’ve worked on all kinds of issues and in all kinds of landscapes – national parks, wildlife and endangered species protection, tourism, world heritage, collectives, fishing, nomadic herders, the Himalayas, water, the great rivers of South Asia, forests in various places. My beginning point has always been with people, their rights and their landscapes. But this 30 year practice had to start somewhere.

I still remember the time I really began to understand things. As a young(ish) social scientist I sat at my desk in my accommodation, a small hut in a tiger reserve. My assignment was to analyse the impacts of wildlife on the people who live on the outskirts of the reserve.

At the time, the orthodox thinking was that tigers and their conservation were the focus. Some thought (and some still do) that tigers were the only focus – and they therefore took precedence over the rights of local communities.

Others thought that while the tigers were a priority, local communities needed to benefit from their protection. Usually, this was framed in terms of livelihoods and economic benefits. So the thinking here was that local communities shouldn’t wear the economic costs of protecting tigers.

At that time, I knew I sat with the second view. But I didn’t quite know what that meant.

I was about to write up the day’s notes.  It was quite late because there had been a festival at a nearby village and I had gone there to understand some more about the ways local people live.  The festival was a celebration of the forest and so it was an important one to get a sense of people’s connections to their forest, their landscapes – I knew these run deep.  It had been a full moon (hence this particular festival), and I’d returned to my room along that forest path by its silver light. The sounds of the festival reverberated around this vicinity. My fellow walkers on the path were coming from and going to the festival, some dressed in their best clothes for the celebration.

My thinking about this assignment, gained from far-away Australia and framed by Western values of national parks, tiger protection and conservation, was that things needed to be done to protect the reserve, the forest and the national parks from the impacts of people.

As I sat at my desk, the yellow light of the kerosene lamp lighting my notebook, I stared out the window at the blue-bucks grazing on the grasses, and I thought two things in quick succession.  The first was: ‘This is what fieldwork is like’ – a somewhat romantic notion of the field that had been instilled into me from the early days of studying, reading reports of fieldwork by anthropologists and, of course, the totally romantic scene that I was part of – village festivals, jungle, kerosene lamps, wildlife, saving the tiger.

The second thought was my ‘ahah’ moment.  I thought: ‘It’s not the wildlife or the forest that needs protecting, it’s the rights of local people.’

It was at that point I began to really, really understand. I understood that local people live with wildlife and conservation initiatives and that they come at a cost to them. 

I understood that the cost of conservation is not shared equally, that while we may want to, and should want to, protect tigers and forests and other species, local populations often bear the cost – a cost they can ill-afford. This cost is well beyond the economic cost, though that can be substantial. It’s a cost of cultural and historical connections to landscapes, usually shaped by generations.

Economics doesn’t cover access to medicinal plants. It doesn’t cover the locations in forests where dead ancestors still provide safety and a surety of the forest. It doesn’t cover the local deities that are tigers, worshipped to ensure that local people are protected in the forest. Most of all, it doesn’t cover the rights of local people to all of the above, their rights to make informed decisions and their rights to have their voices heard across tiger landscapes and their conservation efforts.

And I understood that it’s very simple to see black and white solutions.

As a result, and perhaps most of all, I understood that life is complicated.  Seeing tigers in the wild is spectacular.  Seeing them on posters imploring donations to save them, doesn’t do justice to the complex economic, political, cultural and historical connections that people have with their forests, their landscapes and their livelihoods. All the tiger ecology in the world will not save them until all these other things are understood, integrated into protection and the rights of local people are protected. Most of all, I understood that doing this required collaboration and cooperation. 

A tiger is in the scrub of the forest

Why the Yeti matters

“Why isn’t the Mirka here?”

I was in a valley deep within the Himalayas, discussing my list of local endangered animals with a group of herders.

“They’re very difficult to find.  But you can if you follow their trails.”

The comment certainly didn’t have all the herders nodding in agreement- there was plenty of animated disagreement and some scoffing laughter. 

Nevertheless, the herder stood by his question.  There was just one problem- I had no idea what a Mirka was.  I asked the assembled group to explain the term.

‘Yetis’ one of the other herders replied.

For me, this interaction highlights something that goes well beyond the work that drew me to this valley in the first place.  This was the moment I realised the Yeti represents two inherently connected worlds – wild places, and the stories of ‘wildness’ that go with them.  

This herder had summed up a very complex relationship in one sentence.

That was twelve years ago.  Over my time working in the Himalayas, I’ve heard other stories of Yetis – sometimes told to much laughter, sometimes to serious nodding.  Irrespective of the reaction, local people thought it important enough to mention the Yeti in discussions about establishing sustainable futures for their valleys and landscapes.

It was around the time of my discussions with the herders that Reinhold Messner wrote his book My Quest for the Yeti.  His mission in part was to prove the existence or otherwise of a strange creature he had encountered in a Tibetan forest. 

Trying to answer the question ‘Does it exist’ is nothing new.  To my mind though, this is the wrong question.  The bigger and more important question?  ‘What if the things that gave rise to the possibilities of its existence no longer exist’?

What happens when the biological and ecological wildness that could hide the Yeti – make its existence a perpetual ‘maybe’ – start to disappear?  This is a question that in many ways goes to the heart of the protection and conservation of mountain landscapes.

A related question: what if the rich cultural traditions that house Yeti stories are lost, because of social change, modernisation and science ‘proving’ it doesn’t exist?  This is a question of the centrality of cultural diversity and cultural traditions to the resilience of mountain communities.

The Yeti is a window into the diverse and rich cultural connections people have with ecosystems and landscapes in the Himalayas.  The legend’s gradual disappearance mirrors the gradual disappearance of these connections.

To look through this window, to discover the links and the pressures, you need to follow the Yeti’s trails.

Personhood and the rights of nature

Over the last few years there’s been increasing debates in some quarters about the rights of nature and the feasibility of bestowing ‘personhood’ to landscapes or parts of landscapes. This is something that has many parts. It can be about legal protections, recognition of the ways First Nations people view landscapes or the natural world or a deeper ethical position on the rights of nature (even though, for some, bestowing personhood seems to contradict the idea of nature’s rights).

They’re interesting debates with some contradictions and limitations. However, they do share a common attempt to strengthen the rights of and protection of nature. You can see an interesting recent piece from The Guardian, written by Patrick Barkham, here.

*This is also published at localslowtravel.com

Behind the Image, July 2021: Early Morning, Murray River, Albury

I remember having a conversation with a good friend about the Murray River, and how most of us just treat it as a river or something to drive over. Yet it’s a state border, has deep meanings for indigenous/first nations people of the area and of course has many meanings depending on if you’re a fisher, an irrigator, a swimmer and so on.

Over the last two years or so, I’ve come to embrace early morning encounters with the river – across all seasons and all weather. Walks, rides, canoeing, looking for platypus, listening as the day begins, drinking coffees. All are part of my on-going relationship with the river.